“I don’t care if people hate my guts; I assume most of them do. The important question is whether they are in a position to do anything about it.”
Today would be the 100th birthday of William Seward Burroughs II, if he had lived that long—the suggestion of which would no doubt have prompted the man himself to utter one of his distinctive and sepulchral chuckles. He lived past the time that it took to become an icon and just long enough to become a cartoon; now he has passed into history as a legend, and all that is left is to consider whether it is possible to salvage him as the one thing he truly should be remembered for being: One of the most gifted and pitiless writers of the 20th Century.
William S. Burroughs had always been a writer; it could fairly be said that he was writing a nascent form of Queer, his first book, as early as boarding school, when he kept an erotic journal of his fixation on a classmate. He experimented with more formal methods of writing when he fell in with the Beats in the 1940s, but it took the most traumatic experience of his life—his killing of then-wife Joan Vollmer in a drunken haze—to fully unleash his talents. The remainder of his life, he believed, was a struggle to banish the constant howling despair of guilt, shame and regret caused by the murder, by literary means.
But while writing was the most important thing in Burroughs’ life, and the solitary reason why we should commemorate his passing, it is a curiously diminished aspect of his existence today, over 16 years after his death at the unexpectedly ancient age of 83. It’s not unusual that a writer is more celebrated for his personality or his cultural presence than his actual writing; even when alive, most literary figures are known to more people than have actually read their work. This is particularly true of someone like Burroughs, whose writing is thorny, difficult, deliberately provocative, and unceasingly postmodern. And so he passes into the status of legend: Celebrated as a gay icon, a symbol of heroin chic, a paragon of beatnik cool, a proto-hipster and inspiration to dozens of bands, visual artists, poets, and other writers. It’s a transformation for which Burroughs himself is not blameless. He was never suited for any kind of respectable work, and when the money from his family dried up, he proved ill-suited for teaching, and the kind of books that he wrote were not cash cows. In the 1970s, to keep body and soul together and to maintain his various habits, he turned to his assistant, James Grauerholz, who took him on a barnstorming reading tour that predated much of the modern cultivation of authors as celebrities. The tour put him in the company of rock stars, literary groupies, and tastemakers in the press, and set the stage for his later dabbling in music videos, spoken-word albums, and Nike commercials.
It’s this perception that has outlived Burroughs the man, and it’s a great loss, not only because it’s a shabby and predictable illustration of the mechanism of cultural co-option, but also because it’s managed to erase almost everything that Burroughs stood for as a writer. Bill Lee was more than just a pseudonym for him; it was an alternate identity, an idealized version of the man he wanted to be. And that man was a terminal lowlife, a perpetual outsider, a stumbler on the margins of polite society who lived by cadging, by stealing, by thumbing his nose at the kind of respectability that would make him an icon later in life.
Burroughs hated rock stars and their trappings of phony decadence; he despised their music and found them pretentious and self-absorbed. He came out of the Beat culture, but disliked most of its literary accomplishments. Though he remained an addict until his death, he had no pity for either the glorification of drug culture (no one wrote more scathing indictments of junkies than the author of Junky) or the mealy-mouthed language of recovery. He was one of the first and most prominent “out” homosexuals in American literary culture, but had little to do with what would become mainstream gay culture; he fit few stereotypes of the gay male, and had no interest in painting himself as a member of anyone’s cultural definitions but his own. His politics were too hard to pin down, too paranoid and violent for the left and too transgressive and subversive for the right. The defining influence in his work was not a poet, an artist, or any other cultural figure, but a drunken hobo and petty criminal named Jack Black.
Few of his peers, and almost none of his inheritors, have picked up on these most important qualities. John Huston—who, had he been born a half-century later, would have been a mortal lock to play Burroughs in a biopic—recognized in Chinatown that even the most malignant of figures grows respectable with age, and Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was sharp enough to perceive that Burroughs’ acceptance by the literary mainstream was evidence of capitalism’s unique tendency to embrace and profit from its own enemies. Thomas Pynchon, whose status as an acolyte of Burroughs is as subtle as it is undeniable, may have gone in a different stylistic direction, but was one of the few writers to carry on Bill Lee’s love of the criminal, the insurgent, and the lowlife as a symbol of hope against a system hopelessly corrupted, as well as his darkly outrageous sense of humor and his distrust of cops. Pynchon may have invented the Counterweight—an anarchic force embodied by drifters, adventurers, losers, and lowlifes who act as a small but necessary balance to the march of uniformity, technocracy, and inhuman rationality—but it’s an idea that Burroughs would have embraced.
The rest of the world, though, will keep on remembering the Burroughs they think they had instead of the one that actually existed. They will remember the soft-hearted lover of cats, not the armed man, quietly confident in his ability to kill. They will remember the man who wrote the wild and freewheeling Naked Lunch and not the man who wrote the transcendent and tightly focused The Last Words of Dutch Schultz; they will remember his cut-up works without going to the great trouble of reading them. They will remember the man who stood up to the squares and the Man, but not the post-Nietzschean philosopher of universal doubt. They will celebrate the writer praised by critics, but not the one savaged by them—and capable of engaging them on their own terms, questioning (in “A Review of the Reviewers”) whether they even understood the purpose of their profession. For those who loved Burroughs as an idea alone, this will be the occasion of empty celebrations of a largely harmless cultural icon, at which the ghost of Bill Lee will laugh his tombstone laugh. For those who loved him as a writer, though, that ghost will hiss to them: “Hey, kid,” beckoning them to open pages that are still savage and addictive.