Opening Remarks on Literary Outlaw: The Life And Times of William S. Burroughs by Ted Morgan

Have I mentioned I'm reading Ted Morgan's stellar bio Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs?  What an unusual life (to put it blandly, 'cos I can't think at the moment of an extraordinary way to put it) this sick -- meaning good and bad -- cat lived, and I've only gotten up to the time in the biography his first novel Junky came out.  And then Queer. Two books, whose titles themselves, encapsulate Burrough's life both literally and figuratively up to that point.  Junky got him a $1000 advance, which was right around the same time that Kerouac, his younger buddy, got the same for The Town and the City.  And even though Junky sold over 100,000 copies, the book gave Burroughs no fame.  Fame would come much later, after infamy.

Longest job Burroughs ever held was being an exterminator.  And from his experiences there later came, of course, Exterminator! Lasted eight months as an exterminator.  Long time for a man who was afraid of insects. Failed as a farmer too.  Tried his hand at cotton, carrots, peas, marijuana, in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.  Busts all. Tried being a small time dope dealer, but found he was too prolific a user to have much use for selling.  His $200/month "stipend" from his society parents in St. Louis kept him alive, afloat, adrift. Luckiest thing that ever happened to him, as a then nascent writer, was accidentally shooting and killing his wife, Joan Vollmer. Admitted he'd of never become a writer (he was by then in his late thirties) had it not been for Joan's bizarre early death at twenty-seven.  Her death and the resultant guilt he did only thirteen days in a Mexican jail for haunted him the rest of his life -- an understatement, but how else is there to state it? -- and "writing down the facts" in book after book for almost the next half century, was his sole, shaky, redemption.  Hard for a man with a fiendish predilection for heroin and for guns to find redemption in the sitcom-Mom milk-and-cookies vibe of 1950s U.S. of America.  Good thing Burroughs wasn't a moralist, like so many conventional writers of his time, but instead a self-described "factualist," for being about the facts, and solely about the facts, M'am, may have saved him from committing suicide. . . .

Way out in the boonies of New Mexico, the teenage Burroughs attended a boarding school that later became the birthplace (after the school was eminent-domained by the government who'd been spying out the isolated locale for years) of the atomic bomb.  Los Alamos.  The atomic bomb and junk.  The juxtaposition of the two Burroughs relied on in his later fiction.  His grandfather was the inventor of the adding machine; hence his family's fortunes.  Burroughs graduated from Harvard and could recite entire scenes of Shakespeare even before he enrolled.  The chronically unemployed Burroughs would recite Shakespeare to his lifelong pals Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in Ginsberg's Columbia dorm room, where Ginsberg was an undergrad at the time.  Burroughs wanted to work, he just wasn't good at it -- even attempting to get in as a soldier on the action of WWII, but he failed at that too, and failed, thankfully for the literary world and for Burroughs, before he could get enlisted and killed.  Everywhere Burroughs went: Los Alamos, New York, St. Louis, New Orleans, Mexico City, the police were invariably after him.  He wore the threads of his society heritage--he was a suit-and-tie beatnik.  He was an oddity among the oddball beats, whom he mentored when he was off junk for a spell.  He was a father figure to many.  Beloved.  Vilified.  Enigma of the enigmatic.  All this, and I've barely begun to scratch the surface of his writing career, so well documented by Ted Morgan, who writes of Burroughs in a similar endearing style and sensibility as Burroughs, with a streetwise Shakespearean prose that's as earthy as it is erudite.  Literary Outlaw was written in an elegant inspired voice as factual and anti-establishment as the literary outlaw it chronicles . . . .


  1. Enjoyed this when I read it. Not that I can remember much from it.

  2. It's making me want to explore a lot more of Burroughs.


Post a Comment