William S. Burroughs (1914-1997)
By Arthur S. Nusbaum © 1997
“It would take all night to tell about Old Bull Lee (WSB); let’s just say now, he was a teacher, and it may be said that he had every right to teach because he spent all his time learning; and the things he learned were what he considered to be and called “the facts of life”, which he learned not only out of necessity but because he wanted to.”
Jack Kerouac, On the Road, pg. 119
It may seem strange to mourn someone who was so deadpan, and for whom death was no stranger, he was surrounded by the ghosts of so many who preceded him, including of course his common-law wife who died accidentally by his own hand, and his son by her who destroyed himself. Considering his legendary life, it is a wonder that he lived to the ripe old age of 83. But somehow, I thought that this ultimate survivor would live longer. He himself, in a recent New York Times article, said that he expected to live into his 90’s.
One reason I am so personally saddened is that I had the privilege and pleasure of personally meeting and visiting with him in February of 1995. Now more than ever, I’m glad I did while I had the chance. He exuded warmth and kindness, at the center of it all was a “heart of tenderness” as Allen Ginsberg, who also died during this year of transition when the Beats have passed into history, said. I felt this for myself. Many have mistaken some of the horrific images and people in his works in his works with HIM, just as Jack Kerouac was mistaken for Neal Cassady. As I learned from extensive study of most everything by and about him that I am aware of, and as others who knew him have stated, he was one of the good guys, a Johnson as he would have put it. He was never out just to shock us as an end in itself, or revel in destructive nihilism. In the manner of Jonathan Swift, his tactics were meant to draw attention to and help reverse the evil forces he saw far more clearly than others- he was brave, full of “lonely courage” again as Ginsberg once said, there is no one I can think of who was so unafraid to live the way he wanted and express himself with absolutely no compromise.
His achievement is so broad and many-faceted that no one short tribute like this can even begin to encompass it. His technical innovations, the profound and prophetic content of his One Long Work, the clarity and artistry of his language (he was solidly grounded through his Harvard education and his vast reading and experience, he earned and arrived at his level), the incomparable and inimitable mixture of humor and wisdom, will keep aficionados like myself busy for as long as there is a human race to which his work relates. As far as I’m concerned, he was the one indispensable figure without whom there would have been no Beat Generation, he was older than, and a mentor to, all of the other major figures, as they all acknowledged. His influence extends far beyond serious students of his works into the popular culture and society as a whole. Those who he effected, and who in turn have had a major impact on the world, from other authors to musicians and those in many other capacities, are legion, too numerous to mention here.
William Seward Burroughs was born on February 5, 1914 in St. Louis, Missouri. He was the grandson and namesake of the man who invented the adding machine and started the Burroughs Corporation. His parents were not wealthy heirs as some, including Kerouac, have thought, he was modestly at least partly supported through his adventures up to the publication of NAKED LUNCH by an allowance they sent him from the proceeds of their little gift shop, Cobblestone Gardens. After an alienated childhood that included a stint at the Los Alamos Ranch School, later the site of the first atomic explosion (“it seems so appropriate somehow”, he said), he attended Harvard, graduating in 1936 with a major in English literature. He began drifting, taking more courses, traveling including to Europe where he married a woman as a favor to help her leave and escape the Nazis. He was drafted but soon discharged from the army during WWII. During the war, he was able to get many interesting jobs while so many were away, including bartender, exterminator, even private detective. All of these experiences would show up in his works. While a sometime student and hanger- outer in the environs of Columbia University, he met Ginsberg, Kerouac, Herbert Huncke, Lucien Carr, and others including Joan Vollmer Adams, who formed the nucleus of what would come to be called the Beat Generation. Also at this time, “about 1944 or 1945”, he first tried junk, in the form of a morphine syrette. He drifted into this by default for lack of interest in other directions, and into a common-law marriage with Joan even though he was a homosexual. Unlike such Beat characters as Neal Cassady, who you might say looked for trouble, Burroughs casually let himself get enmeshed in situations that turned nightmarish, but also provided the lessons, the inspiration, exacted the DUES from which his works would emerge.
I am shaken by the dreadful news. His long life and work had a transcendent quality, but he knew the score on the ground more than anyone. Can he really have died? He came so close to decoding, even subverting, the universe. Well, as he and his late collaborator Brion Gysin said, WE ARE HERE TO GO. He has gone, and we are left here for now to benefit from, enjoy and be warned by what he learned and turned into such artistry. He not only survived his extreme tribulations, but extracted from them “facts of general validity” that are his legacy to us.