William Burroughs, 1914-1997
Jesse Walker, reviewing Call Me Burroughs, the new biography by Barry Miles, in Reason Magazine, finds the avante-garde author inconsistent about siding with the Left or the Right, but consistently anti-authoritarian.
Burroughs’ worldview was miles from the peace-and-love socialism that our cultural clichÃ©s tell us to expect from a hippie hero. In 1949, according Barry Miles’ new biography Call Me Burroughs, he complained to Kerouac that “we are bogged down in this octopus of bureaucratic socialism.” When he was a landlord in New Orleans he sent Ginsberg a rant against rent control, and when he found himself owning a farm in Texas he gave Ginsberg an earful about the evils of the minimum wage. Eventually he departed for Mexico, and there he wrote to Ginsberg again. “I am not able to share your enthusiasm for the deplorable conditions which obtain in the U.S. at this time,” he told his leftist friend. “I think the U.S. is heading in the direction of a Socialistic police state similar to England, and not too different from Russia….At least Mexico is no obscenity ‘Welfare’ State, and the more I see of this country the better I like it. It is really possible to relax here where nobody tries to mind your business for you.” He added that Westbrook Pegler, a hard-right pundit who would soon be a vocal defender of Sen. Joe McCarthy, was “the only columnist, in my opinion, who possesses a grain of integrity.”
Two decades later, covering the Democratic Party’s bloody 1968 convention for Esquire, Burroughs manifested a more left-wing aura. A day after his arrival he donned a McCarthy buttonâ€”the antiwar insurgent candidate Eugene McCarthy, that is, not Pegler’s pal Joe. When cops started assaulting protesters outside the convention hall, Burroughs immediately aligned himself with the radicals in the streets, declaring in a public statement that the “police acted in the manner of their species” and asking, “Is there not a municipal ordinance that vicious dogs be muzzled and controlled?” He then helped lead an illegal march that ran straight into a contingent of cops and National Guardsmen.
In doing this, he was not merely supporting the protesters’ civil liberties. He was aligning himself with one side of what he saw as a grand conflict. “This is a revolution,” he wrote in a 1970 article for the East Village Other, “and the middle will get the squeeze until there are no neutrals there.” Still later in his life, he would identify “American capitalism” as his foe, specifying: “the American Tycoon…William Randolph Hearst, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, that whole stratum of American acquisitive evil. Monopolistic, acquisitive evil.”
Burroughs’ influences ranged from Pegler to the ultra-left Situationist International, but the most important early source for his worldview was a man not normally thought of as a political writer at all. Jack Black was a former hobo and burglar whose memoir You Can’t Win engrossed the teenaged Burroughs, leaving a lasting impact on both his outlook and his literary voice. (Black’s first publication, a newspaper serial titled “The Big Break at Folsom,” was ghostwritten by a young reporter named Rose Wilder Lane, who would later play a formative role in the American libertarian movement.) It was Black’s description of an underground codeâ€”and his scattered references to the beggars and outlaws who embraced that code as an extended “Johnson Family”â€”that gave Burroughs’ rebellious streak an ideological framework.
A Johnson “just minds his own business of staying alive and thinks that what other people do is other people’s business,” Burroughs wrote in his 1985 book The Adding Machine. “Yes, this world would be a pretty easy and pleasant place to live in if everybody could just mind his own business and let others do the same. But a wise old black faggot said to me years ago: ‘Some people are shits, darling.'” In 1988, penning a preface for a reprint of Black’s book, Burroughs offered this account of the world’s core conflict: “A basic split between shits and Johnsons has emerged.”
Read the whole thing.