This volume of selected letters written by the novelist and counterculture icon William Burroughs during the period from 1959 to 1974, is a remarkable testament, since it manages to confirm Burroughs’s legendary public persona while simultaneously shattering it. In other words, we get the whole picture of the man, not just the usual cropped and etiolated snapshot.
The author’s epistles — brilliantly selected and annotated by editor Bill Morgan from a thousand candidates — are alternately scabrous and demure, tender and lashing, profane and reverential, contrarian and conventional, funny and dire. Viewed from one angle, they paint the familiar portrait his ardent fans expect: an emotionally distant expatriate visionary and hedonist, disdainful, drug-fueled, and primed with brilliant, almost alien insights into culture and the human psyche, always ready to experiment and pioneer new literary territory. Viewed from another coign, the letters show us the loving son, father, and steadfast friend; a homebody and cautionary anti-druggie, moralist and ascetic. He’s even a sensible, all-American businessman and careerist. Letter of May 4 1964: ”One has to think of writing as any other job. You work at it all day and every day if you expect to make a living.” And Burroughs figured it would be swell to place an article with Reader’s Digest or The Saturday Evening Post! Put the two spheres of overlapping activity together, and you begin to sense the three-dimensional depths of Burroughs’s true nature.
The prior volume in this series, covering the period from 1945 to 1959, was edited by a different curator, Oliver Harris, and appeared way back in 1993. But Morgan picks up seamlessly after such a long delay. “The final letter in the first volume of correspondence…was written to Allen Ginsberg on October 29, 1959. It is fitting that the first letter in this volume should be the one that was written the very next day to the very same person.” With that, we’re off and running, following Burroughs through Europe, North Africa, and the USA as he restlessly seeks the perfect environment to foster his artistic productivity and the camaraderie of his fellow outcasts, rebels, lovers, and dreamers. He cadges mescaline from Ginsberg and dollars from his shady publishers, Maurice Girodias and Barney Rosset. He offers fatherly advice to his wayward son, Billy Jr. He tries to reassure his parents that his unconventional career amounts to something, and that his life deserves a last will and testament. Letter of June 21, 1964: ”There is a considerable sum of money tied up in the books I have published and books waiting to be published. This could mean over the years a comfortable income for Billy.” And this filial nervousness comes from a son aged fifty!
Always a seeker, Burroughs conducts enthusiastic experiments with Scientology, which ultimately prove futile, as do his LSD trials with Timothy Leary, whom he deems a sloppy wacko. Then, perhaps influenced by the Buddhism of pals Ginsberg and Kerouac, he develops a merciless Zen mindfulness practice of his own that stands him in better stead. Letter of November 1960: ”Now look at the tree. and [lowercase sic] you will see the tree not the word tree. You will begin to see everything sharp and clear like after a rain. When you are in a restaurant Listen Out… When you walk down your Western streets defaced by signs, look at the signs.” Of course, Burroughs was no saint, and there’s plenty of snark and bitchiness in these pages, including the writer’s consistent misogyny: Letter of June 18, 1969: “You see what you call WOMAN is simply a biologic weapon like whisky or smallpox employed to destroy resistance in growth areas.”
Many personages flit into and out of Burroughs’s letters, but none more significant than the invaluable comrade-in-scissors, poet Brion Gysin. His discovery of the cut-up technique stoked Burroughs’s experimental ardor for years. Some letters here are composed in that delphic manner, but the vast majority are clear and linear. Some, such as that of April 8, 1961, even contain flash fictions as Burroughs works out kinks in whatever novel he’s then composing. (And these letters span what is arguably the zenith of his accomplishments, though his later works are not inconsequential.)
Burroughs’s passions for films, comics, lowbrow genres (he groks Dune early in that novel’s arc), and multimedia presentations mark him as a quintessential postmodernist, sure to resonate with any hipster today. He even foresees a slice of our Internet-dominated visual world. Letter of April 28, 1972: “Any sex act can now be shown on the public screen with beautiful actors and that’s a powerful sight. In fact not altogether to my advantage since when you can see it you are not so interested to read about it.”
Finally, two great narrative arcs happen across these pages: the transition of the counterculture from beatnik- to hippie-centric; and Burroughs’s ascent from obscurity and poverty and no audience to fame and relative financial well-being and a following. By the book’s end, when Burroughs is sixty years old, the reader sees this flinty, zesty, sourpuss prophet accorded a little honor in his native land.
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.