Beat Biographer
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Call Me Burroughs: A Life
author: Barry Miles
publisher: Twelve
pub date: 01.28.2014
pp: 650
tags: Biography & Autobiography

Loren Glass on Call Me Burroughs: A Life

Beat Biographer

February 21st, 2014 reset - +

IN ONE OF THE INTERVIEWS Daniel Odier conducted with William Burroughs in the late 1960s, later gathered together in the landmark collection The Job, Odier asked the already legendary author what his relationship was with the Beat movement. “I don’t associate myself with it at all,” Burroughs responded, noting that the writers grouped under the term couldn’t be “more different, more distinctive.” He then equivocates, noting that he does “have some personal friends among the Beat movement” and that “the literary importance of the Beatnik movement is perhaps not as obvious as its sociological importance […] it really has transformed the world and populated the world with Beatniks.” 

Burroughs’s shift in terminological registers helps to explain why biography, rather than literary criticism, has become the dominant genre in the canonization of the Beats, and why their legacy continues to straddle academic and popular audiences. For both of these constituencies, the lives and lifestyles of the Beat Generation have been as fascinating (and arguably more culturally consequential) than their literature. Indeed, insofar as much of their literature is, in one way or another, autobiographical, one gets a certain sense of privileged insight, of being a personal friend, through the genre of biography, particularly when the biographer is also something of a Beat. And no one has written more Beat biographies than Barry Miles, himself a fellow traveler in the movement. Starting with Ginsberg: A Biography (1989), and then methodically moving through William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible (1992), Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats (1998), and The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso in Paris, 1957–1963 (2000), Miles has established himself as the chief chronicler of the Beat Generation. With Call Me Burroughs, he has produced what is already being acknowledged as the definitive biography of the man who was a father figure not just to the Beats, but to the postwar avant-garde more generally.

Ted Morgan’s well-received Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William Burroughs came out in 1988 and Burroughs lived until 1997, so for that reason alone it would seem to be time for a definitive edition. But Miles does more than fill in the final decade of Burroughs’s life; he provides unprecedentedly intimate access to a life whose iconoclasm has become so iconic that it can be difficult to discern the man behind the myth. Insofar as this biography was originally to have been written by James Grauerholz, Burroughs’s companion, manager, and overall factotum for the last three decades of his life, its Boswellian credentials as an insider account are impeccable. The fact that it is ultimately a collaboration between the two men who have been principally responsible for Burroughs’s canonization is only fitting. As both friend and archivist, Miles is uniquely situated to produce an authoritative life of a man who was, ultimately, an artist by accident.

Miles opens with an account of a Native American sweat lodge ceremony Burroughs undertook in 1992 to exorcise the “Ugly Spirit” that he always believed had been responsible for causing him to kill his wife Joan Vollmer in Mexico City on September 6, 1951. Miles’s account is based on an interview with Allen Ginsburg, Burroughs’s lifetime friend, who had accompanied him for the ceremony. According to Ginsberg, Burroughs found the experience “much better than anything psychoanalysts have come up with,” though it too failed to purge his demons. By opening with this anecdote, Miles essentially endorses Burroughs’s interpretation; indeed, he concludes his introduction with the claim that his biography will be “the story of William Burroughs’s battle with the Ugly Spirit.” Who or what this Ugly Spirit is isn’t answered in this book. What is clear is that Burroughs’s entire career was an effort to exorcise it.

Call Me Burroughs thus emphatically confirms its subject’s famous declaration in the introduction to Queer that he never would have become a writer if it hadn’t been for Joan’s death. Miles’s introductory gambit both expands the scope and raises the stakes of this claim, affirming that Burroughs’s psychological obsessions and aesthetic methods were inspired and informed by this watershed experience in his life. His restless search for release in crackpot cures and crazy cults, ranging “from Scientology to est, ESP, psychoanalysis, Wilhelm Reich’s orgone box, and Reich’s vegetotherapy,” though preceding Joan’s death, takes on a certain obsessive character after it, as does his lifelong fascination with guns and weaponry. And his creative methods, from the cut-ups of the ’60s to the shotgun paintings of the ’80s, emerge as both explorations of the exigencies of agency and efforts at the exorcism of demons. Miles’s choice of illustrations, which includes not one but two photographs of Joan’s corpse, as well as two photographs of Burroughs, one “at the time of his arrest” and one “the day after the murder,” reinforces this ethically challenging interpretation not only of his life but of his cultural significance as an “outlaw.”

Call Me Burroughs is no hagiography, though the celebratory acclaim that has accompanied its publication, timed as it was to coincide with what would have been Burroughs’s 100th birthday, might lead one to think otherwise. Miles is frank about Burroughs’s resolute misogyny, his frequent cruelty to friends and lovers and family, and his unconscionable neglect of his son Billy, whose tragic and untimely death makes a particularly sobering episode. As Miles bluntly concludes, “Burroughs did not have a happy life: he was plagued by loneliness, lack of love, racked by guilt, not just over the death of Joan, but for his neglect of friends and family.” Call Me Burroughs is the story of how this life became a legend.

It was a collaborative process, in which Miles himself was a key player. Indeed all of Burroughs’s work was collaborative and he never would have become published at all if it hadn’t have been for the help he got from his friends. Ginsberg, that indefatigable impresario of the Beats, was essential in the early years, first in getting Junky published and then in assembling, along with Alan Ansen, the scattered pages that would become Naked Lunch. In the ’60s it was Brion Gysin, who inspired the cut-up technique and collaborated with Burroughs on a wide variety of influential multimedia experiments. Burroughs called him “the most important single influence” on his life and work. And then from 1973 to his death it would be James Grauerholz, the young Midwesterner who ventured to New York City to meet the man he already idolized, and ended up managing Burroughs’s life and career for the next three decades. Miles and Grauerholz have worked closely together in archiving and organizing Burroughs’ work, including collaborating on the “restored edition” of Naked Lunch.

One of the more remarkable episodes in Call Me Burroughs occurs when Miles stumbles upon the manuscript of Queer as he is attempting to catalog Burroughs’s papers for sale in the early ’70s. There can be little doubt that it would never have been discovered by Burroughs himself, who initially couldn’t even get himself to reread it. The anecdote confirms not just that Burroughs’s work is collaborative, but that he owes much of its assembly and publication to the efforts of others. Not only the work but the man himself — from el hombre invisible to the godfather of punk — was the product of a collaborative effort by a dedicated group of friends and followers.

Burroughs had other collaborators, but they weren’t people. They were psychoactive substances. As Miles confirms, the “role of drugs in Burroughs’s life cannot be overemphasized.” Burroughs’s lifelong dependence on opiates is well known, but more revelatory is the fact that “all his books were written on marijuana.” One of the lovelier scenes in the book is of Burroughs in Tangiers, off heroin and leading “a very healthy life,” alternating between eating majoun and smoking pot, “hunched over his typewriter, pounding the keys furiously, hair tousled, often cackling with laughter at his own routines, throwing the pages on the floor as they came out the carriage.” Naked Lunch may be about heroin, but its composition was enabled by cannabis (as was, arguably, On the Road). As Miles notes, “no one has yet done a serious study of what must surely be the biggest influence upon all of his work: the different drugs he was taking when he wrote the books.” This is, to a great extent, true of the Beats more generally. With all these biographies, we’ve certainly got enough evidence with which to work.  

SEE MORE: Check out the LA Review of Books' video documentary on William S. Burroughs here.

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Loren Glass is the associate professor of English at the University of Iowa. 

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