I was hoping to conduct a longer interview with Miles, author of William S. Burroughs: A Life, but we lost touch after this first question.
To what extent is William S. Burroughs defined by his membership of the Beat Generation?
Burroughs never felt himself to be a part of the Beat Generation, which was largely a press construct in New York in the late fifties. Burroughs had left New York in 1948 and did not return to live there until 1974 with the exception of a six month stay in 1965 so he was never part of the ‘Beatnik’ or ‘Beat Generation’ ‘scene’ which largely concerned Kerouac and his immediate circle. Burroughs lived first in Texas, then Mexico City, moving to Tangier in January 1954, then to Paris and London. He was a distant, legendary figure associated with the Beat generation only by being friends with its leading protagonists and featuring as a character in their books. His friendship with Kerouac came to an end in 1958, when he was disgusted by Kerouac’s behaviour towards Ginsberg and ceased all communication with him. They only saw each other one more time, in 1968, the year before Kerouac died, when Kerouac was blind drunk. Burroughs never spoke publically of their disagreement, which he saw as personal. His position viz-a-viz the Beats was however made clear in his interviews with the French journalist Daniel Odier, published in English as The Job:
Daniel Odier: ‘What is your relation to the Beat movement, with which you associate yourself? What is the literary importance of this movement?’
William S. Burroughs: ‘I don’t associate myself with it at all, and never have, either with their objectives or their literary style. I have some close personal friends among the Beat movement: Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso are all close personal friends of many years standing, but were not doing at all the same thing, either in writing or in outlook. You really find four writers more different, more distinctive…’ [The Job, London: Calder, revised edition, 1984, p52]
When Burroughs returned to the States in 1974, after his 25 years abroad, during which time he had written all his books, he found that the American public regarded him as part of the Beat Generation, largely because of his role as a character in Kerouac’s fiction. Realising that in America, in order the sell books, you have to promote yourself on a more personal, celebrity level than in Europe, he assumed the role of the ‘Beat Godfather’. Teaching gave him a writers’ block and so he went out on the road as a public speaker, giving readings at universities and rock clubs all across the country to a mostly young audience. It was, to an extent, a marketing exercise, but one which worked and Burroughs was introduced into the canon and is now studied as a Beat in those universities that have a ‘Beat Studies’ department.
In numerous interviews Burroughs pointed out that he differed from the Beats in many ways. When Jean Francois-Bizot asked ‘You were on the same road?’ Burroughs replied, ‘Not exactly. I passed some time with them, but we weren’t really doing the same thing. I don’t believe in non-violence. The people in power are not going to throw themselves out. You don’t give flowers to the police, except in a flowerpot and out of a window.’ [Jean Francois-Bizot, ‘Le Ticket qui…Junkie…Nova…Machine Molle…Festin Nu…’ in Actuel 2, Paris, November 1970, p18-23.] When asked by Victor Bockris if Kerouac was the writer of his generation that Burroughs felt closest to, Burroughs said no, ‘Stylistically, or so far as influence goes, I don’t feel close to him at all.’ [Victor Bockris, ‘Interview With William Burroughs’ in High Times, New York, February 1979, p43-49]
Burroughs’s public image was remodelled in the late seventies by Allen Ginsberg, who had studied public relations before becoming a poet, and who recognised the importance of creating a ‘school’. Burroughs was content to go along with this and to attend large Beat Generation events as an elder statesman. His credentials were impeccable: named in the dedication to Ginsberg’s Howl, featuring under various names in Kerouac’s books as well as those by John Clellon Holmes and other Beat writers. However he had little to do with the second wave of West Coast ‘Beats’: Ferlinghetti, McClure, Whalen, Brautigan, Kaufman, etc.. Burroughs didn’t set foot in San Francisco until 1978, whereas that city figures large in the mythology of the Beats, and many people mistakenly associate him with it. I witnessed his first meeting with Gary Snyder, which did not take place until 1984 in Boulder, Colorado. But to journalists in 1974, Burroughs was the prodigal son returned and, along with Ginsberg, became the senior surviving Beat. To his present generation of readers, Burroughs has moved on from the Beats – most of whom would not have heard of the Beat Generation – and is seen largely as a member of the international avant garde and a godfather figure to the drug subculture that emerged in the USA with the hippies and later with the punks. It is really only in academic circles that he is still defined as a Beat and where Beat Studies is a growth industry.