It’s difficult to write an actual “book review” of someone’s collected letters, in this case, Rub Out the Words: The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1959-1974 (edited by Bill Morgan) but trust me when I tell you that if you’re a Burroughs buff there is much to love between the covers of this thick volume. Some real revelations and some of it’s just flat-out hilarious. If you are considering buying it, you should.
In 1959, the year Naked Lunch was published, Burroughs, then 45 years old, was living in Paris and avidly exploring the occult implications of Brion Gysin’s cut-ups technique. A page of text would be sliced with a razor or else folded in from something else so that the “real” meaning could sort of, mediumistically speaking, “leak through.” Things changed quickly for the author by the end of that year. Via a Life magazine article, Burroughs’ rising notoriety as part of the Beat movement, his drug habit and his homosexuality was becoming known to his wealthy Palm Beach socialite parents. One letter to his mother begins, in reference to her reaction to the Life article.
I counted to ten before answering your letter and I hope you have done the same since nothing could be more unworthy than a quarrel between us at this point.
Yep, William Burroughs having a fight with his mom… and you can eavesdrop. Burroughs goes on to try to mollify his mother (who still sent him a small monetary stipend each month that he very much depended on) by telling her that risque publicity sold books and hey, weren’t Poe, Byron and Baudelaire considered bad boys of literature in their time before gaining charter memberships in the Shakespeare squad? (I only wish that her letter that preceded his was in the book, too.)
His parents were raising his young child, William “Billy” Burroughs, Jr. (Burroughs had, of course, killed his son’s mother). In a letter to Billy, who was then 13, his wayward father mentions how traveling would be easier now without his “monkey” travelling companion (i.e his heroin addiction) but how his mother had forbidden him from stepping foot in Palm Beach under threat of “financial excommunication.”
Brion Gysin’s deep influence on Burroughs was a topic frequently mentioned in his correspondence during this time period—with Gysin the recipient of the bulk of the letters, along with Allen Ginsberg—and they are also filled with references to other WSB obsessions like Hassan-i Sabbāh, the apomorphine cure for heroin addiction, Wilhelm Reich and his theory of orgone energy, Count Alfred Korzybski, tape recorders, the Mayan calendar, the then-burgeoning underground press and Scientology. In fact, there is far more information about Burroughs’ interest in Scientology in these letters than I’ve encountered in any other source. So many Burroughs scholars seem to have a difficult time believing that a literary genius like William S. Burroughs could have been conned by a second-rate flim-flam man like L. Ron Hubbard, but he was in fact a very enthusiastic adherent to Scientology for about eight years, and that’s all here in his own words (along with plenty about his vicious post-fallout with the cult as well).
One short note politely abstains from joining Norman Mailer in his tax withholding protest against the Vietnam War:
November 20, 1967
8 Duke Street
As regards the War Tax Protest if I started protesting and refusing to contribute to all the uses of tax money of which I disapprove: Narcotics Department, FBI, CIA, any and all expenditures for nuclear weapons, in fact any expenditures to keep the antiquated idea of a nation on its dying legs, I would wind up refusing to pay one cent of taxes, which would lead to more trouble than I am prepared to cope with or to put it another way I feel my first duty is to keep myself in an operating condition. In short I sympathize but must abstain.
all the best,
Burroughs already had enough problems, obviously. Lack of money and yet always being generously and sweetly concerned about the welfare of friends less well-off is another theme that runs throughout the collection. Unsurprisingly the letters also frequently mention Burroughs’ lifelong misogyny and distrust of females. A proposed Naked Lunch film to be made in conjunction with Terry Southern and produced by Chuck Barris is discussed. There is one letter that I thought was especially funny, Burroughs writing to Gysin about seeing gay porn on Times Square for the first time and how it’s going to put a novelist like himself out of business. There is even some correspondence from Burroughs to Fred Halsted (an early pioneer of extremely hardcore gay pornography) about a potential Wild Boys porn film(!), but WSB pulled the plug, he wrote the S&M auteur, for both of their sake’s, knowing that it was never, ever going to be funded or made.
The over 300 letters collected in Rub Out the Words: The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1959-1974 make the book a must-have for any Burroughs head.
In the coming week, I’ll also be posting about two additional—and equally extraordinary—Burroughs-related books: Malcolm McNeill’s newly published memoir, Observed While Falling: Bill Burroughs, Ah Pook, and Me and the coffee-table book The Lost Art of Ah Pook Is Here: Images from the Graphic Novel.