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Call Me Burroughs: A Life.

Call Me Burroughs: A Life

Barry Miles

(New York: Twelve Books, 2013)

Barry Miles has written a landmark biography of William S. Burroughs; it will no doubt become an important reference for scholars and critics for a long time. A factually detailed narrative--perhaps overwhelmingly so at 718 pages--the book pulls together an impressive array of research and sources. One of Miles's most important sources is the extensive research on Burroughs's childhood and young adulthood, undertaken by James Grauerholz, Burroughs's companion and agent from 1974 until Burroughs's death in 1997 and his literary executor. (1) Miles also makes extensive use of Ted Morgan's taped interviews for his 1988 biography of Burroughs, (2) and he relies on Rob Johnson's research on Burroughs's "lost" years in Texas in the late '40s and Stewart Meyers's unpublished journals of his friendship with Burroughs during "the Bunker years" in New York in the '70s. Miles was himself an important figure in London in the '60s as co-owner of the Indica bookstore/gallery and co-founder of the underground magazine International Times which published Burroughs. Thus, he knew Burroughs and many of his friends from 1965 on and conducted many interviews over time. As a writer and researcher, he is well-qualified as Burroughs's chronicler, having previously published biographies of Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs himself (his 1993 biography is a brief "portrait"), as well as a book about the Beat Hotel where Burroughs and Brion Gysin began their cut-up experiments. He also catalogued the Burroughs/Gysin archives in 1972 prior to the sale to a private collector and subsequently published a Burroughs bibliography. During his work on the archives, Miles discovered the missing manuscript of Queer. He co-edited with Grauerholz the restored text edition of Naked Lunch in 2001. His research and organizational skills are evident not only in the complex weaving of a broad range of sources into the chronological narrative, but also in the excellent bibliography organized by topic and the equally thorough index, which can be profitably read in and of itself.

Although Miles's earlier biography of Burroughs was a portrait of an icon, Call Me Burroughs could be seen as debunking the legend that has been so much a part of Burroughs's career. As Miles told Davis Schneiderman, "having known Bill for 30+ years and now spent years studying his life and work, I obviously no longer have that adolescent romantic view of him as the tortured bohemian artist. I know too much about him, and have witnessed too much of his home life to project onto him any more." In his interview with Oliver Harris, he stated that his goal as a biographer was to establish as many facts as possible for the next generation of scholars and readers.

This he has done. However, although the book is clearly structured and the writing style presents no difficulties, many will find the massive accumulation of details tedious to read. Yet this factual density successfully punctures the glamorous aura that made Burroughs a fascinating figure associated with '50s cool, '60s rebellion, '70s punk, and '80s postmodernism. Call Me Burroughs is a thorough, traditional biography, which will be of interest to scholars, but it is not a book for fans.

Given the size and scope of this biography, one question to ask from a scholarly point of view is "What do we learn that is new about Burroughs's life and work?" This review will focus on a few topics that contribute new knowledge or new details which alter our perspective on the man and his work. Call Me Burroughs begins with revelations: the early chapters plunge us into a wealth of information about Burroughs's childhood, and this is indeed an important contribution because Burroughs was always reticent about his early life and his family, never divulging many details and expressing annoyance at the suggestion that his parents were wealthy or that he had received income from a trust fund (mentioned in Kerouac's fictionalized portrayals and taken as fact by some early critics). Miles's narrative (based on Grauerholz's research) describes a privileged haute bourgeois upbringing that included servants, private schools, residence in an elite neighborhood, expensive automobiles, summers on Lake Huron, family trips to Europe, and the assumption that sons will go to Harvard. His material and social circumstances were no different from others of his class. Far from being isolated (as he implied in interviews and his fiction), Burroughs grew up within a substantial social network of family and friends; in fact, many men he met in childhood and later at Harvard remained lifelong friends and acquaintances. A similar picture of Burroughs's upper-middle class environment and circle of St. Louis friends is provided by Dusty Griffin in his recently published essay about Burroughs, Kammerer, and Carr.

Miles provides exact details about the family finances which should settle the matter of wealth once and for all. Burroughs's father, Mortimer Burroughs, inherited shares in the Burroughs company which he sold for $100,000 (equal to $2.8 million in 2012 according to Miles). He kept back a few shares which he sold just before the 1929 crash for $276,000 ($3.6 million in 2012 dollars). He owned and operated a profitable glass company for many years, and later he and his wife owned garden and gift shops in St. Louis and Palm Beach, Florida. After Burroughs's graduation from college, his parents put him on an allowance of about $200 per month. At his mother's death, Burroughs inherited $10,000. (3)

Burroughs's parents provided a stable, caring home environment. Burroughs was very close to his mother who favored him over his brother, believing he had exceptional abilities. Miles says "it was a relationship out of Proust" and describes their shared interest in visions, dreams, magic, and the occult which occupied Burroughs his entire life (21). Given Burroughs's reticence about his childhood and his misogynistic declarations as an adult, his mother's influence has been largely overlooked. His father, although not demonstrative, was also supportive. His parents always bailed him out of trouble as a young adult, paid for psychiatric care and addiction cures, sent him an allowance until he was finally able to support himself (at the age of 50), and brought up his son--all without harsh reproach. Although not a "trust fund baby," Burroughs had a family safety net to rely on, and in his early adulthood, he exhibited a sometimes dangerous immaturity and irresponsibility that Rob Johnson portrayed in The Lost Years.

Miles's in-depth chronicle of Burroughs's early life also weaves in references to the heretofore unknown numerous appearances of the people and places of his youth throughout Burroughs's work--this discovery again the result of Grauerholz's research. The listing of these autobiographical elements foregrounds how much of Burroughs's fiction is the product of memory, reverie, and dreams, as well as fantasy. This new information will certainly alter future scholarship on Burroughs's life and work and will require new ways of thinking about autobiography and his experimental fiction.

The biography also reveals that, in spite of his denigration of Freud in his work from the '60s on, Burroughs spent years in psychoanalysis, first encouraged by his parents and later pursued on his own. After rejecting psychoanalysis, he turned to self-analysis and self-help techniques--most notably cut-ups and Scientology. It was Brion Gysin who persuaded him that psychoanalysis was worthless and introduced him to Scientology, cut-ups, and magic as alternative forms of psychic exploration. One can draw the conclusion that Burroughs felt that something was wrong and was seeking insight or relief from mental anguish. Psychoanalysis focused on a traumatic childhood incident of a sexual nature involving his nanny, which Burroughs believed had blighted his sexuality, but years of analysis never clarified exactly what had happened and led to no resolution. Miles uncovers intriguing circumstantial detail on what may have occurred along with traces of it in the fiction. Surprisingly, he does not allude to any research on childhood sexual abuse and its long-term effects.

Contributing to his psychic unease was Burroughs's struggle with his sexuality, and Miles provides intimate information on his sexual relationships--both physically and emotionally--presenting a picture of lifelong disappointment. It was not easy to be gay in the era in which Burroughs grew up; the opprobrium made him fearful of exposure and ridicule. He was shy and sensitive and ambivalent about his sexuality for many years, and he was a vulnerable sex partner except when he was paying for it--even then he could be the object of contempt. All of his most serious relationships with other men ended in rejection. Because he knew Burroughs personally from 1965 on, Miles is in a position to provide insight unavailable to most biographers, especially about Burroughs's long-term relationship with Ian Sommerville. In addition, there was a lifetime of guilt to carry after shooting his wife, Joan, in a drunken game of William Tell and regret for his inability to establish a paternal relationship with his son who destroyed himself with alcohol. His failed relationships led Miles to state in his final chapter that Burroughs had had an unhappy life: "he was plagued by loneliness and lack of love, racked with guilt, not just over the death of Joan, but for the neglect of friends and family" (633).

Gysin gave Burroughs a new explanation for psychic dysfunction: the Ugly Spirit, a demonic external force that had invaded Burroughs early in life and later supposedly caused him to shoot his wife. (The Ugly Spirit was revealed to Gysin during experiments with magic and cut-ups.) As with Gysin's other ideas, Burroughs made the Ugly Spirit an important part of his world view and his fiction; he stopped looking within for Freudian sources of neurosis and instead explored ways to identify and struggle against an evil spirit that he thought had poisoned his life. (4) He threw himself obsessively into cut-up experiments in various media and Scientology. Although Miles takes a common-sense approach to the death of Joan, stating that it was basically the result of a drunk with a gun, he seems to accept the Ugly Spirit as some kind of explanation for Burroughs's psychic wound. He introduces Call Me Burroughs with a chapter about Burroughs's participation in an exorcism conducted by a Navajo shaman in 1992, stating that "this [biography] is the story of William Burroughs' battle with the Ugly Spirit" (6). (5) Miles never analyzes the meaning of this idea, but merely quotes what Burroughs has said about it at different times. Although the Ugly Spirit is effective in the fiction as a malevolent force, a spirit or metaphor is not very convincing as the key to Burroughs's life. The exorcism does show that Burroughs was still seeking solace in later years, but this form of therapy was only the latest in a series of unconventional, magical techniques he had explored, and, as often in the past, was suggested by friends in his current social milieu.

We also learn that, in spite of repeated attempts to break his habit and in spite of telling interviewers over the years that opiates impeded creativity, Burroughs was in fact a lifelong addict, and pretty much all of his fiction was written under the influence of drugs--mainly heroin and marijuana. (6) Burroughs told Ted Morgan that he found marijuana an aid to writing: "I smoke pot in the afternoon for work. If I can get it, it makes all the difference. It's just that extra spark" (611). Although often ambivalent about his drug use, at the end of his life Burroughs said that becoming a junky was the best thing he ever did because addiction, the world of junk and its underworld characters, provided an important subject for his writing (633). As he stated early on in Junky, junk gives the addict a special angle of vision: "you see things different when you return from junk" (127-28). Miles concludes that "the role of drugs in Burroughs' life cannot be overemphasized," and "no one has yet done a serious study of what must surely be the biggest influence of all upon his work: the different drugs he was taking when he wrote his books" (633).

Miles's detailed descriptions of the writing, compiling, editing, and publishing of Burroughs's work shows as never before the extent of Burroughs's artistic collaborations--that his major work would never have been completed or published without the assistance of others, and that Burroughs actively sought and acted upon editorial advice. Allen Ginsberg was central in organizing the materials and arranging publication of Junky, The Yage Letters, and Naked Lunch. The latter was typed and edited by several friends in Tangier and Paris (who found some of its pages scattered around the floor): Alan Ansen, Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, Brion Gysin, and Sinclair Beiles. Ginsberg played the major editorial role, since many sections of Naked Lunch were first included in letters to Ginsberg that he saved, and since he helped to compile the manuscript in both Tangier and Paris. When Burroughs's publisher was pressing for the final version, Gysin and Beiles determined the final order of the material with little input from Burroughs. The Soft Machine was assembled and edited by Ginsberg and Gysin in Paris while Burroughs was in Tangier. Sommerville made important contributions to The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express, partly based on tape recorder experiments, which Burroughs could not have done without him. Grauerholz played a significant role in organizing and editing the final trilogy, Cities of the Red Night, The Place of Dead Roads, and The Western Lands. Richard Seaver, Burroughs's U.S. editor for 25 years, had input as well. Of course, Burroughs's multimedia experiments in the '60s were all collaborative efforts with Gysin, Sommerville, and Antony Balch; and Grauerholz orchestrated his readings, appearances, and recordings after his return to the U.S. in 1974. Burroughs praised "the third mind" that arises from collaboration and always gave credit to his collaborators, yet critics rarely write in depth about Burroughs's work as a product of collaboration or the collaborative process.

Call Me Burroughs is not a critical biography, nor does Miles devote any attention to what critics have said--how Burroughs's writing has been received and assessed. He seems determined to ignore any academic criticism, occasionally alluding to scholarly commentary only to dismiss it. Discussion of the works is limited to citation of biographical and (some) literary sources. This approach to the fiction seems almost a throwback to what was a common mode of literary criticism in the early part of the twentieth century. The biographical references will be valuable for future critics but are often employed by Miles reductively. Junky, Queer, and The Yage Lettters are read as autobiography, not as fictionalized narratives. Naked Lunch is said to be a picaresque novel (noting a few historical examples) with characters based on people and experiences in Tangier and Lee the narrator based on Burroughs himself. The celebrated "talking asshole" routine is about Burroughs's rejected desire for Ginsberg, just as Queer is the story of Burroughs's love affair with Lewis Marker. As the biography progresses, summaries of the works become briefer and even less useful. Post-Naked Lunch work is not really amenable to summary, but Miles does not turn to other ways of describing the later books. Miles does review Burroughs's influence as a writer and multi-media artist in his final chapter, but this consists of merely cataloguing his direct, acknowledged influence on particular writers, musicians, and filmmakers with no critical commentary.

Miles's nonjudgmental, "just the facts" approach to Burroughs's life is effective in producing a narrative that avoids sensationalizing and mythologizing, and in portraying the man at different ages and in different social settings, but he fails to convey why Burroughs is important as an writer/artist, why he has been so influential. The facts about Burroughs's reception are missing. Clearly, Miles decided that his own critical judgments were not relevant to his purpose, but he could have discussed the critical response of others, as John Geiger did very effectively in his biography of Gysin. In his interview with Harris, Miles stated that Burroughs's importance for him and for future generations is political, that his opposition to systems of control is even more relevant in our era of the expanded surveillance state. He does touch on this thesis in his conclusion, but again with no depth of analysis.

On the other hand, Miles's chronological, step-by-step narrative of materials, procedures, and technique is helpful in his discussion of Burroughs as a visual artist. He has the advantage of writing several years after Burroughs's death so that he can survey the paintings within the context of the whole body of his work. He gives a good overview of Burroughs's evolution as an artist, beginning with early cutups, photographic collages, and scrapbooks in the '60s and shows the connection to the later paintings. Like the cut-ups, Burroughs's paintings began accidentally (with shotgun paintings); then, as Burroughs progressed with those experiments, he combined random effects with controlled selection and collage. First, he tried every possible way of shooting paint onto wood. He then turned to painting on paper, combining random marks with spray-painting around stencils or found objects and collage, then looking for images to photograph and re-use. Like the early collages, Burroughs's paintings are, according to Miles, an "assemblage of memories, personal references, and ideas suggested by random gestures and events, and are a snapshot of that moment of time" (598). Burroughs himself saw the paintings as "ports of entry" to another world of spirits, the magical universe that occupied him in his final trilogy. Miles skillfully traces the aesthetic continuity between the writing and the painting.

Based on extensive research, Miles's biography is a comprehensive, wellorganized chronicle of Burroughs's life and career, and much can be gleaned from this biography about Burroughs's family and friends, his education and reading, his social and artistic circles, his many crackpot ideas and enthusiasms, all of the places that he lived and his living arrangements, his finances, his sexuality and sex partners, his cats, his guns, his clothes, his food, his death and burial, and more. Miles fulfills his stated goal of establishing the facts as thoroughly as possible for the next generation--a valid purpose since many facts have not been known or are obscured by legend. Nevertheless, the dense accumulation of detail without a critical perspective makes the book laborious to read and leaves the reader longing for an analysis of Burroughs's personality and more interpretation of the fiction. The Ugly Spirit fails to provide a convincing frame for an unhappy life and does little to explain how powerful works of art came into being or why they mean so much to others. Call Me Burroughs is a significant achievement but not the last word: it provides an impressive foundation for a future critical biography and for interpretation of Burroughs's work based on a fuller understanding of his life and creative process.

--Jennie Skerl, (retired) West Chester University


(1) James Grauerholz planned to write a biography of Burroughs and did extensive research from 1999 to 2010, gathering information on Burroughs's family, childhood, and young adulthood. He also researched the death of Joan Vollmer Burroughs. In addition, he is the person who knew Burroughs best at the end of his life in Lawrence, Kansas. When Grauerholz found he was unable to complete the biography, he invited Miles to take on the project.

(2) Ted Morgan taped over 100 hours of interviews with Burroughs over a period of four years for his 1988 biography, Literary Outlaw. The tapes were acquired by Arizona State University and subsequently transcribed by Miles.

(3) Miles also provides details on Burroughs's income from his books and his financial status throughout his career.

(4) The importance of Brion Gysin for Burroughs's work after Naked Lunch cannot be overestimated. He introduced Burroughs to key ideas and myths that appear in the fiction, and to cut-ups and the European avant-garde, taking him in a new artistic direction. After Gysin's death, his style of painting influenced Burroughs's paintings. Burroughs commented on Gysin's importance in his life and art many times, saying he was "the only man I've ever respected" (Call Me Burroughs 587). Geiger's biography of Gysin gives a thorough accounting of the Burroughs/Gysin collaborations.

(5) Miles has given credence to the Ugly Spirit for a long time, concluding his previous biography with the exorcism by the shaman.

(6) Burroughs was on a methadone maintenance program from 1980 on.

Works Cited

Burroughs, William S. Cities of the Red Night. New York: Holt, 1981. Print.

--. Junky: The Definitive Text of Junk. Ed. Oliver Harris. New York: Penguin, 2003. Print.

--. Naked Lunch: The Restored Text. Ed. James Grauerholz and Barry Miles. New York: Grove, 2001. Print.

--. Nova Express: The Restored Text. Ed. Oliver Harris. New York: Grove, 2014. Print.

--. The Place of Dead Roads. New York: Holt, 1983. Print.

--. Queer: 25th Anniversary Edition. Ed. Oliver Harris. New York: New York: Penguin, 2010. Print.

--. The Soft Machine: The Restored Text. Ed. Oliver Harris. New York: Grove, 2014. Print.

--. The Ticket That Exploded: The Restored Text. Ed. Oliver Harris. New York: Grove, 2014. Print.

--. The Western Lands. New York: Viking, 1987. Print.

Burroughs, William S. and Allen Ginsberg. The Yage Letters Redux. Ed. Oliver Harris. San Francisco: City Lights, 2006. Print.

Geiger, John. Nothing is True Everything is Permitted: The Life of Brion Gysin. New York: Disinformation, 2005. Print.

Griffin, Dusty. "The St. Louis Clique: Burroughs, Kammerer, and Carr." Journal of Beat Studies 3 (2014): 1-45.

Johnson, Rob. The Lost Years of William S. Burroughs: Beats in South Texas. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2006. Print.

Miles, Barry. "Barry Miles in Conversation with Oliver Harris." William S. Burroughs Centennial Conference, Center for the Humanities, City University of New York, 25 Apr. 2014. Web. 15 June 2104.

--. The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso in Paris, 1957-1963. New York: Grove, 2000. Print.

--. "Call Me (William Burroughs): A Conversation with Barry Miles." Interview by Davis Schneiderman. The Huffington Post, 13 Feb. 2014. Web.15June 2014. --. Ginsberg: A Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989. Print.

--. Jack Kerouac, King of the Beats: A Portrait. New York: Holt, 1998. Print.

--. William Burroughs, El Hombre Invisible: A Portrait. New York: Hyperion, 1993. Print.

Miles, Barry and Joe Maynard. William S. Burroughs: A Bibliography, 19531973. Charlottesville: U of Virginia, 1978. Print.

Morgan, Ted. Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs. New York: Holt, 1988. Print.
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Author:Skerl, Jennie
Publication:Journal of Beat Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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