An Exercise in Biographical Minutiae
Thom Robinson (August, 2011)
A modern enthusiasm for lists ensures that the information age offers no shortage of guidance for those keen to investigate the cult, the arcane, and all that can loosely be bracketed ‘alternative culture’. Now that literary navigation can be found in a multitude of volumes (1,001 Books To Read Before You Die, 500 Essential Cult Books, 50 Gay and Lesbian Books Everyone Must Read), it’s hard to imagine a world in which a single older friend could open the doorway to a range of unknown volumes all embodying the shock of the new. That is, it’s hard to imagine the experience of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac in the mid-1940s when they visited the New York apartment of their recent acquaintance, the 30 year old William Burroughs.
The event has become a touchstone of Beat mythology, key to the common stylisation of Burroughs as urbane mentor to his pair of youthful protégés (Ginsberg and Kerouac being 18 and 22 years old respectively). Some decades later, Ginsberg remembered his and Kerouac’s introduction to Burroughs’ library occurring as part of a specific trip, “the first formal visit Jack and I paid to Burroughs really to find out who he was”. The decision to browse Burroughs’ bookshelves in order to “find out who he was” testifies to considerable faith in the importance of Burroughs’ literary interests, remarkable given that it was a number of years before Burroughs began writing seriously himself. No doubt Ginsberg and Kerouac had already reached the conclusion drawn of Burroughs in On the Road (1957): “he was a teacher, and had every right to teach because he learned all the time”. Ted Morgan dates the “formal visit” to late 1944 and quotes Ginsberg’s recollections as follows:
‘We were like ambassadors to the Chinese Emperor […] making a delegation of ourselves to inquire into the nature of [Burroughs’] soul. Quite literally and directly. Who is Burroughs? Why is he so intelligent?’
The answers Ginsberg and Kerouac found to these questions pointed towards new literary horizons, introducing a list of names which have become a familiar litany in biographies of the Beats. In one of the earliest critical works, Naked Angels (1976), John Tytell provides a typical recitation:
Burroughs gave Ginsberg his copies of Yeats’ A Vision and Eliot’s poetry and presented Kerouac with Spengler’s Decline of the West. He introduced his new friends to writers like Kafka and Céline, to Cocteau’s writing about opium, to books like The Cancer Biopathy by Wilhelm Reich and Science and Sanity by Count Korzybski.
A selection of largely European works whose contents include paranoia, theories of language, pseudoscience, mordant humour and drugs: in retrospect, it’s easy to imagine the owner of such an idiosyncratic library producing the melange of Naked Lunch. Perhaps for this reason, it seems hard to resist reordering the books which Burroughs owned in 1944 in order to emphasise the most recognisable elements of the later Burroughs persona. Hence, Tytell imagines Reich’s The Cancer Biopathy on Burroughs’ mid-1940s bookshelf despite the fact that the work was not published until 1948 (a letter to Kerouac in which Burroughs remarks on finishing The Cancer Biopathy testifies that he first read the book in June 1949).
The case of The Decline of the West prompts questions of its own. Interviewed in 1972, Ginsberg remembered that Burroughs “had Spengler’s Decline of the West which influenced Kerouac enormously in his prose as well as his conception of Fellaheen”. Kerouac himself would acknowledge this debt in Vanity of Duluoz (1968), recalling the day when ‘Will Hubbard’ would “hand me the full two-volume edition of Spengler’s Decline of the West and say ‘EEE di fy your mind, my boy, with the grand actuality of Fact.’” However, as Gerald Nicosia recounts, Kerouac was first introduced to Spengler not by Burroughs but by his boyhood friend Sebastian Sampas (The Decline of the West being “one of [Sampas’] brother Charlie’s books”). The fact is evidenced by a May 1943 letter to Kerouac in which Sampas quotes from Spengler’s work. Making sense of this apparent contradiction, Ann Charters’ editorial footnote to Kerouac’s Selected Letters 1940-1956 (1995) suggests that, in New York, Burroughs introduced the book to Ginsberg rather than Kerouac, thus supporting the evidence of Sampas’ letter without disarming the potency of the alluring suggestion that Burroughs initiated Ginsberg and Kerouac into a Spenglerian worldview.
Suffice it to say, when entering into into this kind of biographical minutiae, one becomes accustomed to discrepancies occurring between individual accounts. Yet, regardless of whether Kerouac was already familiar with Spengler before meeting Burroughs, Kerouac’s reminiscence in Vanity of Duluoz becomes complicit in the obfuscation, propagating the association between the influence of Spengler and Burroughs’ library. Hence, the case of Burroughs’ library becomes an object lesson in what Oliver Harris describes as “the usurping force of Beat mythmaking and fictionalized biography”, a force which ensures that the contents of Burroughs’ mid-’40s bookshelf invariably become a reflection of Burroughs’ character as filtered through the later writings of the Beats. This is demonstrated by another early contribution to Beat biography, Charters’ Kerouac (1973), in which the author refers to “the books that Burroughs was reading, always for some specific purpose”:
Charles Jackson’s Lost Weekend ‘to see what alcoholism was like,’ Jean Cocteau on opium, Spengler’s Decline of the West, the poems of Blake, Rimbaud, and Baudelaire, Gogol’s Dead Souls and Nabokov’s study of Gogol, Abrahamson’s Crime and the Human Mind, as well as lighter reading – Raymond Chandler, John O’Hara, James M. Cain and books on card tricks and ju-jitsu.
In this instance, a number of the books listed seem to have been selected “for some specific purpose” by Charters as well as by Burroughs. Hence, the presence of Jackson’s The Lost Weekend and Cocteau’s Opium, suggesting a desire to explore extremities which is in keeping with Kerouac’s description of Burroughs pursuing disparate actions “merely for the experience”. Similarly, the presence of Chandler and Cain in Charters’ list (writers absent from other accounts) invokes both the world of urban criminality with which Burroughs associated in the mid-1940s, and the hardboiled prose to which Junkie (1953) is indebted.
Clarity can be afforded if we turn to the document which comes closest to a primary source of Ginsberg and Kerouac’s “formal visit”, the list of Burroughs’ reading habits which Ginsberg recorded in his contemporary journal. Yet even this document is not without uncertainty. Published in The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice (2006) as belonging to 1944, the presence in the list of two novels unpublished until the following year (William Maxwell’s The Folded Leaf and Richard Brooks’ The Brick Foxhole) suggests that 1945 is the earliest possible date for Ginsberg’s record:
Burroughs reading – yoga, The Castle [by] Franz Kafka, Blake, Opium [by] Jean Cocteau, Shakespeare, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, The Ox-Bow Incident [by Walter Van Tilburg Clark] – Egyptian Grammar [by] O’Hara, Spengler, Pareto, The Folded Leaf [by] William Maxwell, Gogol, Moby-Dick, The Lost Weekend [by] Charles Jackson, Maiden Voyage [by] Denton Welch, Crime and the Human Mind [by] David Abrahamsen, The Brick Foxhole [by Richard Brooks], hypnotism analysis, Nightwood [by] Djuna Barnes.
To the reader familiar with Beat biographies, the expected names immediately stand out: Kafka, Blake, Cocteau, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, all present and correct. Yet this typically Eurocentric focus fails to reckon with the list’s homegrown products, inclusions such as Melville’s great American novel, Djuna Barnes’ key work of literary modernism and a rash of contemporary novels (by Van Tilburg Clark, Maxwell, Jackson and Brooks). Particularly striking is Ginsberg’s listing of Maiden Voyage, the 1943 debut novel by Denton Welch. In later life, Burroughs would come to describe Welch as “The writer who has influenced me more than any other”, whilst avowing that, despite first reading Welch in the 1940s, “I didn’t realize the extent to which he had influenced me […] until I reread him in 1976”. Welch becomes a recurring subject in Burroughs’ interviews of the 1970s and 1980s, and other books in Ginsberg’s list prefigure the preoccupations of Burroughs’ later work. Hence, Van Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident foreshadows Burroughs’ own ‘Western’, The Place of Dead Roads (1983), while the volume of Egyptian Grammar indicates an interest in Ancient Egypt which found its culmination in The Western Lands (1987). Perhaps if earlier commentators had been afforded the precognitive knowledge that these concerns would occur in Burroughs’ final novels, then these books would also have become familiar listings in accounts of Burroughs’ library.
However, Ginsberg’s own later recollections markedly omit these books. For this reason, it is instructive to compare Ginsberg’s original journal account of Burroughs’ reading habits with his memories when interviewed thirty years later for the Kerouac ‘oral biography’ Jack’s Book (1978):
So Jack and I made a formal visit to Bill, and I remember he had copies of Yeats’ A Vision […] Shakespeare, Kafka: The Castle or The Trial, The Castle, I think; Korzybski’s Science and Sanity, Spengler’s Decline of the West, Blake, a copy of Hart Crane […] Rimbaud, Cocteau’s Opium. So those were the books he was reading, and I hadn’t read any of those.
When compared with his journal list, we can see that Ginsberg’s memory doesn’t falter, even when recalling The Castle as being the Kafka novel in question rather than The Trial. A similar listing can be found in an interview of 1972: “[Burroughs] had Kafka’s Trial, Cocteau’s Opium […] Spengler’s Decline of the West […] Korzybski’s Science and Sanity […] Rimbaud’s Season in Hell, Blake […] A Vision by William Yeats […] Céline’s Voyage au Bout de la Nuit”. Yet in both these instances, Ginsberg remembers Burroughs’ reading in terms of books which had the strongest influence upon Kerouac and himself, with no mention of the other volumes present in the journal list. One is left unsure whether Ginsberg’s memories have been affected by the power of biographical legend, or whether the biographical legend has occurred precisely as a result of Ginsberg’s selective reminiscences.
Whilst failing to reflect the true range and diversity of Burroughs’ library, these accounts encourage the image of a body of deviant and almost exclusively European texts, providing an exotic lure which commentators are free to hyperbolize. Thus Jim Christy’s The Long Slow Death of Jack Kerouac (1998) imagines the formative Beats in terms of “those monks of the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries, called gyrovagues”:
You see the wise older monk, he’s been around […] he’s loitering there by the wall of dripping stone and sees his buddies, come from all over, and takes illuminated manuscripts from under his robes to give them. It’s like William Burroughs on Times Square, mid-Forties, giving Baudelaire, Céline, Rimbaud’s Illuminations to Kerouac and Ginsberg.
Christy appropriately selects three of the more deviant authors from the Burroughs library (opium addict, Nazi sympathiser, and all-purpose enfant terrible), as he posits Burroughs in the epicentre of Manhattan, the street pusher peddling literary highs. Bolstered by myth, Burroughs’ library becomes synonymous with the fruit of forbidden knowledge, colouring even the most lurid event of early Beat Generation lore, Lucien Carr’s fatal stabbing of David Kammerer in 1944. Burroughs’ library is given a supporting role in the ensuring courtroom drama, its corruptive powers sufficient to have become an accessory to murder: Barry Miles reports, “it was Bill’s copy of WB Yeats’ A Vision that Lucien had with him in court.”
The most lasting power of Burroughs’ library can therefore be traced not so much in terms of literary influence, but in the symbolism of Ginsberg and Kerouac’s zest for knowledge. Amidst the biographical discrepancies, the inconsistencies and hyperbole, this symbolic value remains potent, with accounts of Burroughs’ reading habits recreating the enticing embodiment of ‘the unknown’ experienced by Ginsberg and Kerouac, whilst marking a path followed by successive generations who have discovered Howl and On the Road and retraced their steps to the works of Rimbaud, Blake, et al. As a tribute to the transformative power of literature, the myth of Burroughs’ library stands intact, maintaining the allure felt by a pair of young Americans at the start of their literary journey.
Burroughs, William S., The Cat Inside (New York: Penguin, 2002)
―, The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1945 to 1959, ed. Oliver Harris (London: Picador, 1994)
Charters, Ann, Kerouac: A Biography (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994)
Christy, Jim, The Long Slow Death of Jack Kerouac (Ontario: ECW Press, 1998)
Gifford, Barry, and Lee, Lawrence, eds., Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac (London: Penguin, 1979)
Ginsberg, Allen, The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice: First Journals and Poems 1937-1952, eds., Juanita Lieberman-Plimpton and Bill Morgan (New York: Da Capo Press, 2006)
―, Composed on the Tongue: Literary Conversations, 1967-1977, ed. Donald Allen (San Francisco: Grey Fox Press, 2001)
Harris, Oliver, William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003)
Kerouac, Jack, On the Road: The Original Scroll, ed. Howard Cunnell (London: Penguin, 2008)
―, Selected Letters 1940-1956, ed. Ann Charters (New York: Viking, 1995)
―, Vanity of Duluoz: An Adventurous Education, 1935-46 (London: Andre Deutsch, 1969)
Lotringer, Sylvѐre, ed., Burroughs Live: The Collected Interviews of William S. Burroughs 1960-1997 (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2001)
Miles, Barry, Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats. A Portrait (London: Virgin, 1999)
Morgan, Ted, Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs (London: Pimlico, 2002)
Nicosia, Gerald, Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac (London: Viking, 1985)
Tytell, John, Naked Angels: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs (New York: Grove Press, 1976)
 Allen Ginsberg, Composed on the Tongue: Literary Conversations, 1967-1977, ed. Donald Allen (San Francisco: Grey Fox Press, 2001), p. 81.
 Jack Kerouac, On the Road: The Original Scroll, ed. Howard Cunnell (London: Penguin, 2008), p. 244.
 Ted Morgan, Literary Outlaw (London: Pimlico, 2002), p. 112.
 John Tytell, Naked Angels: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs (New York: Grove Press, 1976), p. 39.
 William S. Burroughs, The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1945 to 1959, ed. Oliver Harris (London: Picador, 1994), p. 51.
 Ginsberg, Composed on the Tongue, p. 82.
 Kerouac, Vanity of Duluoz: An Adventurous Education, 1935-46 (London: Andre Deutsch, 1969), p. 211.
 Gerald Nicosia, Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac (London: Viking, 1985), p. 87.
 Kerouac, Selected Letters 1940-1956, ed. Ann Charters (New York: Viking, 1995), pp. 65-70.
 ibid., p. 65.
 Oliver Harris, William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003), p. 3.
 Ann Charters, Kerouac: A Biography (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994), p. 56.
 Kerouac, On the Road, p. 245.
 Ginsberg, The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice: First Journals and Poems 1937-1952, eds. Juanita Lieberman-Plimpton and Bill Morgan (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2006), pp. 78-79.
 Burroughs, The Cat Inside (New York: Penguin, 2002), p. 67. Sylvѐre Lotringer, Burroughs Live (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2001), p. 498.
 Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee, eds., Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac (London: Penguin, 1979), p. 36.
 Ginsberg, Composed on the Tongue, p. 82.
 Jim Christy, The Long Slow Death of Jack Kerouac (Ontario: ECW Press, 1998), p. 91.
 Barry Miles, Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats (London: Virgin, 1999), p. 83.