William S. Burroughs: His Final Years and Lasting Legacy

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Lawrence, Kansas commemorates the 100th birthday of a counterculture icon.

When I tell people that I live in Kansas, I’m quick to follow that I live in Lawrence, Kansas, which tempers an initial reaction that’s usually rife with references to farms and flat land.

If they’re a college basketball fan, they’ll recognize Lawrence as the home of the Kansas Jayhawks—one of the sport’s most successful programs. If they’re a history buff, they’ll recall Lawrence’s role in the Bleeding Kansas days preceding the Civil War. And if they’re someone in love with literature, Lawrence usually brings two names to mind: Langston Hughes and William S. Burroughs.

While Hughes spent his earliest years in Lawrence, Burroughs made it his home for the final 16, and finished some of his most popular works there, among them the Red Night trilogy. His presence in Lawrence made the city an essential destination for a who’s who of late 20th century counterculture, and most longtime locals have a fun story to share about running into Burroughs in unlikely places, such as the cat food aisle of his neighborhood grocery store.

Thanks to the savvy advice of his caretaker and companion, James Grauerholz, Burroughs spent his years in Lawrence collaborating with contemporary musicians like Kurt Cobain, filmmakers like Gus Van Sant, and artists like Keith Haring, effectively gaining a new generation of fans. One could argue that if Burroughs’ years before Lawrence were spent establishing himself as a visionary writer, thinker, and artist, his years in Lawrence were spent ensuring that no one soon forget who he was or what he did (and continued to do) thanks to Grauerholz’s guidance.

Considering the integral role Lawrence played in Burroughs’ life, it’s been great to see all of the various ways the city is celebrating what would have been his 100th birthday this month. The epicenter of the celebration is the Lawrence Arts Center, which has put together an outstanding exhibit of the visual art that comprised the majority of his creative output in his final years. Featuring a variety of paintings and mixed media pieces from spray-painted doors to bullet-ridden wooden planks, it’s clear by looking at his art that his sharp wit, deadpan humor, and satirical nature weren’t just characteristics of his unique writing style.

The topic of Burroughs’ relevance was the focus of a panel discussion I recently attended at the Arts Center featuring Grauerholz, Burroughs’ biographer Barry Miles, and Ira Silverberg, one of Burroughs’ literary agents. Over the course of the discussion and audience Q&A, it became clear to me that the attention still bestowed upon Burroughs is indicative of the lasting impact he’s had on our culture. From breaking down the walls of censorship through the publication of Naked Lunch to constantly challenging his readers to question authority, the panel pointed to multiple examples of how Burroughs’ influence has spread far beyond his well-known association with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and the other Beats. “Burroughs was one of the first to attack control systems and challenge you to find out where your information is coming from,” said Miles. “Unlike other Beats, he’s the only one that remains truly relevant.”

Aside from the role Lawrence played in Burroughs’ life, the panel also spoke at length about the growing international interest in his work, which has made it possible to continue printing new editions of his books (Grauerholz mentioned that Burroughs’ books have been translated into at least 30 different languages), as well as comprehensive biographies such as Miles’ latest: Call Me Burroughs: A Life (Twelve Books, 2014). At more than 600 pages, Miles’ book is an incredibly detailed but fascinating look at the circumstances and events that shaped Burroughs’ world view and provided the framework for his work.

As Burroughs’ work continues to find new audiences, it’s important to recognize the role that those who knew him personally continue to serve in keeping his work alive and accessible. “Today, we are rebuilding the audience for Burroughs,” said Silverberg. “If there aren’t people maintaining the legacy, there isn’t one.” To take Silverberg’s point a step further, when an artist is no longer living and their output ceases, it’s the responsibility of those who hold their work in high regard to pass it on and keep it alive—an obvious, but oft forgotten notion. To that end, Grauerholz recently donated Burroughs’ last journals, edited manuscripts, and other notes and letters to the Kenneth Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas—a move that not only ensures future academic study of Burroughs, but one that perpetuates Lawrence’s role as an essential destination for those with an interest in discovering the man and his work. “William spent his last years, wrote his last books, painted his (first and) last paintings and jotted-down his last words in Lawrence, Kansas,” Grauerholz said in the KU news release announcing the donation. “So the city of Lawrence, and the University of Kansas which is the heart of our community, deserve to have the last word on Burroughs’ life and works.”

Illustration by Christiaan Tonnis (“William S. Burroughs” / Video / Laserprint / 2006), licensed under Creative Commons.

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader; contact him at cwilliams@utne.com or follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams.  He also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com.

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