By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
Like many lonely teenagers, Burroughs escaped to fantasy. He consumed crime novels, nickel paperbacks with stories of wild adventure, detective tales and Westerns. He began writing his own stories, the "first set" of his literary production, as Burroughs would later describe it.
The Burroughs' family wealth derived from William's paternal grandfather, William Seward Burroughs I, who invented an adding machine in the 1880s that would eventually be worth millions of dollars. Just before the stock-market crash of 1929, Burroughs' father cashed in his shares of the Burroughs Adding Machine Company for $276,000. The sum was serious money for the time, in the neighborhood of $4 million today. By the late 1930s, however, the family fortune had dwindled to the point where Burroughs' parents made ends meet by running a landscaping service and gift shop in Ladue called Cobblestone Gardens.
In Burroughs' 1953 semi-autobiographical novel, Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict, he describes his formative years spent in a "comfortable capsule" of suburban affluence, mostly under the care of a nanny and various domestic servants.
Miles, who corresponded regularly with Burroughs throughout his life, says that the author expressed "a tremendous amount of nostalgia" for those early days in St. Louis.
For instance, while bedridden with fever at the age of four, Burroughs began experiencing visions — shadow animals scurrying on his bedroom walls, little gray men playing in his block houses. One day during a walk in Forest Park, little Billy Burroughs spotted what he thought were tiny green reindeer, according to Miles' just-released biography, Call Me Burroughs: A Life. The image of the delicate green reindeer, "about the size of a cat," echoes through many of Burroughs' later stories, poems and novels.
And an adolescent Burroughs began to rebel against his privileged upbringing by seeking out another side of St. Louis.
In the opening paragraphs of Cobble Stone Gardens, a memoir he named after his parents' gift shop, Burroughs recalls walking with his young cousin to the nearby bank of River des Peres (then a free-flowing open sewer) and "watching as turds shot out into the yellow water from vents along the sides." In another essay Burroughs describes a childhood ambition to become Commissioner of Sewers for the City of St. Louis — so that he could enjoy the benefits of corruption, just as the city officials who turned the river into a latrine had done.
In the early 1930s, during his summers home from Harvard, Burroughs would head over to Market Street between Union Station and the river. The area then was a skid row of sorts, full of bars, pawn shops and seedy rooming houses. He also spent a couple of weeks as a cub reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch but apparently got fed up with the assignments; he particularly hated the task of obtaining photos of recently drowned and poisoned children from grieving parents.
"He one time referred to St. Louis as a 'malignant matriarchy,'" recalls Kenn Thomas, a senior manuscript specialist with the State Historical Society of Missouri. Thomas struck up a friendship with Burroughs in the early '80s and later founded Steamshovel Press, which published works and interviews with Beat writers.
In 1935, during the summer of his junior year in college, a 21-year-old Burroughs lost his virginity to a bosomy prostitute in an East St. Louis, Illinois, brothel. It cost $5 per half-hour. He admitted in a 1974 interview that, "It wasn't what I wanted, but it was better than nothing." Even so, Burroughs became a repeat customer, and after the act he would drive to Culpeppers in the Central West End for after-whore drinks with his buddies.
"Burroughs' nostalgia for the rough parts of St. Louis, that's kind of a junkie thing, but it's also kind of a Buddhist thing," his old friend Thomas says. "There's a Buddhist principle to meditate on the most repulsive things that are out there. It's a reflection of what's real."
But what has happened to Market Street the skid row of my adolescent years? Where are the tattoo parlors, novelty stores, hock shops — brass knucks in a dusty window — the seedy pitchmen...the old junkies hawking and spitting on street corners under the gas lights? — distant 1920 wind and dust... —"St. Louis Return," published in The Paris Review (1965)
Burroughs tried very hard to enlist in the military even before Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. He applied to become an ambulance driver for the American Field Service and then as a pilot with the Glider Corps. Both rejected him. He then hoped to become an officer in the newly formed Office of Strategic Services, the intelligence and espionage agency that preceded the CIA, but that didn't pan out either. Five weeks after Pearl Harbor, Burroughs showed up at Jefferson Barracks, resigned that he would serve his country as just another officer.
Instead, Burroughs was classified 1-A Infantry. He went AWOL with a buddy, got caught and was tossed in the brig at Jefferson Barracks, where he spent the next five months. His mother would make frequent trips to visit, bringing along steam tables filled with gourmet meals. Though the process was slow, it wasn't difficult to convince the military that Burroughs wasn't mentally fit for the infantry: A psychiatrist confirmed that while living in New York in 1940, Burroughs cut off part of his left pinkie out of jealous anguish. The object of his obsession, a bisexual young man named Jack Anderson, would bring men and women back to the apartment he and Burroughs shared. Burroughs did not handle the competition well, so out came the poultry shears and off went the pinkie. (He was on a "Van Gogh kick" at the time, he would later write.)
Burroughs founded a style and written world unmatched by any other voice in literary history. Warts, bodily fluids and all, he exposed the delights and discontents of sexuality, addiction and depravity. He found antiheroes in the dregs of society which he put on pillars to be fought over in court with groundbreaking obscenity cases. Men like that make it possible for you to read and see what other crazed souls like mine have to share with you. Inspired by his life, I illustrated a surreal portrait of the author today in commemoration of his Centennial at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2014/02/william-s-burroughs-centennial.html