Academic journal article The Mailer Review

The Mailer Legacy and Aleatory Burroughs

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

The Mailer Legacy and Aleatory Burroughs

Article excerpt

WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS (1914-97), BORN NEARLY A DECADE BEFORE NORMAN Mailer, created a far-out canon, airy random literary nuggets that marked him as a serious literary "deconstructionist," yet his seminal importance to Mailer is undeniable. The Burroughs's legacy breach was more extreme and subtle than nearly any other literary figure. To seasoned readers of Mailer, Burroughs's legacy connection may seem far off but that is not the case.

Burroughs was too radical for words, that is, in a meaningful sense, and since Mailer was the current foremost literary wordsmith, common sense would question a direct link. This legacy twosome was perhaps condemned to write worlds apart, and yet, Mailer, at a safe distance, seemed both respective and fascinated with this "dead-end" language author.

Unlike the snubbed Vonnegut with his hordes of readers, Bill Burroughs, with his connoisseur readership, had won acclaim and honor from the literary establishment both inside and outside America, in Europe and North Africa. Such seers believed that Burroughs's mega-creativity was wild and wondrous. Some observers on Olympus called Burroughs a "born survivor" With such trans-American accolades pouring in ... perhaps, Mailer by singling out Burroughs, was demonstrating new "common sense" legacy skills.

Burroughs, in turn, on his own, had upstaged and out-survived, just barely, his own rival in the legacy trail, Paul Bowles (1910-99), more an international music composer and serious writer, born in NYC living in Berlin and Paris who, after 1950, turned his back on America and settled in North Africa, mostly in Tangier, with his absurdist novels--The Sheltering Sky (1949), Let It Come Down (1952), The Spiders House (1955)--set in Morocco, exaggerating Western Civilization types freed from their cultural restraints and roots or here comes Modern Multiculturalism. Bowles seemed destined to be a permanent expatriate nihilistic outsider. However, Burroughs, although he did his share of "on the road" years (Paris, Tangier, and Mexico) due to police and drug matters both inside and outside America, he never fully negated his homeland's "seeds" and literary promptings, even though he wrote a more scathing and obscure (almost unreadable) indictment of Americana, nonetheless, seemed destined to be a homebred and lasting literary force.

Most of this overall aesthetic obscurity gravitated toward Postmodernism, which "leftist conservative" Mailer considered this new "ism" as being alien. He was far more at home with his pal and mentor, Henry Miller, another wild and prolonged outlawed expatriate but whose prose was very readable, a surefire necessity. But Burroughs was a gutsy extremist and both he and his canon became prototypes of Postmodernism, its Godfather, and Burroughs being-Burroughs, he remained at home with "enemy words," the literary counterpart to the media maze about to afflict America.

Clearly, W.S. Burroughs was a genius ahead of his negative times, in synchrony with earlier Dadaists and Surrealists and other language despoilers and their cultish allies fascinated with literary puzzles and fond of vicarious romps in the literary wilds. Burroughs became their favorite. Their support and acclaim, in the Beatnik era, propelled "Bill" into an overnight adventuresome living legend.

Ironically, there was little or nothing "obscure" about the public Burroughs whose literary life rivaled Mailer's for sheer notoriety. Like Vonnegut, Burroughs was a literary late bloomer, and his DNA, in retrospect, was quite surprising. He was no low brow Hell's Kitchen street urchin seeds. Instead, he came from a family with elevated social and financial means, plus a provocative family history. A creative grandfather, his namesake, invented the adding machine (hint of a grandson's signature prose), and an uncle, Ivy Lee, was a public relations man for John D. Rockefeller. But all such disjointed DNA had its literary upside for a writer who started out working in public relations and as an exterminator, precisely because literary pundits would croon over Burroughs's insights into how bugs and machines really worked. …

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