Academic journal article Journal of Beat Studies

Call Me Burroughs: A Life

Academic journal article Journal of Beat Studies

Call Me Burroughs: A Life

Article excerpt

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and he relies on Rob Johnson's research on Burroughs's "lost" years in Texas in the late '40s and Stewart Meyers's unpublished journals of his friendship with Burroughs during "the Bunker years" in New York in the '70s.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). …

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