William Burroughs and Norman Mailer

Tags: ,

Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

Burroughs is the only American novelist living today
who may conceivably be possessed by genius.
— Norman Mailer (1962)


Norman Mailer’s assessment lingers around Burroughs like a stale fart. You just cannot get away from it. From the back cover of the Grove Naked Lunch to obituary accounts, from the Wikipedia page to academic articles, Mailer’s territorial pissing has marked Burroughs’ place in literary history. In the early 1960s at Edinburgh, Mailer along with Mary McCarthy began the process of legitimizing Burroughs. Mailer opened the back door and let Burroughs in. Literally. One of Burroughs’ most ardent supporters for admission to the Academy of Arts and Letters was Mailer. This recognition was very important to Burroughs, and he wore his Academy pin proudly. From what I can gather, Burroughs was grateful for Mailer’s support.

Kate Simon (Photographer), William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Norman MailerSo why does it grate on me? I think the main reason is that most people tend to overlook just how much Mailer got out of the deal. Mailer was not just doing Burroughs a favor. Mailer was hoping for a return on his investment, a return with interest — that is, increased interest in Mailer, naturally, as it always was with this most egotistical of writers. (“Ego” was even the title of one of Mailer’s most famous and admired essays.) In addition, Mailer’s interest in Burroughs and the Beats in general is usually understated. It was not merely a casual relationship based on simple admiration. There was intense curiosity, anxiety, and doubt at the source of Mailer’s appreciation of Burroughs. Burroughs and the Beats presented both a challenge and an opportunity.

In order to understand this complex relationship, a little background on Mailer’s career until 1957 is necessary. The 24-year-old Mailer burst on the literary scene in 1948 with The Naked and the Dead, a doorstop novel that critics hailed as the first serious treatment of World War II. Here seemed to be a writer destined for great things, possibly the Great American Novel. Mailer was much concerned with being great, important, significant. The follow-up novel published in 1951, Barbary Shore, showed evidence of a sophomore slump. No cause for alarm. A hiccup along the road to the Big One. Mailer upped the ante and aimed high with his third novel, The Deer Park. This was to be an important, provocative, controversial novel — Mailer’s attempt at the grail. A novel dealing with sex and the American Dream set in Los Angeles, The Deer Park sought to instigate serious discussion and establish Mailer as a philosopher of the orgasm. Critics responded with yawns. The novel flirted with obscenity but many felt Mailer had only succeeded in making sex boring. Now, questions arose about Mailer’s future and his talent. Would he ever capitalize on the promise of The Naked and the Dead? Was he a one-hit wonder?

This shook Mailer to his core. He would not publish another novel until An American Dream, which was serialized in Esquire in 1964. The golden boy of American literature had to do some soul searching. He started the Village Voice in 1955, but the alternative paper never fully captured his attention. He took up boxing, he considered politics, he drank heavily. Mailer cast about for a theme worthy of his ambition. In 1957, he addressed a topic that would put him back on the literary map: The Beat Generation.

Norman Mailer and the White Negro

Norman Mailer, The White Negro, City Lights, 1957Although The Beat Generation was an underground phenomenon since the mid-1940s, they were to explode into the mainstream in the summer and fall of 1957 with the Howl trial and the publication of On the Road. In the summer of that year, Mailer published an essay that provided the philosophical explanation of what was a troubling trend in the Age of the Grey Flannel Suit. Mailer’s “The White Negro” first appeared in Dissent and was then reprinted as a chapbook by City Lights, the publisher of Howl, and eventually collected in Mailer’s self-aggrandizing anthology Advertisements for Myself. The essay fed off the work of French existentialists, particularly Sartre’s book-length studies of Baudelaire (1950) and Saint Genet (1952), which examined the dandy and the criminal as existential figures, and mixed those ideas with a philosophy based on African American experience. Mailer labeled the African American as an existential hero denied recognition by white society. He would also describe black experience as psychopathic and glorify the power of orgasm. In turn young middle- and upper-class whites, dissatisfied with the sterile and mind-numbing environment created by their elders, embraced black culture and experience as a vital alternative lifestyle. Stereotypes of black virility and a fascination for the cathartic aspects of psychopathic violence made for a heady brew that blew the heads off New York intellectuals.

If you can get past the sexual and racial stereotypes — and many cannot (in the 1950s and today) — the essay proved incredibly perceptive. In the humdrum 1950s, Mailer predicted the explosive 1960s: Black Power, The Weathermen, and student revolt. Just before the publication of On the Road, Mailer provided a framework for understanding the characters of Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady), Sal Paradise (Jack Kerouac), and a host of other popular culture figures from James Dean to Elvis Presley. In fact, the prophetic aspect of one passage of The White Negro, the most controversial passage of the entire essay, would prove to be downright eerie.

It can of course be suggested that it takes little courage for two strong 18-year-old hoodlums, let us say, to beat in the brains of a candy-store keeper, and indeed the act – even by the logic of the psychopath – is not likely to prove very therapeutic, for the victim is not an immediate equal. Still, courage of a sort is necessary, for one murders not only a weak fifty-year-old man but an institution as well, one violates property, one enters into a new relation with the police and introduces a dangerous element into one’s life. The hoodlum is therefore daring the unknown, and no matter how brutal the act, it is not altogether cowardly.

Charles StarkweatherIn late November 1957, in Lincoln, Nebraska, 19-year-old Charles Starkweather entered a general store, abducted, then eventually killed Robert Colvert in cold blood with a shotgun. He entered and exited the store three times before he decided to kidnap the shopkeeper. The “courage” to kill only resulted when Colvert struggled for the gun. The following month, Starkweather and his 14-year-old girl friend Caril Ann Fugate would go on a murder spree across what Kerouac called the “unbelievable huge bulge” of America. It seemed as if Mailer had written Starkweather into existence. During his incarceration, Starkweather described his feeling of power and self-esteem following the murder of the shopkeeper. As William Allen describes in his book on Starkweather, “He had money. He had a girl. He had killed and not been bothered by it. It gave him an enormous feeling of power. He now operated outside the laws of man. He felt as if he were invisible, could do just as he pleased, take what he wanted. The law was helpless against him.” The young mass murderer idolized James Dean and envisioned himself as a rebel without a cause.

Starkweather and Fugate were the flip side of Neal Cassady and Luanne Henderson, Cassady’s 16-year-old bride. A decade earlier, Cassady had crisscrossed the exact same terrain as Starkweather. Whereas Cassady vented his frustrations in aimless movement and, as he aged, in self-destructive drug use, Starkweather lashed out at society. I am reminded of a passage from On the Road:

Suddenly I had a vision of Dean, a burning shuddering frightful Angel, palpitating toward me across the road, approaching like a cloud, with enormous speed, pursuing me like the Shrouded Traveler on the plain, bearing down on me. I saw his huge face over the plains with the mad, bony purpose and the gleaming eyes; I saw his wings; I saw his old jalopy chariot with thousands of sparking flames shooting out from it; I saw the path it burned over the road; it even made its own road and went over the corn through the cities, destroying bridges, drying rivers. It came like wrath to the West. I knew Dean had gone mad again.

Likewise, Starkweather was an Angel of Death laying waste to Main Street.

In “The White Negro,” Mailer wrote as a prophet of the apocalypse, a Hip Jeremiah, but as far as the Beat writers were concerned, Mailer was almost a decade late. By 1957, Kerouac, Cassady, and Ginsberg had moved on to the more peaceful aspects of Beat. They were pursuing the Beatific, enlightenment, and Eastern philosophy. They were less psychopaths than Dharma Bums. If Mailer’s essay no longer described the major Beat figures, however, that did not stop critics and the mainstream press from pinning Mailer’s assessment on them anyway. Norman Podhoretz’s essay, “The Know-Nothing Bohemians” — in a sense a companion piece to “The White Negro” — attacked the lifestyle of the Columbia University-era Beats more than the contemporary scene. Not that it mattered, the Beats were all the rage, and Mailer found a topic, Hip and the hipster, that he could sink his teeth into, chew over, and regurgitate to the general public.

In “The White Negro,” Mailer also found a style. Much is made of Mailer’s November 1960 essay on the Democratic Convention, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” as ground zero for new journalism. Clearly, this piece, published in Esquire, is a key document in that vein, but the seeds of the form were planted in “The White Negro.” The style of this essay matches the subject matter. Mailer writes and thinks like Cassady drives — recklessly. The text swerves erratically from point to point and the sentences twist and turn like the road Cassady voraciously travels. Mailer’s writing rampages like bull in the china shop of ideas. The essay is as much an exercise in style as a think piece.

“The White Negro” also embodies aspects of gonzo journalism. It was not enough for Mailer to adopt a hip writing style; he felt compelled to adopt a hip lifestyle as well. At the time he was composing “The White Negro,” Mailer brawled with police, got in drunken arguments with other writers, and bullied his wife. He drank and smoked marijuana heavily. To show he was committed, he grew a goatee. He walked the walk so he could talk the talk.

Norman Mailer on William Burroughs

Here lies the kernel of my problem with Mailer’s kidnapping of William Burroughs. To my mind, Mailer is all talk. His best writing is new journalism — his commentary on events, not his imaginative writing of them. For if Mailer foresaw the figure of Charles Starkweather, what Mailer was not quite ready for, although he attempted to outline his pathology in “The White Negro,” was the figure of William Burroughs. Burroughs’ arrival on the literary scene in 1959 would reveal to Mailer his own shortcomings as a writer and a man, and provide a true anxiety of influence.

In his essay, “Quick and Expensive Comments on the Talent in the Room” (Autumn/Winter 1959), published in the third issue of Big Table, Mailer sized up the competition on the literary scene. Writer after writer, from James Baldwin to James Jones, are dispatched as pretenders to the throne. Despite the critical failure of Deer Park, and the fact that creatively he was suffering a block on his next novel, Mailer felt his work superior to that of his contemporaries, with two notable exceptions. One was Anatole Broyard. Mailer gives him his blessing in a brief two sentences. Broyard was a Greenwich Village hipster, as his late memoir Kafka Was the Rage makes clear. Broyard’s racial history was the subject of speculation in the bars and backrooms of the Village. He was an inverted version of the White Negro, a black man passing as a white hipster. This could explain Mailer’s puzzling approval of Broyard, despite having read only two of his stories.

The other notable exception rose to prominence in the first issue of Big Table and in fact was the major reason for that magazine’s existence: William Burroughs. Mailer writes:

The ten episodes from Naked Lunch, which were printed in Big Table I, were more arresting, I thought, than anything I’ve read by an American in years. If the rest of William Burroughs’ book is equal to what was shown, and if the novel proves to be a novel and not a collage of extraordinary fragments, then Burroughs will deserve rank as one of the most important novelists in America, and may prove comparable in his impact to Genet.

The comparison to Genet is key, as it reveals Mailer’s debt to Sartre in his assessment of the White Negro. Yet all this occurs in a footnote. One reason is because Burroughs’ writing was, as yet, largely unavailable in the United States. He was truly a footnote on the literary scene. Another reason, I like to think, was because Mailer had to quarantine Burroughs, put him and his writing in a safe place to prevent being infected, struck dumb, by Burroughs’ power as a new voice. Unlike Mailer’s hipster pose, Burroughs and his writing had authenticity. It had the potential to be not only the Next Big Thing, but the Real Thing. Burroughs was a threat. In a follow-up essay published in 1963, “Some Children of the Goddess,” which reassessed the literary rank and file, Mailer again viewed Burroughs in a positive light. And at the Naked Lunch trial, Mailer stated, “The man has extraordinary talent. Possibly he is the most talented writer in America. As a professional writer I don’t like to go about bestowing credit on any other writers.” Mailer may have been reluctant to praise his contemporaries, but clearly Burroughs was a figure he could not ignore.

Gary GilmoreThroughout his life, Mailer would be fascinated by characters such as Burroughs, sometimes with tragic results. In 1980, Mailer won the Pulitzer Prize for The Executioner’s Song, his account of the life, crimes and trial of Gary Gilmore, a spree killer who, like Charles Starkweather, was sentenced to death. Soon after the success of The Executioner’s Song, Jack Abbott, a career criminal blessed with the ability to write about his experiences, came to Mailer’s attention. The intelligence on display in Abbott’s book, In the Belly of the Beast, excited Mailer into lobbying for Abbott’s release. Six weeks after getting out of jail, Abbott stabbed a man to death in an altercation. In 2002, Abbott committed suicide.

If Abbott was Mailer’s psychopath as intellectual, then Burroughs was his intellectual as psychopath. Junkie, killer, homosexual, the satanic Burroughs was an Angel fallen from the heavens of America’s elite. At the time Mailer encountered Burroughs’ writing, el hombre invisible haunted the edges of Western civilization and flouted the conventions of the Establishment, which were his birthright. He challenged the Law, both in his lifestyle and in his writing. Labeled as evil in act and mind by mainstream society, Burroughs did more than violate conventional morality; he questioned the validity and construction of morality as a concept and suggested that the established moral code was in fact amoral. It was not enough to change a system from within; forms of Control had to be destroyed and replaced with forms of anarchy ranging from pirate utopias to the simple act of minding your own business. Mailer, on the other hand, no matter how much he tried to shake it, ultimately retained the mind of a conservative. Existing systems needed only to be tweaked, corrected. This is clear in Mailer’s political aspirations, such as his running for Mayor. Mailer would have liked to be President, as his writings on Presidential Conventions demonstrate. Burroughs, as he wrote in Harper’s, never would have considered such a role.

Jack AbbottBurroughs was a black sheep and a sheep-killing dog. Like Byron, “mad, bad and dangerous to know.” Mailer tried very hard to measure up but his personality and his writing show the effort. They sweat and labor to be daring and obscene. For example, for all the sex in his writing, Mailer’s conception of sex is rather traditional. Alfred Kazin described it as “a typical Jewish attitude towards sex — that sex can be turned into a concept, the way Freud did.” It seems to me too tied up with the marital, patriarchal, and physical. No matter how much Mailer wanted to break from his traditions, his thoughts on sex were Puritanical, tied to anxiety, guilt, and punishment. He wanted more of fucking and a philosophy of fucking (what he described as “serious promiscuity”) and more freedom outside of marriage to explore them. Burroughs viewed sex as more than the mechanical act, but a physical, mental and emotional possession, the schlup. For me, Burroughs’ concept of tying sex to a philosophy of addiction has a breadth, complexity, and transgressiveness missing from Mailer’s. Eventually, Burroughs questioned the whole conception of sexual relations, going so far as to wonder if women were a biological mistake.

Mailer’s conventionality is also reflected in his writing. Mailer is a mainstream novelist. He wanted to write that most traditional of literary grails, the Great American Novel. Burroughs was an experimentalist who challenged the concept of the book and sought (ultimately unsuccessfully) to rub out the Word, to destroy the power of Language, and to remove himself as an Author and retreat into silence. Mailer loved the sound of his own voice. When you think of Burroughs you think of a conman preying on the Squares; Mailer was a preacher to the Squares, spreading the gospel of Mailer.

Naked Lunch and the Great American Novel

Is it far-fetched to consider Naked Lunch the Great American Novel? By challenging the American way of life, Burroughs’ masterpiece, to my mind, came closer than anything Mailer ever wrote. Naked Lunch is a complex rumination on evil. Profane and obscene, it attacked the holy image of the American Dream by examining its politics, economics, religion, and sexual mores. It was Burroughs’ genius to suggest that the true nature of America is based in evil and a Faustian impulse for domination. Burroughs writes, “America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting.” Never an Eden, always already fallen. According to Burroughs, this is America’s open secret. That is why Naked Lunch was taken to court by Customs, the Post Office, and the Courts, the last work of literature to be so challenged with the full force of American bureaucracy. Deer Park was only censored by Mailer’s own editors, who felt the book might offend the genteel sensibilities of the general public. Burroughs’ work was more than just sexually explicit; it threatened entire foundational systems from language to economics to government. The contenders to the Great American Novel, from Moby Dick to Invisible Man, all explore this dark side of America. Therefore, Naked Lunch is in the discussion.

However, for me, Naked Lunch lacks one key element that a novel such as Moby Dick makes central to its concerns. As Charles Olson wrote in Call Me Ishmael, his monumental study of Melville’s novel,

I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy. It is geography at bottom, a hell of wide land from the beginning. That made the first American story (Parkman’s): exploration.

Prospectus for Grove Press Edition of Naked Lunch, featuring quote by Norman MailerThis “central fact” is at the heart of On the Road, another contender to the throne. Although Naked Lunch rewrites On the Road in its opening section, tellingly entitled “And Start West” in Jabberwock which published the section in 1959 and included in Naked Lunch: The Restored Text, this concern with American geography and manifest destiny is abandoned in favor of an exploration of Interzone, a dystopia that is at once everywhere and nowhere. Naked Lunch is a study of the space in-between, not space writ large. Burroughs’ exploration is largely interior, not a trek through “a hell of wide land.” He fails to take into account what Olson described as “as restless a thing as Western man” in terms of physical exploration. Burroughs sheds light on the underworld, but unlike Melville’s Moby Dick or Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, he does not portray the physical journey to get there.

Naked Lunch also lacks epic scope. It is not “Large, and without mercy.” True, Naked Lunch with its lack of a defined beginning, middle and end, its lack of plot or continuity, and its invitation to enter at any intersection point, is, in a sense, an endless novel. Yet the novel is, in fact, a quick read and does not have the necessary heft. The Great American Novel must be large and sprawling like America itself. Encyclopedic, the sheer number of pages reflects American excess and runaway production. Naked Lunch is too concise, too on point. Burroughs cuts away the excess; Naked Lunch is a masterpiece of editing, a thousand-page manuscript reduced to essence. After Naked Lunch, Burroughs would explore the cut-up, which would pare down the Naked Lunch word hoard to key phrases and images.

Yet as Mailer recognized, Naked Lunch is in the discussion as the Great One. As “greatest living writer,” Burroughs threatened to reign supreme over Mailer and his contemporaries. And this is where Mailer’s assessment comes into play. By recognizing Burroughs’ genius, particularly at a time when others proclaimed Burroughs a Know-Nothing Bohemian, Mailer implicitly proclaims his own genius. Over time, this recognition has become almost as important as Burroughs’ writing itself. Throughout his career, Mailer had a parasitic relationship to genius. He fed off of others’ power rather than generating his own. This is true from Muhammad Ali to Marilyn Monroe to Jesus to Hitler to Picasso. His true talent was in journalism, reporting rather than creative writing, although his great innovation was to introduce literary devices into objective journalism. To my mind, Burroughs’ creative genius trumps Mailer’s recognition of it, although this does not seem to be the case, as Mailer’s assessment must be appended to all accounts of Burroughs in order to give him legitimacy. Burroughs work is not allowed to speak for itself; Mailer’s voice has to introduce it. This fails to take into consideration just how much Mailer’s voice, particularly in “The White Negro” period, is a ventriloquism of the Beat manner of speaking. The Beat conception of Hip resurrected Mailer’s career and made him relevant. People forget that figures like Burroughs in essence also legitimated Mailer.

“Sentences That Stab People”

The hold that Burroughs had over Mailer’s imagination is demonstrated in an interview published in the February 1961 issue of Mademoiselle. (Readers of Mademoiselle might have been aware of Burroughs as he appeared in the magazine roughly one year earlier.) In the interview, Mailer still presents himself, several years after the publication of “The White Negro,” as the authority on the hipster. He states, “I’m a hipster, for example — a middle-aged hipster. I’ve turned terribly philosophical and mellow but still that’s what I am.” Mailer had yet to move on to a new topic and style. He was still living off past events; he was retrograde; he was middle-aged. Mailer’s philosophical bent on the hipster is the equivalent of a comb-over to be more relevant, younger than he was. Burroughs, also middle-aged, did not have to try so hard to be Hip. He and his mind just were.

Mailer proclaims himself an authority on drugs, more specifically, marijuana. Once again he was prophetic in the importance of drugs as a central fact of the 1960s, but he was far from the authority he pretended to be. Whereas drugs for Burroughs were a way of life, Mailer was at heart a recreational user. He was the “Ivy League, advertising exec type fruit” riding the A-train seemingly hip to grass and slang, “a square wants to come on hip … Talks about ‘pod,’ and smoke it now and then.” In Peter Manso’s biography of Mailer, Ginsberg repeatedly describes Mailer as naïve and square.

In discussing marriage, Mailer states, “Well, I can say that America is about as totalitarian and vicious and — I’m going to coin a word — liquidational — about the uses of marriage as the Soviet Union is about the uses of the proletariat. It’s been the great scandal of our national life.” Coin a word, really? I am reminded of a passage from Naked Lunch: “It will be immediately clear that the Liquefaction Party is, except for one man, composed entirely of dupes, it is not clear until the final absorption who is whose dupe… The Liquefactionists are much given to every perversion, especially sado-masochistic practices…” Mailer and Burroughs viewed marriage as the cornerstone of morality and sex, an institution that was perverted by its opposition to perversion. It became a matter of control, power, sadomasochism. Am I wrong in seeing liquefactionist in liquidational?

The interview makes clear that Burroughs was on Mailer’s mind. The interviewer asks, “How important is style to you?” Mailer responds,

Style? Style’s an embrace. If I were to choose a style, I think a man who writes better than I do is William Burroughs. I think he is going to last a long time after me because his is more intense. He’s got a quality I don’t have. I mean, I write sentences that embrace people. But he writes sentences that stab people and you never forget the man who stabs you. You can forget an embrace.

For Mailer to make this admission of Burroughs’ superior talent is huge. I think it is genuine. Mailer realized that he was all style and that Burroughs was not only a better stylist, a better writer, but also more authentic. Mailer describes Burroughs as “more intense” and admires Burroughs’ “quality.” This is merely to say more real, more true to his nature. Burroughs was not playacting. For sure Burroughs required an audience, yet that could be a single passionate reader, like Ginsberg. For a time in the 1960s, Burroughs listened within himself and ignored the general public, preferring to stab them with the razor, the scalpel, the scissors — the tools of the cut-up technique. Mailer, like the bad boy acting out for attention, sought the general public’s embrace and embraced them with his reader-friendly style in turn.

Norman Mailer arrested for stabbing his wifeA key here is also lifestyle. Burroughs can be viewed as a true outlaw, the intellectual as psychopath. Burroughs was Mailer’s existential fantasy come to life. Mailer could not live up to his fantasies, although that did not stop him from trying. Mailer conducted this interview in mid-November of 1960. On November 22nd, he would stab his wife with a kitchen knife in the chest at the tail end of what the media described as a Beatnik party. Is it too much to see this act of psychopathic violence as Mailer’s pantomime of a similar drunken act of evil that occurred in September 1951 — the William Tell shooting of Joan Vollmer? Maybe so, but given Mailer’s interview just days before the incident it is interesting to consider. Mailer’s stabbing of his wife was the culmination of roughly five years of experimentation with the lifestyle of the White Negro. Mailer as psychopath. The stabbing of his wife was the act of courage that would place him at odds with society and legitimize his pose.

Yet his actions after the incident reveal him not up to the responsibilities of his actions. At his arraignment, Mailer addressed the court: “It is important for me not to be sent to a mental hospital, because my work in the future will be considered that of a disordered mind. My pride is that I can explore areas of experience that other men are afraid of. I insist I am sane.” Mailer falls back on his rationality, his Puritan mind, his sense of Order. On the other hand, I like to think Burroughs embraces his madness, his schizophrenia, his possession by the Ugly Spirit. In Naked Lunch and elsewhere, Burroughs explores the very areas Mailer pridefully claims as his own. For me what makes Naked Lunch a masterpiece is that, as Ginsberg writes in “On Burroughs’ Work,” he does not hide the madness or rely on his sanity. The book is obscene and amoral, the product of a satanic mind, found guilty of genius by reason of insanity before the Law of mainstream society.

William Burroughs Headline in Daily News, Heir's Pistol Kills His WifeYet Burroughs, like Mailer, had his moments of what I am tempted to call weakness. The writing of “Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness” is but one example of Burroughs bowing down before the pressures of the Law. Burroughs’ introduction to Queer is even more damning. Years after Mailer stabbed his wife, Mailer told James Atlas of The New York Times Magazine, “A decade’s anger made me do it. After that I felt better.” As Mailer’s biographer Mary V. Dearborn writes, “The remark is reminiscent of the self-referential thinking that characterized his behavior before the stabbing. It was all about him. Adele, the victim, was forgotten.”

Burroughs takes a page out of Mailer’s book in the introduction to Queer. He writes,

I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and the constant need to escape from possession, from Control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except o write my way out.

Burroughs places the genesis of his genius at Joan’s death. He wagers that his good works, i.e. his writing, will pardon him for his act of evil. As with Mailer, “It was all about him. [Joan], the victim, was forgotten.” So much so that discussions on the RealityStudio forum can attempt to justify Joan’s shooting with the writing of Naked Lunch. Such a justification is impossible. What is possible and what many do not want to admit is that a great artist can also be capable of evil. However, Burroughs was not merely the psychopath of Mailer’s fantasies or, even, of my own. Good and Evil. Both/and not either/or. Like every human being, he was capable of, and committed, both. The evil may always be there waiting, but so is the good.

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 14 October 2009. Photograph of William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Norman Mailer © Kate Simon.

13 thoughts on “William Burroughs and Norman Mailer

  1. It’s funny that this comes up. I was thinking that Mailer was probably subconsciously haunted the spectre of Burroughs when he stabbed his wife and was looking for a similar experience to Burroughs’. Lionel Trilling thought that it was Dostoyevskian act meant to test the limits of evil in himself.

    As far as Mailer being inauthentic and an egotist, it’s true to some extent, but even he was taking his influences directly from others he was still somewhat original. “Naked and the Dead” owed much to Dos Passos and Farell, “Barbabry Shore” was an attempt at something Kafkaesque, although there are bits of Orwell and novel is very pretty original in it’s way, and “The Deer Park” was Nathanael West influenced, but it was already infused with “hipsterism” via Marion Faye. “The Executioner’s Song” was clearly meant to take on Capote and “Ancient Evenings” was contending with Burroughs and Pynchon. But even as he borrowed influences he still had his own sensibility. I agree with Harold Bloom that his anxiety of influence with Hemingway served him awfully and that Hemingway was the wrong father.

    As for “The White Negro,” it was clearly Mailer trying to be more extreme than the Beats, and this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, and perhaps more subversive and potentially revoluntionary than the Beats emphasis on mystic inward trips. The essay presages Marcuse’s emphasis on a possible lumpen-proletariat revoluation and in a weird way the emphasis on libertine nihilism in post-modern leftist thought. He infused “The White Negro” with his own literary persona and came up with something quite original, a strange sort of primitivism mixed a sort of simplified existentialist position.

    As for his alleged conservatism, it’s true to some extent but you can argue that he was just as much a sexual radical as Norman O. Brown and Marcuse and probably more so than Burroughs, who oscillates between a celebration of deviant sexuality and “the cold, windy, bodiless rock.” Mailer put the emphasis on physicality while the Beats were turning mystic. Mailer’s egotism and penchant for stunts can be explained in term of a “creative isometrics,” making a display of his public self for the benefit of the private artist. Many of the “conservative positions” are really anti-rationalist and primitivist, while the anti-feminism was mostly faked, I think, while Burroughs was perhaps more virulent for a phase at least, in this regard. Burroughs represented the middle position between rationalism and primitivism I think/

    Interesting article nonetheless.

  2. Jed;

    Very nicely thought through and written about. A pleasure to read. Thank you.

    As for – “Am I wrong in seeing liquefactionist in liquidational?”

    No, I don’t believe it is “wrong” in relation to the premise you have explored about the relationship and character of the two writers and their respective work.

    I think you have thoughtfully examined a number of interesting and intriguing patterns.

    Some patterns are more intricate and subtle than others, while a few, like the one cited, are baldly obvious and give support to both the premise and the conclusions your essay arrives at.

    For me, besides the central, fascinating and thought provoking ideas about the relationship of Norman Mailer and William S. Burroughs, your essay, at least obliquely, re-opens and adds to the case for journalism, the “new journalism,” and the “non-fiction novel” in a way similar to that of Ann Charters, when her review/essay of Kerouac’s ON THE ROAD: THE ORIGINAL SCROLL, titled “A New Trend In American Literature” appeared in Beat Scene #53, Summer 2007.

  3. A very interesting article.

    Mailer was a complex, confused and conflicted character but even in his minor works there is much to think about.His main problem seems to be that he believed the hype which surrounded him – we may well have seen a very different Mailer emerge had ‘Naked and the Dead’ not been such a hit. He may well have latched onto the Beats for his own reasons but his comments on WSB seem to be heartfelt admiration from one writer to another.

    With regards to the quote from Queer, I have always seen this as saying that WSB could not forget or move fully away from Joan’s death. His writing simply became a way of trying to deal with it rather than forget it.

  4. on a totally superficial note, i always loved Bill’s hair in that newspaper report pic… digging the fringe. :)

  5. Some other points that remained on the editing floor that might be of interest. Adele Morales, Mailer’s wife, was also the former girlfriend of Jack Kerouac. Here again Mailer inserts himself on the Beat Scene by stealing the girl. There are elements of incest and sacrifice here.

    In addition, Allen Ginsberg was at the party at which Mailer stabbed Adele. By all accounts the party was out of control and had a bad vibe. Ginsberg had to be separated from Norman Podhoretz in an argument over Podhoretz’s negative treatment of the Beats. So the Beats and the controversy surrounding them was in the air at the party even though The White Negro was published three years earlier.

  6. “But about Mailer, I feel differently. I think it is too bad that because he is so vociferous, so loud a writer, his work is not considered as it should be, a case of mental unbalance. It is unsound and dangerous…In The White Negro he wrote that it takes courage to kill an old lady. He influences young people. A young poet who writes me from jail admires mailer and thinks an act of violence would liberate his creativity. On the contrary, violence is a symptom of impotence” – Anais Nin on Mailer. Guess not all the French side Mailer was being headspinfluenced by were particularly enamored of his macho machinations.

  7. I like to expand a little a the comments I made earlier. The problem with comparing Mailer and Burroughs, I think, is that they are two different kinds of radicals. It was as much coincidental as opportunistic that Mailer took to the Beats. Stalinism had shown that generation the horrors of totalitarian communism, and the radical intellectuals of that time, most of them anyway, were turning toward some form another of radical individualism. The ego, the motor of the dialetic, was pushed to it’s farthest extreme, the socially conditioned ego couldn’t hold, or so they thought. It’s no surprise then that Mailer turned to the Beats as possible progenitors of a cultural revolution. Mailer, was a Freudian Marxist while Burroughs was a radical individualist, who nonetheless believed is some sort of libertarian communism but tempered with a pessimism based on the brute facts of “biological materialism.”
    Mailer, while very calculating about his career, took real chances. Look at “Barbary Shore.” He knew arguing Russia represented state capitalism and the U.S. represented monoply capitalism, and really were two forms of the same phenomenon, wasn’t going to be terrible popular. But he went ahead and he suffered from it. Mailer argues for a future insurrectionary career for the novel’s protagonist as an individual against the state, and here I think he was anticipating much of what was to come with the Beats and the 60’s. Here he was ahead of the game.
    As for the the “Quick and Expensive Comments” essay, he does dole out a bit more praise then you give him credit for. Broyard isn’t the only one who recieves praise. He says Styron wrote the prettiest novel of his generation. He praises Jones and says “From Here to Eternity” was the best American novel since the war. He claims Capote was the most perfect writer of his generation. There’s some light praise for Algren, who he respects for staying radical, and he commends Bourjaily’s “The Violated.” Myron Kaufman has more to say about the deadening of individuality in the American Jew than other write and saying Ellison is a good write is dull to say. When he criticizes these writer’s I’m not sure it’s pure egotism. He wants to push to be more competitive and more exploratory and more dangerous.
    In regards to quaranting Burroughs, it doesn’t seem like that’s the case. Comparing him to Genet makes perfect sense, as Genet was a major influence on Burroughs, although I’m not sure Mailer knew that, and they share many thematic and philosphical affinities. Genet and Celine would’ve made the only apt comparisons. The Sartre influence in regards to “The White Negro” may be overstated a bit. Sartre had a major influence on most everybody of that generation. Mailer took the basic idea of the criminal as existential figure and thew a spiral dialetic inspired by Goethe, some vitalistic ideas that owe much to Bergson, alot of Wilhelm Reich, and the beginnings of his pseudo-Manichean theology. It really seems a far cry from Sartre’s phenomenological approach.
    When Mailer ran for mayor of New York, he wasn’t proposing simply tweaking the system. He called for secession, the cutting up of New York into autonomous segments, some based on free love, hahah, the self-policing of blacks by blacks.. Surely this a anarchistic reordering of New York Burroughs could’ve approved of. Mailer, all similarities accounted for, was a just different. He traveled to the USSR with Boris Souvarine, his Marxist analyses for were some of his more interesting writings and his orientation was different in many ways from Burroughs. Burroughs was pessimistic about communism from the beginning. Burroughs’s radicalism can be absorbed by the market system. Look at the Nike commercial. A real economic reordering of society from the bottom up is little harder to deradicalize.
    In the Manso biography, Ginsberg does refer to Norman’s macho ideas as naive, but he also refers to him as a knight riding to the rescue. Burroughs that he was a real ally because of “The White Negro” and his support against censorshoip. Ginsbery and Solomon knew Mailer as early as 1951/1952. Mailer was in on his fairly early on.
    Mailer’s conservatism, it seems to me, is usually a anti-rationalist naturalism. But he also seems to be arguing for endless individuation, in whatever permutation it took. In “The Metaphysics of the Belly,” he argues for a positive scatology and claims that the grandeur of one’s work comes from the artist’s proximity to the “dirty ape” or id. Hardly puritan. Both Bloom and Poirier argues that sodomy in Mailer is dialectial and that it is simulataneously creative and decreative. Bloom argues that sodomy for Mailer is an antimonian act that reveals a true order behing the highly false one, and that it is preferable to normal
    sex for Mailer.
    Alot for the “conservatism” seems meant to ward off the dyspeptic “Brave New Worldism” of liberalism. For instance, he doesn’t want sex to be divorced from guilty, he wants all the emotions brought to bear on it. Podhoretz commented that he thought Goodman, Norman O. Brown, and Mailer brought discipline to bear on the eruption of instinct that the Beats didn’t. I tend to agree.

  8. John

    I really appreaciatge your comments on the Mailer piece. You have thought deeply about Mailer and you raise great points. I have no doubt overstated the case in places and the point that Mailer knew Ginsberg and Solomon in the early 50s and was not such a late player to the game is right on.

    I should also make clear that Burruoghs has his “conservative” side as well. Rob Johnson’s book on Burroughs in Texas makes this clear and I suggest it in the end of the piece.

    I am exploring some paradoxes in Burroughs’ heroin use right now that highlights this point. That post should be up in a week or so.

    I look forward to any comments you might have on that piece and any other pieces you have read.

    Again thanks so much for your comments; they were very informative and gave me much to mull over.

  9. John,

    BTW I am considering re-reading Why Are We In Vietnam and re-reading Faulkner’s The Bear. I havent read both in over a decade. I have always felt WAWIV to be one of my favorite Mailer books. Again it has been years since I read it but I really enjoyed it then and looking back on it I think there was alot going on in that book that I missed. It seems to me many people dismiss that book which I think is mistake. Mailer may have been given the short hand throughout his career. I know Burroughs is not read as closely and deeply as he deserves.

  10. Cool, Jed. I appreciate you appreciating the posts.

    I was thinking of an essay comparing Mailer and Burroughs to the “Young Conservatives,” Heidegger, Junger, and Gehlen. Mailer seems to be at his most fascistic when he goes Darwinian and claims that a woman’s responsiblitiy is to bear a child that will benefit the race and when he advocates the individual divorcing himself from society through violence. Burroughs is at his most fascistic when he talks of eliminating women and reducing them to the function of bearing strong male children. His fetishization of gun technology isn’t unlike that of the Futurists and his insistence that artists should be in charge sounds creepily like Wyndham Lewis and the rest of the WWII anti-democratic intelligentsia. His Eliotic negativism and relativism may have fascist implications as does Mailer’s intutitionism. They both reject the Enlightenment philosphical edifice to some extent and it would be interesting to explore.
    I’ll probably never write it. I always enjoy reading your essays. Cheers.

  11. If you write it, I would love to read it and put it on RealityStudio. Sounds like the makings of a great essay.

  12. The comments here show an in-depth knowledge of various literary styles and influences are humbling. I would only add that–I felt Burroughs was on the whole more internal and ruminative than Mailer, who was more about the grand sociological treatise. As a result, Burroughs gave a more impressionistic psycholgical or “feeling” interpretation of institutions and events, whereas Mailer did the kind of essay thing that has become so tiresome with newspaper and magazine pieces and blogs–the amateur, or more appriately the BAD WRITER trying to describe the wide lens view or prognosticate the future by extrapolating the present. If you accept Updike’s explanation of the novel as a device to help the reader feel less lonely, Burroughs’ approach will of course have more lasting interest in literature than Mailer’s, because Mailer’s is more external and “surface” and more a thing of the moment. But you have to give Mailer his due, when he wrote as a journalist he was a GREAT journalist and he compelled you to turn the pages.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *