William S. Burroughs, Esquire, and New Journalism
Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
Before he succumbed to his genius and allowed his writing to spill out in all directions, William Burroughs struggled to stuff his writing into the straitjacket of the “saleable.” In a December 7, 1954 letter to Jack Kerouac, Burroughs writes, “I sat down seriously to write a best-seller Book of the Month Club job on Tangier,” which he sarcastically hoped to get “serialized in Cosmopolitan or Good Housekeeping” What came out instead was “Aracknid is the worst driver in the Zone. On one occasion he ran down a pregnant woman in from the mountains with a load of charcoal on her back, and she miscarriage a bloody, dead baby on the street, and Keif got out and sat on the curb stirring the blood with a stick while the police questioned Aracknid and finally arrested the woman.” This material was later incorporated into Naked Lunch. And again on February 7, 1955, Burroughs writes to Ginsberg about his “latest attempt to write something saleable.” The Talking Asshole Routine comes farting out instead.
What is interesting is that for Burroughs publishable or saleable writing means writing for the mainstream, glossy magazines. As a young man and reluctant writer growing up in the 1930s, the pinnacle of this publishing world would have been a magazine such as Esquire. Founded in 1932 by Arnold Gingrich, Esquire established itself in the 1930s as a magazine that merged men’s fashion and high-quality literature, publishing the likes of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. For Burroughs, Hemingway and Fitzgerald were the writers who had made it big. These were two writers he would look up to as a successful financial model and react against on a creative level. As a result, appearing in Esquire became a sign of making it both financially and creatively as a writer. In 1938, Burroughs, with Kells Elvin collaborating, wrote “Twilight’s Last Gleaming,” an ur-routine about the pandemonium that ensues after the sinking of a ship (modeled on the Titanic and the Morro Castle). Dr. Benway first appears in this story. Burroughs and Elvin immediately sent the piece to Esquire. The editors there turned down the story replying, “Too screwy, and not effectively so for us.” Burroughs would not write creatively for another six years.
In the 1940s, Esquire altered its contents, featuring more Vargas and Petty Girls than serious fiction in response to the needs of soldiers serving in WWII. With the war over, Esquire struggled to recover its Depression-Era relevance. By the late 1950s the magazine was completely adrift and lacked an editorial identity. The pursuit of advertising dollars dominated whatever direction the magazine had. In the early 1950s, Gingrich returned to the magazine in an attempt to rebuild the Esquire of the glory days, but the job was proving tougher than the efforts of one man. Then a trio of young editorial talent was injected into the bloodstream of the magazine: Harold Hayes, Clay Felker, and Ralph Ginzburg. The magazine would come to life and become possibly the most influential and important magazine of the 1960s.
It could be argued that Esquire announced the arrival of the 1960s with its publication of Norman Mailer’s account of the 1960 Democratic National Convention, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket.” In this landmark piece, Mailer captured the energy of John F. Kennedy and contrasted it to the lethargy and monotony of the rest of the Democratic (and Republican) Party. Mailer predicted a new era in politics dominated by the candidates’ manipulation of mass media. Politician as celebrity. In fact, Mailer’s article would prove so on-point that the entire piece was made available on the Esquire website (on December 8, 2009) in what I see as a commentary on the 2008 election and on Barack Obama.
Yet what was so revolutionary about Mailer’s article was not it just its prophetic nature but how the excitement over Kennedy is reflected in the prose. Like a piece of modern architecture, Mailer exposed the plumbing of his construction for all to see. He highlighted the behind-the-scenes activities of a political reporter, he thought aloud, he employed literary techniques and strained against the space restraints of a normal magazine article. He broke all the rules of magazine journalism and in the process established the basic tenets of New Journalism as practiced by Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Michael Herr, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson (who would move from New Journalism into his own extreme form: Gonzo Journalism), Terry Southern and a host of others. It could be debated whether Esquire was the birthplace of New Journalism, but without a doubt in the 1960s it was the King of the Hill, the Madison Square Garden (where Ali fought Frazier in The Fight of the Century on March 8, 1971), in which it was practiced.
As I have written earlier in my piece on Burroughs and Norman Mailer, New Journalism as practiced by Mailer owes a tremendous debt to the writing and lifestyle of the Beat Generation, particularly Burroughs and Kerouac — Burroughs on the level of lifestyle and persona, Kerouac in terms of his writing style. Similarly, Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, an account of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, re-writes and re-animates Kerouac’s On the Road and, more importantly, Visions of Cody. In sections such as “Joan Rawshanks in the Fog” and “Frisco: The Tape” Kerouac introduces all the techniques and philosophical questions regarding reporting that made New Journalism new. Of course, Electric Kool Aid Acid Test features Neal Cassady as Speed Limit, the driver of Further, and an account of the meeting of Kesey and Kerouac in New York City in 1964 that was supposed to be a passing of the scepter, but the succession of the King proved to be more tense and verbally violent than expected.
Burroughs on Tangier
Given the freer, more experimental atmosphere at Esquire (and in mainstream magazines generally), it is not surprising that Burroughs found his way into Esquire‘s pages throughout the 1960s. In September of 1964, Esquire published its Back to College Issue. On the cover was Woody Allen, who at the time was a popular stand-up comedian on the college circuit. He was not yet thirty. Writing for The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show, and Sid Caesar was behind him and What’s New Pussycat? was a year away. Allen was in transition in 1964. Similarly, Esquire portrays a sense of waiting on the college campus — and with this waiting is a growing pressure (the Esquire college section opens with PRESSURE: “American college life is four years of unrelenting and driving pressure.”). Esquire provides jokes to relieve it and pages and pages of fashion to cover up this naked truth of student life. But there was no disguising that the college student was restless and agitated. Like Woody Allen a decade before, many students dropped out. Others became committed to the civil rights movement in Mississippi and the South. Others lost themselves in sexual exploration. Something had to happen. In January 1960, Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg were asked by the editors of Mademoiselle what the new decade would bring. Four years later, Esquire realized something was going to happen on campus, they saw that there was a “New College Underground,” but could not quite place it. Burroughs and Ginsberg saw revolution. In that same issue of Mademoiselle, Joan Didion wrote a piece on the University of California at Berkeley. She also sensed unease and disappointment even in the endless summer of California.
Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Didion proved prophetic. In October 1964, Mario Savio climbed on a police car containing CORE member Jack Weinberg and addressed a growing crowd. On December 2, 1964, Savio spoke on the steps of Sproul Hall at Berkeley and declaimed:
There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious — makes you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.
The Free Speech Movement was under way, and it could be argued so was the decade of the 1960s. But the Beats were there first such as back on January 17, 1956, when Ginsberg wrote “America” and howled: “America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.”
If the Back to College section of Esquire fell a bit short, the issue provided some fine examples of New Journalism. Peter Bogdanovich wrote on Humphrey Bogart; Gay Talese wrote “A White Man in Harlem”; and Vance Bourjaily fantasized that former Esquire contributor F. Scott Fitzgerald attended his graduate Fitzgerald seminar. But the most interesting piece in the issue is a photo-essay on Tangier with text and captions by William Burroughs. (Read Burroughs’ Tangier text.)
Burroughs was a natural for a Back to College issue that hoped to reveal the New College Underground. Any hip college student of the time would be reading Naked Lunch and eagerly anticipating Burroughs’ new release from Grove Press, Nova Express. The photographs by Robert Freson captured the literary society of Tangier including a fantastic image of Burroughs and his son, Billy, sitting on a bed surrounded by tapestries. Billy had gone to visit his father in late 1963 and early 1964. Billy was heading down a path of delinquency and drug use, and Burroughs’ parents, who raised Billy, felt Burroughs should take a more active role in his son’s development. The photo captures Burroughs as a father at a pivotal moment in Billy’s life. The results would be catastrophic. Burroughs proved incapable of fulfilling his responsibilities as a father, and Billy would return to the United States even more steeped in drug use and in the cult of his father than before.
In “The Name is Burroughs,” Burroughs writes,
As a young child I wanted to be a writer because writers were rich and famous. They lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in a yellow pongee silk suit. They sniffed cocaine in Mayfair and they penetrated forbidden swamps with a faithful native boy and lived in the native quarter of Tangier smoking hashish and languidly caressing a pet gazelle.
In the pages of Esquire, Burroughs is living his dream and indoctrinating his son Billy into a nightmare. “Rich and famous” writers also wrote for Esquire, and his photo-essay on Tangier is the realization of Burroughs’ aborted effort of January 1954. Keif becomes Paul Bowles and the style of the routine becomes the cut-up. Esquire still did not get Burroughs’ writing. Gingrich was particularly flummoxed by Burroughs’ text and could not make heads or tails of it. He hoped it would get lost in the Interzone between the photos and passed over by those interested in the images. Yet Burroughs’ piece stayed in the issue, which speaks volumes for just how much of a literary celebrity Burroughs was in 1964. His name and work were on everybody’s minds and lips. The years 1964-1965, as I have argued elsewhere, should be considered, more than his later adoption by punk and then the mainstream, as if not the pinnacle of his popularity and influence, then the height of his creative powers.
For a generation of college dropouts, Tangier was in 1964 a tourist destination of sex and cheap drugs. The last photo in the essay is of two stereotypical dropouts in a mirror image of the photo of Burroughs and Billy. Burroughs captions it, “Two post-beats in a room that could be anytime anywhere.” But for Burroughs the golden era of Tangier was in the past, and it was becoming a nowhere overrun with pseudo-hipsters and political tension. By the time this issue of Esquire came out, Burroughs was heading to New York City where the underground revolution was in full swing. Esquire was once again late to the game, and Burroughs sold them on a mirage.
Wind Die, You Die, We Die
Throughout the 1960s, the articles of Esquire were infused with the energy and talent of New Journalism, setting them clearly apart from the content of the rest of the magazine. The fashion and lifestyle advertisements brought in the cash but the articles brought the literary prestige that an editor like Harold Hayes desired. Ironically, Esquire‘s fiction section wilted in the presence of its articles section. The originality and vitality of New Journalism forced the new fictioneers of the 1960s to continue to innovate in order to keep up. To build on Esquire’s tradition as a vanguard publisher of the short story since the 1930s, Hayes and others attempted to pair its New Journalism with cutting-edge fiction by new and established talent of the 1960s.
Burroughs fit the bill. Burroughs appeared in the Special Issue: Spying, Science and Sex in May of 1966. “They Do Not Always Remember” promised to be “The last, fantastic word on the identity of undercover agents.” In August 1968, Burroughs contributed “Wind Die, You Die, We Die,” a fact unrecorded by Maynard and Miles. In my opinion, the fiction in Esquire never matched the articles. This holds true of Burroughs’ stories as well. After Esquire‘s flirtation with the cut-up in September 1964 and Gingrich’s feeling that, like “Twilight’s Last Gleaming,” the cut-up was “too screwy,” the editors solicited more standard material from Burroughs. The stories deal with Burroughsian topics such as spying, science, and sex, but the Burroughian style, which at the time was equivalent to the cut-up technique, is excised. The result is a watered-down Burroughs. The cut-up proved too strong for mainstream tastes.
This is most obvious in “Wind Die, You Die, We Die” where Burroughs’ story is laid out like a magazine embedded within the larger Esquire. The story itself utilizes the device of a narrative opening into another narrative, a magazine containing another magazine. Yet the story that appears in Esquire and its layout, for me, lacks the punch of The Burrough, Apomorphine Times, or The Moving Times as they appeared in Jeff Nuttall’s My Own Magazine. In fact, I find Burroughs’ photo-essay on Tangier to more successfully explore the Chinese box device through the use of cut-ups than “Wind Die, You Die, We Die.” The Tangier text captures the shiftiness of time and place that makes this city at the end of the world so unique and seductive, much more effectively than the later, more traditional short story of Burroughs, which has a single bold cut opening onto a new narrative. The Tangier text uses collage to create a timeless, all-encompassing web, an Interzone, while “Wind Die, You Die, We Die” soldiers on to its twist of an ending.
Michael Herr’s “Hell Sucks,” an article on Vietnam in the same issue, proves far more interesting and powerful than Burroughs’ story, which again demonstrates the strength of Esquire‘s New Journalism pieces. Yet the key to the Herr article can be found in the earlier Tangier piece by Burroughs. Herr opens his article:
There is a map of Vietnam on the wall of my apartment in Saigon, and some nights, coming back late to the city, I’ll lie out on my bed and look at it, too tired to do anything more than just get my boots off. The map is a marvel, especially absorbing because it is not real. For one thing, it is very old. It was left here years ago by a previous tenant, probably a Frenchman since the map was made in Paris. The paper has buckled, much of the color has gone out of it, laying a kind of veil over the countries it depicts. Vietnam is divided into its older territories of Tonkin, Annam, and Cochin China, and to the west, past Laos and Cambodge, sits Siam, a kingdom. That’s old, I told the General. That’s a really old map.
In these foreign suburbs here, a map of Tangier on a flaking plaster wall. I look from a photo layout to the map and drive pins in the map pointing location of the photos. The wall is grey and metallic under the plaster; electricity leaking into the walls the way it does in these old houses, you can get a shock from these pins. Look at the map. It won’t be there long. Departed have left no address. Your reporter selects a clipping from file labeled Daily Express, Saturday, April 23, 1964, (London): “This is America, New York, Friday: Research team spoke into a tape recorder which was playing through sound spectrograph. The machine converted words into pictures looking like contour lines on a relief map.” Relief map of old words and photos. They all went away.
The physical description of the map is less important than the fact that Herr uses the trope of the map in a very Burroughsian manner. Herr envisions Vietnam as Interzone, a timeless place of shifting borders written and re-written by outside powers. This is even clearer in Herr’s Dispatches, which expands this concept to book length. Interestingly, Burroughs blurbed Dispatches: “Having read Dispatches, it is difficult to convey the impact of total experience as all the facades of patriotism, heroism, and the whole colossal fraud of American intervention fall away to the bare bones of fear, war and death.” Burroughs does not mention how Herr generated that “total experience” by building on Burroughs’ writing on his expatriate experience in Tangier and elsewhere. Herr’s incorporation of Burroughs into his writing highlights one of the great strengths of New Journalism: A reporter’s objectivity colored by literary devices and influences. In the Tangier text, we can see how Burroughs uses the cut-up to create a new form of travel writing, space and time travel along points of intersection. It is a great piece of writing that pushes forward on a formal level, like the best of New Journalism. That the founder of Esquire could not see how the cut-up technique captured the spirit of Tangiers is testimony to how important the taste of younger editors such as Harold Hayes was. It also demonstrates the difficulty of remaining innovative in a forum like a mainstream magazine where advertising dollars govern all content.
The Coming of the Purple Better One
Burroughs’ most famous and most widely read piece for Esquire remains his coverage of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, “The Coming of the Purple Better One,” which was included in Exterminator! Burroughs was hired to cover the convention along with Terry Southern, who was a pioneer in New Journalism with his “Twirling at Ole Miss” (which appeared in Esquire in February 1963), John Sack, who wrote on the experiences of Company M in Vietnam for Esquire (with the legendary cover “Oh my God — We hit a little girl), and Jean Genet, an authority on oppression who turned increasingly politically active after the events in Europe in May 1968. The Esquire issue on Chicago hit the stands in November of 1968 (a month off-schedule) with an iconic cover designed by George Lois. If new journalists like Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese created the signature content of Esquire of the 1960s, Lois created its distinctive look. From 1962 to 1972, he designed 92 covers for Esquire. Sonny Liston in a Santa Hat. Muhammad Ali as Saint Sebastian. Andy Warhol drowning in a can of Campbell’s soup. With his work, magazine design approached art. The Museum of Modern Art featured Lois’ Esquire covers in an exhibition from April 2008 to March 2009.
Yet I get the lingering feeling that the Chicago issue is not the high-water mark of New Journalism in Esquire but the point at which it jumped the shark. The sending of Southern, Burroughs, Genet and Sack to go wild in Chicago can be viewed as inspired and worthy of what would prove to be an apocalyptic spectacle in a year of violent events, but it also shows that New Journalism had become formulaic. Basically throw interesting and intelligent people at an explosive subject and see what happens. Richard Seaver, Burroughs’ editor at Grove Press, accompanied Burroughs and Genet to Chicago, to serve as Genet’s translator, but I get the sense that Burroughs’ and Genet’s presence in Chicago had more to do with generating publicity for Grove Press and its writers than with any special point of view Burroughs and Genet might have on Chicago. Harold Hayes came up with the idea of bringing Genet to Chicago, and I envision Burroughs thrown in as a package deal over a lunch meeting between Hayes and Seaver. As Oliver Harris reminded me, Barney Rosset at Grove toyed with the idea of issuing Naked Lunch and Our Lady of the Flowers as a single volume in 1960. Ginsberg vociferously opposed it. This particular 69 never occurred but nearly a decade later Grove Press still harbored fantasies of placing Genet and Burroughs together in various innaresting arrangements.
The course of New Journalism within the pages of Esquire throughout the 1960s demonstrates how the personality and literary styles of the journalists themselves became more important than the story. As New Journalism developed, there was a cult of personality around the reporters as much as their subjects. Tom Wolfe was as big a name as Ken Kesey. Not to mention that the research behind the stories started to get sloppy and replaced with a good hook designed to grab the reader. Facts meant less than the devices of fiction.
This is no doubt true of Esquire‘s coverage of Chicago. There are flashes of insight but overall the sum of the articles is less than its parts. There is little to no context, no in-depth reporting about what happened. Instead there are impressions. The pieces lack depth and weight. It seemed more important to get Southern, Burroughs, Genet, and Sack together for the cover image than to have their pieces talk with and comment on each other. The cover was not even photographed in Chicago; instead it was choreographed on a street in New York away from the riots and mayhem.
Burroughs’ actions in Chicago also suggest some of these points. For example, on the night of the convention while Ginsberg, Genet and Southern walked through the streets to experience the scene, Burroughs stepped into the Oxford Club Bar on Clark Street, but as the events of the convention unfolded and grew more violent, Burroughs’ interest grew as well.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the Esquire project was that it paid to get Burroughs and Genet on the scene. In both cases, they would leave Chicago changed men. Burroughs is often viewed as politically cynical, always one who won’t get fooled again, but clearly during and after his experience in Chicago, Burroughs felt a revolution spearheaded by the world’s youth was at hand. In a letter to Antony Balch on September 10, 1968, with the events of Chicago still fresh, Burroughs wrote like a true believer: “The most interesting developments here are: real organized non-communist resistance among both blacks and whites. And the complete breakdown of censorship.” Burroughs talks of generating his own revolution in the streets by using film and tape recorders. He closes “In the words of the Immortal Bard: “There is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the full leads on to victory.” Burroughs recorded and played back tape throughout the events in Chicago. Here was a chance to put the theories of the Invisible Generation into action.
Burroughs became engagé. At the un-birthday party for Lyndon Johnson at the Coliseum on August 27, Burroughs, along with Genet, Southern, and Ginsberg, read a statement. Burroughs’ statement went as follows:
Regarding conduct of the police in clearing Lincoln Park of young people assembled there for the purpose sleeping in violation of municipal ordinance. The police acted like vicious guard dogs everyone in sight. I do not ‘protest.’ I am not surprised. The police acted in the manner of their species. The point is why were they not controlled by their handlers? Is there not a municipal ordinance that vicious dogs be muzzled and controlled?
This statement would find its way into his report on the convention in the form of the purple assed baboon and former Supreme Court Justice Homer Mandrill. Of course Burroughs is also drawing off his past political satire, namely Roosevelt After Inauguration.
Life with Father
In fact, Burroughs was wrong about the breakdown of censorship. Harold Hayes had to fight tooth and nail to keep Burroughs’ and Genet’s pieces as they had written them. Hayes advised Southern beforehand to rein in his muse and refrain from being too profane and irreverent. The president of Esquire worried about alienating advertisers. Although Hayes won out in this case, the financial backers of Esquire increasingly felt that Hayes’ daring editorial direction did not woo lucrative advertisers. The articles and covers were too confrontational, too blunt, too depressing. The lifestyle and fashion aspects of the magazine needed to be given more attention and more space. It did not help that New Journalism as practiced by Esquire was almost a decade old and maybe, just maybe, getting stale.
Changes would have to be made and one of those changes would be a shift to a smaller format. The oversized pages of Esquire that presented George Lois’ designs to such great effect were shrunk. The second issue with a newly designed Lilliputian cover featured Norman Mailer dressed as King Kong cradling Germaine Greer. Mailer, who gave birth to New Journalism in the pages of Esquire, was now the magazine’s problem child. Mailer openly feuded with the magazine and refused to appear between its covers any longer. Esquire did not help to soothe Mailer’s bruised ego. Greer’s “My Mailer Problem” appeared in this issue of August 1971 as did John Sack interviewing Lt. Calley, Gay Talese on Joe Bonanno, Rex Reed on Tennessee Williams, and fiction by William Styron, John Updike, Vladimir Nabokov, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The editors at Esquire wanted to prove that Esquire was as healthy as ever, but by 1973, the bean counters and fashion photographers won out and Hayes either quit or got fired depending on who you talked to.
That same issue from August 1971 also featured an article entitled “Life with Father.” In the September 1964 issue that featured Burroughs on Tangier, there is that haunting photo of father and son. Burroughs writes in the caption: “William Burroughs and his son who intends to be a writer and has written poetry and short stories.” By 1971, Billy was indeed a writer and his piece on his father would provide more than thousand words on the backstory of that photo, which Burroughs’ cut-up technique had sliced away. Billy’s article is heart-wrenching and heartfelt but I can’t help but think that it signals an end of the glory days of Esquire as a literary mover and shaker. The inclusion of the Fitzgerald story is an attempt to cash in on the past for the benefit of a talent-depressed present. Likewise, the cover of the first cropped issue (in July of 1971) featured an image of Joe Bonanno that drew on the style of the 1930s. Whereas once Norman Mailer and William Burroughs wrote for Esquire and dreamed of appearing in its pages, by the 1970s Esquire could only report on those who once made the magazine daring and innovative. Mailer and Burroughs were too difficult to handle, too dangerous to touch for a magazine that was covering its ass and watching its bottom line.
Mailer was bigger than any one magazine, and Harper’s, for one, was happy to submit completely to a Mailer submission. Anyway, the new in New Journalism was now gonzo and appearing in the pages of Rolling Stone, or quite possibly reporting was dead and gone altogether, as Robert Frank-style photographs of celebrities and of the pretenders to celebrity and “unedited” tape recordings dominated Warhol’s Interview. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas appeared over two issues of Rolling Stone in 1971. Rolling Stone was to the early 1970s what Esquire was to the print journalism of the 1960s. In the May 11, 1972 issue of Rolling Stone, Burroughs was interviewed by Robert Palmer, a legend in rock journalism and at the time a contributing editor. As always a Burroughs contribution provided a shot in the arm or, in this case, a transfusion of blood to a stone.