Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
As mentioned in the forum, a cabin owned by William Burroughs ten minutes outside of Lawrence Kansas is on eBay for $159,950. (PDF) The property is on Lone Star Lake and includes 4500 square feet of land. Apparently Burroughs mentioned the cabin in a couple of his late writings. Burroughs writes in My Education, “…and I got me this cabin out on the lake. Got it cheap since I was able to put up cash, which the owners needed to put down on another house they is buying out in the country. Could easy sell it now, but what for? A few thousand profit? Nowadays what can you do with that kinda money? My neighbor tells me right in front of my dock (I’ve got access, and that is the thing matters here on the lake… a dock, see!), well, my neighbor tells me that right in front of my dock is the best catfish fishing in the lake, but I don’t want to catch a catfish… … I could cope with a bass, or better, some bluegills — half pound, as tasty fish as a man can eat — fresh from the lake, and I got me an aluminum flat bottom boat, ten foot long, $270…a real bargain. I likes to row out in the middle of the lake and just let the boat drift…” It is interesting to see the man Kerouac thought was a millionaire trust fund boy getting all excited about the various bargains and land deals he has made. I know precious little about Burroughs in Kansas but the whole Burroughs mystique of the ultimate hipster and godfather of various countercultures appears to melt away and reveals a simple man who appreciates the simple pleasures of life like fishing or his cats.
The owners of the house want to sell it to someone who will appreciate the fact that William Burroughs was the previous owner. This conjures up some pretty interesting questions about Burroughs and collecting. There have been talks for quite some time about transforming Burroughs’ home in Lawrence into a museum. For me this is an interesting proposition. The idea of a Burroughs homestead does not jive with the image of el hombre invisible wandering the Third World and the “Negro Streets at dawn” searching for an angry fix. One of the most interesting aspects of Burroughs as a writer is his outsider stance and his self-imposed exile directly contributed to that worldview. That said the later Burroughs of Lawrence reveals another side of Burroughs that was always present but seldom seen: the Midwestern Burroughs who cherishes his piece of property, his financial freedom, and his part of the American Dream. A Lawrence museum could be a place that these two sides of Burroughs could come together. I would agree that Burroughs’ home in Lawrence is a historic place. He did arguably some of his most successful writing and artwork there; the locale influenced his worldview and creative output; the locale reveals a side of him as an individual at an important stage of his life, etc.
Interesting to consider if the Lone Star Lake property generates any of these same feelings or associations. Does the mere fact that Burroughs owned the house add to its value or make it more desirable to a Burroughs enthusiast? It is a personal decision but the answer for me is no. But I am by no means representative. I recently read an article in I think Maxim about a man who collects celebrity hair. He has samples of hair from Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth and Marilyn Monroe. Apparently collecting the hair of famous people was not unusual in the Victorian Era and celebrities would often entertain requests for their locks from fans. Nowadays in the age of genetic engineering, these requests would strike most people as scary if not a tremendous invasion of privacy. That issue aside collecting hair brings up the issue of how personal do you want to be in your collection; how close to the author do you have to get? Do you want Burroughs’ home because he walked the halls or maybe sat and wrote a book there?
My collection definitely relishes a bit of the personal touch. I love books or periodicals that have Burroughs’ signature. The fact that he held the book and made my signed copy of the book special appeals to me. Had I been collecting in earnest when Burroughs was alive I would have loved to have my books inscribed to me for an added personal touch. Manuscripts, holograph corrections, signatures, things that get me close to Burroughs as a writer I hold dear. I particularly prize Burroughs’ works themselves as an art object to be looked at as well as an artifact to be read. But I tend to value the book or magazine instead of making the leap to the personal item.
The Allen Ginsberg Estate Sale at Sotheby’s in 1997 or so offered several of these personal items. The most interesting item in the sale to me was a handwritten journal or notebook of Burroughs’ travels to South America in the 1950’s. This item merged the personal with the literary in just the right way for me. Burroughs’ canes, his trademark suit, or other personal affects held less appeal. These items moved away from the literary too far. I wonder what I would feel about owning Burroughs’ typewriter or a pen or another more literary item.
Several collectors do not feel the same way I do. Most notably, Johnny Depp forked over thousands of dollars for a trench coat of Jack Kerouac’s worn on the road. Personal items like blue jeans turn up on the collectible market at times over the years and these items fetch serious money from tons of eager collectors.
Now I cannot lie I have crossed my self-imposed boundaries at times. A while ago I had the chance to get a Burroughs Adding Machine from before World War II. I have to admit that I like seeing Burroughs’ name on the machine and thinking how this invention shaped Burroughs as a person. Increasingly, I appreciate the machine as an object and I like its beauty associated with the arcane and the obsolete, much like the vinyl LPs and mimeo magazines that have become such a part of my collection. As I said before, there is no right path to take when collecting, only what is right for you.
5 thoughts on “William S. Burroughs’ Cabin”
Concerning type writers. Does anyone know what brand and model machine WSB typed on? I have been searching but can not come up with anything…
Go to his house in Lawrence. The old machine is back in the woods behind it.
My dad sold him the cabin shown in the pictures of this article. I didn’t know until a real estate agent tried to sell it for, like three million dollars.
Seeing as he lived in Lawrence so long, I’m not sure the idea of a Burroughs homestead is such a clash with the image of the “nomadic” Burroughs. On top of that, didn’t he buy at least two houses in Algiers and two separate houses/cabins in Texas, not to mention the acres of land? I also recall in his Mexico days he was always going on about buying property in South America. His life was definitely less sedentary than most people’s, but in the end he settled. And in his 30s he seemed destined to be a gentleman farmer.
I grew up a military brat and then until about age 36 kept up moving, not only from city to city, state to state, but within cities I’d end up living in two or more places. When I finally bought a house I was ready to stop. People keep trying to convince me to leave my little house and head to the city, but man after so many moves, I’m ready to stay put. 6 states. 4 countries. It’s not a bad way to live but ultimately it caught up and I just want to stay put! Burroughs seemed to arrived at that point a little later.
Interesting coincidence. I worked in St Louis in the mid-90s for a month for Circus Flora, and our tent was within walking distance of the Burroughs house on Pershing. At the time, it was for sale, too! Lovely house. Given it’s location I bet it was expensive.
Addendum regarding collecting. Many years back I saw a Lawrence friend of Burroughs was selling targets Burroughs had shot and signed. I bought one, which I didn’t find bizarre. It functions like a work of art. Weird thing is the seller included a) a spent cartridge from that session b) a scrap of wallpaper from WSB’s bedroom c) a methadone bottle from Burroughs’ clinic and d) a shopping list in Burroughs’ hand. The cartridge and shopping list aren’t so strange, but the wallpaper? The seller even said he knew it was weird but also that people did like this kind of stuff.
I’m not a real “collector” but I do have some interesting items I stumbled across by accident mostly. A mint 1st edition hardback of Nova Express (someone gave it to me). An English paperback of Dead Fingers Talk, a copy of Gysin’s To Master, and 2 of his mum’s flower-arranging books. And the biggest prize is a 1st edition of You Can’t Win. It’s in terrible shape, but I found it in a thrift shop for a dollar. An insane bit of luck. I saw the same edition, in better shape and with the dust jacket, for sale online for 10k.
Actually, I somehow have 2 copies of Gysin’s book. Fragments of the dust jacket are inside. One is a cancelled library book. According to the fragment, it sold for three dollars. I’d be willing to part with one of them. I feel bad thinking I have 2 if someone out there has been looking and can’t find a copy.