Henry Miller and William Burroughs: An Overview

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Also see Ian MacFadyen’s insightful response to RealityStudio’s overview: Henry Miller and William Burroughs: A Letter.

After finishing with the summer job his father had negotiated for him at the St. Louis Post Dispatch, William S. Burroughs returned to Harvard in September 1935. It was his senior year. An English major, Burroughs had studied with the Shakespeare scholar George Kittredge and would retain throughout his life an ability to quote the bard from memory. However, he had been a diffident student. Biographer Ted Morgan describes Burroughs’ attitude toward this final year of college: “Back at Harvard it was more of the same — sexual blockage, a sense of isolation, classes.” The following June, Burroughs would skip his own commencement ceremony.

Given that Burroughs was an English major and would ultimately become an important member of what he called the “Shakespeare squadron,” it is difficult to imagine that he would have failed to note a major literary scandal that occurred as he was returning to school that year. His classmate James Laughlin — a steel heir who would go on to found New Directions, the modernist publishing house — managed to convince the estimable Harvard Advocate to print a story by a shocking new writer whose books could not yet be published in America. The writer was Henry Miller, who described the scandal in a 1935 letter to Lawrence Durrell:

Laughlin is the chap who tried to reprint my Aller Retour New York (under the title “Glittering Pie”). He had the first ten pages published in the Harvard Advocate, and then the Boston police descended upon the paper, destroyed the existent copies and locked the editorial staff up overnight, threatening them with a severe jail sentence.1

Local papers ran headlines such as “Pornography at Harvard!” and the Advocate‘s editors were compelled to resign. “I do not recall,” observed historian Arthur Schlesinger in his memoirs, “that the Harvard authorities protested this miserable assault on the freedom of expression.”2

Was this the moment that Burroughs first became aware of Henry Miller, the writer to whom he would so often be yoked in later years? Or did Burroughs, who supposedly viewed literary matters askance until Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac convinced him of his own genius, consider this scandal a tempest in a teapot, in-fighting at a college newspaper that never interested him anyway?

Ironically, though Burroughs may or may not have known the name of Miller in 1935, Miller certainly knew the name Burroughs. In 1936 Obelisk Press in Paris issued his second book, Black Spring. In the chapter titled “Burlesk,” Miller wrote impressionistically about the crowds outside the “fastest, cleanest show in the world”: “Outside it’s exactly like the Place des Vosges or the Haymarket or Covent Garden, except that these people have faith — in the Burroughs Adding Machine.” For Miller, the company founded by Burroughs’ grandfather had become symbolic of a modern malaise: “faith” in the calculator, finance, technology, materialism — precisely the things that the author of Naked Lunch would come to satirize in his creepy tycoons.

This thematic connection between the two writers was apparent even before Burroughs could be considered a writer. In a 1949 letter in which he railed against conformism, Kerouac clearly viewed Miller and Burroughs as exemplary non-conformists:

Wanting money is wanting the dishonesty of a servant. Money hates us, like a servant; because it is false. Henry Miller was right; Burroughs was right. Roll your own, I say.3

At the time Kerouac was writing, Burroughs had yet to publish anything. In 1945 he and Kerouac had collaborated on the mediocre And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, and only in the fall of 1949 did he begin writing what came to be known as Junky. Kerouac did not learn about Burroughs’ renewed efforts at writing until 1950, and yet he was already associating his friend with a writer acclaimed as one of the century’s most important. This ought to astonish, and yet Burroughs and Miller have been conjoined so frequently that it has come to seem natural to separate them by nothing more than a semi-colon.

If you place Tropic of Cancer and Naked Lunch side by side, the books do seem to exhibit a secret rapport, like the telepathy of twins. Both are “pornographic,” non-linear, autobiographical, and bristling with black humor. The hunger that is the driving force in Tropic of Cancer parallels the addiction in Naked Lunch: Miller is always looking for a meal, Burroughs is always desperate for a shot. Tropic of Cancer even anticipates Burroughs in some of his obsessions. For example, Miller toys with a technique that Burroughs would dub the cut-up: “These beautiful paragraphs we sometimes lifted from the encyclopaedia or an old guide book. Some of them Carl did put into his book — they had a surrealistic character.” And Miller recites a French limerick whose subject is that most Burroughsian of images, the erotic hanging.

L’autre soir l’idée m’est venue
Cré nom de Zeus d’enculer un pendu

(The other night — Zeus be damned! —
I thought to sodomize a hanged man)

The publication history of the two books adds to the illusion of literary ancestry. Tropic of Cancer was published by Obelisk Press, which had been founded in Paris by Jack Kahane. Naked Lunch was published by Olympia Press, which was founded in Paris by Kahane’s son, Maurice Girodias. It sets up a neat analogy. Girodias was the spawn of Kahane. Was Naked Lunch not the bastard child of Tropic of Cancer? “To me,” Barney Rosset told an interviewer in 2001, “the direct line of descent was — you know, like a lineup in baseball — Lawrence to Miller to Burroughs.”4

In a 1974 interview, John Tytell asked Burroughs if Henry Miller had ever been an influence. “No,” Burroughs replied without further elucidation.5 Similarly, Victor Bockris reported: “I also found out that Bill has never been particularly interested in the writings of Henry Miller.”6 Given the resonance between their respective masterpieces, it would be tempting to think that Burroughs, suffering from anxiety of influence, disavowed the importance of Miller to his work. However, this was not his modus operandi. Burroughs tended to be very forthright about his interests and influences, to the point of often incorporating Brion Gysin’s name into his own texts. If Burroughs did not consider Miller an influence, it is logical to take him at his word.

After all, Burroughs’ word is not betrayed by his work. There are surprisingly few references to Miller in Burroughs’ published texts, letters, and interviews. Sometimes he mentions Miller in discussions of obscenity and censorship. In The Job and in a 1990 interview, Burroughs cited Miller’s argument that potentially scandalous works can become acceptable by virtue of age.

As Henry Miller pointed out, if it is old, then it is all right. Something that is perfectly acceptable in a museum may meet with opposition when it appears in new work.7

And in a 1986 interview, Burroughs approved of a remark by Miller on the subject of authorship. “Henry Miller says, ‘Who writes the great books? Not we who have our names on the covers.'” Burroughs slightly misremembered the line, which had come from Miller’s 1962 “Art of Fiction” interview with the Paris Review. “Who writes the great books? It isn’t we who sign our names.”8

If these citations seem paltry, that is precisely the point. Burroughs does not quote Miller’s work but rather Miller himself. There may have been a practical reason for this in that Miller’s signature books were largely unavailable during Burroughs’ formative years as a writer. In his book on the Beat Hotel, Barry Miles notes that Ginsberg had been unable to buy Miller’s books before arriving in Paris, where he searched bookstalls for “all the Olympia Press editions of Henry Miller and Genet that were banned in the United States.”9 Brion Gysin went so far as to prostitute himself in order to buy a Miller book in Paris.10 And in a letter dated January 12 1960, Kerouac emphasized how unavailable Miller’s books had been in America:

Don’t say that I read Henry Miller all my life, it just isn’t true, I did read Louis Ferdinand Céline, from whom Miller obtained his style. I could never find a copy of the Tropics anyway. I think Miller is a great man but Céline, his master, is a giant.11

If Burroughs was not enthusiastic for Miller’s work, it may simply have been that he had little access to it. This must have been especially true during the years he spent making his home in literary backwaters such as Texas, Louisiana, and Mexico. Like Ginsberg, Burroughs may not have been able to buy any of Miller’s works until his 1959 arrival in Paris, by which point he had already written Naked Lunch. Subsequently his deep involvement in the cut-up might well have made Miller aesthetically irrelevant to him.

Of course, there may have been a thousand other factors that discouraged Burroughs from seeking inspiration in the work of Miller. The two were half a generation apart in age. Miller’s he-man heterosexuality would have failed to strike a chord with the homosexual Burroughs. Perhaps there were even class differences, as a 1984 interview with Burroughs suggests. Asked about Cyril Connolly’s notion that readers should “tip” writers, Burroughs replied:

I don’t like the idea at all. Miller did a lot of that. He was very poor for years and years and years. So when people wrote him admiring letters he’d write back, Well, send me some money. He was in actual want, you see. But otherwise, I just don’t see it; it doesn’t seem to me a dignified procedure.12

It is difficult not to perceive the silver spoon in Burroughs’ upbringing when he implies that a writer must not betray his dignity. Evidently the “algebra of need” pertained to heroin, a recreational drug, but not to staples such as food and housing.

Brochure imageThe disconnect between Burroughs and Miller was evident when they met at the Edinburgh Writers’ Conference in 1962. By most accounts Miller was reticent to attend, agreeing only when Lawrence Durrell convinced him that there would be ample time for self-indulgence. Once there, Miller is reported to have been unforthcoming in public. Jim Haynes, co-organizer of the conference, said Miller “was modest, polite, curious about everyone there, did not say much.”13 To Victor Bockris Burroughs described how he finally encountered Miller:

I met him at the Edinburgh Literary Conference in 1962 at a large party full of literary people all drinking sherry in the middle of the floor and he said, “So you’re Burroughs.” I didn’t feel quite up to “Yes, maître,” and to say “So you’re Miller” didn’t seem quite right, so I said, “A long-time admirer” and we smiled. The next time I met him he did not remember who I was but finally said, “So you’re Burroughs.”14

The awkwardness of the moment is palpable. Burroughs had been the star of the conference but was still a relative nobody. He was aware of Miller’s reputation, and he may have respected the freedoms that Miller stood for.15 However, at this point in time, there is no indication that he had read a single one of Miller’s books. “Yes, maître” would have been too reverent. They were peers at the conference. “So you’re Miller” would have been too familiar. What should Burroughs have said? “A longtime admirer” was the diplomatic thing. It might also have been a bit of a lie. Depending on how you view Burroughs, you could consider it either courteous, le mot juste, or obsequious.

Unfortunately, there is no record of any further conversation. Nor is there any record of where they might have met a second time. At the conference, however, Burroughs did mention Miller in the remarks he made against censorship. “I can’t think,” Burroughs told the audience, how children “would be harmed by reading the work of Rabelais, Plutonius, Henry Miller, and my own work for that matter.”16 Superficially the remark seems to outline a genealogy extending from Rabelais via Miller to Burroughs, but it is doubtful Burroughs intended that. Rather, in his view, the four writers were equally satirists. (By “Plutonius” Burroughs likely meant — or said, if the conference transcript is incorrect — Petronius, whose Satyricon he sometimes mentioned as a precursor to his own work.) Consequently, anything obscene in their literature is merely a distorted mirror of obscenities in the world. This makes for a stronger argument against censorship, since it ties obscene literature to social critique, than the mere suggestion that, if older writers such as Rabelais and Petronius are accepted, then contemporary writers ought to be too.

Image of Calder and BurroughsThe moment the Edinburgh conference ended, the association of Miller with Burroughs was no longer confined to the minds of friends such as Kerouac. In a review of the conference, the New York Times opined that Burroughs “now occupies a position roughly comparable to that of Henry Miller before the war.” In an article titled “Unshockable Edinburgh,” published in the October 1962 edition of Books and Bookmen, Anthony Blond quipped that “If Henry Miller was the hero of the week, William Burroughs was the heroin.” Rebecca West was even less kind in her comments, denouncing “that old fraud Henry Miller” and “an unutterably disgusting creature called William Burroughs, an heir to the wealth of IBM and the author of a filthy book called The Naked Lunch, who was much publicised as another drug addict.”17

If Burroughs had little to say about Miller, Miller had plenty to say about Burroughs. Barney Rosset, publisher of Grove Press, sent a copy of Naked Lunch to Miller in January 1961 in an effort to drum up support for the book. Miller admitted:

I’ve tried now for the third time to read it, but I can’t stick it. The truth is, it bores me. The Marquis de Sade bores me too, perhaps in a different way, or for different reasons. There’s no question in my mind, however, as to the author’s abilities. There’s a ferocity in his writing which is equaled, in my opinion, only by Céline. No writer I know of has made more daring use of the language. I wish I might read him on some other subject than sex and drugs — read him on St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, or on eschatology. Or better yet… a disquisition on the Grand Inquisitor.18

Burroughs on St. Thomas Aquinas? Miller may have had a peculiar affinity for the theologian, but the notion of Burroughs expounding on the Doctor Universalis sounds preposterous today. Clearly Miller was looking for something — a humanism, empathy, or compassion — that Burroughs never displayed until, in old age, he began to write about lemurs and cats. It makes you wonder what Miller would have thought of the comparison made by Burroughs himself, in an October 1957 letter to Ginsberg, between his and Dostoievski’s best known characters: “Benway is emerging as a figure comparable to the Grand Inquisitor in Brothers Karamazov.” 19

Evidently Miller was unable to see the parallel between Dr. Benway and the Grand Inquisitor. He continued to see not Dostoievski but Sade in the younger writer. In 1964, Miller told Playboy:

The only forthrightness [about sex] I’ve seen is devoted to all these perverse and sadistic books and films and plays. They’re being fairly straightforward in what they’re doing, these more abnormal people. But what are they doing? They’re dealing with a very limited area, you know, perversions and dope and all the rest of it. I’m not condemning them. I was just never interested in perversion or sadism of any kind. We’re just different types, myself I mean, and someone like Burroughs or Genet.20

Obviously you could take issue with Miller’s claim that he was “never interested in perversion or sadism.” His early books in particular describe all sorts of deviant sexual behavior. Probably this is where the half a generation that separates the two authors becomes significant. By 1964, Miller had matured and mellowed. If he did not feel much spiritual affinity for Naked Lunch, he might well have appreciated the fact that eventually Burroughs also arrived at a mellower vantage point. “Love,” noted Burroughs in his last written words, “What is it? Most natural painkiller what there is.” By the end of his life, Burroughs had imbued his “limited” subject, narcotics, with precisely the compassion that Miller thought he lacked.

In spite of their differences in outlook, Miller did not fail to recognize Burroughs’ genius. To Rosset he had spoken of Burroughs’ “ferocity” and “daring use of the language.” To Playboy he continued to temper his distaste for Burroughs’ subject matter with his admiration for Burroughs’ prose.

Burroughs, whom I recognize as a man of talent, great talent, can turn my stomach. It strikes me, however, that he’s faithful to the Emersonian idea of autobiography, that he’s concerned with putting down only what he has experienced and felt. He’s a literary man whose style is unliterary.21

Burroughs would doubtless have agreed with this perception. It accords with his assertion in the “Atrophied Preface” to Naked Lunch that “There is only one thing a writer can write about: what is in front of his senses at the moment of writing… I am a recording instrument…” More broadly, Burroughs — like Miller — thought that his entire oeuvre constituted one great autobiography.

Probably because of his disinterest, Burroughs never said anything so perceptive about the work of Miller. However, he did lend his public support when in 1978 Miller actively campaigned for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Miller had asked friends, fellow writers, and other acquaintances from his long career to compose letters of support to the Nobel Committee. Burroughs obliged and forwarded a copy to Girodias, who had perhaps solicited the letter on Miller’s behalf. The hitherto unpublished letter, dated 12 September 1978, addresses the Secretary:22

Letter by William BurroughsDear Sir,

Henry Miller is a uniquely qualified candidate for the Nobel Prize, as a writer whose work — over a period of forty years — possesses not only great intrinsic merit, but has also contributed immeasurably to freedom of expression.

Very sincerely,

William S. Burroughs

Burroughs did not sign the copy, though his amanuensis James Grauerholz appended a handwritten note to Girodias stating that Burroughs would write at greater length after a trip to Amsterdam. Burroughs may have been willing to support Miller, but the endorsement was hardly inspired. The lone sentence had the virtue of concision, but it did not exactly strive to make a convincing case. It’s a purely pro forma declaration of support, less a plea on Miller’s behalf than a signature on a petition.

When you inspect this map showing the points of intersection between Miller and Burroughs, it is surprising to learn that the map is not more dense — that the intersections are not more frequent or more meaningful. Given the resonances between their work, their stature as figureheads in the fight against literary censorship, and the fact that Miller had more involved relationships with the other Beats (particularly Kerouac, whose Dharma Bums so impressed him that he wrote a preface for The Subterraneans), Miller and Burroughs seem to form an obvious pair. Yet the evidence shows no influence, zero camaraderie, little interest, and a qualified amount of mutual respect.

Partly this is due to the simple fact that, historically speaking, the two were not really peers in the Shakespeare Squadron. Only twenty-five years or so separated their most fertile periods of creativity, and yet those few decades were chopped down the middle by World War II. The Depression that forms the background of Miller’s Tropics remained, like a troop formation, on one side, and the Cold War that subtends Burroughs’ work took root on the other. There was a veritable sea change that reverberated back into the arts. In her diary, Anaïs Nin saw its reflection in the change of management at one of Paris’ most famous literary bookstores:

So it is no longer Silvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company visited by André Gide, François Mauriac, Pierre Jean Jouve, Léon-Paul Fargue, Caresse Crosby, James Joyce, and Henry Miller. It is The Mistral, visited by James Jones, Styron, Ginsberg, and Burroughs, the beatniks and the new bohemians. The difference is that where there was a warm, hospitable, friendly, demonstrative affectionate fraternity between writers and artists now there was often a sullen silence, a disinterested attitude, and the young bohemian lying on the couch reading a book would not stop reading when another writer came in. I marveled at their insulation. Unlike Miller, when they had cadged a meal, they did not rush to their room to write twenty pages in exultation. They sought drugs to help them dream, they had no appetite for life, no lust for women. They read like people waiting for a train. They are spectators, Xerox artists, perhaps obsolete in a world of science.23

The entry was dated “Fall 1954” — an obvious bit of retrospective editing, since Burroughs did not arrive in Paris until 1959 and, in a curious bit of synchronicity, Xerox did not become a household name until it introduced the first plain-paper copier in the same year. Plainly Nin was biased toward Miller and his aesthetic, and yet she correctly perceived something new in literature. Drugs, technology, “no lust for women” — these were precisely the things that would come to be hallmarks of Burroughs’ writing, just as drink, inspiration, and lust for women would be hallmarks of Miller’s.

On another level, the lack of personal connection between Miller and Burroughs may point to a more fundamental truth about writers as such. When you go to a Barnes & Noble bookstore, each one is outfitted with a great big mural showing the geniuses of literature hobnobbing at some imaginary café des arts. “Look! There’s Joyce and Kafka hanging out with Tolstoy and Oscar Wilde!” It’s a fantasy vision of the canon that almost never matches up to reality. How often do great writers really forge friendships? If Burroughs and Miller didn’t click when they met, neither did Burroughs and Beckett, who denounced the cut-up as “plumbing.” (For the record, Miller and Beckett disliked each other when they met in the 1930s, though in later life they found each other congenial enough. They did not become friends, though.24)

To be truly great is to be, relatively speaking, without peer. On the odd occasions that great writers end up encountering each other, they often seem not to know what to do with each other. If you’ve ever heard the forced insights that can occur when writers of note are brought together for a radio program, you’ll understand that sometimes a conversation can conceal a complete lack of connection.25 Conversely, it may also be possible that the most astonishing connections can occur in the ostensible absence of any communication whatsoever. Burroughs may have parodied the comportment of writers who wouldn’t talk about writing —

[Graham Greene] is frankly horrified at the thought of formulating a technology of writing. “Evelyn Waugh was my very good friend, but we never discussed writing.” This is the English game, of course; talk about the weather, talk about anything so long as it isn’t important.26

— but perhaps important things transpired in those conversations about trivialities. One spoke about a clear blue sky and the other understood that prose should be lucid and limpid.

Miller and Burroughs did not forge a personal rapport. Miller did not understand Burroughs’ work, and Burroughs expressed little interest in Miller’s. But does this surface disconnect not conceal the greatest connections? You can only imagine what the two talked about in the middle of a sherry party at Edinburgh — likely nothing. But the work of the one speaks very strongly to the work of the other, and this conversation — probably the more important — is there for the hearing.


1. Quoted in Lee Bartlett, Editor, Kenneth Rexroth and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, New York: W.W. Norton, 1991, p 31.

2. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950, New York: Mariner Books, 2002, p 119.

3. Jack Kerouac, Ann Charters, Selected Letters: Volume 1 1940-1956, New York: Penguin, 1996, p 194.

4. Win McCormack, “The Literary Fly Catcher,” Tin House Magazine 8, Summer 2001.

5. John Tytell, “Interrogation,” in William Burroughs and Sylvère Lotringer, Burroughs Live: The Collected Interview of Wiliam S. Burroughs, 1960-1997, New York: Semiotext(e), p 252.

6. Victor Bockris, With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker, New York: St Martins, p 132.

7. See Daniel Odier and William Burroughs, The Job, New York: Penguin, 1989, p 112. Simone Ellis, “A Conversation with William S. Burroughs,” originally published in Contemporanea, 1990.

8. Peter Von Ziegesar, “Mapping the Cosmic Currents,” in William S. Burroughs and Allen Hibbard, Conversations with William Burroughs, Mississippi: University Press, 2000, p 162. George Wickes, “Art of Fiction No. 28: Henry Miller,” Paris Review 28, Summer-Fall 1962.

9. Barry Miles, The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs & Corso in Paris, 1957-1963, New York: Grove Press, 2001, p 58.

10. “Gysin had no money to speak of, and wanted a book by Henry Miller which cost exactly what he had to live on for a month. ‘The only way I could get hold of a copy was to prostitute myself. I was too timid to steal books so I went to the Café Select in Montparnasse and hung out until I found a Sir Roger… British naval term for sugar-daddy.'” John Geiger, Nothing Is True, Everything Is Permitted: The Life of Brion Gysin, New York: Disinformation Company, 2005, p 42.

11. Quoted in Kevin J. Hayes, Conversations With Jack Kerouac, Mississippi: University Press, 2005, p 24.

12. T.X. Erbe, “Still Get a Thrill When I See You, Bill,” in Burroughs Live, p 599.

13. Jim Haynes, email communication, 20 June 2007.

14. Bockris, op. cit., p 126.

15. Burroughs aware of Miller’s reputation: “Maybe a year after Naked Lunch had been published here in Paris,” Brion Gysin told an interviewer, “William and I had sat down saying Well, yeah yeah, we’ll never see this printed in America now will we? No, well, we never will, no no no… and then we read in Time magazine I think it was that Barney Rosset had paid what seemed to be the colossal sum of $75,000 for the rights to all of the Henry Miller books.” Brion Gysin and Terry Wilson, Here to Go: Planet R-101, London: Quartet Books, 1982, pp 189-190.

16. Quoted in Ted Morgan, Literary Outlaw, New York: Henry Holt, 1988, p 335.

17. The New York Times cited in Literary Outlaw, p 341. Anthony Blond, “Unshockable Edinburgh,” Books and Bookmen, October 1962, pp 26-27. Rebecca West quoted in Gillian Glover, “Where It All Began,” The Scotsman, 24 Jan 2003.

18. Literary Outlaw, p 328.

19. Letter to Allen Ginsberg, Oct. 19 1957, in William S. Burroughs and Oliver Harris (ed.), The Letters of William S. Burroughs: Volume I: 1945-1959, New York: Penguin, 1994, p 374.

20. David Dury, “Sex Goes Public: A Talk with Henry Miller,” in Frank L. Kersnowski, Alice Hughes, and Henry Miller, Conversations with Henry Miller, Mississippi: University Press, 1994, p 114.

21. Idem., p 87.

22. Unpublished letter, Burroughs to Maurice Girodias, 12 September 1978, provided by the Manhattan Rare Book Company.

23. Anaïs Nin, The Diary Of Anais Nin, Volume 5 (1947-1955), New York: Harvest/HBJ, 1975, p 203.

24. In an interview, Barney Rosset described setting up a meeting between Miller and Beckett: “I took [Beckett] to lunch with Henry Miller after we won the Tropic of Cancer verdict in Chicago. They had known each other from the thirties; they did not like each other. Everything that you read about these two would tell you that they were not easy people to get along with. But when I brought them together, each of them told me afterwards, ‘Boy, has he changed! He’s so nice now.'” “The Art of Publishing Interview No. 2,” Paris Review 145, Winter 1997.

25. Consider philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s disparagement of conversation: “Most of the time, when someone asks me a question, even one which relates to me, I see that, strictly, I don’t have anything to say. Questions are invented, like anything else. If you aren’t allowed to invent your questions, with elements from all over the place, from never mind where, if people “pose” them to you, you haven’t much to say. The art of constructing a problem is very important: you invent a problem, a problem-position, before finding a solution. None of this happens in an interview, a conversation, a discussion.” Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Dialogues, New York: Columbia UP, 1997, p 1.

26. Burroughs, “Hemingway,” The Adding Machine: Selected Essays, New York: Arcade Publishing, 1993, p 65. Perhaps perversely, J.G. Ballard told a recent interviewer that “in some 20 meetings [Burroughs and I] never discussed anything literary.” Graham Rae, “Can’t Rub Out the Word Hoard,” laurahird.com, 2007.

Read Ian MacFadyen’s insightful response to RealityStudio’s overview: Henry Miller and William Burroughs: A Letter.

Posted by RealityStudio on 18 July 2007. Many thanks to Jim Haynes, Valentine Miller, Jan Herman, RC at the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company, and the Manhattan Rare Book Company (which provided Burroughs’ letter supporting Miller’s Nobel Prize campaign). Photograph of John Calder and William Burroughs is copyright John Minihan.

5 thoughts on “Henry Miller and William Burroughs: An Overview

  1. I’m only half way through and I must exclaim brilliant and remarkable analysis of the divergence between Henry and William. But of course they are in direct parallel, the Picasso and the Pollack of literature, who eclipse Celine and Joyce in the formation of the ‘abstract’ and ‘liberated’ novel, bringing it to a ‘male’ and intellectual and autobiographical perspective from the emotional and female explorations of the 19th century. Although they will be forever conjoined that adventure, they are spectacularly different as this author beautifully illustrates. Bravo!

  2. Fabulous exegesis on the two true originators of abstract literature, the Picasso and Pollack of the form, eclipsing Celine and Joyce—but what happened to my longer comment from yesterday.

  3. This is the best comparison of the two writers that I’ve come across yet – very well informed with references to boot.

  4. Great article and so is the Ian MacFadyen’s response! I wish to add two things: Tropic of Cancer should have been available at the 42 Street New York Public Library already back in the 1930s to be read on the spot. I am from a different corner of the world, but there may be a possibility to confirm it. I got the information from my wonderful Miller teacher and scholar and writer Thomas Nesbit who is unfortunatelly no longer here with us.
    Also, I want to add that Whitman’s method of writing, as shown recently by Matt Miller in his Whitman: A Collage of Himself (2010), was — like Miller’s and Burroughs’ also very much “cut up”. I believe Whitman and Miller used similar formulaic sewing techniques of the oral bards as described by Antoine Meilet, Marcel Jousse and Walter Ong (1982) and others. Burroughs, on the other hand, seems much more “textual”, not trying to “write voice” with its bodily and bardic and social interferences, as Whitman and Miller did.

  5. Excellent piece thanks. On that slant, though contemporaries TOlstoy & Dostoevsky never met though once were in the same building – a theatre or hall, can’t remember – but Tolstoy asked not to be pointed out. Though to mention by contrast, Dostoevsky & Turgenev did have a very volatile relationship.

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