Tuesday, December 9, 2003
19th and Learnard, Lawrence
Editor's note :: Whatever one might think of William S. Burroughs, he was one of the most widely known residents of Lawrence.
Before his death in 1997, Burroughs -- whose work included 'Naked Lunch' and 'Junky' -- lived in a modest house on Learnard Street in east Lawrence. The well-traveled author lived more years in Lawrence, Kansas than in any other location in the United States or abroad.
His attachment to this town mystified many who appreciated his work. Burroughs' long-time friend and trustee of the writer's estate, James Grauerholz, tells what kept him here: "He poeticized it as 'Learn Hard Avenue,' the place where he would make his life-review and face all the postponed lessons of his long life, and face as well the unknowable mystery of his death, which he knew he would meet here.'
Read the full PDF text of "The Death of Joan Vollmer: What Really Happened?"
First published on lawrence.com, "The Death of Joan Vollmer" meticulously explores the history surrounding Burroughs' shooting and killing his wife, Joan. Download the full document (1.9MB PDF) In 5 parts: Download pages 1-14 (274K PDF) Download pages 15-28 (576K PDF) Download pages 29-42 (594K PDF) Download pages 43-56 (548K PDF) Download pages 57-70 (187K PDF)
Despite his stature among American writers (he was famously lauded by Norman Mailer as "the only living American novelist conceivably possessed by genius"), Burroughs has been damned by many for the drug use that formed the basis of his 1953 novel 'Junky' and for his homosexuality. But more than anything he has been damned for the 1951 shooting of his wife Joan Vollmer Burroughs.
For a controversial writer whose books have been banned in various places throughout the country, it's not surprising that Lawrence finds itself unable to decide whether to embrace or to ignore his choice to live out his life here.
Last week, the Douglas County Commission decided to withhold its opinion as to whether a creek running by Burroughs' former residence should bear his name, as proposed by the Brook Creek Neighborhood Association. Earlier this year, the Lawrence City Commission voted to support the proposal. After accepting input from other interested parties, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names is expected to rule on the application to name the creek this spring.
While Burroughs' legacy in Lawrence is being discussed in coffee shops and at the proverbial water cooler, it's doubtful many people can separate rumor from reality regarding details of the writer's life. James Grauerholz's paper 'The Death of Joan Vollmer: What Really Happened?' documents in the most detailed manner to date the couple's relationship and the circumstances surrounding the event that haunted Burroughs -- publicly and privately -- for the rest of his life.
Though Grauerholz was a close friend of Burroughs, 'The Death of Joan Vollmer' is an impartial search for the truth; it neither exonerates nor convicts Burroughs. What is does is offer the opportunity to ground opinions about the writer -- and about the event that proved a watershed in his life -- more in fact than in hearsay.
A summary of the rules and conventions for geographic names is available here.