Monday, July 30, 2007
William S. Burroughs is 10 years gone now and only vestiges remain. His little Datsun and an old typewriter rust in a thicket behind the red house where he lived at 1927 Learnard Ave., and on drunken Friday nights citizens of a certain age may emit stories of the times they saw him buying cat food at Dillons.
But unless you're driving past his house or whitewater rafting down Burroughs Creek (where his voice may be heard faintly and intermittently like music down a windy street), you might need to be reminded he was here.
Ten years gone also breeds a city of citizens too young or new to know or care that Burroughs lived here.
"When he was dead, man, he was dead," says Dennis Domer, a former KU professor of American studies who once taught a class on regional history, Burroughs included. "You can talk about him all you want but Bill Burroughs doesn't live over there anymore."
Might need to be reminded that this famously profane, weird, iconic, subversive, drug-addled, gay old man who popularized the cut-up method, wrote "Naked Lunch" and shot his wife in a William Tell stunt once roamed these streets, cane in hand.
And with 10 years' cold distance, let's ask the question: Where in the annals of local history (or folklore) does one stick Burroughs?
"Bill Burroughs was not always an admirable guy, but a very significant person?-Yes," Domer says. "He was unexpected. And he was pretty temporary. But he did click into a kind of DNA of Lawrence, which is this liberal tradition."
The ol' Lawrence liberal tradition, the perpetual struggle between the powers of change and stagnation going back to the heady days of the Border War, John Brown and William Quantrill, the Jayhawkers and the Bushwhackers.
"People like James Lane (jayhawker leader and Kansas senator) and those guys were outlandish," he says. "John Brown was outlandish. He was a murderer-in a sense he was. He killed for a purpose. Bill Burroughs killed convention and killed conservative, narrow-minded thinking, with the pen rather than the sword."
Sidle down the line a century to the 1950s and then the 1960s and the emergence of the drug culture, hipsters, civil rights and the sexual revolution-all influenced, directly or not, by Burroughs and the Beatniks-and Lawrence emerging as the oasis for counter-culturalists in the Midwest. The Kansas Union burns down in 1970 and all this leads to 1981, the year the Old Man moves to town.
For the most part he was a quiet resident. And aside from the stream of famous guests he attracted-Kurt Cobain, Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Michael Stipe, Steve Buscemi,-he didn't go out of his way to draw attention, didn't spend a lot of time giving speeches or burning down buildings or giving kids drug-laced candy or other incendiary acts.
Yet Burroughs' presence alone, Domer says, the fact that he was here, threatened the power structure of this place by helping cement Lawrence's reputation as a bastion of liberalism and creativity, making him-or at least the idea of him-less than popular among Lawrence's conservative elements.
"A lot of the conservative forces of Lawrence didn't like Bill Burroughs because he represented an irresponsible-to them-gay, drug, hip, anti orientation-anti to the conservatisms of the Eisenhower era," Domer says. "Of course, he came much later than that, but he reinforced that.
": People called him a misogynist, a woman-hater, a drug addict, a murderer, the right-wing religious sect would call him pervert and whatever. : He was all that. In a sense he was glad to be that because that meant that he was standing up against the other side of the equation, which was this narrow-minded, self-satisfied, obsessed with Jayhawk basketball:"
So for that strange Lawrence, the one full of artists and musicians and bohemian types, where the anarchists have a library on Mass. Street and that Boog Highberger dude's still on the City Commission, you have Burroughs, not necessarily to thank, but to turn to as a sort of modern-day patriarch.
"Someone like Burroughs, he was just defiant," Domer says. "Defiantly opposed to convention and narrow thinking and ossified life. Can you imagine Bill Burroughs going to Manhattan? Are you kidding? To Topeka? To Wichita? To Ottawa? No. There was really only one place he could go in Kansas." Â»