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Clay Coppedge
Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

William Burroughs
in Texas

by Clay Coppedge

Before William S. Burroughs became notorious as the author of Naked Lunch, Junky and other books and for behavior that put him at odds with society and the law, he was, for a time, a Texas farmer. He wasn't particularly good at it and he eventually left for Mexico City, one step away from the long arm of the law. The scenario was basically the same when he first came to Texas to reinvent himself as a son of the soil.

Burroughs had some money to invest and little to lose when he came to Texas. His grandfather, William Seward Burroughs, perfected the adding machine by creating one that actually worked. He formed the Burroughs Adding Machine Company but died young, at age 39, in 1898. Contrary to what Jack Kerouac and others said, William Burroughs didn't inherit millions of dollars from his family and he didn't have a huge trust fund, but he received $200 a month from him family for most of his life, a good amount of money in the 1940s. Not so much later on.

As with many others who have fled to Texas over the years, Burroughs ended up here as a result of trouble with the law elsewhere. He got busted in New York City in 1946 for forging a prescription for opiates on a stolen prescription pad. The slip-up came when he misspelled dilaudid by spelling it dillauid. (Who says good writers don't need editors?) The judge gave Burroughs a suspended sentence under the condition that he return to St. Louis and spend the summer with his parents.

Back home he hooked up with old pal Kells Elvins, who had just inherited a decent-sized farm in the Rio Grande Valley. Elvins suggested to Burroughs that they go into business together. Burroughs, appreciating the Valley's proximity to Mexico and with nothing else going on in his life, agreed.

Burroughs bought some South Texas land of his own. He grew carrots, peas, lettuce and cotton. Partly because farming is always a risky venture but mostly because he didn't know what the hell he was doing, he made very little money. He wrote to poet Allen Ginsberg in New York: "Money to be made here like picking fruit off the trees. Grapefruit that is." A later update: "My first crop of peas froze five days before harvest."
Rob Johnson provided us with the first in-depth look at Burroughs in Texas with his book The Lost Years of William S. Burroughs: Beats in South Texas. He found that the locals viewed Burroughs and Elvins as "just a couple of Valley suckers who had bought some untenable land and were frustrated when nothing grew on it."  
Still, Burroughs paid enough attention to the land, the people and Valley agriculture to inform much of his early work, such as this passage from Junky: "A premonition of doom hangs over the Valley. You have to make it now before something happens, before the black fly ruins the citrus, before support prices are taken off the cotton, before the flood, the hurricane, the freeze, the long dry spell . . . The threat of disaster is always there, persistent and disquieting as the afternoon wind. The Valley was desert, and it will be desert again. Meanwhile you try to make yours while there is still time."

Though Burroughs took the notion of farming very seriously, he didn't do a lot of the actual work. He depended on hired labor, much of it illegal. That situation, along with subsidies and government supports, helped radicalize Burroughs's world view. Johnson quotes a letter Burroughs wrote to Ginsburg: "In short, my ethical position, now that I am a respectable farmer, is probably shakier than when I was pushing junk. Now, as then, I violate the law, but my present violations are condoned by a corrupt government."

And - oh yeah - Burroughs had another Texas farm. And on this farm he grew marijuana and opium poppies. E-I-E-I-O. This was in the 1940s, when Texans could and did go to prison for possession of a single joint. The farm was near New Waverly, in East Texas. His illegal crops fared no better than his legal commodities in South Texas and for the same reason - he didn't know what he was doing. He went back to the Valley, but Burroughs realized he and Texas weren't meant for each other.

The beginning of the end of Burroughs's South Texas sojourn came when he got himself busted for public lewdness and intoxication during a roadside tryst with his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer. What the hell? He left Texas for New Orleans, where he promptly got arrested for heroin possession.

Burroughs's lawyer suggested he might want to lay low in the Valley for a while, since it was close to Mexico and because his case in New Orleans wasn't looking good and he seemed destined for Louisiana's notorious Angola State Prison. A few months later Burroughs saw fit to make his way to Mexico City, where the most infamous event of Burroughs' long and interesting life (he died in 1997 at the ripe old age of 83) took place.

No other literary murder has been cussed and discussed quite so much as Burroughs's "William Tell" killing of Joan Vollmer, in Mexico City in 1951. The bare-bones story has it that Vollmer put a champagne glass on her head at a party and asked Burroughs to shoot if off, ala William Tell. The couple had possibly done this kind of thing before and Burroughs was said to be a crack shot, but this time his aim was off.

Johnson's book makes the case that Burroughs became a writer after that incident, possibly as a form of therapy. News reports of the day mentioned his family connection to the Burroughs Adding Machine fortune and described Burroughs as "a wealthy cotton planter from Pharr, Texas."

No one ever described him that way again. Burroughs stayed away from Texas for the rest of his life, but he returned to the state time and again in his subsequent writing. William Burroughs wasn't much of a farmer, but his time in Texas was a literary field he left well sewn.
Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" June 28, 2019 column

Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

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  • Daniel Edwards: Hero or Hoax 6-13-19
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