William S. Burroughs is famous for his paranoid novels such as Naked Lunch and being a seminal face on the Mt. Rushmore of the Beat Generation.
Yet, Burroughs is infamous for murdering his 28-year-old wife, Joan Vollmer Adams Burroughs, brilliant in her own right and a muse to the Beats.
The details of Vollmer’s death 65 years ago this month are jumbled — complicated by her common-law husband’s contradictory accounts. The prevailing version, however, puts a pistol in Burroughs’ hand and a bullet in Vollmer’s head after he trained the gun on a highball glass resting on her head and aimed too low in a drunken episode of William Tell.
Debate over whether Vollmer’s death was indeed murder or tragic boozy theater rages still nearly a decade after Burroughs’ death. Dr. William C. Nesbitt, an English professor and chair of the humanities department at Beacon College explores that puzzle within the context of drama and performance in his essay, “William S. Burroughs and the Shooting of Joan Vollmer Burroughs as Performance,” collected in the volume, Beat Drama: Playwrights and Performances of the ‘Howl’ Generation (Bloomsbury Methuen Drama (July 2016).
“Burroughs was always conscious of the performance,” Nesbitt writes. “… he asks: ‘Can any actor fill the living role?’ After all, being oneself is a tough act (to follow). … Despite the publicity and media attention given to Burroughs, his life demonstrates that the hardest performance is the one required by our own lives, the personal performance. And so, he plays his part.”
Nesbitt had appeared on a conference panel where he delivered a different paper on Burroughs. Intrigued with the subject, another panelist recommended Nesbitt to the book’s editor, who asked Nesbitt to contribute to the volume.
Though certainly not as celebrated as Burroughs and other luminaries in the Beat galaxy, Vollmer was a force in her own right.
As Brenda Knight writes in The Women of the Beat Generation:
“Joan Vollmer Adams Burroughs was seminal in the creation of the Beat revolution; indeed the fires that stoked the Beat engine were started with Joan as patron and muse. … Brilliant and well versed in philosophy and literature, Joan was the whetstone against which the main Beat writers — Allen, Jack, and Bill — sharpened their intellect.”
In the introduction to his novel Queer, published 32 years after he finished it in 1953, Burroughs called the shooting — for which he was convicted in absentia of homicide — the launchpad for his writing career:
“I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would have never become a writer but for Joan’s death …. [S]o the death of Joan brought me into contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I had no choice except to write my way out.”
Yet, Burroughs was not always so forthcoming, introspective and reflective, Nesbitt observed.
“Shortly before his death, Burroughs wrote in his journal, ‘Mother, Dad, Mort, Billy — I failed them all — …. However, it is striking that Burroughs acknowledges failing his mother, father, brother and son, but not Joan. He places more emotional emphasis on and directs more feelings of regret to a cat he gave away than to the wife he shot and killed. … By not acknowledging Joan, he does not bring her into being on the page. He strikes her from the record and coverts her from death to non-existence and erases her.”
Two years after the centennial of Burroughs’ birth, renewed interested in is work abounds, including the album, “Let Me Hang You,” which collected overlooked tapes of featuring the author reading the raunchiest parts of Naked Lunch over works by musicians such as King Khan, Bill Frisell, and Wayne Horvitz.
As Nesbitt notes, “people are still investing, exploring, and interpreting his work. His personal life bled into (almost literally) and affected his work to a greater degree than that of many other writers.”
Beat Drama: Playwrights and Performances of the ‘Howl’ Generation is available in print or Kindle version at Amazon.com.