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A Typewriter In The Grass And The Beat Generation On The Edge

American writer William Seward Burroughs, author of <em>Naked Lunch</em>.
Evening Standard
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American writer William Seward Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch.

I woke up Wednesday, drank some coffee, and learned (thank you, Frank Morris and Morning Edition) that it was the 100th anniversary of William S. Burroughs' birth. Burroughs was born in St. Louis and died in Lawrence, Kansas – improbable geographic bookends to his really out-there life.

But this post is not so much about William Burroughs as about William Burroughs' typewriter.

My husband, Charlie, and I like to get in our car and drive for our vacations, seeing what turns up in the way of roadside adventures. Sometime after the turn of this century, we found ourselves in Lawrence, Kansas. "So," said Charlie, who knows a considerable amount about the lives of the Beats, "you want to see if we can find the house where William Burroughs lived?"

"Why not?" I said. Burroughs had died in 1997. Surely, people would remember where he'd lived.

We parked on one of the main downtown drags. I am Team Woodroof's designated accoster of strangers. "Excuse me," I said to a group of Kansas University students. "Could you tell me where William Burroughs used to live?"


And so it went, for a while. Until we asked a guy who looked as though he might be a lawyer or an accountant or some other professional person. "Oh, golly, yes," said our professional person. "And I'll give you directions if you promise not to bother the residents."

More improbability for the Beats' longest-running poster poet, performance artist, novelist, junkie, rebel and icon: according to our guide, William Burroughs lived in a cozy Sears craftsman cottage on a quiet suburban street. We parked, we gawked. A car turned into the driveway attached to the house. A young man (a graduate student, maybe) got out, noticed us and came over.

Evidently, he was used to this. "You interested in Mr. Burroughs?" he asked.

"Oh yes," we said.

"Well, would you like to look at the yard?" he asked. "I can't ask you in as I have roommates, but there's a lot of his stuff in the yard."

He took us there. There was the firepit where I imagined him holding Naked Lunch nocturnes during which life was surely encouraged to imitate art; a space that appeared to have once been a garden; various graves of various cats; an old car (a Datsun?) abandoned on the grass. The yard was lush and shady, in sharp contrast to the hot, dry summer Kansas afternoon.

What I remember most vividly, however, was the typewriter — William Burroughs' typewriter, we were being told — sitting there on the ground, the centerpiece of a derelict garden that was wired for lights. Abandoned? Too sacred to touch?

The typewriter Martha Woodroof and her husband saw in what they were told was the yard of the house where William Burroughs once lived.
/ Charlie Woodroof
Charlie Woodroof
The typewriter Martha Woodroof and her husband saw in what they were told was the yard of the house where William Burroughs once lived.

"It's definitely his," our graduate student friend said.

"But it's – it's William Burroughs' typewriter!" I told him, shocked. "You can't just leave it out in the rain."

But then, of course, you can. You should, in fact. Burroughs spent his time – from adolescence onward – pushing against boundaries — social, artistic, chemical, legal. He spent his whole, long life on the edge. Most of us who have gone to the edge have to get ourselves off it in order to stay alive. Or not, as in the case of Philip Seymour Hoffman. But Burroughs appears to have gotten away with doing a chemically fueled full-tilt boogie for the better part of 83 years.

From what I can tell, the Beats, for the most part, were neither nice nor happy people. That was not their job. While I do admire some of their art, I do not admire either their self-conscious self-destructiveness or their self-centeredness.

But I adore them for standing tall in mid-last-century polite society and yelling at Americans that boundaries are only there to be pushed. William S. Burroughs – God love him – made people uncomfortable.

And he still does, as I certainly was uncomfortable looking down at the typewriter. Whether it was really, truly, originally his, I can't know. But my impulse was to go against everything the man had stood for and put it in a museum, where it could be looked at from a safe remove, preserved as an artifact, a comfortable reminder of a closed chapter in American culture.

My second impulse was to hope that somebody, someday would jump the fence in the middle of the night, lift that typewriter up, take it home, buy it a new ribbon, and write something so magnificently edgy that it makes me feel like squeezing my knees together big-time, just the way my mother's contemporaries would have at the mere thought of a Naked Lunch.

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