Billy Burroughs: Gentleman Farmer
The notion of Burroughs as a farmer – even an inept one – may not sit right with readers of his work, or those familiar with the history of the Beats. Yet before he was William S. Burroughs the writer, he was Billy Burroughs the farmer, and this period in his life – although largely overlooked by biographers – greatly impacted his literary output. When you look closely at his work, the short period he spent as a farmer in the late 1940s keeps cropping up, and yet it is glossed over in the biographies as though of little consequence. But Burroughs considered his time in Texas as some of the happiest days of his life, and during this period he developed the routines and heard the stories that made some of his best work. Even in his most famous work, Naked Lunch, the landscape of Texas is described with allusions to his own crossings back and forth in search of pharmaceuticals, and of course in Junky there are numerous references.
Burroughs grew up in St. Louis, and whilst he talked often of its red-light districts and skid rows, he also enjoyed the parks and the gardens, and especially going duck-shooting with his father. He enjoyed hiking and fishing, too, but he was not naturally suited to the outdoors. He was in many respects a spoiled child, disliked by other adults, and considered weak and pathetic. He was sent by his parents to the Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico, where the school song went, “Far away and high on the mesa’s crest/ Here’s the life all of us love the best!” and the boys learned camping, hunting, and fishing. Burroughs later claimed to have gained nothing from the experience except a hatred of horses, and especially hated that the school frowned upon reading as something “for sissies”, but it’s likely his life-long love of guns began here, and maybe even his interest in self-reliance.
At age thirteen, Burroughs read autobiography of Jack Black, You Can’t Win, and was captivated. “I was fascinated by this glimpse of an underworld of seeding rooming-houses, pool parlors, cat house and opium dens,” he said. From then on, it seems, Burroughs’ interests lay firmly within city limits, and for many years that’s where he remained.
The Beat Generation was in the early days an urban movement, set in New York City, among the neon lights and the fast paced life of the city. It played out in and around Columbia University between 1944 and 1946, with Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs at the centre, alongside a cast that included – at various times – Joan Vollmer, Edie Parker, Lucien Carr, Herbert Huncke, and Hal Chase. Burroughs delved further into the criminal underworld than his Beat friends, exploring Times Square at night and planning to rob banks, living out his Jack Black fantasies. He fancied himself as a bit of an outlaw, with the government and society as his enemies. Later, Kerouac attempted to find solace in the mountains and forests of California with Gary Snyder, and Ginsberg sought serenity in nature throughout his life, but Burroughs has always been viewed differently. Less interested in nature than the supernatural, it’s easier to picture him in some seedy drug den than in the great outdoors, and as such his best writing explores the landscape of cities rather than mountains or forests.
In April 1946, the members of the Beat Generation began to move apart. Burroughs was arrested because of a forged prescription for Dilaudid and briefly imprisoned before his father bailed him out. His case was tried in June, and the judge gave him the worst sentence he could think of for an over-privileged young first offender: “Young man, I am going to send you home to St. Louis for the summer.”
Back in St. Louis, Burroughs ran into Kells Elvins, with whom he’d written “Twilight’s Last Gleamings” years earlier. Together they dreamt up wild get-quick-rich schemes, before eventually settling on the idea of citrus and cotton farming. Elvins already owned twenty acres of citrus grove by this point, having inherited the land from his father, but he was what is known as a “gentleman farmer” – he owned the land, watched the profits, and left the work in the hands of his immigrant laborers (known commonly as “wetbacks” or “wets”). At harvest time he had around two hundred workers picking what Burroughs’ claimed was $50,000-$60,000 worth of grapefruit. Burroughs’ parents were of the opinion that life as a farmer would be altogether more wholesome than letting him run around the city, and in June 1946 gave him the money for his fifty acres down in Pharr, Texas. “Fifty of the finest acres in the valley,” he called it, referring to the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
During World War II, in an effort to keep the troops fed and clothed, the US government had pumped money into agriculture, particularly in areas like South Texas, where so called “Magic Valleys” allowed for year-round farming. The result was a boom in the industry, with men flocking to the land in order to make a quick buck. These were men like Burroughs and Elvins, who really knew little about farming, but were drawn to this macho pursuit, and the idea of sitting back on the ranch, shooting the shit as their men did the dirty work. Unfortunately for Burroughs, the war had ended before he made his move. Demand decreased and operating costs rose.
Later, in Mexico, Burroughs wrote his first novel, Junky. In it he speaks harshly of Pharr and the scams that brought “marks” like him to invest their money in what turned out to be a desert:
During the Twenties, real estate operators brought trainloads of prospects down to the valley and let them pick grapefruit right off the trees and eat it. One of these pioneer promoters is said to have constructed a large artificial lake and sold plots all around it… As soon as the last sale closed, he turned off the water and disappeared with his lake, leaving the prospects sitting there in a desert.
In 1987 he was telling a similar story in his novel, The Western Lands.
For Burroughs, this was no forced exile, and he certainly didn’t think he was the sort to be scammed. He always had a strong individualist mentality. In true Beat style, he disliked conventional society and the rules that it tried to force upon him. He wanted independence and self-sufficiency in his own private Wild West, where he could live by his own laws and not fear arrest for doing the things he loved (he returned to Pharr twice after drug busts). Rob Johnson, in his book, The Lost Years of William S. Burroughs: Beats in South Texas, suggests that Burroughs was also interested in creating his own socio-economic system that, in spite of his overtly conservative views at the time (not to mention his scorn for Ginsberg’s political leanings), appeared startling socialist.
Joan, meanwhile, was stuck in Bellevue, back in New York, having suffered a breakdown. Leaving Elvins in charge of the farm for the first, but certainly not the last, time, Burroughs enacted some brilliant timing by arriving in New York on October 31st, just before her release, and whisked her off to his new farm. En route, they later claimed, their child was conceived.
Farming, however, was not Burroughs’ forte, and for a while he convinced himself that he could become a wildcatter and drill for oil on his land (which inspired the famous “oilman” routine in Queer). But although he took it seriously and attempted to study farming as he had done with numerous other subjects during his life, nothing ever went well for him. Still, to his credit, during his short time in Pharr, it seems Burroughs remained somewhat interested in the running of operations, even if the hard work was done by his immigrant Mexican laborers.
The farmer did all the actual work. Evans (Elvins’s name in Junky) and I would drive around every few days to see how the cotton was looking… There was no point in looking at the cotton since neither of us knew the first thing about it.
From the offset, Burroughs found that his own private Wild West was not really as free from the law as he’d imagined. For a start, the border patrol was beginning to step up activities against illegal laborers, and even deported some of Burroughs’ workers. He didn’t like the government telling him what he could and couldn’t do, and was even more enraged when they tried to dictate what crops he could grow. He was convinced that the government was doing the bidding of “big holders” – industrial farmers with a thousand acres or more – who were trying to squash the little guy. Ever concerned about systems of control, Burroughs worried about being a “mark” and about being conned and manipulated by powerful forces. In Junky, he wrote:
The Big Holders are the house, and the small farmers are the players. The player goes broke if he keeps on playing, and the farmer has to pay or lose to the Government by default. The Big Holders own all the Valley banks, and when the farmer goes broke the bank takes over. Soon the Big Holders will own the Valley.
In a letter to Ginsberg, Burroughs explained this point, naming the “Benson Brothers” as the local Big Holders. “They just sit, and slowly the Valley falls into their hands,” he wrote, evidently unaware of the irony that he himself was mostly a wealthy, absentee landlord. “They are the financial beneficiaries of the U.S. wetback policy.” By this, Burroughs meant that small sharecroppers could only afford to stay in business by using immigrant labor, and that by deporting or regulating this workforce, small-time farmers would go bankrupt.
He found life in the valley somewhat depressing, and he referred to it in a letter to Kerouac as “the valley of heat and boredom”. Joan was unhappy, too. She loathed the local country club crowd and probably yearned for even more seclusion that their middle-of-nowhere property provided. (Years later, in their biographies, Barry Miles and Ted Morgan both failed to place Pharr on a map, somehow placing it in East Texas, despite acknowledging its proximity to the border.)
Burroughs empathized with the artist John Haughton Allen, who said of the area, “The best way to see the Southwest is through the bottom of a glass.” He and Elvins would drink heavily. The people who knew him during this period of his life knew him as an alcoholic, primarily. Burroughs’ friends were equally eccentric and all seemingly shared his passion for guns and drink. His stories from that period are wild, to say the least.
Most people, though, seemed to view Burroughs from a distance. They thought him odd. “Retarded” is one description that Johnson was given in an interview with some Pharr citizens. These citizens remember a Burroughs that matches well with the image of Kerouac’s Old Bull Lee – of an anti-social but occasionally enthusiastic oddball.
A major benefit of life in the Valley for Burroughs was its proximity to Mexico, where he had access to boys. None of his neighbours appeared aware of his sexuality, but he made occasional trips to Reynosa, a border town, where he was outed and became known as Willie El Puta – or Willie the Queer. Despite this indignation, he was captivated by Mexico for such freedoms that were tolerated more than in America.
One problem that Burroughs faced in Pharr was that his visions for a farm didn’t stop with citrus and cotton. Although in the beginning he was writing letters to Ginsberg that claimed he would make ten thousand dollars mailing oranges around the United States as gift baskets, what he really wanted were vast fields of opium poppies and marijuana. Unfortunately, “the Valley” wasn’t in fact a valley, and the land was as flat as could be, with everyone able to see what he was growing. So in December 1949, only six months after arriving in the Valley, and only a month after arriving with Joan, Burroughs left Elvins in charge of the farm and moved to East Texas, on Winters Bayou, between Coldspring and New Waverley, 50 miles northeast of Houston. “Man, are we ever in Hicksville,” he wrote of the property which was at least a mile from the nearest road.
Its seclusion was bliss for Burroughs, who by some accounts couldn’t even get his jeep near the cabin and had to walk quite a distance. They were surrounded by trees – mostly hardwoods – and swamps. There were a lot of snakes and scorpions but the family could bathe and fish, with huge catfish inhabiting the swamps. The landscape pleased Burroughs, and reminded him of his Missouri childhood. Even Joan was somewhat happy out in the middle of nowhere, and was glad to be away from the snooty types they knew in Pharr. Burroughs described it:
It was heavy timber. Oak and persimmon, not too much pine. The kind of country that starts in Southern Missouri and goes all the way down to east Texas. There were raccoons and foxes and squirrels and armadillos.
Here, Burroughs had ninety-nine (or ninety-seven, depending on the source) acres of land, where he did indeed have the required privacy to grow what he wished. Not much grew in that red soil, including the opium poppies, but the marijuana worked out. Burroughs lived out his new life as a gentleman farmer quite happily, with Joan and her daughter Julie, and even Herbert Huncke living with them, running errands such as Benzedrine trips to Houston. Burroughs got himself a small hound dog, and patrolled his land with it at his heel, cutting wood and shooting things. There was, in fact, so much gunfire on the property that his neighbours believed the area to be a gangster hideout.
Burroughs also spent a lot of time at the local general store, which was – and still is – owned by the Ellisor family. Andrew and Arch Ellisor would stand around telling stories, which Burroughs greatly enjoyed. A number of odd little background stories in his books came from old men in Texas, and these ones eventually became significant in the creation of The Place of Dead Roads. Of course, in this novel the character of Arch was loosely based upon Arch Ellisor.
On July 21st 1947, Joan gave birth to Burroughs’ only son, William Seward Burroughs III, who was born addicted to Benzedrine, and had a difficult life from the beginning. He was just another part of the odd and ever-intoxicated Burroughs family.
Even as a farmer, Burroughs rarely went without his trademark suit and tie. He woke late, gathered his mail and the papers, and spent his days on the porch of their weather-beaten little cabin, reading stories to his disinterested wife. Joan for the most part tended to the children and made the food, whilst also famously scraping lizards off a tree with a rake. Huncke seemed to be the only one doing much work, as in addition to fetching drugs and alcohol from nearby towns, he also took the role of groundskeeper.
They all drank heavily and seemed to be continually high. They constantly had to search further afield for drugs and alcohol as they “burned down” their local supplies and managed to drink an entire county dry. Sometimes they had to go as far as Houston to score anything at all. Although Burroughs seemed to go through similar troubles wherever he lived, these particular adventures found their way into Naked Lunch.
Burroughs seemed genuinely happy during these years. Moreover, he appeared to take farming seriously. J.G. Ballard once wrote that Burroughs was “one of the least likely people ever to worry about a carrot crop,” but his letters to Kerouac and Ginsberg were always full of excited updates over the status of his lettuces and peas. He seemed always convinced about being on the edge of great riches. These details, however, are usually followed by stories of minor disasters like the weather (the Magic Valley that he was sold appears to have been a myth; winter freezes killed a lot of his produce) and unusual market fluctuations.
Back on his Pharr farm, the work was still being carried out by “wetback” workers, who toiled in awful conditions. Ginsberg let Burroughs know that he didn’t approve of the low wages these workers earned, who he believed should be guaranteed a minimum wage, and Burroughs himself seemed distressed by the labor brokers, one of whom claimed to have shot dead two wetbacks. In letters, though, Burroughs claims to have shared some of his wealth with the workers, causing suspicion among neighboring farmers. Still, Burroughs noted that he was ethically in a more dubious position than when dealing heroin in New York:
In short, my ethical position, now that I’m 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.
On August 30th 1947, Ginsberg and Neal Cassady arrived in New Waverly, having hitchhiked from New York. Ginsberg was enraged by the fact that Burroughs hadn’t prepared even a bed for them to sleep in, but helped Huncke, who’d offered to take apart the furniture in his own room to build a large bed for the two visitors to share.
Despite problems between Ginsberg and Cassady, and the shock of arriving to find nothing prepared, their stay was fairly pleasant. Cassady helped Burroughs fence-in the property and they all had long talks and walked endlessly in the woods. Eventually Cassady – who was tired of Ginsberg’s physical and emotional demands – convinced Allen to leave, and stayed on to help Burroughs with the pot harvest.
Neal drove Burroughs and the marijuana back to New York, where they struggled to sell it. Unfortunately, Burroughs knew nothing of how to cure marijuana and had mixed male and female plants, resulting in low-grade ditchweed. Eventually he managed to get $100 for the entire crop, and was glad to be rid of it. A few years later, he wrote in Junky, “Pushing weed looks good on paper, like fur farming or raising frogs.”
In New York, Burroughs picked up another junk habit, and spent January 1948 in rehab at Lexington, Kentucky. In May, believing that “Farm work is the best cure [for junk sickness],” Burroughs attempted to return to Pharr and purchased forty additional acres of farmland. On the way to Pharr, however, he and Joan were arrested somewhere between Pharr and New Waverly for having sex by the side of a road. “Things very uncool in Texas,” he wrote Kerouac. Burroughs had been drunk at the time and consequently lost his license. It was decided that the family would move out of “Hicksville” and take residence in New Orleans, selling the East Texas farm and keeping the one in South Texas (which was still being run by Elvins, or rather by the men that Elvins employed).
It was in New Orleans that the family was visited by Kerouac and Cassady, and forced to play host to Helen Hinckle, in days that were retold in On the Road. Burroughs later bemoaned the description of him and his home given by Kerouac in his classic road novel. When Kerouac visited, Burroughs was “living in a little house laid out like a railroad flat and raised up on the marshy lot by concrete blocks.” He didn’t even have a front yard. What Kerouac appeared to be describing was Burroughs’ farm in Pharr, a description presumably gleaned from their letters and from Cassady, who Burroughs claimed could exaggerate worse than Kerouac.
It was in New Orleans, too, that Burroughs got back on heroin, was arrested, and decided to flee from the United States. His dabbling Texas and Louisiana had informed him that true freedom could only lie south of the border. In April 1949 he returned once again to Pharr after trouble with the law, knowing that its proximity to the border would allow him a chance to escape should he need it. It was the frontier, America’s last Wild West, and yet it was not far enough for Burroughs. This time around he felt the Valley was hotter and duller than before, claiming that it was virtually free of “life force”. He sold his land to Kells Elvins and left in October. “What a relief to be rid of the U.S. for good and all,” he wrote Kerouac from Mexico City, “and to be in this fine free country.”
Although various sources claim that Burroughs was finished with farming from the moment he realized how much of a failure his marijuana crop had been, it appears that his interest had not entirely vanished, and certainly the memories were significant moments in his development. Burroughs planned to get into ranching in Mexico, but it turned out that this country lacked such freedom and he required a Mexican business partner. Still, he wrote to Ginsberg that if he managed to buy a ranch, it would bring him “unlimited opportunities.”
It was in Mexico City that he killed his wife and became a writer, and evidently farming and Texas were still on his mind during this period. There are numerous references littered throughout his first novel, Junky, indicating that Texas was not an unimportant phase between New York and Mexico, as seems to be suggested in most books about the Beats. Interestingly, a section describing South Texas was cut out of Junky because, according to Allen Ginsberg, “agricultural society was not germane to the funky harsh non-literary subject matter,” and only restored in the 1977 edition. Maybe farming wasn’t hip enough for his readers.
Later, in Peru, during his exploration of the South American jungle, Burroughs found himself decidedly turned off when stuck in a small farming town. ”Farming towns are awful,” he wrote Ginsberg. Yet he also wrote about his colonial fantasies: “You live like a king on a ranch while you are making $.” In Ecuador he yearned to live off the land once again, his fantasies of self-sufficiency and life as a farmer apparently overwhelming the reality of his failures.
Lee’s plans involved a river. He lived on the river and ran things to please himself. He grew his own weed and poppies and cocaine, and he had a young native boy for an all-purpose servant.
During his life, Burroughs developed passing interests in ecology and environmentalism that probably had their seed in those farming days, as he viewed the disappearance of the Wild West and difficult of maintaining isolation. He may not have spoken as clearly in favor of the environment as the likes of Gary Snyder, but throughout his body of work he clearly states that humans have ravaged the planet, and there is a definite sense that the cities and the influence of humanity are creeping outwards and consuming all that is natural. Ghost of Chance deals quite firmly with environmentalism and ecology, showing how people spread like a virus and destroy everything that they come in contact with. In it, a pirate, Captain Mission, “threatened to demonstrate for all to see that three hundred souls can coexist in relative harmony with each of their neighbors, and with the ecosphere of flora and fauna.” A humorous essay in The Adding Machine, called “The Great Glut”, jokingly attacks “ecologists, as well as Allen Ginsberg” for caring about the environment, before suggesting that all excrement and even human corpses be utilized as fertilizer. His descriptions of the vegetables that would result from such farming techniques mirror his earlier excitement about his own crops: “potatoes as big as watermelons, carrots six feet long, artichokes the size of washtubs.”
Burroughs remembered his time in Texas right into his final years. His last journal entries mention his days there, and his last ever story was about one of his neighbours in New Waverly, Arch Ellisor, who becomes a true Wild West character and flies in the face of the law, before shedding his skin and becoming Pan, god of the wild, and of nature, and of mountains and forests. Perhaps this story shows how much Burroughs came to romanticize his life in Texas near the end of his life.
This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #11.