Archives For Beatdom #13

William S. Burroughs, C. J. Bradbury Robinson, and Williams Mix

Love or hate him, venerate or revile him, the life and work of William Seward Burroughs continues to inspire and intrigue. In addition to “The Work,” since his death in 1997 we have seen further biographies, celebrations, collections of letters, and critical studies, as well as restored and even previously unpublished texts. There has been reassessment and re-examination of various aspects of the life and work, starting with Burroughs and Homosexuality in Jamie Russell’s Queer Burroughs, Burroughs and Literature in Michael Stevens’ The Road to Interpose (an encyclopaedic study of reading Burroughs’ reading” that is surely essential to fan and scholar alike); and more recently, Mayfair Burroughs in the introduction to Graham Masterton’s Rules of Duel.

New discoveries, examinations and re-evaluations continue as we approach the centenary of his birth next year in 2014. Recently we have had “Graphic Novel” Burroughs in Malcolm Mc Neill’s candid memoir Observed While Falling and now Burroughs Occult & Cult in my own humble effort, The Magical Universe of William S. Burroughs and David S. Wills’ masterful Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the “Weird Cult.” You could be forgiven for thinking that no turn had been left un-stoned, so to speak. That almost everybody who had ever known or even met William S. Burroughs had been interviewed, or else written about it. That there wasn’t much left to say about Uncle Bill that we didn’t know already.

Well, think again…

Keen-eyed Burroughs enthusiasts may well be aware of the proliferation of blurbs and endorsements from the Great Man for the work of others – usually friends whom he was expressing a genuine appreciation for. One of the most intriguing examples of this is the Introduction that Burroughs wrote in 1971 for the novel Williams Mix by C. J. Bradbury Robinson; a novel that Burroughs himself helped to place with Maurice Girodias and The Olympia Press, who had of course, brought Naked Lunch to print. A publisher’s proof of the book was prepared, and it was included in a press-release of forthcoming titles:


In an age of permissiveness few sexual acts retain the power to shock equal to assaults on children. And yet, in the hands of a writer as skilled as C. J. Bradbury Robinson, this subject takes on an entirely new perspective. With delicacy and sympathetic understanding, Robinson takes us into the minds of both assailant and victim. This is a novel that will stand as a significant social document that will take readers beyond their prejudices and force them to face up to a question that deserves serious consideration…


Even though it proceeds in glowing terms, placing Bradbury Robinson and his writing in the same exalted company as Beckett, Burroughs, Genet, Miller and Nabokov, and promises a “Hardbound. 1972 release” it was not to be: The Olympia Press was struggling under financial pressure and lawsuits brought by the Church of Scientology, and there was no money for new titles. A subsequent attempt to publish the book by Cecil Woolf also failed when a printer refused to produce the edition on moral grounds, and so Williams Mix was lost to literary limbo.

For a contemporary audience, perhaps the most troubling consideration is that the central concern of Williams Mix is an unabashed examination of paederasty. Named after the 1958 composition for pre-recorded magnetic tapes by John Cage (but also with a sly nod to Burroughs, of course) Williams Mix is superbly written, strange, poetic and philosophical by turn, obsessed with the music of language, mournful, lyrical, haunted, surprisingly funny in places, and I would even go as far as to say beautiful – but there is no getting away from the fact that this is a book whose literary engine is fuelled by the pleasures and pains of sexual desire for 10 to 12 year old boys, in much the same way that Burroughs’ own work is driven by an obsession with addiction and Control.

So who was C. J. Bradbury Robinson, and how had Burroughs’ support for this celebration of paederasty come about? The fact that he had helped to place the book with his own former publisher, the length of the text he wrote for the Introduction (in the region of 1,100 words, by far the longest such “endorsement”) – even that he later mentions his “English friend” Bradbury Robinson in The Retreat Diaries – show that this was personal; but for all Robinson’s experimentation with form and use of stream-of-consciousness, this was no Beat peer or fellow-champion of the Cut-Up Method.

In 1967 Christopher Bradbury Robinson was a young Cambridge graduate working as Head of the English Department at a Home Counties prep school. From there he submitted the first draft of his novel, Minor Incidents, to Calder & Boyars, on account of their reputation as champions of the avant-garde. The book so impressed C&B’s editor, Dulan Barber, that over the next eighteen months, in addition to occasional meetings, he sent Robinson several considered, perceptive letters entirely devoted to literary criticism, offering detailed advice as the author twice rewrote the novel, the third and final version being so convincing that Barber advised John Calder to “publish and be damned”. In due course, however, Calder & Boyars regretfully declined, as they felt publication of the book would take them straight back to court – an experience they were in no hurry to repeat after the recent cost to them of defending Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn. Robinson doubts any publisher today would read beyond the first sentence of the original Minor Incidents, and stresses that Dulan Barber, far from querying the novel’s theme, addressed himself solely to matters literary. This was just what Robinson wanted, as it counterpointed his many discussions with William S. Burroughs, which were also mostly concerned with the art of writing.

Feeling the book should be published, even if not by them, Calder & Boyars, with the author’s permission, sent it to Greenleaf Classics, purveyors of gay pulp in California. Robinson, meanwhile, as a way of staying in touch, offered to become a publisher’s reader for Calder & Boyars. Two quite unexpected outcomes emerged from these arrangements: Greenleaf accepted Minor Incidents, amusingly admitting that, the novel being a work of literature, it was unlike anything else on their list! They recognised too that their American readers wouldn’t see the pun artfully hidden in Minor Incidents and therefore recommended instead the title by which the novel has ever since been known: A Crocodile of Choirboys. This, they thought, had more of a ‘bite’ and would give the novel a better chance of selling. In addition, Greenleaf designed for the book its own unique cover, quite different to their customary format. Events proved them right as the title sold thousands of copies, taking everyone by surprise. This was perhaps just as well, for Robinson as a publisher’s reader, was paid by Calder & Boyars solely in books; he could take his pick of their new publications. Once a fortnight he would travel up to London from the school where he was teaching in order to deliver his reader’s reports and collect fresh typescripts. Eighteen months earlier however, as an aspiring author, Robinson had been invited to one of Calder’s parties.

Writing now, Bradbury Robinson says that he wouldn’t have gone at all if it wasn’t for the possibility that Burroughs might show up, which eventually he did:


Not a sign of him when I arrived – I talked for a while to Ann Quin and others – then a stir and there was WSB! I had a feeling he wouldn’t spend much time at this party and, sure enough, after twenty minutes he left. I followed him down the stairs; in the hall stopped him and asked him whether I could ask a question. Burroughs looked me up and down, asked if I’d had supper yet – I said No – he said Come and have dinner with me then – next I knew we were in a taxi and then sitting opposite one another over a dinner table in St James’s.



At the end of the meal, Robinson asked Burroughs for his phone number, and if they could meet again next time he came up to London – and so began a series of visits that lasted until Robinson moved to North Africa in 1971. Sometimes Burroughs would ring him at the school where he was teaching: “Occasionally the Headmaster would enter my classroom and say: There’s a call for you, Christopher. It’s William Burroughs… Or: William Burroughs on the line for you, Christopher… The boys would immediately sit up straight in their desks and, in awed voices tinged with irony, chorus: WIL-LIAM BUR-ROUGHS!”

Once or twice a month he would take the run up to town, call on Burroughs, and they would talk and drink and talk together, usually just the two of them, and often long into the night. Right from the very beginning, Robinson was struck by the combination of Burroughs’ courageous examination of everything, relentless questioning, and completely open-minded, non-judgemental consideration of whatever he turned his attention to. Though Burroughs had already read versions of Minor Incidents in typescript, indeed recommending the novel to Maurice Girodias at Olympia Press and Richard Seaver at Grove Press, nonetheless it was with some trepidation Robinson handed his friend the 1970 Phenix Publishers PR283,

Greenleaf Classics, A Crocodile of Choirboys. He remembers: “On my next visit I asked him what he thought of it. Unhesitatingly he replied You’re a writer! When I looked less than pleased, Burroughs said, Don’t be disappointed – those are the exact words Beckett said to me – You’re a writer!”

The two writers bonded over their shared love of literature, but they also enjoyed frank and far-ranging discussions about the many-and-various forms of sexuality expressing the full range of the human condition. Robinson recalls Burroughs looking at Piccolo and other “boy porn” magazines, openly on sale in London at that time (1969) – indeed, from shops in Brewer Street, the location of the offices of Calder & Boyars! Burroughs would comment on them as if he were reviewing an exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery, discussing the photographs in terms of lighting, camera angles, the attractiveness of the models, all discussed purely aesthetically. This anecdote makes it clear Burroughs found nothing reprehensible about the photographs, and therefore nothing reprehensible about paederasty – quite the opposite, in fact. Robinson writes: “It’s obvious Burroughs was extremely interested in these magazines, as one would be if one were a student of human sexuality – which Burroughs was… Let’s not forget Burroughs respected Freud for his detached examination of sexuality, and agreed with Freud no wall divides the mad from the sane or the so-called normal from the so-called perverse…”

The vast majority of their conversations, however, were on the subject of writing, their favourite writers, and the avant-garde and writing techniques. They would return again and again to the alchemy of writing – its music, even: “Burroughs would pull from his typewriter the page he was currently working on (Dutch Schultz or Port of Saints), hand it to me and say, Musical enough for you, Brad? And we would examine the writing as a musical score.”

On the subject of how to turn “the base metal of prose into the gold of poetry” and comparing and contrasting favourite writers who had perhaps achieved something of this, Burroughs would bring up his beloved Denton Welch and Jean Genet, and Robinson would counter with Ronald Firbank, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and Samuel Beckett. Although Robinson notes Burroughs’ obvious admiration for Beckett – an enthusiasm they both shared – he also comments on his doubt that Burroughs had actually read that much by him, and almost certainly had not seen a production of Waiting For Godot. He also observes: “Come to think of it, his flat was marked by an astonishing absence of books.” On the subject of Genet, Robinson adds:


WSB once said to me that ‘Genet does things with words you would not think could be done with words’… WSB at his best achieves the same astonishing aesthetic: there are lines – whole paragraphs even – which are so moving, so beautiful, one thinks an angel must have written them – not this dope fiend in suit and tie smiling at one across the table!


Speaking of the dope-fiend-in-suit-and-tie, Robinson is quite clear that because he personally had no interest in either drugs or The Beats, he believes Burroughs found his approach very refreshing, and that what appealed most to Burroughs was that Robinson was interested in him only as a writer. He is also clear about the fact that his friendship with Burroughs occurred at a time when the “glamorous myth” of the “icon of cool” had not yet completely taken over — a development which he agrees Burroughs colluded with, to the later detriment of his standing as a serious writer. Looking back now he marvels at the candid access he was fortunate enough to enjoy:


As we conversed about writing – about what one could do with words, about what words did to one – I gradually became aware how nervous Burroughs was about his own talent and about his literary reputation; in fact, how humble he was about his writing – which is perhaps why this Master (as I viewed him then) was so willing to help a Novice (as I viewed myself).


During their many hundreds of hours in conversation together, Bradbury Robinson found himself able to observe from close up the pursuit of that “frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork” and witness first hand as Burroughs brought that same unflinching honesty and scrutiny to bear on his own life and work:


Late one Saturday evening, after we’d drunk most of a bottle and as I was preparing to leave, Burroughs coiled his fingers tightly around my wrist, pulled me towards him and asked me this memorable question: I’m not a one-book writer, am I? I will be remembered for more than Naked Lunch, won’t I? I wouldn’t say he was near to tears, but he was certainly very upset. I told him what I thought then and still think now is the truth: You’ll be remembered for the trilogy: Naked Lunch / The Soft Machine / The Ticket That Exploded… And as you know I think The Soft Machine is the best of the three – and then I quoted a few lines to him from memory: ‘sad train whistles cross a distant sky blue magic of all movies’… Slowly his fingers around my wrist relaxed and he escorted me to the door, one arm around my shoulders.


Robinson also got to see a more human side to El Hombre Invisible:


He lived, if not an austere, at least a simple life – apart, that is, from his St James’s apartment (when I knew him) and his Savile Row suits and handmade shoes from Lobb in Jermyn Street. I always referred to him as the best-dressed man in London. Flawlessly courteous too – and kind. I remember walking down Piccadilly with him and being astonished when he dropped a five pound note into the hat of an unemployed man playing the violin. Burroughs must have guessed what I was thinking, for he commented: ‘No matter how poor one is, Brad, there are always others poorer…’


Most of Bradbury Robinson’s visits to Burroughs were undisturbed by even so much as a telephone call, but he never felt that the older writer was lacking for company:“He once said to me: I’m never alone, Brad – I have my characters… And one could sense they were there in the room…”

He did have occasion to meet some of his other friends and visitors, however. Apart from a rather fraught visit from Billy Jr. (clearly desperate for money), visits from Allen Ginsberg, and “toward the end, once or twice some ghastly rent boy from Piccadilly,” the other main encounter he remembers is with Brion Gysin. Initially Robinson knew only of Gysin as the artist responsible for the paintings hanging on the walls of Burroughs’ flat, and the painter himself was wary until Burroughs broke the ice with “Brad thinks your paintings are a meeting of East and West, specifically Japanese calligraphy and Paul Klee.” After this Gysin was friendly and civilized, and Robinson discussed his interest in visiting Switzerland to live with Benedictine Monks (mentioned in The Retreat Diaries – included in The Burroughs File anthology from City Lights. At the urging of Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs goes on one of the Retreats of Chögyam Trungpa. Considering Tibetan Buddhism and the tonal and nagual of Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan, he writes “I was thinking about Bradbury Robinson, an English friend who was then going in for Mystical Christianity” – and it is implied that he is one of the test-subjects that Burroughs will try to contact via astral projection, or at least visit in a dream.)Bare knees boy knees

As an undergraduate at Cambridge, Robinson had been invited to visit the community at the Benedictine Abbey of Ampleforth in North Yorkshire, where he met Father Aelred Graham (England’s leading authority on Zen Buddhism, and author of Zen Catholicism) and the then Abbot, Basil Hume, later Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. Thinking Robinson might have a vocation, the Abbot suggested he might like to spend a while living with the monks of a Benedictine Abbey in the Swiss Alps, as he knew they were short of someone to teach English in their school. As Gysin had himself been taught by Benedictine Monks at Downside School in Somerset, he could understand Robinson’s interest.

Bradbury Robinson relates an amusing anecdote from this time which demonstrates both how aware Burroughs was of his younger friend’s spiritual interests, and yet at the same time at ease with the notion of paederasty:


Not long after meeting Gysin, when we were again on our own, Burroughs, knowing of my interest in the possible overlap between Christian Mysticism and Zen Buddhism, suggested I investigate Tibetan Buddhism, even visit a Tibetan monastery. Isn’t it rather cold in Tibet? I observed. Burroughs knew I didn’t much care for the cold. His lips twitched with delight, as if I had fallen into a hole he had carefully dug. Oh, you needn’t worry about the cold, Brad! Being a visitor from the West you’ll be taken good care of. At night the monastery will pack little boy novices all around and on top of you to keep you warm. A duvet of boys. You’ll be snug as a bug in a rug! Burroughs sipped his whisky and then we laughed simultaneously.


In spring 1971, Robinson wrote an essay on Samuel Beckett, which was published by The Cambridge Quarterly. He then wrote a follow-up, A Way With Words: The Theme of Silence in William S. Burroughs, in which he considered the work of his friend, with a particular emphasis on The Soft Machine, an examination of Silence in the work of both Burroughs and Beckett, and of course sexuality. The Cambridge Quarterly however refused to publish it, on the grounds that, “We don’t think William Burroughs matters very much” – but Robinson himself was under no illusions about the matter: “What they meant was they didn’t want any ‘porn’ fouling their pristine pages!” Regrettably, the essay has never yet been published – despite the fact that Burroughs himself gave it high praise, saying he preferred it over Eric Mottram’s The Algebra of Need (which he dismissed as “work typical of an academic”) and signing a copy of The Soft Machine with the dedication “For Bradbury Robinson, With all best wishes and appreciation for one of the very few intelligent critical essays on my writing, William S. Burroughs.”

A Way With Words… is indeed a fine piece of work and something of a lost gem where Burroughs Literary Criticism is concerned. Oliver Harris has written that it is: “…really interesting and insightful, a pleasure to read. Had it been published in, say, 1970, it would have had no rival other than Tony Tanner’s very good piece (in his book City of Words).”

Bradbury Robinson examines the trilogy of Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, and The Ticket That Exploded, wherein the problem of communication is central, and makes an intriguing comparison between William S. Burroughs and Samuel Beckett: “Mr Beckett’s purpose is to say again and again that there is nothing to say; Mr Burroughs’ purpose to speak words again and again until words lose their meaning, human beings their desire to talk.”

Referencing George Steiner’s 1967 essay Silence and the Poet, Robinson describes the possible limits of Poetry – as expressed in Rimbaud and Hölderlin – but refutes the notion that “the inhumanity of this century, the bestiality of Man, has undermined language to the point where the only decent response is silence” and goes on to consider Direct Action, Ionesco and the Zen Masters, before stating: “What is so striking about Mr. Beckett and Mr Burroughs, so new, is that the song they sing is of the silence. That is their difference and this the paradox.”

There follows a detailed consideration of Burroughs’ tape-recorder experiments, a comparison with Steve Reich’s “Come Out,” our understanding of Space & Time, Eliot’s Four Quartets and Paul Tillich on the Crucifixion; then a consideration of sex that ranges from Freud’s polymorphous perversity via Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris, to the paederasty of Andre Gide, Michel Tournier, and Tony Duvert, with Robinson asserting:“Despite appearances to the contrary, sexuality is as taboo today as it ever was – hence the fascination.”

There follows a pretty shrewd criticism of the trilogy, comparing the avant-garde techniques to composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, pulling Burroughs up on a lot of what Robinson sees as self-indulgence and sloppiness, enthusing that his work would not be considered so “difficult” if:


…we recall certain writers whom he has always reminded me of – the verbal brilliance but ‘off the wall’ themes of Ezra Pound, for example, the Virginia Woolf of The Waves, the grotesqueries one meets in Dickens, the passion of Emily Brontë, the ‘madness’ of Christopher Smart, Jonathan Swift’s venom, even present in his gently humorous Directions to Servants, not forgetting, of course, Laurence Sterne…


And finally an appreciation of the “extraordinary fertility” of Burroughs’ imagination – how he “delights us with his wit” but also “distresses us with his stark despair” – but how, in the end, for Bradbury Robinson it is The Soft Machine that is most valuable:


…because it is, more or less, a continuous stream of poetry, which at times communicates moments of sadness (the emotion Mr Burroughs is best at evoking) so intense they make one ache with pain, grief-stricken, like the author, at remembered loss, and these moments are so intense, so sincere, so well-conveyed, they would alone convince me of the stature of Mr Burroughs.


Not surprisingly, Burroughs clearly appreciated the essay. When Robinson asked him to write an Introduction to his new novel, Williams Mix, even though he found the work difficult – even troubling in places – he was happy to oblige.

Williams Mix is a strange book – not least of all for its paederastic obsessions. Although shot through with some beautiful, quite poetic, descriptive passages – “The moon rose white, a circle of paper in the night sky, and hung there, riding the tendrils of the chaste and chasing clouds” – it mainly consists of repeating, overlapping, and intersecting narratives that the author describes as a “dish of voices” – disagreeing with Burroughs’ comparison of writing to film, insisting rather that it is more accurately like a radio play – with all the voices only really existing within the imagination of the narrator. A schoolboy, William, spins a yarn about a possible assault by an elderly tramp. The tramp too has a story to tell about his younger self as a patient of another William, Dr. Bearpark. That younger self too tells a story, principally about his relationship with his mother, and the different voices that the characters have internalised – from parents, teachers, and authority figures representing conformity and “normality” – all have their turn upon the stage, the various stories weaving in and out in a strange dance across Time and Memory, confirming and contradicting and sometimes even cancelling each other.

The narrator wants to Get Back to the prelapsarian state of the male child before the onset of puberty, a state depicted as both Silent and Timeless, before the damage that was done to him – the trauma of his Fall, which may-or-may-not have been sexual abuse by a paederast:


He had no desires, or none that he was aware of, and therefore nothing to assuage, appease, allay, alleviate, which is precisely what made him so desirable…

He had no desires, or none that he knew of, only the wish to be left alone, and, left alone, he would sit quietly, as he is now, doing nothing, and if only all people could be as enlightened as he is, sitting quietly, doing nothing, what a peaceful world it would be, paradise regained.


The terrible and cruel irony is that he can conceive of doing so only through sexual union with a boy of 10 or 11, an avatar of his own child Self, until he realises in the midst of an LSD-therapy session with the demonic and demented Dr. Bearpark (doing for psychiatry what Burroughs’ Dr. Benway did for the medical profession) that what he wants to do actually is go back in Time and possess his child Self so as, quite literally, to become him, again:


Time join me as a man to the schoolboy I loved time connect me as a boy to the man I wanted to love me then time splice in the voices of choristers photograph fulfilment fix it forever…

I tell you it does make sense: photographic past splice in with reality present gently slowly the years recede disappear vanish in an orgasm flash bulb of eternity now.


In his Introduction, Burroughs immediately singles out this notion of sex as a form of psychic time travel as key, a preoccupation that he was no stranger to himself:


If there is one thing you can say with computerized certainty about any sexual feeling it is this: it is a repetition of a previously experienced sexual feeling. Pleasure is the repetition of past pleasure. So someone who is attracted to small boys is simply attempting to travel back in time and re-experience his own past pleasure.


Although Burroughs’ own obsession was with an imaginary return to a heavily homoeroticised fantasy of adolescence, rather than the pre-pubescent boy, it is clear from his Introduction that the poetry of Robinson’s prose, with its mournful longing for lost youth, spoke to him:


Mr. Bradbury Robinson describes this as a book of voices. However the descriptive passages, that is, the pictorial passages give these voices life… ‘he looked at the grey clouds and thought of Summer when it was hot and the boys sat in cotton shorts and open necked shirts the heat seemed to make a sound like unseen wings and it was hard to stay awake… thoughts leapfrog through my mind searching the past…’ Searching for the boy left back there ‘playing marbles, flying aeroplanes, playing football, chasing each other…’


It isn’t hard to see how he would have also been fascinated with Robinson’s descriptions of the voices-in-our-heads – so close to his own preoccupations with Control, Language-as-Virus, and Possession – and his Introduction poses the question of just who exactly is talking to whom? “Mr Bradbury Robinson who is seemingly so rarefied and esoteric is actually saying something basic about the human condition… This book then is something for everybody to read not just those who may share Mr. Bradbury Robinson’s sexual interest in small boys. This book is the human impasse.”

After praising the descriptive powers of the writer, and what he sees as “the courage of desperation” in his work, Burroughs closes with an extraordinary consideration of what might actually happen if Bradbury Robinson’s Narrator could travel back in Time and meet his idealised 10-year-old Self: “What happens when they stand face to face? It looks like an old Western shoot down. The boy kills Bradbury Robinson so he can grow up. Or Bradbury Robinson kills the boy so he will never have to grow up.”

Burroughs himself clearly had a pronounced Romantic yearning for the idylls (real or imaginary) of his own lost adolescence, and undoubtedly this is behind much of the homo-eroticised “Boy’s Own” emphasis in his work (what Malcolm Mc Neill has described as “the tree-house” – a kind of liminal space of All Boys Together, where women are Not Welcome or even necessary.) Clearly a case can be made that his sexuality was to some extent stuck at the level of this pubescent boy, discovering his own body and the bodies of other boys, and thus the objects of his erotic engagement were youths: adolescents and young adults. This is more-or-less confirmed in a conversation Burroughs had with Andy Warhol and Andre Leon-Talley that was among those recorded by Victor Bockris for With William Burroughs: A Report From The Bunker:


Warhol: What kind of people do you like?

Burroughs: Young boys.

Leon-Talley: How young do you like them?

Burroughs: Oh, say from fourteen to twenty-five…


For the record, Bradbury Robinson insists that while Burroughs was most definitely not a paederast (Graham Caveney take note), he “delighted in challenging what we now call Political Correctness, especially with regard to sexual matters.”

In 1971 Robinson would go to live in North Africa, then after a year take up a teaching position in Saudi Arabia. Eventually he would make his way to Switzerland for two memorable years living the Benedictine life without actually becoming a monk. Burroughs himself returned definitively to the States in 1974, and although he later invited his friend “Brad” to go and stay with him at The Bunker, it was not to be. C. J. Bradbury Robinson would go on to become a practising Kleinian psychoanalyst, and Williams Mix would languish, while ironically his other novels would become sought-after collector’s items in the twilight world of literary erotica. In 2004 he began to revise the texts of his earlier works, eventually publishing at his own expense in a handsome edition substantial excerpts from A Crocodile of Choirboys (restored to Minor Incidents), the follow-up Young Thomas (about the love between a young Prep School English Teacher and the eponymous 11-year-old boy who is his favourite pupil) and Williams Mix, complete with its Introduction by William S. Burroughs. More than 40 years after they were originally written, they have at last seen “the dark of print” together, and are currently available from Out Now Press of London and Den Haag, or via

In closing, I would like to say Thank You to Christopher Bradbury Robinson for his time, friendship, and the extensive correspondence in which he has challenged, inspired, provoked, and been so very generous with his memories regarding the man he calls his “friend and mentor” William S. Burroughs. I think the last word belongs to him:


My abiding impression of Burroughs is of an impeccably dressed wonderfully polite gentleman, a sort of Southern gentleman of the old school. He was also immensely generous with his time and very kind. His conversation was, by turns, witty, scathing, insightful, above all, funny. He was an original, a one-off, just as his prose is original. I have known quite a few eminent men, but no one quite like William Burroughs!


Author’s note: All quotations attributed to C. J. Bradbury Robinson in this article are taken either from correspondence or face-to-face interviews with the author, and are used with his express permission.

Drunk and Disorderly: Charles Bukowski in Hollywood

by Chris Dickerson


Charles Bukowski never considered himself part of the Beat Generation; in fact, he frequently disparaged the idea. He wasn’t a joiner, he didn’t like drugs (except booze), and while the Beats haunted San Francisco or New York’s Greenwich Village, Bukowski clung proudly – often on wobbly drunken legs – to his hometown, Hollywood, California.

So Bukowski prowled Hollywood, its dive bars and run-down rooming houses, writing about it exclusively. And if we can accept that, say, Ernest Hemingway was the Clark Gable of American letters – handsome, dashing, muy macho, an outdoorsman and globe-trotter – then Bukowski was akin to Humphrey Bogart.

“His special knowledge was of the jungle of the city at night,” film historian Richard Schickel wrote of Bogart in his 1962 book, The Stars. “Which clubs the syndicate ran, which one-arm restaurants served good coffee, which hotels a whore could use, which streets were safe to walk upon after midnight.” Those words fit Bukowski like a comfortable old jacket. Hollywood, the dark underbelly of it, not the glittering bastion of the Entertainment Capital of the World, was his town.

Home for Bukowski was almost Baltimore; that’s where he and his father and mother landed from Andernach, Germany when little Heinrich was nearly three years old, in 1923. Baltimore had a strong German-speaking working class (it still has), but Henry the Elder, an American soldier who’d served in World War I and decided to stay on in Germany at war’s end, was born and raised in Pasadena. His parents still lived there, so he moved his family West, to what was then the sleepy, dusty village of Los Angeles. In the twenties, the place had more in common with the Mexican pueblos from which it sprang than the undulating, traffic-stuffed, neon-lighted metropolis it would become over the next three decades.

The family settled in at 2122 Longwood Avenue, in South Los Angeles. Mother and son proceeded to become Americanized: Katrina was known as Kate and the boy, Heinrich Karl, was thereafter called Henry Jr., or Hank (his middle name became Charles). It was also the scene of Bukowski’s horrific childhood, with regular beatings from his father meeting only indifference from his mother. The foundation for life as a drunken loner was laid early.

To make matters worse, when he was about 13, Bukowski’s face exploded with boils and severe acne that would leave scars, plaguing him all his life. The lonely and beaten boy was now something of a freak. The situation didn’t improve when he transferred from Susan Miller Dorsey High to Los Angeles High School in 1937, in the affluent confines of L.A.’s Hancock Park.

Hancock Park was (and is) where the rich and the beautiful of Los Angeles lived; Beverly Hills East, before Beverly Hills and Brentwood existed. Bukowski was neither beautiful – far from it – nor from a wealthy family. He craved the attention of girls, but was too painfully shy and self-aware to speak to anyone. He was a borderline average student, and though the school had a poetry club, he lacked the confidence to join it.

He had, by now, discovered books and writing, at the sprawling Los Angeles Public Library, downtown on 5th Street. He consumed the works of Hemingway and D.H. Lawrence, Fitzgerald and Dos Passos, and Sinclair Lewis, and the legendary Russian writers of the previous century. The ostracized teenager found company and solace among the greats.

“Words weren’t dull, words were things that could make your mind hum,” he’d write years later in his novel, Ham On Rye. “If you read them and let yourself feel the magic, you could live without pain, with hope, no matter what happened to you.”

From high school, Bukowski enrolled at Los Angeles City College on Vermont Avenue, thinking of maybe becoming a journalist. The school had then, as it does now, a thriving arts, drama, and English department, but Bukowski again managed to be an undistinguished student. He dropped out in 1941, unable to get a job as a cub reporter with any of L.A.’s several daily newspapers.

He returned to the only place that gave him safety and sanctuary, the public library. One day he plucked from the shelf a relatively new novel, Ask the Dust, by John Fante. He read the first few pages. Bukowski’s world was transformed.

Fante’s Ask the Dust tells the story of Arturo Bandini, a struggling young writer living in the down-at-heels Bunker Hill section of L.A. (not far from the library). Bukowski immediately identified with Bandini, deciding then and there to set his goal on becoming a writer.

Bukowski, was in fact so grateful to Fante, that years later when Black Sparrow Press was established exclusively to publish Bukowski’s novels and poetry, he’d only agree to the contract if Black Sparrow also reissued all of Fante’s work, long out of print.

Bukowski moved to the predominantly-Mexican neighborhood of Bunker Hill, into a crumbling stucco boarding house (just like Bandini). And, like Bandini, he pounded out short stories for the pulps and lower-level “literary” magazines, while working a series of menial jobs in factories, or in the train yards of nearby Union Station. He drank in the seedy bars and ate in the greasy spoon diners, his stories racking up rejection slips, one after another. None of them sold.

With America flung into the turmoil of World War II, Bukowski decided that what a young writer needed was experiences to write about. He left Bunker Hill by bus, heading off across the country; it was here, over the next years, that Bukowski established his legend, what he called his “lost years,” a “ten-year drunk,” of flophouses, whores, dead-end jobs, low-life bars, and drifting, yet all the while, writing, writing, writing.

As with most legends, the facts are somewhat different: yes, Bukowski made sojourns across the country, but unlike his self-created mythology of the “hobo poet,” he was seldom gone from Los Angeles for more than two months at a time; he was never homeless, never slept on the streets; he watched his money carefully, always maintaining a bank account; and when he did go home to L.A., it was to his parents’ house on Longwood Avenue.

None of that meant that he was getting along any better with his father, and he wouldn’t stick around for long. But something must have clicked: in 1944 he had his first professional sale, to Story magazine, a humorous little piece entitled “Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip.” The byline read, “Charles Bukowski,” because he didn’t want to use his first name (as it was the same as his hated father’s), and he didn’t think “Hank” sounded sophisticated.

The story didn’t launch his career as a writer; it was little more than a one-off. He was disappointed, but he kept writing, and from then, in print, he was Charles Bukowski.

Bukowski returned to Los Angeles in 1947 (he’d been willing to serve in the Army, but was declared 4-F for unspecified physical reasons), getting a job as a department store stock boy. He moved into MacArthur Park, another predominantly-Mexican neighborhood bordering downtown, spending his evenings drinking in the cheap Alvarado Street bars.

It was in one of these bars that he one night talked with Jane Cooney Baker, the woman ten years his senior who would become mistress, muse, drinking companion, and sparring partner. Bukowski would immortalise their combative booze-fuelled relationship in the novels Post Office and Factotum; in many poems, such as the ones collected in 1969’s The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over The Hills; and in the screenplay Bukowski created for Barfly, where she’s played by Faye Dunaway.

Bukowski and Baker lived in a succession of rooming houses around MacArthur Park, but their drunken fights were often so loud and violent that they were evicted time and again. They finally took up residence together in a tiny wood-frame house on North Westmoreland Avenue – and Bukowski went to work for the postal service.

Neither situation lasted. Bukowski suffered a severe haemorrhage. He was told by doctors that if he ever drank again, he’d die. He had to quit his post office job, and Jane left him. He was thirty-four years old.

He threw himself back into writing – and drinking, doctors be damned –submitting poems to a host of little magazines. With one, Harlequin, his poetry made a hit. Not only did Editor Barbara Frye agree to publish his work, she wrote him a long fan letter, telling Bukowski he was a great poet, as great as William Blake. Their correspondence became so “friendly” that Barbara eventually quit her job in Texas, moved to Los Angeles, and, in October 1955, became the first Mrs. Charles Bukowski. The couple moved into a house in Echo Park, smack between Downtown

Los Angeles and the bohemian, working class community of East Hollywood.

Barbara encouraged Bukowski’s writing, and prompted him to go back to Los Angeles City College, but nothing lasted – except the writing and drinking. Bukowski again dropped out of school, and after only fifteen months of marriage, he and Barbara divorced.

Bukowski was now in Hollywood, after living for years on its fringes, though not on the glamorous West Side, but in the blue collar confines of East Hollywood, an area of family-owned shops and liquor stores, old apartment buildings and neighborhood bars. East Hollywood was where he would spend most of the rest of his life, and, somewhat like Raymond Chandler, capture the time and place forever in his work.

He first found apartment 303 at 1623 North Mariposa Avenue, between Sunset and Hollywood Boulevard; a cold water flat with the communal shower upstairs, where the hallways with their ratty carpeting were lighted by an overhead fluorescent strip. He went back to work for the postal service, at the Terminal Annex downtown. He worked the nightshift, leaving his days free to write and to play the ponies at Hollywood Park Racetrack.

It wasn’t long before he took up again with Jane Cooney Baker, though by now, whatever sexual attraction they’d had for each other was gone. They were simply drinking buddies. But when she died in 1962, Bukowski was one of the few at her funeral. He described the scene in Post Office:


“There was the coffin. What had been Betty (her name in the novel) was in there. It was very hot. The sun came down in one yellow sheet. A fly circled around. Halfway through the funeral two guys in working clothes came carrying my wreath. The roses were dead, dead and dying in the heat, and they leaned the thing up against a near-by tree. Near the end of the service my wreath leaned forward and fell flat on its face.”


It was around this time, the early sixties, when Bukowski’s fortunes as a writer slowly began to shift. From his bug-ridden flat on Mariposa Avenue, still working nights for the postal service, he kept pounding away at his “typer,” classical music wafting through his little cell, a bottle of beer and a deck of smokes always at hand. He was suddenly getting published on a regular basis, his work appearing in cheap chapbooks or tiny literary magazines which paid next-to-nothing, if anything at all. Bukowski somehow became the bridge between the fading Beat Generation of the fifties, before the likes of poetic songwriters such as Bob Dylan or Lennon and McCartney became the new voices of poetry. Publishers Jon and Louise Webb included Bukowski in their high-octane literary magazine, The Outsider, alongside established writers like Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller, William Burroughs and Robert Creely. Bukowski the loner was suddenly in heady company, finally getting noticed. Persistence, if nothing else, was paying off.

It was also in the early sixties that Bukowski met avant-garde poet Frances Smith. Their friendship flowered into an affair, with Frances becoming pregnant. Neither of them were happy about it; Frances was 41, and believed her child-bearing years were over. Bukowski offered to marry her, but she declined. Still, they moved in together to another ramshackle East Hollywood neighborhood, a one-bedroom bungalow at 5126 De Longpre Avenue. Bukowski’s only child, Marina, was born there in 1964. Frances soon moved out, taking Marina, but Bukowski kept his word and provided child support, seeing his daughter frequently.

But if it was yet another relationship down the hole, Buskowski’s literary ship was coming into port, all flags flying. He’d been writing a column, “Notes Of A Dirty Old Man,” for the underground L.A. magazine Open City. When the magazine folded, he moved the column to the underground weekly newspaper, the Los Angeles Free Press. The column became one of the paper’s most popular features. He was a journalist – of sorts – at last. His poetry continued to be regularly published, but he still wasn’t secure enough financially to quit the daily grind of the post office.

All that changed in the early seventies. John Martin, an independent (though by no means affluent) businessman, struck a deal with Bukowski: Martin would guarantee Bukowski $100 a month for life if Bukowski quit the post office and wrote full-time, giving Martin exclusive publishing rights to any of Bukowski’s future books. Done deal. Martin founded Black Sparrow Press, with Bukowski as its sole author. Black Sparrow published Bukowski’s collections of poetry (and later, reprints of John Fante’s books) and, in 1970, Bukowski’s first novel, Post Office.

To augment his $100/month from Black Sparrow, Bukowski accepted invitations to read his poems at small venues around Los Angeles. All that was fine and good, reading for fifteen, twenty, or maybe thirty people, until Beat legend Lawrence Ferlinghetti invited Bukowski to San Francisco for a solo poetry reading in 1972.

Filmmaker Taylor Hackford, then an aspiring young director, was in the midst of crafting a black and white documentary on Bukowski for the L.A. PBS outlet, KCET. Hackford decided to tag along up north and record the City Lights event.

As Hackford recalled in the 2003 documentary on Bukowski, Born Into This, they found themselves confronted by eight hundred rabid, noisy fans. Bukowski was a hit, and collected the princely sum of $400 for the hour-long reading.

Now free to write full-time, becoming a celebrity in the bohemian circles he claimed to dislike, Bukowski moved one more time in Hollywood, to an apartment at 5437 Carlton Way, smack on the demarcation line between East Hollywood and “Hollywood Proper,” the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Western Avenue. It still wasn’t “Ritzy Hollywood,” by any means. Most of the movie studios had long ago folded their tents (though Paramount Studios was – and is – still going strong on nearby Santa Monica Boulevard). Bukowski’s neighbors were sex shops and low-life saloons like “The Study” on Western Avenue (still standing, if long out of business, until the building was levelled in early 2013), and liquor stores like the Pink Elephant, where he bought his beer, whiskey, and cigarettes. He’d wander as far as the Frolic Room, next to the Pantages Theater, near Vine Street (a neighborhood dive from which he was often 86ed; his portrait now hangs over the bar, an irony he might appreciate).

He kept his name and address listed in the phone book, so the girls who loved his poetry could find him, and they did, showing up in droves on his doorstep. Bukowski, now in his early fifties, ravenously made up for lost time.

And he wrote. In his second novel, Factotum, he solidified the character of “Hank Chinaski,” who – like Hemingway’s Nick Adams, or Kerouac’s Sal Paradise, or Fante’s Arturo Bandini – would be the alter ego for which he’d become famous. Other novels – Women and Hollywood – followed, along with the poetry collections. He used all the people he was meeting in his work, especially all the “girl friends” who peopled Women. John Martin at Black Sparrow Press saw his investment pay off, with the $100 he’d promised Bukowski blossoming into as much as $7000 a month, as more and more books sold.

Hollywood itself soon came calling, in all its glamour and glory, in the form of actors like Sean Penn, or the Irish musician Bono. Bono, in the documentary Born Into This, recalls that he loved the Beats because, being Irish, “you could eat the language.” But Bukowski was different. “Here was a guy,” Bono said, “who stripped the language down to the bone, down to the marrow of the bone. He was like, ‘I have no time for metaphor.’”

More documentaries chronicled Bukowski: The Ordinary Madness of Charles Bukowski in 1981, and Mirrored – The Charles Bukowski Tapes by Barbet Schroeder in 1987. Then movies: Tales of Ordinary Madness in 1983, featuring Ben Gazzara as Hank Chinaski, Barfly (directed by Schroeder) in 1987 with Mickey Rourke in the Chinaski role, and Factotum in 2005, starring Matt Dillon.

True to form, Bukowski claimed to be unimpressed by any of it. He savaged both Gazzara’s and Rourke’s portrayals (Bukowski would be dead for over a decade by the time Dillon came up to bat, but the odds are, he wouldn’t have liked him, either).

At first more popular in Europe than in the United States, Bukowski received speaking and reading engagements from France and Germany, capping it all with a notorious drunken appearance on Bernard Pivot’s über-intellectual talk show in Paris, from which Bukowski was unceremoniously evicted mid-interview.

By now, the late eighties-early nineties, it was all part and parcel of the party. Henry Charles Bukowski Jr., the tortured little boy, the shunned teenager with the horribly scarred face, the man who worked dozens of mind-numbing, back-breaking minimum-wage menial jobs for decades, but who never quit writing, was somehow now a well-to-do and famous author. He married again, a young and beautiful health food restaurateur, Linda Lee Beighle, and he made his last move, with her, to a spacious and comfortable home in San Pedro, California. He swapped his battered “typer” for a computer, his beer and whiskey for wine. He wrote his last novel, Pulp, a surreal private eye pastiche (maybe in revenge for all those now-gone pulp magazines which rejected him in his youth). It was set… where else?… in Hollywood.

Bukowski died of cancer in 1994, age seventy-three. On his gravestone at Green Hills Memorial Park in Rancho Palos Verdes are two words: “Don’t Try.” Like most things about his legend, the words belie his actions; nobody ever tried harder; and finally made it…

American Hipster: A Life of Herbert Huncke


While the name Herbert Huncke may not be well-known among the general population, it is certainly familiar to readers of the Beat Generation. You simply cannot tell the life story of Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, or Jack Kerouac without it, and he appears quite obviously in some of their most important works, including Junky, On the Road, and “Howl.” These three writers, among the most important in American literature, each befriended Huncke, learned from him, and came to be known by a label that was coined by him – “beat”.

What is amazing is that until now, Huncke’s own story has gone largely untold. Ask most Beat readers about him and they’ll tell you a few repeated phrases: “career criminal,” “hustler,” “drug addict.” He has become a perennial footnote in Beat history, despite having played such a significant role that one would expect his name to be on the tip of as many tongues as Neal Cassady’s. The two men appear to have played similar roles – as deviant muses, unexpected sources of literary material, and also seemingly morally-challenged nuisances.

Yet while Cassady has long been known as Dean Moriarty, the wildman with the motor-mouth, inspiration behind one of the great American novels, Huncke has been sidelined until now. American Hipster: A Life of Herbert Huncke, The Times Square Hustler Who Inspired The Beat Generation[1] is the first biography of Huncke, who died in 1996. He managed to write an autobiography, which was posthumously published by friends with the 1997 Herbert Huncke Reader, but this is the first serious effort to examine his life, and as such is an important addition to the Beat literary canon.

From the start, it feels odd reading about Huncke as you would any other important figure in literature. He is so commonly presented as a device – the hip bad guy who turns the real writers onto his mischievous underground ways – it is strange to read about his family history, and his childhood. Indeed, imagining Huncke as a child with a mother and father is quite jarring. This effect is perhaps exaggerated thanks to the author’s choice of introducing the twelve-year old runaway Huncke first and foremost, in the Prologue. She tells the story of Huncke’s attempt at running away, giving someone a blowjob in exchange for money, and then finally being arrested and returned home. This is the tragic Huncke to whom we are to be introduced later.

We are presented with a short description of his childhood, during which time it seems that both Huncke and the writer are keen to get on the road, to get away from being tied down to parents and school. There is the sense that he is meant for the big city, be it Chicago or New York, and always the idea that he will later turn into the man who has been kindly described as a “career criminal” with his own questionable moral compassing. Of particular interest is a charming story of his obsession with a Native American legend that foreshadows his own hobo wanderings.

Altogether, American Hipster is a welcome addition to Beat studies. Well researched and written at a good pace, it really brings light to the life of a pivotal character in American literature.

[1] The book appears sometimes to be titled “the life of”, which sounds better, but this reviewer’s copy says “a life of”

Meeting William S. Burroughs

Cabell McLeanBy Cabell McClean and Matthew Levi Stevens


Cabell McLean was born in 1952, a descendant of the visionary American writer James Branch Cabell (author of Jurgen), for whom he was named. After attending the University of Virginia, he first met William S. Burroughs when he attended Naropa College as a grad student in the late 1970s. He came to the attention of the poet, Larry Fagin, who told him: “Where you need to be is with William. You’re writing stories here, not poetry. Bill’s the one you should be talking to.” Anne Waldman and Michael Brownstein gave similar advice: “Go see Bill.” He decided to attend one of Bill’s classes before making up his mind about approaching him. This is his story.


The class was given about halfway through the short summer term. Although I had seen many images of William, I have to say I was unprepared for the real thing when I went to his class. I was completely taken aback by the ancient power that emanated from him. William in person is something entirely different from his image. You can’t say that about everyone, but it was certainly true of Bill. He simply amazed me, and I found myself almost speechless – a most unusual state for me, I can assure you! I had the overwhelming impression of ancient wisdom. I realize now that I was seeing the sheer weight of the Ugly Spirit on him. The spirit he had carried for so long, the spirit that he had been trying to write his way out of since his wife Joan’s death.

I was hardly conscious of what he said during the class. I was too involved in watching his face, listening to the sound of his voice. I felt I was absorbing his words as one does the rays of the sun. When the hour was over, I realised that I had hardly taken any notes, and had spent the entire class just watching him. From what I can recall of the class, it was an informative discussion of Bill’s efforts at writing screenplays.

He spoke in a low and monotonous voice primarily about Dutch Schultz, talking about the origins of the idea, about the process of turning the raw idea into visual scenes, and how the piece had been reworked many times. He talked about the problems of turning any piece of writing into a film. As a cautionary tale, he told an hilarious story about the doomed efforts to make Junky into a movie starring Dennis Hopper, and with Terry Southern doing the screenplay. “Of course with the dubious Baron de Luc de Sterne de Rothschild, my dears, as our financial backer, the project sank quickly under the weight of numerous coke binges.”

He talked at length about the cut-up technique, going over the history of its development from Brion Gysin to himself, its position among other stream of consciousness styles, its relation to the visual media, and so forth. Then he said something that struck me as remarkable. He said that he felt he had more or less exhausted all the possibilities of the various cut-up techniques. I thought I detected hints that he might be on the verge of a new approach to his writing, and it made me intensely curious to know more. I found him to be altogether a learned and careful scholar of his own works and writing techniques.

Some days later, I began to seriously consider approaching him. I felt it was important for me to meet him, though I didn’t really fully understand why at the time. I had come back to my place after classes, a few blocks from the school, and Richard, with whom I shared the house, was already there. I said something about wanting to go meet Bill soon. Of course, he immediately started kidding me about it, saying I’d never go. It was early afternoon, and we were drinking tequila. The more we drank, the more he prodded me. Finally, stone drunk, I stood up, weaving, and slurred out. “Awright, dammit! I’ll go, and right now, by God!” It was probably ten at night by then, but I got my portfolio and staggered out to Bill’s apartment and knocked on the door.

He opened it almost at once, looked at me with a sour expression and said, “Oh, it’s you!” I could tell he remembered me from class. I was unsure what to do next, but then he stood aside and said, “Well, come on in.” He offered me a drink (just what I needed!) and I took it. He was drinking vodka, and poured a tumbler nearly full, topped it off with tonic, and pushed it across the kitchen table to me where I sat. I told him I’d come to show him my work. He accepted this and opened my portfolio. My heart sank as he flipped through my carefully typed stories about the criminals and drug addicts I had known, each page receiving but a cursory glance before being flipped over and forgotten. He went through the entire collection of some twenty stories in less than two minutes!

“Is that it?” he asked. I just sat there stunned, saying nothing.

“Very nice,” he said, and I could tell he thought no such thing. I supposed they seemed terribly amateurish, and I was completely humiliated. I was already thinking about the best way to get out of there politely when he said, “Let’s go out on the porch.”

He stepped out onto the small, railed porch through the glass door and looked out over into the Varsity Apartments courtyard. In spite of the hour, most of the apartments were active and the courtyard was brightly lit. Across the way, we watched a young boy, perhaps fifteen, naked but for a swimsuit, climbing up the inner walls of the courtyard. “That’s Beade, Spence’s kid,” Bill murmured to me as we watched the youthful body pull and stretch up the wall. “Like a little monkey he is. Climbs all over the walls out here all the time. I never know when he’s going to climb right up and stick his head through the window to say hi.” I had to admit the boy was beautiful, and said so. Bill smiled at me in a way I came to know well later, the smile of a vaudeville showman, the smile of a gombeen man, and said, “Young boys do need it special!” He laughed and put a large, heavy hand on my shoulder, and suddenly I knew everything was going to be alright.

We spent the rest of that night talking and drinking. We talked about everything under the sun. I told him about my short life, and he told me about his youth in St. Louis and at the Los Alamos Boy’s Ranch. Much later, sometime just before dawn, we went to sleep, him in his bed downstairs and me in the next room.

The next morning I got up, made breakfast, and we talked some more. He told me that he had a companion named Steven Lowe, who I would meet. Steve had been hanging around with Bill for several years, and I could see that they loved each other. But Steve’s life had begun to change lately, and he had things he needed to do. He was telling me, in his way, that Steve was not going to be around as much as he used to be, and that there was a vacancy, a place for me, if I wanted it. I told him I did. I told him I would be proud to be his companion and helper, and that all I wanted from him was to learn from him, to learn the craft of writing from a master craftsman, however he was able to teach me. He thought this was a good arrangement, and we agreed I would stay. I stayed with him for a total of five years.


Cabell McLean left William S. Burroughs in 1983 to pursue his own career, although the two remained life-long friends and were in contact until William’s own death in 1997. Cabell would himself pass away 1st December 2004, due to complications from Hepatitis C and HIV, age 52.

Despite repeated offers to give paid interviews about their relationship, Cabell was always very reluctant to trade on his association with Burroughs. The only time he spoke about it in public was at Stockholm Spoken Word Festival in 1999. It is from a transcript of that interview that this text has been prepared, and we are grateful to his partner Eric K. Lerner for agreeing to its publication.

Eric is presently working with Matthew Levi Stevens to compile a small collection that will serve as an introduction to the life & work of Cabell McLean, to be made available via WhollyBooks Autumn 2013.

The photo of Cabell is by Kirila Faeh.

The Second Wave of American Interest in Japanese Culture: Alan Watts, Jack Kerouac, and Gary Snyder

by Charlie Canning

Photos by John La Farge and David S. Wills


Since the Treaty of Kanagawa in 1853, the United States and Japan have had a long and varied history. Initially, the United States wanted trade with Japan to extend American influence in Asia as well as to compete with Britain, Russia, and France. These were mercantile and political concerns that had little to do with Japan as an extant civilization with something to offer the West. But three times in the last one hundred and fifty years, American interest in Japan has been decidedly cultural.

The first wave of American interest in Japanese culture was brought about by a group of writers and art collectors from Boston in the 1880s that included Edward S. Morse, Ernest Fenollosa, and William Sturgis Bigelow. Henry Adams, John La Farge, and Percival Lowell would follow. Small as it was, this group of Bostonians had enormous influence on the reception of Japanese culture and art in the United States.

The second wave of American interest in Japanese culture took place in the 1950s. This time around, it was a West Coast phenomenon based not on Japanese art but on Zen. The works of D. T. Suzuki were widely read and later popularized by Alan Watts. Jack Kerouac, who had became an overnight sensation with the publication of On the Road, popularized Zen (and Japanese culture) further, in his novel The Dharma Bums. Finally, the poet and writer Gary Snyder, himself mythologized in Kerouac’s writings, led the way by traveling to Japan and entering a Zen monastery.Amida Buddha at Kamakura by john La Farge

According to Roland Kelts in his book Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Has Invaded the U.S., we are currently experiencing a third wave of interest in things Japanese. This time around, it is an interest in Japanese pop culture that is the driving force. Behind this trend are the game platforms manufactured by Nintendo and Sony as well as Japanese manga and anime.

Although the second wave of interest in Japan has much in common with both the first and third waves, it is singular in many respects. One thing that sets it apart from all other periods is that it followed close upon a war. Considering the antipathy, fear, and hatred that had been whipped up by World War II, this is surprising. But after the war, there was a reappraisal of Japanese culture that began to go significantly beyond the “know your enemy” brand of research typified by Ruth Benedict’s groundbreaking study, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946).

Another thing that differentiates the second wave from the first and third waves was that it was primarily religious in nature. Although it might be argued that Fenollosa and Bigelow were also interested in religion (both ultimately “converted” to Buddhism), they were principally art collectors who developed an interest in religion. The group in the second wave, however, traveled light. They were in it for the Zen. (Some of the Buddhas that Fenollosa brought to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston are over two meters tall. The Beats carried theirs in their backpacks.)

A third major difference between the waves was that the second, unlike the first and the third, was countercultural. The interest in Zen Buddhism was driven by a deep dissatisfaction with the prevailing culture in America. Although one could argue that both Fenollosa and Bigelow were dissatisfied with Boston culture, their aim was more to share the artistic wonders of Japan with their countrymen than to challenge the prevailing mythos of Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. Henry Adams was dissatisfied, to be sure, but he looked more to the medieval cathedrals of France rather than to the temples of Japan for his unifying vision of cultural force.

Finally, the second wave is quite singular in that its influences were readily absorbed into an American subculture. In this respect, the Beats may have borrowed a page from the Japanese: Watts, Kerouac, Snyder, and others took something foreign and made it their own. Now that Zen Buddhism has become popular on both coasts of the United States, it may be surprising to learn that it was relatively unknown in America before the 1950s. There are several reasons for this. One was that Christianity as the predominant faith of America was largely unquestioned. Another was that Buddhism was an Oriental rather than an Occidental religion. A third was the war. And finally, there was the language barrier. Many of the Buddhist texts were written in Asian languages and had never been translated into comprehensible English.

As Ann Douglas has pointed out, “Interest in the East had been building since the late 1940s, part of what historian Robert Ellwood calls ‘the spiritual underground’ of Cold War America.” (xvii) Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain (1948) and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949) were widely read and discussed in academic circles.

The central figure in the introduction of Zen Buddhism to America was D. T. Suzuki. Suzuki was a fine translator, but since there was not a lot written about Zen to begin with, his greatest contribution was in explaining things that were seemingly beyond words. In his books Essays in Zen Buddhism (3 vols. 1927-1934), Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra (1930), The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk (1934), An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (1934), Manual of Zen Buddhism (1935), and Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture (1938), Suzuki sought to make Zen intelligible to a Western audience.

Suzuki began lecturing at Columbia in 1951. At first, the turnout was often quite small. But the few who heard his lectures were singularly impressed by his scholarship, wit, and saint-like bearing. He was a favorite of both Joseph Campbell and Alan Watts. Later, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg (both one-time Columbia students), and Gary Snyder would read him voraciously. Although Professor Suzuki had a sublime way of explaining Zen, his books were primarily for an academic audience. It was up to Watts, Kerouac, and Snyder to popularize Zen still further.

Englishman Alan W. Watts (1915-1973) was a prodigy of sorts who developed a lifelong passion for Buddhism and Oriental philosophy when still a child. He published his first booklet on Zen in 1932 when just twenty-one years old. Though Watts’ The Spirit of Zen was largely derivative of Suzuki’s three-volume Essays in Zen Buddhism, Watts’ contribution was in making what was both foreign and sublime that much more accessible to the general reader. Watts combined a lucid prose style with an engaging wit and an uncanny feel for the right metaphor. Allied to this was an abhorrence of any form of philosophical cant or academic posturing. He had no patience with those who sought to use language to obscure meaning or truth. Like Suzuki, who was in many ways his spiritual mentor, Watts wanted to be understood.

After marrying the daughter of Ruth Fuller Everett (later Sasaki) in 1938, Watts moved to New York City where he studied Zen with Sokei-an Sasaki. Later, he left New York to enter the seminary in the hopes of one day bridging the gap between Christianity and Eastern religions. This was to be a recurrent theme throughout the remainder of his life.

In 1951, Watts relocated to San Francisco where he soon became one of the most recognizable figures in the Bay Area. He continued to write and publish on all sorts of religious, spiritual, and political subjects and had his own weekly radio show, (some of these broadcasts are now available for download on iTunes). Watts’ enthusiasm was contagious and he soon developed a large following both in California and on college campuses around America. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, young people across the nation were reading books by Watts with titles like The Wisdom of Insecurity (1951), The Way of Zen (1957), Nature, Man and Woman (1958), This Is It and Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience (1960) and Psychotherapy East and West (1961).

Another cult figure of the 1950s and 1960s that did much to promote Japanese culture in America was writer Jack Kerouac (1922-1969). Kerouac’s breakout novel was On the Road, published to wide acclaim in 1957. Here we have Kerouac’s frenetic “spontaneous prose,” a breakneck monologue of highways, truck stops, freight trains, jazz, cigarettes, and booze.

Kerouac’s next novel The Dharma Bums was published in 1958. Although similar in some respects to On the Road in its depiction of the “devil-may-care” life of the modern American hobo, The Dharma Bums sought to portray the more spiritually driven quest of the Buddhist bihhiku or wanderer. Buddha himself was a wanderer, we are told, and he reached nirvana through travel and meditation. Might young people in America reach enlightenment in a similar way?

The hero of The Dharma Bums is Japhy Ryder (a “semi-fictional” character based on Gary Snyder), “a kid from eastern Oregon” who “learned Chinese and Japanese and became an Oriental scholar and discovered the greatest Dharma Bums of them all, the Zen lunatics of China and Japan.” (6) Japhy introduces Ray Smith, the narrator of The Dharma Bums and Kerouac’s alter ego, to the Chinese and Japanese forms of Buddhism. There are frequent references to Japan and Japanese culture throughout the novel including allusions to D. T. Suzuki’s books on Zen, Okakura Tenshin’s The Book of Tea, R. H. Blyth’s four-volume work on haiku, and the stone gardens of Roanji.

Kerouac’s portrayal of the spiritual quest had tremendous appeal – especially among young people. In his “Introduction” to Kerouac’s biography of Buddha, entitled Wake Up, Professor Robert A. F. Thurman recalls his own reading of The Dharma Bums when the novel first came out in 1958:


 But now I realize that when I read The Dharma Bums as a teen in the late fifties, I was exposed to perhaps the most accurate, poetic, and expansive evocation of the heart of Buddhism that was available at that time. Not to say that it was perfect, or to pretend that I would be able to tell if it was or wasn’t – it’s just that it is so incredibly inspiring, and must have deeply affected my seventeen-year-old self in 1958, the year it was first published and the year I ran away from Phillips Exeter Academy and went looking for a revolution. (vii-viii)


Some critics, however, including Alan Watts, did not think that Kerouac’s understanding of Buddhism was all that accurate. Thurman again notes, “The thing about Kerouac that might have made him less accepted among early California Buddhists – Gary Snyder and Alan Watts and others – was that he was not taken by the Ch’an/Zen line of things, though he loved the writings of Han Shan, the ‘cold mountain’ poetic meditations transmitted by Snyder. Kerouac was more moved by the Indian Mahayana line ….” (ix)

In his book Buddhism in America, Joseph M. Kitagawa wrote of the popularity of Zen Buddhism among the Beats and “the temptation to consider Buddhism as a sort of escape from workaday reality.” “Young nonconformists in America” have tended “to use Buddhism for non-religious ends.” (327) But for Kerouac, it didn’t really matter whether he understood Zen perfectly or not. He was a Catholic who viewed Buddhism and Catholicism as one and the same. And as Ann Douglas has pointed out, “At a time when Americans were routinely told they had only two choices – Soviet-style communism or American capitalist democracy and all that went with it – Buddhism offered a third way.” (xxii) Kerouac’s novels were popular among the youth of the 1950s and 1960s because they offered a spiritual rationale for leading an alternative lifestyle.

The final person responsible for the second wave of interest in Zen Buddhism and Japanese culture is poet and environmental activist Gary Snyder (1930-). Snyder came to Japan on a scholarship from the First Zen Institute of America in 1956. Initially, he practiced Zen at Shokoku-ji in Kyoto, the same temple where the great landscape painter Sesshu had studied with Shuban. Although Snyder had not come to Japan to study painting per se, Chinese landscape painting (later referred to as Bunjin-ga in Japan) was to have a profound effect on both his poetry and his environmental activism. As Dana Goodyear has noted in her 2008 article on Snyder in The New Yorker, “Snyder’s most complex and difficult work is ‘Mountains and Rivers Without End,’ a poem cycle that absorbed him from 1956 until 1996, and whose title is taken from a category of Chinese landscape painting.”

The connection between Chinese landscape painting, Snyder’s poetry, and his environmental activism is to be found in the spiritual dimension of the paintings. They combine philosophical ideas and meditation with key natural elements (mountains, rivers, and trees), in an attempt to express “the beauty of the natural world.” (Munsterberg 128) For anyone who can appreciate this, conservation is axiomatic.

Snyder continued his studies of Zen Buddhism in Japan throughout the 1960s. After returning to the United States, he settled in the California foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1971. Since then he has published widely on all manner of themes, trying to integrate his poetic vision with the Buddhist precept of the “right means of livelihood.” This has resulted in a unified, spiritual form of grounded environmentalism that seeks to connect people with their immediate surroundings.

The final thing that should be said about Snyder is that while others may have “talked the talk” about Zen, Snyder has “walked the walk.” Not content with just reading about Zen and Japanese culture in a library, Snyder traveled to Japan, entered a Zen monastery, and learned the language. Both in his writings and in his life, he has served as an exemplary model for others about how best to live and learn about all cultures whether they be foreign or our own.

In a letter to Snyder just before The Dharma Bums was published, Kerouac wrote that he “hoped to ‘crash open whole scene to sudden Buddhism boom … everybody reading Suzuki on Madison Avenue,’ paving the way for Snyder’s poetry. ‘Gary, this is your year,’ he promised.” (Douglas xviii) Although this didn’t happen, the influences of the second wave on both American and Japanese culture are still with us today. The present interest in New Age spiritualism is a direct outgrowth of the Buddhism of the Beats and the “Age of Aquarius” of the Hippies. Gary Snyder and the environmental movement are still going strong.



Adams, Henry. The Education of Henry Adams. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961.

“Alan Watts.” Wikipedia. 3 Nov. 2008.

Benedict, Ruth. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1946.

Douglas, Ann. Introduction. The Dharma Bums. By Jack Kerouac. New York: Penguin, 2006. vii-xxviii.

Kitagawa, Joseph M. “Buddhism in America” in On Understanding Japanese Religion.

Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1987, 311-328.

Faas, Ekbert. “Gary Snyder.” Towards a New American Poetics: Essays & Interviews. Ed. Ekbert Faas. Santa Barbara, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1978, 91-104.

Fields, Rick. How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America. 3rd ed. Boston: Shambhala, 1992.

Goodyear, Dana. “Zen Master.” The New Yorker 20 Oct. 2008:66.

Hayes, Kevin J., ed. Conversations with Jack Kerouac. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 2005.

Kawamura Junko. “Noh.” Kyoto Journal 70 (2008): 77.

Kelts, Roland. Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Has Invaded the U.S. New York,     Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

Kerouac, Jack. Book of Haikus. Ed. Regina Weinreich. New York: Penguin, 2003.

—. The Dharma Bums. New York: Penguin, 2006.

—. On the Road. New York: Penguin, 1972.

—. The Portable Jack Kerouac. Ed. Ann Charters. New York: Penguin, 2007.

—. Road Novels 1957-1960. New York: Library of America, 2007.

—. Wake Up. New York: Penguin, 2008.

Kitagawa, Joseph M. “Buddhism in America” in On Understanding Japanese Religion.      Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1987, 311-328.

McKibben, Bill. American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. Library of      America. New York: Literary Classics, 2008.

Munsterberg, Hugo. The Landscape Painting of China and Japan. Tokyo: Tuttle, 1956.

Murphy, Patrick, ed. Critical Essays on Gary Snyder. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991.

Murphy, Patrick D. Understanding Gary Snyder. Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina P,    1992.

“Philosophical paintings from intellectual giant.” Daily Yomiuri 30 Aug. 2003: 16.

Thurman, Robert A. F. Introduction. Wake Up. By Jack Kerouac. New York: Penguin, 2008. vii-xxix.

Snyder, Gary. Earth House Hold: Technical Notes & Queries to Fellow Dharma    Revolutionaries. London: Jonathan Cape, 1970.

—. Interview with Ekbert Faas. Towards a New American Poetics: Essays &

     Interviews. Ed. Ekbert Faas. Santa Barbara, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1978.


—. Look Out: A Selection of Writings. New York: New Directions, 2002.

—. Regarding Wave. New York: New Directions, 1970.

Steuding, Bob. Gary Snyder. Twayne’s United States Authors Series. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1976.

Suzuki, Daisetz T. Zen and Japanese Culture. Bollingen Series LXIV. Princeton:     Princeton UP, 1959.

Watts, Alan. Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen. San Francisco: City Lights, 1959.

—. In My Own Way: An Autobiography 1915-1965. New York: Pantheon, 1972.

—. The Spirit of Zen: A way of life, work and art in the Far East. 3rd ed. London: John Murray, 1958.

Drinking from the Beat Menu

 Jack Kerouac

Gin, whiskey, beer, cognac, and wine


According to his biographer, Michael Dittman, as a young construction worker (working on the Pentagon), Jack Kerouac would bring a pint of “gin or whiskey” to work every day. His early years appear mostly dominated by beer, which he would continue to drink – often as a chaser – for the rest of his life. However, through most of Beat history – from the early “libertine circle” days in New York, through the publication of the most important Beat texts and the subsequent “beatnik” fad – Kerouac’s drink of choice was red wine, and it is this with which he is most often associated. It was, after all, wine that he drank during the famous 6 Gallery reading, while travelling America, and hiking in the wilderness. However, in the late fifties or early sixties, Kerouac switched from wine back to whiskey, according to Paul Maher Jnr, because “the excessive intake of wine had turned his tongue white.” Maher adds that Kerouac was also drinking rum at this point, but whiskey was to remain his drink of choice (and that of his mother) for the rest of his life. In Tristessa, he had said that he was drinking “Juarez Bourbon whiskey” and that he mixed it with Canadian Dry, while most biographers and friends have recounted his fondness for Johnny Walker Red. During a trip to France, Kerouac began drinking Cognac, and once told Philip Whalen that “Cognac [is] the only drink in the world, with soda and ice, that won’t actually kill you.”

Allen Ginsberg

Red wine


Not being a big drinker, Ginsberg didn’t have many preferred drinks. He mostly drank wine, which was often on offer at poetry readings and other art events.

William S. Burroughs

Tequila, vodka and coke


Due to his time in Mexico and Texas, Burroughs was known to have consumed a lot of tequila. His wife, Joan, when she was not busy drinking Benzedrine coffee, was a heavy tequila drinker in those years, too. In his later days, though, Burroughs preferred vodka. When it struck six o’clock, he would begin mixing vodka with Coke. Shortly before his death, Burroughs spoke with the Absolut Vodka company about the possibility of doing an advert featuring his artwork, called “Absolut Burroughs.”

Gregory Corso

Wine, beer, whiskey


While Corso was a wild drunk, he appears to have had no real preference for any one kind of drink. His letters are full of references to blurry nights on the town, mentioning wine, whiskey, and beer in equal measure. In her memoir, Huerfano, Roberta Price observes – as many have – that Corso was usually drunk when reading his poetry in public. She says: “he drank a lot of wine and whatever hard liquor was offered,” and usually shouted insults at the audience. Corso seems to imply, however, that in each case it was the influence of other people – and sometimes of boredom – that made him drink.



This article is from the forthcoming Beatdom#13.

Review: This Ain’t No Holiday Inn

This Ain’t No Holiday Inn: Down and Out at the Chelsea Hotel 1980-1995

By James Lough


New York’s Chelsea Hotel has a special place in American culture. It has surely been a home, or a home-away-from-home, to more influential artists than any other building in the nation. To list the famous names in American art and literature that have stayed there would require more words than can be devoted to one book review, and would serve as an encyclopedia of the last hundred plus years of U.S. history.

While these names have included veritable superstars, the hotel did tend to attract the more Bohemian elements of the culture. As such, it has played home to numerous characters associated with the Beat Generation and subsequent counterculture movements. Jack Kerouac is rumored to have written part of On the Road there, and Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs also stayed at the Chelsea when visiting Manhattan in the fifties.

The focus of Lough’s book is not a general overview of the hotel’s colorful history; consequently, he passes over many of the famous names in favor of those who resided there in its final decades, and avoids recounting stories – such as the death of Nancy Spungen  – which have been told countless times before. Instead, after many years of painstaking research, Lough has managed to piece together a wonderful picture of the lives of some of the hotel’s famous latter-day guests. Of particular interest to the Beatdom reader will be the stories involving Herbert Huncke and Gregory Corso, parts of which were excerpted in issue eight of Beatdom. (For issue twelve, Beatdom contributor and author, Spencer Kansa, conducted an interview with Huncke at the Chelsea.)This Ain't No Holiday Inn

Throughout the book, Lough provides some wonderful descriptions of the building itself, which has come to mean so much to so many people. He refers to it as a “monstrous red brick eco-system of creativity.” The stories of artists sharing ideas and work with one another attest to this poetic phrasing. In these rooms, the exchange of songs was common, as poets and musicians drank and took copious amounts of illegal substances in one another’s “houses” (the rooms, Lough informs us, were more commonly referred to as “houses” despite their diminutive size).

Lough’s attitude towards the Chelsea’s owners – the Bard family – is somewhat negative, despite their fostering of artistic talent. Seemingly showing a phenomenal awareness of future trends, Stanley Bard famously accepted artwork in lieu of rent, yet Lough is quick to observe that much of what Bard accepted was worthless; and the hotel’s famous art-decked lobby is home to some truly awful pieces of work. He calls the collection “Awkwardian.”

In 2011, the Chelsea finally succumbed to the gentrification of New York and closed its doors to artists, gangsters, and Bohemian types, instead charging extortionate rates to more sophisticated clientele. Lough is scathing of this and appears to tie its demise to that of American Bohemia, and to a wider decline in creativity and culture throughout the Western world.

Despite this lament for the death of art, and the end of an important and productive era, Lough’s writing belies a true passion for this “beautiful old whore” of a building. His research is clearly a labor of love, and the book, while informative, is incredibly readable, thanks to his wit and a liberal dose of amusing stories that have otherwise been lost to history.


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