One of our readers, Devin Fahey, recently posted a link to the Beatdom FB page. The link was to a provocatively titled article in Bitch magazine, “A Great Artist Kills His Wife—Now She’s Just a Quirky Footnote in His History.”
The article itself is partly a response to reviews of Barry Miles’ excellent biography, Call Me Burroughs – a much-needed update on the life and times of one of America’s most controversial writers. The author, Leela Ginelle, argues that these reviews cite Burroughs 1951 killing of Joan Vollmer Adams as the most important event in the author’s life, while also pointing out that Miles calls the incident “clearly an accident” and that Burroughs and his fans have made it part of the author’s personal mythology.
In other words, killing his wife is part of his appeal as an author.
Or, at the very least, something insignificant in the light of his literary contributions.
Now there is something to this. Ginelle is correct in pointing out that we overlook domestic violence in our male heroes. Indeed, we overlook flaws in many historical heroes. And were we to attack Burroughs alone, his late-60s misogyny is probably – in my opinion – the greater target.
Ginelle says that we need to “reevaluate” the incident. Well, the importance of Miles’ book – and my own, from last year – is that Burroughs legacy is being constantly reevaluated. The killing of Joan Vollmer Adams, however, is something that has been studied over and over. She goes on to suggest that Burroughs’ killing of his wife was a part of his apparently on-going domestic violence, and that we overlook this because he is “cool.”
Burroughs never shied away from his culpability in the killing of Joan, although legally he was let-off. He may have helped turn it into part of his mythology, but that’s more due to his lack of promoting the incident. For years it was too painful to discuss, and even later on it troubled him immensely. Besides, to suggest that it was cold-blooded murder is irresponsible.
There are many aspects to the case. For one thing, no one really knows what happened. Joan appears to have possessed a death-wish. She seems to have goaded Bill into playing William Tell. Does that let him off? No. It was still a stupid thing to do, an unnecessary risk. If she didn’t, then she agreed to it. It was a game, a party-trick, and thus an accident. He lived the rest of his life with the agony of having accidentally killed the woman he loved.
To suggest that his books don’t deserve their fame due to this event is absurd. Literature is literature, regardless. If Burroughs had killed her on purpose, out of spite, in a genuine act of domestic violence, it would still not detract from the artistic merit of his work, although it would certainly make him a less likable character – and he already had his flaws.
It’s an old argument. Should we value the work of a monster the same as the work of a saint? What people like Ginelle fail to observe is that there are no monsters or saints. There are a humans and there are – sorry, Bill, I know you always said the opposite – accidents. Look back through history. Our greats were full of flaws. That applies equally to men and women. To suggest that their flaws render their gifts meaningless is ignorant at best.
Now, as for Joan…
Is she a sidenote? Yes, sadly. By all accounts, Joan was a phenomenal intellect, a pivotal character in the formation of one of the 20th century’s most important literary movements, and a fascinating person deserving of more attention. But was she consigned to sidenote status because she was a woman? Did it happen because she was killed by her husband in an event that led him to literary glory?
Joan Vollmer Adams, brilliant though she was, did write great books. Like Burroughs, she got into drugs and went too far too many times. She was a free spirit, an embodiment of Beat. There are many male figures who remain sidenotes in Beat history, but we don’t ask why – it’s because they didn’t have the same output as Burroughs, Kerouac, and Ginsberg. It’s not sexism, it’s just that to be a great writer, you have to, y’know, write stuff… and great stuff at that.
But unlike Burroughs, she did not become a great writer or artist. Had she written novels that changed the culture and law of the Western World, perhaps she might have had dozens of books written about her life. But she didn’t, and I don’t think that her untimely death made that so.
Perhaps it was sexism. Perhaps the male-dominated culture of the day made her feel she couldn’t write a book… But I doubt it. Joan was headstrong. She was a tough, independent, ferociously intelligent woman that did whatever the fuck she wanted, and unfortunately she went too far. If she wanted to write a book and publish it, she would’ve done, and the hell with anyone that got in her way. Her life is what Burroughs’ life could easily have been. He was unpopular, gay, an addict. He had his problems – more of them than most people will ever fortunately know – but for whatever confluence of reasons, his problems developed into literature, and Joan’s into self-destruction (and I’m talking about her physical and mental state prior to the shooting).
By all accounts she “deteriorated.” I note a trace of sexism in the biographies when they talk about her beauty fading. But in all aspects she was falling apart. Before her death she was a shadow of herself. She had fallen apart. She wanted to die. Perhaps had history gone differently – had the bullet taken a different flight – she may have lived to create, but we’ll never know. If she had shown no inclination until that point, it seems unlikely. Life was tougher on the female Beats. The movement was about freedom, and while the men had to fight for theirs, the women had a much greater struggle. But some people are artists, and others muses. It has nothing to do with gender, but in this case it was Bill who was to be the artist, and Joan the muse.
Ginelle is correct in observing societal forgiveness of “great men,” particularly in their treatment of women. For one rarely noted example, I would cite Hunter S. Thompson. His fanbase is similar in some regard to Burroughs’, and as such their is little condemnation of their sexist attitudes. But I think that in this case, Ginelle is arguing a silly point. Joan’s death was an accident, and it contributed to the rise of William S. Burroughs, the writer, but it was not an intentional act of domestic violence which consigned her to obscurity, and which is forgotten and forgiven by all.
So let’s cut it with the sensationalist headlines (clickbait, I believe is the new word) and meaningless criticism. If you have a feminist website and want to go after Bill, there’s plenty of material there to criticize. No need for this sort of trash.