|Here’s something you may not know about Beat writer and controversial postmodern icon William S. Burroughs: he was exposed to—and believed in—black magic from a very young age. The Irish cook who worked for his family when he was a child was the first person to teach him a curse; his Welsh nanny was the second. “To Burroughs, behind everyday reality there was a reality of the spirit world, of psychic visitations, of curses, of possession and phantom beings,” writes Ted Morgan in Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs. “This was the single most important element of his life.” Burroughs even successfully cursed more than one person in his life, Morgan writes. A boy who had rejected him, an old woman who ran a newspaper kiosk, a friend of a friend who borrowed a gun and didn’t return it. If you hurt Burroughs, you might get hurt yourself. “We assume that everything happens by accident,” Burroughs wrote, according to Morgan. “My attitude is that nothing happens by accident. Of course if you put a curse on someone it may boomerang, but you take the chance. It’s like the Old West, if you shoot somebody, there are gonna be ten people looking for you. You may have to do it in self-defense. It’s nothing to be undertaken lightly, but in many cases it has to be done.” |
(Of course it’s impossible to read this without remembering that in 1951, Burroughs drunkenly shot and killed his wife, Joan Vollmer, in Mexico City; originally he claimed it was part of a “William Tell”-style act, and later that it was an accident. He was arrested and posted bail after 13 days; ultimately he was convicted of culpable homicide but he escaped further jail time by returning to the States.)
On July 23, 1970, William S. Burroughs wrote an open letter to Truman Capote, a writer he had disliked for some time, but who had provoked his particular ire with the 1966 publication of the popular and influential “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood—Burroughs agreed with Kenneth Tynan that Capote’s treatment of the book’s central figures was morally indefensible. “For the first time an influential writer of the front rank has been placed in a position of privileged intimacy with criminals about to die, and—in my view—done less than he might have to save them,” Tynan famously wrote in The Observer. “The focus narrows sharply down on priorities: does the work come first, or does life? An attempt to help (by supplying new psychiatric testimony) might easily have failed: what one misses is any sign that it was ever contemplated. He sacrificed them for money.” (Other people have also been known to dislike the book.)
In Burroughs’ letter, now housed at the New York Public Library as part of the Berg collection, he sets himself up as a cosmic (though still bureaucratic) arbiter over the fate of writers—and proceeds to withdraw his support from Capote’s career. The letter begins like this (note the New Yorker burn in the middle):
My Dear Mr. Truman Capote, This is not a fan letter in the usual sense—unless you refer to ceiling fans in Panama. Rather call this a letter from “the reader”—vital statistics are not in capital letters—a selection from marginal notes on material submitted as all “writing” is submitted to this department. . . .
I have in line of duty read all your published work. The early work was in some respects promising—I refer particularly to the short stories. You were granted an area for psychic development. It seemed for a while as if you would make good use of this grant. You choose instead to sell out a talent that is not yours to sell. You have written a dull unreadable book which could have been written by any staff writer on the New Yorker—(an undercover reactionary periodical dedicated to the interests of vested American wealth). You have placed your services at the disposal of interests who are turning America into a police state by the simple device of deliberately fostering the conditions that give rise to criminality and then demanding increased police powers and the retention of capital punishment to deal with the situation they have created. You have betrayed and sold out the talent that was granted you by this department. That talent is now officially withdrawn. Enjoy your dirty money. You will never have anything else. You will never write another sentence above the level of In Cold Blood. As a writer you are finished. Over and out. Are you tracking me? Know who I am? You know me, Truman. You have known me for a long time. This is my last visit. [Read the full letter here.]
So, did the curse work? Well, Capote never finished another novel. He was rich, and a literary celebrity, but he wasn’t getting much writing done. He was hired as the screenwriter for the 1974 adaptation of The Great Gatsby, but he was subsequently fired and replaced by Francis Ford Coppola. In the years after In Cold Blood, he published a few sections from his unfinished gossip novel, Answered Prayers, but the backlash became intense and further fueled his struggles with drugs and alcohol. Eventually, Capote was sadly overcome by his addictions and died of liver disease in 1984, without having published anything better than In Cold Blood.
In other (old) news this week:
Cormac McCarthy, spiritual heir to Melville and Faulkner, is born (July 20, 1933) • The steamer Governor Higginson encounters a mysterious sea creature in Jules Verne’sTwenty Thousand Years Under the Sea (July 20, 1866) • Alsatian scholar Beatus Rhenanus dies, and his personal collection of around 670 books is bequeathed to the Humanist Library of Sélestat, where it remains intact, nearly 500 years later (July 20, 1540) • Ernest Hemingway is born, remains (almost) unmockable for 61 years (July 21, 1899) • George Bernard Shaw, noted apostrophe despiser, publishes “Shall Roger Casement Hang?” in the Manchester Guardian (July 22, 1916) • S.E. Hinton is born (July 22, 1948) • Raymond Chandler, who knew how to open a crime story, is born (July 23, 1888) • Alexander Dumas is born (July 24, 1802) • Junichiro Tanizaki is born (July 24, 1886) • Zelda Fitzgerald, who made sure she would be above her husband in the end, is born (July 24, 1900) • O. Henry is released from prison after serving three years for embezzlement (July 24, 1901) • Frank O’Hara is hit by a dune buggy on Fire Island; he will die of his injuries the following day (July 24, 1966).
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