1. 1.Coming out of the Closet: Contemplating Homosexuality in William S. Burroughs’ Novels and Letters

1.Coming out of the Closet: Contemplating Homosexuality in William S. Burroughs’ Novels and Letters

水島新太郎 同志社大学(院)


In its September 2008 issue, Japanese Playboy magazine featured a collection of famous American poets in an article entitled “Poetry Strips the World Naked.” Among those included were the Beats, not yet has-beens that still cross our minds when we look back on the 1950s, sampled and recirculated into today’s high and pop culture. At first glance the sexual connotations suggested by their inclusion in Playboy might seem forced, even out of place, but in recent consideration of Beat literature in relation to gender studies, the connection is quite prescient. In my research thus far I have explored representations of masculinity and male homosocial bonding in Jack Kerouac's prose, leading in turn to a greater interest in the homosexual elements and influences in Beat literature, which are not inconsiderate. There were a number of homosexual/queer writers and poets in the Beat community, a great cultural crossroad for literary as well as sexual experimentation among heterosexual, bisexual and homosexual men seeking through spontaneous, improvised self-expression to rebel against postwar social conformity.

In this paper I will examine representations of homosexuality in the novels, letters, journals, and documentary films of the Beats, moving on from my earlier focus on Kerouac to examine in particular William S. Burroughs. (The paper is partly based on my presentation on Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs to the 30th Annual Meeting of the Southwest Texas Popular Culture and American Culture Association held in New Mexico, 2009.) With respect to Burroughs’ portrayals of the homophile, homoeroticism, and misogyny, I will review his manner of exhibiting gayness, as well as his conflicting feelings about his struggles as a gay writer, which tended to be isolating in the then tightly closeted homosexual community. Alongside these viewpoints, I argue that by exhibiting various sides of his gayness or maleness, Burroughs broke down the conventional notion of Cold War masculinity (more specifically, the meaning of being a man). My presentation will also explore the centrality of homosexuality in Beat culture, which seeks, in contravention to the human habit of over-emphasizing common sense and manner, to present a direct vision of the hidden truth of unpleasantness (including social deviance). Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg let readers see savageness, vulgarity, and social taboo, such as Burroughs’ confrontational “talking asshole routine” in Naked Lunch (1959), or in his misogynistic depiction of women as giant insects from another galaxy. His works throw doubt on why we should draw a line between homosexual and heterosexual; what is the difference between heterosexual and homosexual desire?

In my study, I will not only reconsider literary texts of Burroughs but also highlight his understanding of gay male identity and experiences. This may help us to see how his works were accepted politically by gays and feminists, a perspective that helps this study along an alternative path of analyzing American Literature, one that counteracts the conventional stress on text over context -- a stress that persists particularly in Japanese studies of American Literature. My examination of the Beats proves them to be important precursors enabling my own exploration of literature grounded in gender and cultural studies. I will also include visual and aural evidence of the homoerotic dimensions of Beat culture presented through a multimedia exhibit of photographs and paintings (works once exhibited in Whitney Museum of American Art, and now housed in Lisa Phillips’ collections of Beat Culture and the New America, 1950-1965 (1996), as well as voice recordings of Burroughs.