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Subject: Query, Champion for Cats
Champion for Cats: William S. Burroughs, American writer (1914-1997)
While William S. Burroughs is increasingly regarded as one of the most important writers of the 20th century, his artistic genius is often overshadowed by tales of his outlaw lifestyle: founder of the Beat movement; his drug addictions and homosexuality; the accidental shooting of his wife in a drunken William Tell routine; and, later in life, his unofficial status as the godfather of the punk rock movement. Of all the wild stories in Burroughs’ life, the best (and most secret), came last: that he did indeed find love and redemption before he died–through his cats.
Here’s the first entry from “The Cat Inside” (Viking, 1992–age 79), the smallest and most unique of Burroughs’ books :
– May 4, 1985. I am packing for a short trip to New York to discuss the cat book with Brion. In the front room where the kittens are kept, Calico Jane is nursing one black kitten. I pick up my Tourister. It seems heavy. I look inside and there are her four other kittens.
“Take care of my babies. Take them with you wherever you go.”
Granted, Burroughs may not be the typical cat fancier profiled in your magazine–and that, I believe, is the hook. That even a misanthropic outlaw like William S. Burroughs can fall under the feline spell. Here’s the final entry of “Last Words”–his Kansas journals, published in 2000–written just a few weeks before he died:
“Only thing can resolve conflict is love, like I felt for Fletch and Ruski, Spooner and Calico. Pure love. What I feel for my cats present and past. Love? What is it? Most natural painkiller what there is. LOVE.”
I’m the resident caretaker of Burroughs’ home in Lawrence, Kansas. I’ve spent much of the past year hacking at the long-neglected garden. This summer, I’ll be restoring the cat graveyard, a shady bed on the south side of the house, directly under Burroughs’ bedroom window.
There’s a small pond with yellow water iris, and twelve stone markers smothered by wild honeysuckle. The goal is to banish the weeds and put names to the stones. James keeps good records, including some detailed cat genealogy. The restoration, start to finish, will be fully documented.
At peak cattage, there were about a dozen inside cats and a like number of wary strays who only came as close as the front porch. Burroughs always left food out for them. And based on the number of wayfaring cats who stop by the house, I guess there are still a few tattered messages hanging on the hobo cat grapevine: “There’s an old man in the red house on Learnard avenue in Lawrence, Kansas. He’s good to cats.” There are almost as many cat tourists as human, and both numbers are increasing steadily.
Everyone who befriended Burroughs in Lawrence has a cat anecdote–the weekly, and lengthy ritual of cat food shopping at the neighborhood grocery; Burroughs with a straw broom doing battle with the raccoons and possums that tried to steal the cats’ dinners; and the antics of ghost cats sworn to by credible tenants of Burroughs’ house after his passing. And, as James notes, there are countless photographs:
“At least 2000 photo prints are archived, taken by William, or by other persons, of CATS & BILL: Bill With Cats, Cats On Bill, Cats Clawing Bill, Bill Watching Cats Vomit, … and the like.”
And there’s the Cat Fancy connection to consider. James again:
“By all means he bought Cat Fancy every issue when it hit the stand. As I recall, and guessing a little, I suppose there must be at least 500 issues of Cat Fancy preserved, that were bought, and read and re-read, and quite often, marked up, or had photos and text chunks cut-out by WSB (for scrapbook or collaging onto ink/paint/paper works).”
The gist is that love is there for everyone; that this undeniably remarkable man–like him or not–loved, and was loved by, his cats. Burroughs would be thrilled to be in Cat Fancy, and I’d like to tell the story.
c Tom King. Originally published on Reality Studio, June 2010