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Wholesome American Guts: Your William S. Burroughs Thanksgiving Prayer 2022
For John Dillinger, in hope he is still alive.
Yr Wonkette began posting this Thanksgiving Prayer by William S. Burroughs and Gus Van Sant back in 2006, and like any tradition, we're wondering if it's time to rethink it. There's much to love about the poem itself, with its bitter, cantankerous undermining of American "greatness." But as several readers have noted, especially in recent years, should we be celebrating art by an artist who committed a horrible crime — shooting and killing Joan Vollmer in 1951 in Mexico City, then fleeing to the US to escape prosecution? Even if you accept Burroughs's contention that it was a horrific drunken accident, it's still horrific.
These questions come to mind on a day of thanks that was preceded by a mass shooting at an LGBTQ+ bar in Colorado Springs, and then by a Virginia Walmart manager 's murder of six store employees ranging in age from 16 to 70. We're writing this Wednesday morning; if there's another mass shooting before morning, we'll update the post. ( Four teenagers in Philadelphia were shot as they were leaving school Wednesday, they suffered non-life-threatening wounds.)
One of the things that we like about the poem is that it's an indictment of American self-celebration. But the guy who wrote it escaped justice himself — a Mexican court convicted Burroughs of homicide in absentia, but he was given a two-year suspended sentence.
This is where we'd usually write our essay about the relevance of the poem to the events of yet another hell year, closing with an invocation of the comforts of the day, the coats piled on the bed in the spare room, the sharing of old jokes, and, in yet another pandemic year, the bittersweet mixture of celebration and sorrow for the people who should be at the table, but are gone. All that is vital, to keep going. That too is a tradition. But I think this year we also need to have a talk about whether to keep inviting Burroughs to our Wonkette Thanksgiving.
Yes, it's a tradition. It's a terrific poem about the contradictory mess that America always has been, from the very beginning.
But as we've also seen in the last few years, traditions can change, and must change. Confederate statues should come down. Monuments to slavers should be dumped into Bristol harbor. Columbus Day has in many states become Indigenous People's Day, and it should, everywhere. And maybe we might want to consider a different Thanksgiving tradition here at Wonkette.
In an excellent 2014 essay for Bitch (another publication we lost this year, not incidentally), Leela Ginelle noted that, on the centenary of Burroughs's birth, biographers and literary discussions mostly treated his killing of Jean Vollmer "as though it was just one more eccentric, quirky footnote in the life of a 'great writer.'" Calling for a reevaluation of that dismissive approach to the crime, Ginelle asks,
Is the loss of Joan Vollmer's life, for instance, less important than a collection of novels scholars think are cool? Likewise, is a celebration of William S. Burroughs that doesn't reckon with the epidemic of domestic violence in our culture, with which his actions clearly align, complicit in the continuation of that violence?
Questions like these mark a sharp turn from the sort of “great man” hagiography to which Burroughs, and men like him, are almost exclusively treated.
Aesthetic achievement is easier and more fun to reckon with than domestic violence, which probably explains why those who evaluate Burroughs, who are largely themselves men, leave it as just a sidenote. But this omission—the failure to call out and pass judgment on male on female violence—allows such acts to be ignored at best, and tacitly approved at worst. It needs to stop.
So let's talk it over. Do the merits of this poem make it a welcome, if problematic guest for our holiday? If we keep using it, is it enough simply to add a sidebar acknowledging why it's a problem, or it that too much like saying "Here's Chinatown , and even though Roman Polanski was a child rapist, let's enjoy his take on film noir"?
As you can tell, I'm leaning toward finding a new tradition, so I'd also appreciate comments suggesting a different poem for Thanksgiving. It might be nice to have something that's as skeptical and acidic as the Burroughs poem, but as long as it's not treacly glurge, we're open to suggestions.
So yes, this was an unusual Thanksgiving post. But it felt necessary. And we can talk about this like grown-ups, I hope — please remember that we're friends here, and that someone who says the poem should stay is not in favor of murdering women, and that those who'd like a change are not bent on cancelling everything that you like. Keep the discussion civil, you filthy fuckaturkeys.
As ever: May your Thanksgiving celebration, if any, find you among friends and family — whether it's family by genetic accident or by choice. And if you're doing the holiday alone this year, that too has its pleasures, like streaming MST3K's Turkey Day marathon. My gosh, I watched the very first one, way back in 1991.
For all the petty small-minded terribleness and evil out there, we still have the option of laughter, because it sure as hell beats giving in to the bastards.
A happy and safe Thanksgiving to all Wonkers everywhere, and remember to Buy ( almost ) Nothing tomorrow.
[ Bitch Media ]
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