The Case for ‘Dangerous’ Literature

As cancel culture threatens literature, Alexander Adams interviews two leading literary scholars, who put the case for dangerous literature by William Burroughs and H. P. Lovecraft. 

William S. Burroughs (1913-1997), in his tweed suit, reserved manner and Midwest accent, made an unlikely rebel. Born into an affluent family from Missouri, his grandfather was an engineer who made his riches inventing an early form of the calculator. His uncle, Ivy Lee, was a pioneer PR agent and Hitler’s US publicist. Burroughs rebelled against affluence and conformity, studying in Europe, taking drugs, and immersing himself in the homosexual underworld before becoming a writer. 

Alongside friends Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, Burroughs became a key figure in the Beat Generation, considered counterculture trailblazers. They used drugs, lived unconventional lifestyles, and were open in their criticism of the nuclear family and Christianity. They were forerunners of the liberal-left counterculture; however, they were far from politically correct, as evidenced by a recently published book.


BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS, a book of material written by Burroughs with assistance from artist-writer Brion Gysin in 1960, was initially rejected by publishers. Gysin was ambivalent about this, but Burroughs concluded it was “just as well.” Looking at the material, it’s hard to see how the publication wouldn’t have damaged their reputations. 

The book, written in capital letters, hectors readers on how to achieve revolution. In a mixture of righteous anger and satire, Burroughs (the principal author; Gysin made a few minor contributions) advocates a campaign of anarchistic disruption and spontaneous resistance to make the population ungovernable. He was scathing about the control systems of capitalism and mass media, with the upper class being his chief target—the alien “insect people” who prey on the population: “THE BOARDS, SYNDICATES, CARTELS, AND GOVERNMENTS OF THE WORLD HAVE SOLD THE GROUND FROM UNDER YOUR FEET. SOLD YOU OUT TO INSECT PEOPLE.” For Burroughs and Gysin, insect people were synonymous with Jews. “I RUB OUT THE JEW WORDS OF MARX, EINSTEIN, LENIN, FREUD, FRAUD, STEIN FOREVER. I RUB OUT THE WORD JEW FOREVER.”

As Professor Oliver Harris—the world’s leading Burroughs scholar—notes, Burroughs’ ire was generally directed towards power: 

“In BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS Burroughs spells out for the first time and with a blast of icy clarity who the real ‘Nova criminals’ are: naming names, from the fossil fuel barons of his day—Rockefeller and Getty—to the bankers—the Rothschilds—and media magnates—Henry Luce, owner of Time, Life, and Fortune. They’re the mob who are running our planet like an alien colony, working it to the point of extinction.”

BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS, written a year after Naked Lunch, is far from a satirical lampoon or caustic criticism of American excess. Instead, it describes a world crisis and justifies extreme action. As Harris admits:

“Burroughs’ political position, his distinctive style and form and indeed of writing—especially the famous ‘cut-up’ techniques—are not reducible to good, humanitarian, liberal values. His satire is profoundly unstable, self-consuming, all-consuming, and the upshot is a chilling uncertainty about where he stands and how we’re meant to react.”

“Toxic Inheritance”

In the book introduction, Harris traces Burroughs’ doubts through letters to his potential publisher. Initially, Burroughs had warned the material was “explosive,” but then started to edit out references to Jews. He justified his attacks as simple attacks on “what they represent”: implacable alien forces of capitalism and control. BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS presents Burroughs as a righteous prophet of social justice, spitting invective and violent imagery in a manner similar to Louis-Ferdinand Céline and taking influence from Ezra Pound. Burroughs eventually declared to the prospective publisher, “I do not subscribe to any of the sentiments expressed necessarily.” Nonetheless, the disclaimer rings hollow. There is no noticeable authorial distance present in the book, which appears earnestly anxious and angry, with its talk of collaborators, traitors and enemies of the people. As Harris states, “It doesn’t sound like parody or a performance.” 

As a reading experience, BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS is exhausting. The global usage of capital letters and its relentless intensity can be wearing. There is a tonal issue: satirising the USSR sending female cosmonauts into space alongside rants about Jewish plutocrats and advocating violent revolution gives an uncomfortable mix. While there is some comedy here, the angry rants lack the ironic detachment that makes Naked Lunch enjoyable.

When asked why it was important to publish material like this in a time of cancel culture, Harris replied, “When I edited together the manuscripts I’d found in the archives, I knew it would cause offence but chose to include his most virulent material—leaving none of it out.”

“We certainly need challenging writers like Burroughs who make us aware of our own historical and personal complicity because they don’t conceal their own, and that’s one of the most salutary and remarkable features of BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS: before naming names and damning his enemies, Burroughs always includes his own family names—on one side, Burroughs computers, on the other, ‘Poison’ Ivy Lee, the founder of modern PR who had served Rockefeller and Hitler. This was his own toxic inheritance, the DNA inside against which he battled all his life.”

The Trouble with Cthulhu 

The influence of American horror writer H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) is as great as it has ever been. His tales of cosmic horror involving eldritch entities have been adapted for television, radio, and film. However, the xenophobia and chauvinism of Lovecraft—who saw himself as a descendant of noble English colonists—continue to trouble liberals in the media. When, for example, HBO decided to capitalise on the wave of interest with a drama series, they race-swapped the protagonists, making the lead characters black. Similarly, A BBC radio adaptation of Lovecraft’s stories features a female co-lead, despite Lovecraft allocating few speaking roles to women in his fiction.

Lovecraft would have been surprised at his posthumous fame. Born in 1890, he lived in genteel isolation in Providence, Rhode Island. His sense of patrician superiority was shaken in childhood by the loss of family income and the deaths of his parents, which imparted a deep sense of insecurity. Re-publication of his stories after his death in 1937 eventually led to Lovecraft’s unique contribution to horror fiction being recognised. 

Influenced by Victorian ethnography, he identified “lower races” as susceptible to moral, mental, and physical degradation. Deep aversion to non-Northern European peoples can be seen in his stories, which are full of fears regarding miscegenation and immigration. He wrote of “swarthy, sin-pitted faces,” “scum,” “mongrels,” and “men of a very low, mixed-blooded, and mentally aberrant type.” These sentiments can be found in his private letters and published stories, expressing a powerful sense of revulsion and a fear that Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture was being supplanted by “lower” cultures. His stories would lose their potency if they expressed anything as tepid as disapproval or concern.

S. T. Joshi, Lovecraft’s biographer and foremost editor, regards the author’s prime objection to foreigners as “overwhelmingly cultural [...] He believed that immigrants were significantly altering the social and cultural environment of the nation—as, indeed, they were.” When I interviewed him, Joshi was keen to stress Lovecraft’s anxiety about social degeneration being expressed through racial comments. 

“Sometimes it appears that Lovecraft uses immigrants as a kind of shorthand (or scapegoat) for broader social changes that were occurring in his time—specifically, rampant industrialisation and mechanisation, which was uprooting everyone from the 'old ways' and rendering the US unrecognisable to one who had such a yearning for those old ways.”

Lovecraft’s brief marriage inspired a period in New York that later led to the writing of The Horror at Red Hook (1925): 

“Hordes of prowlers reel shouting and singing along the lanes and thoroughfares, occasional furtive hands suddenly extinguish lights and pull down curtains, and disappear from windows when visitors pick their way through. Policemen despair of order or reform, and seek rather to erect barriers protecting the outside world from the contagion.” 

For the sensitive conservative aesthete, Brooklyn became the epitome of the horrors of multicultural America. 

Late Moderation?

It seems Lovecraft’s racial views moderated in his last years. “A friend of Lovecraft’s, Harry Brobst, reported that a neighbour had gone to Germany and come back with horrific tales of how Jews and others were treated,” Joshi tells me. Lovecraft, “appalled by these accounts,” became sympathetic towards the third position. 

“By 1930 he had evolved from extreme political conservatism to moderate socialism, as he saw the devastation caused by the Great Depression. Lovecraft’s conversion to socialism entailed his belief that such extremist groups as the KKK were of a piece with the fat-cat capitalists he had come to despise, because both groups were standing in the way of the reforms that Franklin D. Roosevelt was attempting to enact; so it would be absurd to call Lovecraft a supporter of white supremacy at this time.”

When addressing the debate around preserving Lovecraft's writings, his biographer Joshi is passionate in his response. “Why should we continue to read Poe, who was an ardent supporter of slavery? Why should we continue to read T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, who were anti-Semites? Why read Jack London, who was anti-Asian? I trust it is becoming obvious that this line of thinking is preposterous,” he says. Joshi believes that the racially derogatory comments in Lovecraft's stories have been blown out of proportion, noting that they only occupy a tiny portion of his writings:

“Out of the 4.5 million words of Lovecraft’s surviving correspondence, I’d be surprised if race is discussed in more than 5 per cent—or even as much as 2 per cent—of that total. Lovecraft had many, many other interests and concerns, and it is criminally reductive to believe that race loomed particularly large among them.”

Joshi is frustrated by the “ludicrous caricature” of Lovecraft as merely “a racist who wrote about Cthulhu.” He points to the many other aspects of the author that remain underappreciated due to the emphasis placed on race. “I would find it a welcome relief if people started talking about something other than the one subject of Lovecraft and race. There is so much more to Lovecraft than that. What about the effect of his wide-ranging travels on his work? What about the central place he occupies in the history of weird fiction, as one who rejected the 19th-century ghost story tradition and effected a dynamic union between weird fiction and science fiction? What about his astute comments on the social, political, economic, and cultural situation in his time?” 

So why publish and read Lovecraft? Because he “speaks with unparalleled intensity and plangency about the dismal state of all humanity—not any specific race—as we realise our fragility and insignificance within the vast gulfs of space and time. This message now resonates even more vividly to our generation than to past ages, and it is why Lovecraft continues to secure an ever-growing worldwide audience.”

Alexander Adams is a British artist, critic and art historian. His book Iconoclasm, Identity Politics and the Erasure of History is published by Imprint Academic.