William S. Burroughs Reads His “Thanksgiving Prayer” in a 1988 Film By Gus Van Sant

Hav­ing moved to Korea a cou­ple weeks ago, I won’t have the chance to par­take this year in the beloved insti­tu­tion of Amer­i­can cul­ture known as Thanks­giv­ing. (Korea has its own Thanks­giv­ing, but it hap­pened two months ago.) Maybe you live in the Unit­ed States and thus almost cer­tain­ly have a Thanks­giv­ing din­ner of some kind, big or small, com­ing soon. Or maybe you, like me, live else­where in the world, and thus in a place with­out the same tra­di­tion. Either way, you can sure­ly par­take this Thanks­giv­ing in the beloved insti­tu­tion of Amer­i­can cul­ture known as the work of William S. Bur­roughs.

Here we have a short film of Bur­roughs, best known as the author of a body of con­tro­ver­sial and exper­i­men­tal lit­er­a­ture, includ­ing books like Junky and Naked Lunch, shot by Gus Van Sant, best known as the direc­tor of films like Good Will Hunt­ingMy Own Pri­vate Ida­ho, and Drug­store Cow­boy, the last of which includes a mem­o­rable appear­ance by Bur­roughs him­self.

It cap­tures Bur­roughs read­ing his poem “Thanks­giv­ing Day, Nov. 28, 1986,” also known as his “Thanks­giv­ing Prayer.” Van Sant shot it two Thanks­giv­ings after that one, in 1988, the year before Drug­store Cow­boy (and six years after adapt­ing Bur­rough’s sto­ry “The Dis­ci­pline of D.E.” into an ear­ly short film).

Bur­roughs, a life­long crit­ic of Amer­i­ca, fills his prayer with bit­ter­ly sar­cas­tic “thanks” for things like “a con­ti­nent to despoil and poi­son,” “Indi­ans to pro­vide a mod­icum of chal­lenge and dan­ger,” “the KKK,” and “Pro­hi­bi­tion and the war against drugs” (about which his char­ac­ter in Drug­store Cow­boy had some par­tic­u­lar­ly choice words). He ends by express­ing iron­ic, Great Gats­by-quot­ing grat­i­tude for “the last and great­est betray­al of the last and great­est of human dreams.”

Like him — like most every­body — I have my own, if less deep-seat­ed, frus­tra­tions with our home­land, and per­haps in leav­ing I sub­con­scious­ly emu­lat­ed his stretch­es of expa­tri­atism in Mex­i­co, Eng­land, France, and Moroc­co. But I sin­cere­ly doubt that I’ve had my last Thanks­giv­ing on U.S. soil; for all its fail­ings, Amer­i­ca remains too inter­est­ing to stay away from entire­ly. After all, what oth­er coun­try could pos­si­bly pro­duce a writer, a per­son­al­i­ty, or a crit­ic like William S. Bur­roughs?

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How David Bowie Used William S. Bur­roughs’ Cut-Up Method to Write His Unfor­get­table Lyrics

The Mak­ing of Drug­store Cow­boy, Gus Van Sant’s First Major Film (1989)

William S. Bur­roughs Teach­es a Free Course on Cre­ative Read­ing and Writ­ing (1979)

The Dis­ci­pline of D.E.: Gus Van Sant Adapts a Sto­ry by William S. Bur­roughs

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­maand the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future? Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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