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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