William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg felt that they needed to leave their own culture in order to see it more clearly, and they were almost magnetically drawn to Mexico. Each of these writers spent formative years in the early 1950s living in Mexico, and each was startled by the perspectives afforded by what Burroughs characterized as an “oriental culture.” Mexico was still quite impoverished in the 1950s—Gulf oil development created a middle class in Mexico only in the 1960s. What these writers saw in Mexico and the circumstances of their lives there (e.g., Kerouac’s destitution and vagrancy, Burroughs’s awareness that drugs would become his subject and his fatal shooting of his common-law wife) would find reflections in Burroughs’s novels like Junky, Queer, and Naked Lunch; Kerouac’s On the Road and Tristessa; and such poems by Ginsberg as the early “Siesta in Xbalba” and “Howl.” Crucial letters, journals, and other writings on the Mexican experience have helped me to chart the evolution of respective views—Kerouac at first sees Mexico as a pastoral idyll, Burroughs as an opportune occasion for libertarianism; Ginsberg experiences a place “beyond Darwin’s chain.” Such evolving views affected the development of each of their own literary voices.


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