Off the 'Beat'-en Path
The house where Burroughs lived.
While New Orleans has been home to many famous artists of all types, not many of them have lived across the river in Algiers. One Beat Generation writer, however, who did, surpassed famous and settled into legendary: William Burroughs.
For a brief time in 1948-’49, Burroughs called a house at 509 Wagner St. in Algiers home. He lived there with his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer, her daughter and their son. Years later, when asked why he didn’t choose to live in a more bohemian New Orleans neighborhood, he noted that it was the cheapest area to live and that he bought the house for about $7,000. He wrote prolifically while in New Orleans and loved his house but wasn’t very impressed with the city itself, calling it “a preserved artificial museum.”
Jack Kerouac (and others) visited the family while they were on Wagner Street, a visit which Kerouac later recounted in his book On the Road, describing the house: “It was a wonderful porch. … It ran clear around the house; by moonlight with the willows it looked like an old Southern mansion that had seen better days.”
Burroughs was arrested on April 5, 1949, and charged with possession of three ounces of marijuana and three capsules of heroin. He received court permission to go tend to his farm in Pharr, Texas, and then refused to return to Louisiana to address his court concerns. On June 20, ’51, Southern Bonding and Surety Company paid $1,500 for his forfeited bond.
The house was bought by a family in 1951, who renovated it thoroughly. The overgrown chinaball and fruit trees of Burroughs’ time were removed, and the sagging wooden porch was replaced with cement.
In 1996, during a literary event called Voices Without Restraint, a plaque commemorating Burroughs’ time in New Orleans was placed at 509 Wagner St. in Algiers. The plaque was sponsored by UNO’s Eisenhower Center for American Studies, under the guidance of then-director Douglas Brinkley, and includes a quote from On the Road.