A term that appears regularly in the later works of William S. Burroughs. The Johnson Family is a late 19th century expression referring to 'honourable' members of the American underclass - typically hobos and small-time criminals such as petty thieves. Johnsons may defy the laws and conventions of society, but adhere to an implicit code of conduct that is essentially laissez faire. To quote Burroughs:

In this world of shabby rooming houses, furtive gray figures in dark suits, hop joints and chili parlors the Johnson Family took shape as a code of conduct. To say someone is a Johnson means he keeps his word and honours his obligations. He's a good man to have on your team. He is not a malicious, snooping, interfering self-righteous trouble making person. - The Place of Dead Roads (1983)

The Place of Dead Roads, Burroughs 'frontier' novel (the second in his Western Lands trilogy), was originally titled The Johnson Family, and explores the notion and nature of the Johnson (waggish critics might suggest at this point that the whole body of Burroughs' work is somewhat Johnson-obsessed). He aligns the Johnson Family against the authoritarian and dishonest, their natural enemies - in their ultimate form, the rulers of the planet.

How to be a Johnson

To paraphrase a good envelope of mine, you may already be a Johnson! The situation is: via the doctrine of live and let live, Johnsons cooperate, and their hidden, intangible - and so unbreakable - society is founded on that cooperation. It is not necessary for the Johnson Family to meet once a month at Holiday Inn to discuss their agenda and schedule. Johnsons know what needs to be done and they will do it when the time comes. An unjust law will not deter a Johnson. The Nova Police will not deter a Johnson. The correct path of action is clear; even those who block the path know it is correct. Think: What Would Johnsons Do? Asks Burroughs, "Which side are you on?"

I remember a friend of mine asked someone to send him a cake of hash from France. Well the asshole put it into a cheap envelope with no wrapping and it cut through the envelope. But some Johnson had put it back in and sealed the envelope with tape. - The Johnson Family (1980)

Their House is a Museum

In the short essay The Johnson Family, collected in The Adding Machine, Burroughs recalls that he first encountered the term as a boy in 1924, in the pages of You Can't Win by Jack Black. You Can't Win is the picaresque autobiography of a small-time thief and opium addict who encounters the spirit of Our Favourite Family while riding the rails. Of matters etymological, Black offers the following suggestion: "The bums called themselves 'Johnsons' probably because they're so numerous". This explanation, I fear, will have to suffice until a more informed scholar steps forth.

Agents Johnson

So please, consider a career as a Johnson. You don't have to tell anyone, there's no uniform (and certainly no logo), and the hours are great. We can't afford to pay you much anything in cash, but all the karma you generate is yours to keep and enjoy.

Synchronicity strikes, strikes: during the noding of this node, the backgrounded TV news suddenly been discussing a literal Johnson family involved in the politics of Liberia.

Contact our representatives:

  • Burroughs, William S. The Place of Dead Roads. London: John Calder, 1984.
  • Burroughs, William S. The Adding Machine: Collected Essays. London: John Calder, 1985
  • Burroughs, William S. From Beginning to End With William Burroughs http://edition.cnn.com/books/beginnings/9812/word.virus/index.html. Accessed 7/8/03.
  • Black, Jack. You Can't Win. Nabat/AK Press, 2000.
  • "El Hombre". Books We've Read. http://www.lowcrats.com/Reviews/Books/youcantwin/cantwin.htm. Accessed 7/8/03

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