William S. Burroughs

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William S. Burroughs

William Seward Burroughs (February 5, 1914August 2, 1997) was an American novelist, essayist, social critic and spoken word performer. Much of Burroughs' work is semi-autobiographical drawn from his experiences as an opiate addict. But he often distorts his experiences using surreal or graphic imagery, experimental structures, and a strong satirical voice.

His early writing is often associated with the Beat Generation. Burroughs was close friends with beat authors Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac, and Herbert Huncke, but Burroughs’ influence extends beyond this movement and even literature in general. His work has been influential to several subsequent counterculture literary, music and art movements.

Burroughs’s work has been quite controversial, especially during his lifetime. His most famous novel Naked Lunch was the subject of a landmark 1966 Massachusetts Supreme Court case that loosened obscenity laws to allow for artistic merit.

Burroughs produced a sizable amount of literature in over forty years of international publication. He was inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1983.


Early life

William Seward Burroughs was born to a prominent family in St. Louis, Missouri. His grandfather, also named William Seward Burroughs, founded the Burroughs Adding Machine company, which evolved into the Burroughs Corporation. Burroughs' mother, Laura Lee Burroughs, was the daughter of a distinguished minister whose family claimed to be descendants of Robert E. Lee. Her brother, Ivy Ledbetter Lee, is regarded as the father of modern public relations in the United States and worked before World War II as a representative for the Third Reich.

Burroughs was brought up in wealthy circumstances; his family had servants and gardeners. Burroughs’ parents ran an antique and gift shop, first in St. Louis, then in Palm Beach, Florida. They worked hard to maintain a respectable social status. In Burroughs' early fiction, such as Driving Lesson, he makes it clear he was unable, or unwilling, to follow the same path.

Burroughs may have been molested as a young child by a boyfriend of his English nanny and/or a female nurse. Late in his life he had flashback memories to events which may have been suppressed. Ted Morgan in his biography Literary Outlaw, as well as James Grauerholz, Burroughs' manager, editor and close friend, suggest this is possible.

Reportedly, Burroughs was a petty breaking and entering artist as an adolescent, raiding neighborhood homes to walk around, but not to steal possessions. He was inspired by the memoir You Can't Win, by Jack Black, a former thief and career criminal.

Burroughs attended John Burroughs School in St. Louis, and The Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico, but was expelled from the latter because staff had found private journals concerning a budding erotic attachment to another boy. He would keep his sexual orientation concealed well into adulthood.

Burroughs graduated from Harvard University in 1936. He summarized his college experience in the prologue to Junkie, "I hated the University and I hated the town it was in. Everything about the place was dead. The University was a fake English setup taken over by the graduates of fake English public schools..."

Postgraduate travel

After leaving Harvard, Burroughs traveled to Europe for many months, as was the common practice for men of his social standing. He had become aware of underground gay communities while at Harvard and had his first same-sex experiences in Europe. He also contracted syphilis.

While in Austria, Burroughs met Ilse Klapper, a Jewish woman fleeing the country’s Nazi government. The two were not romantically attached, but Burroughs married her in Croatia to allow her to gain a United States Visa. She made her way to New York City, and eventually divorced Burroughs, although they remained friends for many years.

Drifting from one interest to another, Burroughs enrolled as a graduate student of Anthropology at Harvard and later enrolled at Medical School in Vienna, Austria. He was enlisted briefly in the U.S Army in 1941 but was soon discharged for psychological reasons. Burroughs has stated that he was glad his tenure in the army was short.

Shortly afterwards he cut off part of his finger to impress a former boyfriend after the affair went awry. The short story The Finger recounts this event.

Beginning of addiction

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Joan Vollmer Adams Burroughs in New York City.

Burroughs lived on a monthly trust account from his parents, and this provided him little need, or desire, to earn money. He followed around friends, and lived in Chicago before following them to New York City. In New York, he met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

In 1944, Burroughs began living with Joan Vollmer Adams in an apartment they shared with Kerouac and Edie Parker, Kerouac's first wife. Vollmer Adams was married to a GI and they had a young daughter, Julie Adams. The apartment was close to Columbia University, where Ginsberg and Kerouac were students.

That same year, Burroughs began using morphine and quickly became addicted. He even eventually came to sell heroin in Greenwich Village to support his habit. Although Burroughs’ most intense drug use occurred from 1944 until 1956 he would remain dependent on opiates throughout his life, despite brief periods of abstinence, and eventually died on methadone maintenance.

In the author's notes at the end of his famous novel Naked Lunch he described his (former) times with illegal substances and noted that his doctor's plan for ridding himself of a majority of them was progressing nicely.

Addiction brought him face to face with a social class he had previously only read about. Prostitutes, thieves, subway muggers, addicted artists, and crooked vice cops became some of his closest associates, apart from Ginsberg and Kerouac. Aside from Junky, fiction depicting this period include the short story The Junky's Christmas and parts of the novel Naked Lunch. Several of the passing characters in these stories found themselves engaging in activities similar to those within his social circle.

Vollmer also became an addict but her drug of choice was the nasal inhaled form of the amphetamine, Benzedrine. Because of her addiction and social circle, her husband immediately divorced her after returning from the war.

Burroughs again partnered himself with a woman in need. Although their intimate relations were seldom easy or fulfilling to Burroughs, and they never married, Vollmer would eventually become Burroughs’ common law wife. Ginsberg and friends ultimately came to see that, given the times, Burroughs’ sexual orientation would prevent this relationship from being content. They urged Burroughs to break-up the relationship but Burroughs protested that he never promised Vollmer a real marriage and hid nothing from her.

Texas and New Orleans

Burroughs was eventually arrested for forging a narcotics prescription and was sentenced to return to his parents' care in St. Louis. For a time he worked as a delivery driver in their shop. He then returned to New York, helped get Vollmer out of the psychiatric ward of Bellevue Hospital and moved with her and her daughter to Texas.

Burroughs and Vollmer grew cash crops, as well as marijuana, on a patch of ranch land in New Waverly, Texas. Vollmer soon became pregnant with Burroughs’ child. According to Herbert Huncke, who visited them in Texas, Vollmer used Benzedrine throughout her pregnancy, and had no prenatal care until she went into labor. Their son, William S. Burroughs Jr. was born in 1947.

Burroughs' parents were pleased that he started a family, visited occasionally, and began providing Burroughs an allowance once again.

The family moved briefly to New Orleans in 1948, where Burroughs’ heroin addiction intensified and he became more withdrawn from the family. A few chapters in Kerouac’s classic On the Road describe a visit from Burroughs’ New York friends.

He was arrested after a brief car chase and police searched his rented home and found letters between Burroughs and Ginsberg referring to a possible delivery of marijuana. Burroughs fled to Mexico to escape possible detention in Louisiana's Angola State Prison. After Burroughs found an apartment, Vollmer and their children followed him. Burroughs planned to stay in Mexico for at least five years, the length of his charge's statute of limitations.

Although Burroughs lived in the Southwest for only a brief period, the dialects and cowboy Americanism of the area were frequent subjects of parody in his work. Much of Naked Lunch's wry, stinging dialogue about the County Clerk may have come from Burroughs' time in Texas.

Beginnings as a writer in Mexico City

In 1951, Burroughs accidentally shot and killed Vollmer in a drunken game of 'William Tell' at a party above an American-owned bar in Mexico City. He spent 13 days in jail before the killing was ruled accidental. Vollmer’s daughter, Julie Adams went to live with her grandmother, and William S. Burroughs, Jr. went to St. Louis to live with his grandparents.

In an introduction to the novel Queer, written shortly after Vollmer's death, Burroughs admits that "I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death." Burroughs would remain haunted by his wife's death for the rest of his life, referring to it directly or subtly in many of his writings.

After Vollmer's death, Burroughs drifted through South America for several months, looking for a drug called Yage (sometimes described by Burroughs as Telepathine), which could supposedly ease opiate addiction. [1] (http://www.lucaspickford.com/burrletters.htm) Burroughs maintained contact with Kerouac and Ginsberg during this time (Ginsberg also visited Burroughs’ son in the U.S.). The two encouraged Burroughs to write a fictionalized memoir about his experiences as a heroin addict. As a teenager, Burroughs had ambitions to be a writer and he half-heartedly agreed to begin.

He produced two novels during this time, Junky, exploring his heroin addiction, and Queer exploring his homosexuality. He also compiled correspondence with Allen Ginsberg about his search for and experiences with Yage as The Yage Letters. Pre-dating Burroughs' literary experiments, these works are fairly straightforward narratives, but are unusual for their dark humor, keen social cynicism, and upfront descriptions of homoerotic longing.

The Yage Letters and Queer were not published until 1963 and 1985 respectively, although a segment of Yage Letters, a savage short story entitled "Roosevelt After Inauguration", was censored from the original release. Junky was published by Ace Paperbacks in 1953 under the pen name William Lee, who was also the name of the protagonist. Marketed as a lurid account of crime, it did not reach a large audience immediately (Burroughs was the last of the Beat Generation authors to be published).

Naked Lunch

After completing these works, Burroughs went to Rome and then to Tangier, Morocco. In Tangiers, opiates were available from drug stores and Burroughs got hooked on Eukodol, a German synthetic opiate and became infatuated with a young male prostitute, “KiKi,” and featured him in his writing. He also befriended Brion Gysin and Jane Auer and Paul Bowles and began to write what would become Naked Lunch (Interzone, the surreal region that serves as the setting for a majority of the book combines aspects of New York, Mexico City and Tangiers).

In 1956, Burroughs attempted to cure his ongoing addiction with the help of John Dent, a London physician, by means of an experimental apomorphine treatment. Burroughs claimed the apomorphine treatment cured his addiction by blocking the body's opiate receptors, eliminating the addict's drive. After he became a well-known author, he became a vocal public advocate of apomorphine. Later investigation showed that apomorphine was not effective, but the science behind the treatment methodology later resulted in Narcan, which surprisingly worked much in the same way Burroughs had described.

After completing treatment, he moved to the legendary "Beat Hotel" in Paris, eventually accumulating a trunk of fragmentary, hallucinatory manuscripts created under the influence of majoun, a sort of cannabis jam. Ginsberg and Kerouac helped Burroughs edit these episodes into the magnum opus Naked Lunch. Kerouac thought up the title as a metaphor for a moment of revelation.

Naked Lunch is an amalgamation of experimental fiction and science fiction. It is a collage of disturbing, bizarre, and often obscene images. Burroughs's stated intention was to create a narrative that defied contemporary literary forms, a novel that the reader could start at any point in the book. The book also included many satirical elements, parodying the contrasts between the “American Dream,” the reality of inner-city crime and drug culture and the interdependency between the two. Burroughs also seems to foretell by many years the AIDS crisis and many other 20th century disasters.

Burroughs sold Naked Lunch to Olympia Press publisher Maurice Girodias. After the novel was published in 1959, it became infamous across Europe and was very popular within various countercultures of the 1960s. In countries where the book was banned, copies and even printing plates were smuggled across borders.

Prominent authors, such as Norman Mailer and J. G. Ballard, called Naked Lunch a work of genius. Some compare Naked Lunch to T.S. Eliot's poem "The Wasteland," both for their liberal use of juxtaposed texts and their influence on their contemporaries.

After it was published in the United States, Naked Lunch was prosecuted as obscene by the state of Massachusetts, followed by other states. In 1966 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declared the work "not obscene" based on criteria developed, largely, to defend the book. The case against Burroughs's novel still stands as the last obscenity trial against a work of literature prosecuted in the United States.

Naked Lunch rocketed Burroughs to literary stardom and is still his best-known work. The trunk of manuscripts that produced Naked Lunch also produced The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1963). To a greater degree than Naked Lunch, these books incorporated the "cut-up technique," in which samples of writing are torn apart and placed back together in a random order. Some critics have deemed these three works as "the Cut-up Trilogy."

Literary stardom

Burroughs moved to London in the early 1960s and published extensively in small underground magazines, also working on a large manuscript that was published in two parts, The Wild Boys (1971) and Port of Saints (1973). He also interacted with like-minded writers such as Alexander Trocchi and Jeff Nuttall and lived with another male hustler/prostitute who occasionally brought home girlfriends.

Burroughs told French journalist Daniel Odier that he did not believe in love, that it was a 'female con' designed to get men to care for females. In the book, The Job, which Odier published, Burroughs speaks very poorly of women in general. He states that through homosexual relations men can give each other a type of 'recognition', but not love.

Burroughs never had a lasting romantic attachment during his life, at least in a sense of mutually exclusive and monogamous. There are some instances where he pursued males who were not completely gay.

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Burroughs, Ginsberg and Herbert Huncke in ‘The Bunker’, 1979. Courtesy The Huncke Times www.huncke-times.com .

In the 1970s he moved back to New York City because Ginsberg had got him a job teaching writing at New York City College. During this time, Burroughs lived in a converted old YMCA gym and locker room in the Lower East Side, which became known as “Bill's bunker.” Burroughs also associated with a diverse cast of New York cultural players, including Andy Warhol, Patti Smith, Susan Sontag, Dennis Hopper, Terry Southern, and Mick Jagger. Victor Bockris' William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker records this period of his life.

He also first met, through Ginsberg, James Grauerholz, who would become his long time manager, editor, biographer, and friend. Grauerholz helped Burroughs finish another trilogy of novels: Cities of the Red Night (1981), Place of Dead Roads (1985), and The Western Lands (1987). These novels show an influence of Eastern/Arabic mystical occult philosophy. Burrough had developed an interest in the occult and even joined the Illuminates of Thanateros, a “secret society.”

The 1970s also saw Burroughs join, then leave the Church of Scientology [2] (http://www.suburbia.com.au/~fun/scn/etc/wsb3.html), which became the subject of his book "Ali's Smile/Naked Scientology". Gysin once suggested that Burroughs was one of the few people who made more money from Scientology than Scientology made from him.

Late life

By late 1980s, Burroughs had become a counterculture giant and entered collaborations with many younger musicians and filmmakers who had been influenced by his work. He guested on albums by performers ranging from Bill Laswell's Material and Laurie Anderson to Ministry, and in Gus Van Sant's 1989 film Drugstore Cowboy, playing a character largely based on himself.

In 1990, he released his first spoken word album Dead City Radio, with musical back-up from producers Hal Willner and Nelson Lyon, and alternative rock band Sonic Youth.

He also collaborated with director Robert Wilson and musician Tom Waits to create The Black Rider, a play which opened at the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg in 1990, to critical acclaim, and was later performed all over Europe and the U.S.

In 1991, with Burroughs’ sanction, director David Cronenberg took on the seemingly impossible task of adapting Naked Lunch into a full-length feature film. Cronenberg said that a literal adaptation would "be four hours long, cost $400 million, and be banned in every country on Earth" so he combined elements of the original novel, elements of The Ticket That Exploded, and semi-biographical material regarding Burroughs himself. The film opened to critical acclaim.

Through the 1990s, Burroughs produced spoken word recordings of his written material, including collaborations with R.E.M. on an alternate version of "Star Me Kitten" (which was included on the B-sides disc of the band's greatest hits album), with Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain on The Priest They Call Him (1993) and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy on Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales (1996).

Burroughs lived in a small two-bedroom red cottage in Lawrence, Kansas throughout much of his later life. He also practiced hobbies including reading science fiction and collecting handguns. He also took care of several cats. Burroughs had dabbled in painting and collage earlier, but late in his life took up the practice in earnest, producing many works via various methods: "His abstract painting is best characterized as a kind of expressive automatism, where calligraphic gestures are merged with experimental effects in the production of meditative, surrealist 'terrain vagues' or 'mindscapes.'" [3] (http://www.spress.de/author/burroughs/visart/default/page.htm) Burroughs's favorite tools of artistic expression were a canvas, a can of paint suspended in front of it, and a shotgun. Once he fired the shotgun at the paint container, Burroughs could not control how the paint appeared on the canvas; this appealed to his love of random factors. These paint-splattered surfaces were sometimes left alone, but more often Burroughs would add to them, using sketches, collage or paint and stencils. After several successful art gallery shows, his paintings could sell for up to $3000 each. Burroughs focused more and more engery towards painting, and less towards writing.

Burroughs died in Lawrence, at 6:50 p.m. on August 2, 1997 from the complications of the previous day's heart attack. A few months after his death, a collection of writings spanning his entire career, Word Virus, was published; Burroughs had approved the compilation prior to his death. Several years later, a collection of journal entries written during the final months of Burrough's life were published as the book Last Words.


Burroughs is often called one of the greatest and most influential writers of the 20th century; others, however, consider him overrated. Others still consider his conceptual ideas more influential than his prose.

His influence, however, on the literary landscape was undeniable, and he continues to be named as an influence by contemporary fiction writers like William Gibson. He remains controversial because of his homosexuality, drug use, and the often criticized obscene and misogynistic tone of his works, though it should be noted that Burroughs' ideas about and attitudes towards women gradually became more friendly as he aged. Burroughs was regarded as being extremely intelligent and a generally quiet person.

Burroughs' works continue to be referenced years after his death. For example, a November 2004 episode of the TV series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation included reference to an evil character named Dr. Benway (named for an amoral physician who appears in a number of Burroughs' works). Similarly, in the hospital scene in the movie Repo Man both Dr. Benway and Mr. Lee (a Burroughs pen name) are paged.

Other significant cultural figures and institutions directly influenced by the work and life of Burroughs include:



Novels and chapbooks

Many of Burroughs' works were later republished with revisions made by the author, and/or censored material restored. Both Junkie/Junky and Naked Lunch were published in "restored" editions following Burroughs' death.

Burroughs' son, William S. Burroughs Jr., also wrote two novels: Speed and Kentucky Ham. These books are often erroneously credited to his father.

Recordings and film (partial list)

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William S. Burroughs' popular 1990 spoken word CD, Dead City Radio.

Burroughs also participated on numerous album releases by Giorno Poetry Systems, including The Nova Convention and You're the Guy I Want to Spend My Money With (with John Giorno and Laurie Anderson). He was also featured doing a spoken word piece entitled "Sharkey's Night," on the Laurie Anderson album Mister Heartbreak. Burroughs also provided vocal samples for the soundtrack of Anderson's 1986 concert film, Home of the Brave and made a cameo appearance in the movie.

see Web link - Hyperreal.org (http://www.hyperreal.org/wsb/nhnbtrnotes.html)

Burroughs appeared in a number of cameo roles in various films and videos, such as Wax: Or Discovery of Television among the Bees, 1991, where he plays a beekeeper, in an elliptic story about the first Gulf War; and Decoder (http://imdb.com/title/tt0087129/) (1984) by Klaus Maeck. Rundown at Internet Movie Database. (http://imdb.com/name/nm0123221/) He also made a number of short films in the 1960s based upon his works, directed by Anthony Balch. Near the end of his life, recordings of Burroughs reading his short stories "A Junky's Christmas" and "Ah Pook is Here" were used to great effect on the soundtracks of two highly acclaimed animated film adaptations of the pieces.


  • Grauerholz, James. Word Virus. New York: Grove, 1998.
  • Miles, Barry. William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible, A Portrait, New York: Hyperion, 1992.
  • Morgan, Ted. Literary Outlaw. New York: Avon, 1988.

External links

fi:William S. Burroughs fr:William S. Burroughs it:William Seward Burroughs (scrittore) ja:ウィリアム・S・バロウズ nl:William S. Burroughs


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