William S. Burroughs
William Seward Burroughs (February 5, 1914 – August 2, 1997) was a gay American author associated with the Beat Generation writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.
He is best known as the author of Naked Lunch, an unusual novel focusing on his obsessions with drug addiction, homosexuality, and fantasies of extreme criminal behavior. The book became a test case in US obscenity laws.
He is also well known for his later use of the cut-up technique of using pieces of various texts to create a new one (which Burroughs developed with the poet and artist Brion Gysin who introduced him to the idea), as well as what Burroughs called “word holes” – repeated phrases or sentences from which reading can continue at any other identical phrase or sentences in the text, a form of hypertext.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, William Seward Burroughs was the grandson of the William Seward Burroughs who 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.
He attended John Burroughs School in St. Louis, and 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…”
In 1944, Burroughs began living with Joan Vollmer in an apartment they shared with Kerouac and Edie Parker, Kerouac’s first wife. Due to the more homophobic / societal pressures of the day Burroughs divorced his first wife, IIse Krabbe, and married Vollmer in 1946 with the intent of trying to create a “normal” family. Their son, William S. Burroughs, Jr., was born in 1947 in Texas. During this period Burroughs wrote 2 novels-Junkie & Queer, the latter only published in the 1980s. Both were straightforward narratives unusual only for their very dark humour and pre-date Burroughs’ literary experiments. On September 6, 1951 in Mexico City, Burroughs accidentally shot and killed his wife during what was reportedly a drunken attempt to imitate William Tell’s feat of shooting an apple off his son’s head. This is often described as an “accidental shooting”, but other interpretations are possible, including “murder” or even “assisted suicide”. Burroughs was charged with criminal imprudence and eventually skipped bail, leaving Mexico in 1952. He toured South America for several months, then settled in Tangier, Morocco. It was in Tangier that he and Brion Gysin developed the aforementioned ‘cut-up technique’.
In 1956, Burroughs attempted to cure his ongoing drug addiction with the help of John Dent, a London physician. After completing treatment (which like seemingly all treatments for addiction, appeared to be of limited effect—Burroughs was on methadone for much of the rest of his life), he moved to the legendary “Beat Hotel” in Paris, eventually accumulating a trunkful of fragmentary, hallucinatory manuscripts. With the help of Ginsberg and Kerouac these were edited into Naked Lunch and sold to Olympia Press publisher Maurice Girodias. A collage of disturbing, bizarre, and often obscene images, Naked Lunch was proclaimed a work of genius by Norman Mailer and J. G. Ballard, but a filthy abomination by many others. A book so intense can be quite polarizing and can have a profound effect on those who read it, especially since Burroughs seems to foretell by many years the AIDS crisis and many other 20th century disasters. The trunk manuscripts eventually became three other novels, The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express.
After it was published, Naked Lunch was prosecuted as obscene by the state of Massachusetts, followed by other states, forcing the book to be published in Italy. In 1966 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declared the work “not obscene” based on criteria developed, largely, to defend the book. This opened the door for others works like Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, to be published in the United States.
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” and “Port of Saints.” He also interacted with like-minded writers such as Alexander Trocchi and Jeff Nuttall, as well as fellow gay Beat personality Allen Ginsberg.
In the 1970s he moved back to New York City where he was sought out by a diverse cast of New York cultural players, including Andy Warhol and Mick Jagger. Victor Bockris’ ‘William Burroughs: A report from the bunker’ is a good record of this period of his life. Burrough’s table talk indicates the surprising influence Eastern/Arabic mystical occult philosophy had on his thinking. He also began giving public readings to increasingly enthusiastic audiences at this time.
In the 1980s and 1990s Burroughs became pop culture icon appealing to punk rock artists, appearing with recording artists ranging from Laurie Anderson to Ministry, and in films such as Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy. In 1990, he collaborated with director Robert Wilson and musician Tom Waits to create The Black Rider, a play which opened at the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg on March 31, 1990, to critical acclaim, and was later performed all over Europe and the USA. Through the 1990s, Burroughs also produced several spoken word recordings of his written material, including a collaboration with Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain, whom he outlived. Burroughs also collaborated with Bill Laswell.
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. He was regarded as being extremely intelligent and a generally quiet person. His hobbies included science fiction and collecting handguns. He was also an avid cat-lover and owned several throughout his life.
William S. Burroughs died at his home in Lawrence, Kansas, at 6:50 p.m., August 2, 1997 from the complications of the previous day’s heart attack.