Burroughs, William S.

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William S. Burroughs


Full name William Seward Burroughs; born February 5, 1914, in St. Louis, MO; died of a heart attack, August 2, 1997, in Lawrence, KS; son of Mortimer P. (a businessman) and Laura (Lee) Burroughs; married Ilse Herzfeld Klapper, 1937 (divorced, 1946); married Joan Vollmer, January 17, 1946 (died September 7, 1951, of an accidental gunshot wound); children: (second marriage) William Seward, Jr. (died March 3, 1981). Education: Harvard University, A.B., 1936, graduate study, 1938; attended University of Vienna, 1937, and Mexico City College, 1949-50.


Writer. Advertising copywriter in New York City, early 1940s; has also worked as bartender, exterminator, and private detective. Appeared in films, including Bill and Tony, 1962; Towers Open Fire, 1963; The Cut-Ups, 1965; Opium Jones, 1967; Prologue, 1970; Underground and Emigrants, 1976; Energy and How to Get It, 1981; Poetry in Motion, 1982; Cooked Diamonds, 1982; Kerouac, 1983; Burroughs, 1983; This Song for Jack, 1983; Decoder, 1984; What Happened to Kerouac?, 1985; It Don't Pay to Be an Honest Citizen, 1985; Home of the Brave, 1986; William S. Burroughs: Commissioner of Sewers, 1986; The Beat Generation: An American Dream, 1987; Bloodhounds on Broadway, 1989; Drugstore Cowboy, 1989; Heavy Petting, 1989; Rub Out the Word, 1989; Twister, 1989; A Thanksgiving Prayer, 1990; Naked Making Lunch, 1992; The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg, 1993; Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, 1993; Glitterbug, 1993; A Junky's Christmas, 1994; Ah Pook Is Here, 1994; and Ghosts at No. 9. Made appearances in music videos. Military service: U.S. Army, 1942.

Awards, Honors

National Institute of Arts and Letters and American Academy, award in literature, 1975, named member, 1983; the Nova Convention, a four-day arts festival held in New York city in 1978, and the Final Academy, held in London in 1982, were organized as tributes to Burroughs.



(Under pseudonym William Lee) Junkie: The Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict (bound with Narcotic Agent by Maurice Helbrant), Ace Books (New York, NY), 1953, published separately under name William S. Burroughs, 1964, unexpurgated edition published as Junky, Penguin (New York, NY), 1977.

The Naked Lunch (also see below), Olympia Press (Paris, France), 1959, published as Naked Lunch, Grove (New York, NY), 1962, restored text edition, 2001.

The Soft Machine (also see below), Olympia Press (Paris, France), 1961, revised edition, Grove (New York, NY), 1966.

The Ticket That Exploded (also see below), Olympia Press (Paris, France), 1962, revised edition, Grove (New York, NY), 1967.

Dead Fingers Talk (contains excerpts from NakedLunch, The Soft Machine, and The Ticket That Exploded), Calder/Olympia Press (Paris, France), 1963.

Nova Express (also see below), Grove (New York, NY), 1964.

The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead (also see below), Grove (New York, NY), 1971, revised edition, Calder (London, England), 1979.

Exterminator! Viking/Seaver (New York, NY), 1973.

Port of Saints, Covent Garden Press (London, England), 1973, Blue Wind Press (Berkeley, CA), 1979.

Short Novels, Calder (London, England), 1978. Blade Runner: A Movie, Blue Wind Press (Berkeley, CA), 1979.

The Soft Machine, Nova Express [and] The Wild Boys, Grove (New York, NY), 1980.

Cities of the Red Night, Holt (New York, NY), 1981.

The Place of Dead Roads, Holt (New York, NY), 1984.

Queer, Viking (New York, NY), 1986.

The Western Lands, Viking (New York, NY), 1987.

Interzone, edited by James Grauerholz, Viking (New York, NY), 1989.

Also author, with Jack Kerouac, of unpublished novel And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks.


(With Brion Gysin) The Exterminator, Auerhaun Press (San Francisco, CA), 1960.

(With Brion Gysin, Sinclair Beiles, and Gregory Corso) Minutes to Go (poems), Two Cities Editions (Paris, France), 1960, Beach Books, 1968.

(With Allen Ginsberg) The Yage Letters, City Lights (San Francisco, CA), 1963.

Takis (exhibition catalog), [New York, NY], 1963.

(Under pseudonym Willy Lee) Roosevelt after Inauguration, F——You Press, 1964, published as Roosevelt after Inauguration and Other Atrocities, City Lights (San Francisco, CA), 1979.

Valentine's Day Reading, American Theatre for Poets, 1965.

The White Subway (also see below), Aloes Books (London, England), 1965.

Health Bulletin: APO:33: A Metabolic Regulator, F——You Press, 1965, published as APO:33: A Report on the Synthesis of the Apomorphine Formula, Beach Books, 1966.

(With Lee Harwood) Darayt, Lovebooks (London, England), 1965.

Time (poems), "C" Press, 1965.

(With Claude Pelieu and Carl Weissner) So WhoOwns Death TV? Beach Book Texts and Documents, 1967.

They Do Not Always Remember, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1968.

(Author of preface) Jeff Nuttall, Pig, Fulcrum Press (London, England), 1969.

Ali's Smile, Unicorn Books (New York, NY), 1969. The Dead Star, Nova Broadcast Press (San Francisco, CA.), 1969.

Entretiens avec William Burroughs, Editions Pierre Belfond (Paris, France), 1969, translation published as The Job: Interviews with William S. Burroughs, Grove (New York, NY), 1970, new edition, 1974.

(With Carl Weissner) The Braille Film, Nova Broadcast Press (San Francisco, CA.), 1970.

(With Brion Gysin) Third Mind, Grove (New York, NY), 1970.

The Last Words of Dutch Schultz: A Fiction in the Form of a Film Script, Cape Goliard Press (London, England), 1970, Viking/Seaver (New York, NY), 1975.

(With Claude Pelieu) Jack Kerouac (in French), L'Herne (Paris, France), 1971.

Electronic Revolution (also see below), Blackmoor Head Press (Cambridge, England), 1971.

(With Brion Gysin and Ian Somerville) Brion GysinLet the Mice In, Something Else Press (New York, NY), 1973.

Mayfair Academy Series More or Less, Urgency Press Rip-Off, 1973.

The Book of Breething (also see below), OU Press (Ingatestone, England), 1974, Blue Wind Press (Berkeley, CA), 1975, 2nd edition, 1980.

(With Charles Gatewood) Sidetripping, Strawberry Hill (San Francisco, CA), 1975.

(With Eric Mottram) Snack: Two Tape Transcripts, Aloes Books (London, England), 1975.

Cobblestone Gardens (also see below), Cherry Valley (Wheaton, MD), 1976.

The Retreat Diaries (also see below), City Moon (New York, NY), 1976.

(Author of text) 23 Skidoo, first produced in New York, NY, at the Washington Square Methodist Church, April, 1978.

Naked Scientology, Expanded Media Editions (Bonn, Germany), 1978.

Doctor Benway: A Variant Passage from "The NakedLunch," Bradford Morrow (Santa Barbara, CA), 1979.

Ah Pook Is Here and Other Texts: The Book of Breething,Electronic Revolution, Calder (London, England), 1979.

Early Routines, Cadmus Editions (Santa Barbara, CA), 1981.

Letters to Allen Ginsberg, 1953-1957, Full Court Press (New York, NY), 1981.

A William Burroughs Reader, Pan Books (London, England), 1982.

The Burroughs File (includes The White Subway,Cobblestone Gardens, and The Retreat Diaries), City Lights (San Francisco, CA), 1984.

The Adding Machine: Collected Essays, Calder (London, England), 1985. (With Keith Haring) Apocalypse (catalog), George Mulder Fine Arts (New York, NY), 1988.

Tornado Alley, Cherry Valley Editions (Cherry Valley, NY), 1988.

William S. Burroughs: Paintings, Galerie Carzaniga + Ueker (Basel, Switzerland), 1989.

William S. Burroughs: Exposition, 23 mars/21 avril1990, Galerie K. Paris, Le Galerie (Paris, France), 1990.

Ghost of Chance, illustrated by George Condo, Library Fellows of the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, NY), 1991.

The Cat Inside, Viking (New York, NY), 1992.

Everything Is Permitted: The Making of "Naked Lunch," edited by Ira Silverberg, Grove Weidenfeld (New York, NY), 1992.

The Letters of William S. Burroughs: 1945-1959, edited and with an introduction by Oliver Harris, Viking (New York, NY), 1994.

My Education: A Book of Dreams, Viking (New York, NY), 1995.

Collected Interviews of William S. Burroughs, Autonomedia, 1997.

(With James Grauerholz and Ira Silverberg) WordVirus: The William S. Burroughs Reader, Grove (New York, NY), 1998.

My Kind of Angel: i.m. William Burroughs, edited by Rupert Loydell, Stride (Exeter, Devon, England), 1998.

Conversations with William S. Burroughs, edited by Allen Hibbard, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1999.

Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs, edited by James Grauerholz, Grove (New York, NY), 2000.

Burroughs Live: The Collected Interviews of William S.Burroughs, 1960-1997, edited by Sylvre Lotringer, Semiotext(e), 2000.

Also author, with Claude Pelieu and Carl Weissner, of Fernseh-Tuberkulose, 1969, and of films, with Gysin, Towers Open Fire, 1963, with Antony Balch, Bill and Tony, 1966, and of The Cut-Ups. Contributor to books, including A Casebook on the Beat, edited by Thomas Parkinson, Crowell, 1961, and The Final Academy: Statements of a Kind, edited by Robert Fly, Final Academy, 1982. Also a contributor to Grand Street 59: Time (January 1997).


Call Me Burroughs, English Bookshop, 1965.

William S. Burroughs/John Giorno, Giorno Poetry Systems, 1975.

You're the Man I Want to Share My Money With, Giorno Poetry Systems, 1981.

Nothing Here Now but the Recordings, Industrial Records, 1981.

Break Through in Grey Room, Sub Rosa, 1987.

Dead City Radio, Island Records, 1990.

(And narrator) A Thanksgiving Prayer, Island Records, 1990.

(With Kurt Cobain) "'The Priest' They Called Him," Tim/Kerr Records, 1993.

Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales, Island Red Label, 1993.

(With Tom Waits) The Black Rider, Island Records, 1993.

Best of William Burroughs from Giorno Poetry Systems, Mouth Almighty/Mercury, 1998.

The Name Is Burroughs: A Program of Readings from the Work of William S. Burroughs, selected and read by Teman Treadway, Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1998.

Contributor to Laurie Anderson: Mister Heartbreak, Warner Brothers, 1984. Also composer of song "Old Lady Sloan," recorded by Mortal Micronotz on the album The Mortal Micronotz, Fresh Sounds, 1982; and to Revolutions per Minute (The Art Record), Ronald Feldmann Fine Arts, 1982, and Life Is a Killer, Giorno Poetry Systems.


Burroughs's novel Naked Lunch was adapted for a film directed by David Cronenberg, produced by Jeremy Thomas, and released by Twentieth Century-Fox in 1991.


Called "one of the most enthralling personalities in American literature" by Alan Ansen in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, writer, poet, painter, performer, and rebel William S. Burroughs was a founder of the Beat Generation, a literary artistic movement that challenged the predominant middle-class beliefs of 1950s America. Referred to as a "literary outlaw" by his biographer, Ted Morgan, Burroughs was a distinct outsider not only to the bourgeois world which he so satirized, but even in artistic circles. His life was punctuated with the exclamation marks of his early drug addiction, the killing of his second wife, and his homosexuality. As Leon Lewis noted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, however, "the legend surrounding Burroughs's life has tended to deflect attention from his actual accomplishments while intertwining the life of the man with his work in ways that require knowledge of both to make either intelligible. Lewis further commented, "[Burroughs's] influence on musicians, filmmakers, computer hackers, and others with antiestablishment agendas has frequently overshadowed his importance as a writer. However, his employment of a Joycean stream-of-consciousness narrative; his prefiguring of postmodernism in his fusion of disparate modes; his development of a novel that does not depend on traditional methods of shaping plot, characters, and dialogue; and his creation of a distinctly singular voice that combines several strains of American speech while retaining its own characteristic qualities should ensure his place in twentieth-century literature

Vince Passaro noted in Harper's magazine shortly after Burroughs's death in 1997, that "such disturbing life details were little remembered" at the time of the writer's passing, as indeed were his actual accomplishments. Instead, according to Passaro, Burroughs "had been commercially morphed into the grand old man of American freakdom, the last living beatnik . . . , a cool face in a Nike ad, and a background vocalist on Tom Waits and Laurie Anderson records." This transformation was, however, far from the truth of Burroughs's life, according to Passaro: "In reality . . . Burroughs was a dangerous man, not only an actual killer but a theoretician of crime and resistance, someone who strove to forge the unspeakable into an art form. With his passing, the American literary world lost more than the thin, neatly dressed Beat icon that the mainstream obituaries described; it lost the last of its revolutionary modernists." Described by a critic for Publishers Weekly as a "crusty American expatriate junkie who looked like an insurance-company middle manager," Burroughs left behind an impressive list of achievements in a number of artistic forms. The author of over a dozen novels, including the acclaimed Naked Lunch, Queer, Junkie, The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, Nova Express, The Wild Boys, and Cities of the Red Night, he also wrote nonfiction, including a volume of letters that helps define the middle decades of the twentieth century. In addition to these works, he penned short stories and film scripts, recorded numerous readings of his own work, appeared in music videos and movies, and worked for many years toward the end of his life as a painter.

Burroughs's fiction is noted for its nonlinear format, unresolved endings, and abrupt cuts and transitions. He also pioneered a genre he called "cut-ups," in which he interleaved his own text with random cuttings from newspapers and other media. As Jim Marks noted in Lambda Book Report, Burroughs's novels are a "weird mix of paranoia, violence, drug use and teenage homoerotic sexual fantasy." Indeed, for Marks, such a sexual fantasy "is the predominant element in Burroughs' writing." Others, including George Gessert, writing in Leonardo, find that Burroughs's writing owes less to literary influences such as James Joyce and Henry Miller than they do to the world of music and art. "To me," wrote Gessert, "[Burroughs's] novels of the late 1950s and 1960s do not recall Finnegan's Wake or The Tropic of Cancer so much as improvisational jazz and abstract expressionism." Gessert went on to note that, "like [the abstract expressionist painter Jackson] Pollock, who abandoned the concern for a permanent art, Burroughs saw permanence in literature as inappropriate to an age of instant annihilation, and he tried to create an emergency literature for breakthrough into a new culture."

Middle-Class Roots

It is ironic that such a rebellious, pioneering spirit came out of such a conventional upbringing. The grandson of the inventor of the adding machine, Burroughs was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1914. His family was intensely establishment. In addition to the fortune (lost by 1929) gained by the adding machine that bears the family name, Burroughs's mother also came from a staid, conservative background, the Lee family, which counted the Confederate general Robert E. Lee among its forebears. Laura Lee Burroughs's uncle helped to found the use of public relations by corporate America to battle the labor movement; she was the daughter of a Methodist minister and herself was well known for her three books on flower arranging. Burroughs's father, Mortimer P. Burroughs, was a gentleman who lived off the fortune brought in by his father's invention; he was a noted amateur landscape gardener and later, after the loss of much of the family money in the stock market crash of 1929, ran a gift and art shop called Cobblestone Gardens. An older brother was a Princeton University graduate and an architect who worked his entire life for General Electric.

William Seward Burroughs was, however, cut out for a different path in life. He dropped out of his private boys' school in New Mexico two months before graduation because of depression brought on by rejection by another boy. The Los Alamos Ranch School was subsequently purchased by the U.S. government and turned into a research site for the building of the first atomic bomb. Jennie Skerl noted in Dictionary of Literary Biography that "as a youth Burroughs says he found himself alienated from a suburban social environment perceived as both boring and hostile. He felt his homosexuality was only part of the reason for his alienation, not the sole cause. Timid and solitary, he turned to extensive reading for solace and dreamed of becoming a writer." He began writing in his youth, but gave it up as a teenager, dismayed that he was unable to reveal the intimate details of his life, even in the pages of his diary. He would not begin writing again until 1938, and then only in a piecemeal manner.

Attending Harvard University in the early 1930s, Burroughs majored in English and was remembered by other students primarily for the fact that he kept a live ferret in his room. Graduating in 1936, he went to Vienna, Austria, for a time, studying medicine and psychoanalysis. There he married Ilse Herzfeld Klapper, a union motivated not out of love but from a desire to help her emigrate from a Europe increasingly dominated by Adolf Hitler and the German Nazis. The couple divorced formally in 1946. Back in the United States, Burroughs worked at a variety of jobs, from an advertising copywriter to exterminator. For a time in 1938 he began writing again, collaborating with a friend, Kells Evins, on hard-boiled detective yarns which did not sell to the magazine market. During this time, despite a lack of success in placing his work, Burroughs began developing his pulp fiction and factual style as well as one of the characters that would make repeated appearances in his later work, Dr. Benway. Drafted into the army with the onset of World War II, Burroughs quickly received a disability discharge when it was learned that he had spent time in a mental hospital for slicing off part of a finger.

These years of aimless drifting began to take more shape when he moved to New York and enrolled at Columbia University. There he met two younger men, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, with whom he would establish a lasting connection. These three ultimately laid down the foundations of the Beat movement with its critical view of corporate America. Burroughs also completed his search for the ultimate outsider experience in America: in 1944 he became a morphine addict. Shortly thereafter, he met Joan Vollmer, a friend of Kerouac's girlfriend. He and Vollmer would, despite Burroughs's homosexuality, ultimately marry and have a son, William Burroughs II.

In many ways Burroughs was a teacher to Ginsberg and Kerouac, who were about a decade younger and less experienced in the world and in literature. He introduced them to the outlaw culture he had discovered around Times Square in New York, and
the pushers who supplied him with his drugs. But the younger men also influenced Burroughs; it was Kerouac who finally convinced the older man to start writing down his own life, especially his drug experiences.

A Literary Outlaw

From the middle of the 1940s to the end of the 1950s addiction was a way of life for Burroughs. His life was in fact almost totally determined by his drug use, both the availability of drugs and the legal problems ensuing because of his addiction. He fled New York with Vollmer to avoid a drug arrest, settling in Texas for a time. Then, after a spell in a drug rehabilitation center in Kentucky, he returned to Texas and his drug habit. He left Texas for Louisiana because of an arrest for drunken driving. In Louisiana he was arrested for possession of drugs and illegal firearms and escaped to Mexico City to avoid conviction. There, supported by a small allowance from his family, he began taking classes at the Mexico City University, and also continued with his drug habit in an environment where drugs were easier to find.

By 1950 he had begun work on his first novel, Junkie: The Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict. His time in Mexico, however, was cut short by domestic tragedy. Drinking heavily one day, Burroughs and his wife played a deadly game with a handgun. She placed a glass of gin on her head and he attempted to shoot it, like William Tell and the apple. In this case, however, he missed. The bullet struck Joan in the forehead and killed her instantly. The killing was finally ruled an accident, but Burroughs had to leave Mexico. His son, Billy, was sent to live with his paternal grandparents and Burroughs set off on a new round of travels, through South America in search of a legendary drug, yage, and then on to Tangier, Morocco, where young men and drugs were plentiful. Here he settled for several years. The death of his wife, however, left its mark on Burroughs. As he wrote in the novel Queer, the death "brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out."

Meanwhile, Burroughs's first novel, Junkie, appeared in 1953, and was largely ignored by critics. As Skerl noted, however, the novel "lays the groundwork for later novels and is itself a complex work that deserves more attention." Many of the characters and themes of Burroughs's later work make their first appearance here. The book records the experiences of a drug addict or junkie, William Lee, who is a stand in for Burroughs himself. Critics later pointed out the significance of the use of the name "Lee," that of his mother's conservative family. But Bill Lee, Burroughs's protagonist, is a rebel, a seeker of adventure and of a life lived outside of traditional moral structures and strictures. Addiction, according to Burroughs, is what sets Lee free from the conventional social rules. In this debut novel Burroughs also experiments with new literary forms, imitating the deadpan style of the pulp magazines.

In Tangier Burroughs was no less controlled by his addiction, but he still managed to write about a thousand pages of notes that he would later fashion into his rambling, nonlinear novels. He began to work on a fictional device he called the "routine," or "satirical fantasy improvised from a factual base," as Skerl described the technique. His Tangier notes were full of such routines, and they began to form the core of his fictional technique. From 1953 to 1959 there were no new publications, only these copious notes. However, by 1957 his drug habit had become so extreme that he again sought help, this time in London where he underwent what was known as the apomorphine cure. The treatment was successful, though Burroughs relapsed a few times. Yet by 1959 Burroughs was completely cured of his addiction to morphine and could now put the finishing touches on Naked Lunch, the novel by which he is best know.

A Literary Explosion

Like Junkie, Naked Lunch is on one level the record of a man's addiction to opiates. The book traces the effects of this addiction and its treatment and cure by the apomorphine treatment. "On the literal level the novel can be seen as the disjointed memories and hallucinations of withdrawal," according to Skerl. Again narrated by Bill Lee, the book opens with a first section that more or less looks at Burroughs's own life of addiction as seen in Junkie, and his ultimate settling in Tangier. But the book moves into fantasy in other sections in which Tangier is changed into the dystopic "Interzone," and social satire comes to the fore as does Burroughs's own form of pop philosophy and science. Routines or sketches are laid out in random order, thus prohibiting any sense of narrative continuity or sense of consistent point of view. It is possible, as more than one critic has mentioned, to pick up the novel and begin anywhere, or jump backward or forward at will. It is also filled with powerful sexual and bodily descriptions, strong language that kept the book from being published initially in the United States.

Among the myriad themes explored in the novel is that of control. As Lewis observed in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "Burroughs investigates the methods that people in positions of power or dependency use to influence others through the exertion of psychological, social, political, and sexual pressures." Thus he takes on the establishment through the fictional form of the three political parties of Interzone: the Liquefactionists, the Divisionists, and the Senders. The leaders of these parties are all "control addicts," as Burroughs describes them in the novel. The only force for good against these evil parasitic controllers is the radical Factualist party. Agent Bill Lee is a factualist, fighting his odd fight for human freedom by revealing the facts and the way things really are.

It was not this subversive message, though, that caused legal and critical problems for the book. Lewis pointed out that "most of the criticism directed at Naked Lunch by literary critics and legal authorities has focused on Burroughs's graphic presentation of coarse physical detail and his apparent lack of a clear moral base in his portrayal of deviant social activities." But as Lewis went on to note," Burroughs's intentions, however, are neither to endorse nor directly to condemn the participants depicted in his routines, utilizing instead the shocking force of the portrayals as a means of undermining easy or habitual responses so that conventional judgment might be replaced by a new or deeper understanding of fundamental causes. The morality of his work is derived from his exploration of what he calls 'The Algebra of Need'—a phrase pointing toward the cynical exploitation of human desperation that might be understood in terms of the root meaning of algebra."

Published in Paris in 1959, the novel was finally brought out by Grove Press in the United States in 1962. Together with Ginsberg's epic poem, Howl, published in 1956, and Kerouac's novel On the Road, published in 1957, Burroughs's Naked Lunch forms a triumvirate of works proclaiming the Beat ethos of disaffection and alienation. It earned a champion in the writer Mary McCarthy, who compared Naked Lunch to Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, another book initially thought obscene. Other writers also rallied around Burroughs when Naked Lunch twice faced obscenity charges in the early 1960s and twice won, helping to break the stranglehold such laws had on creativity. Writing more than three decades later, Benjamin Weissman noted in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that with publication of Naked Lunch, Burroughs "locked himself and his readers into a blasted, playful zone, a sort of Jonathan Swiftmeets-Marquis de Sade 'humanoidspeak.'" Weissman further commented that the "voice of Burroughs' prose is a profound and prophetic dementia that continually blows people away, and like all great writing it disturbed a lot of people." For Weissman, this prose was a "surreal maelstrom of sex, violence and drugs all swirled together in a levelheaded cowboy vernacular." Alternately praised and reviled upon publication, Naked Lunch and Burroughs have since been inducted into the canon of American literature. Skerl concluded that the novel is a "brilliant work deserving of the critical attention it has received. It significantly contributes to the craft of fiction in subject matter and technique, thus gaining it a permanent place in the history of the novel and the history of the avantgarde."

This world of control addicts and surreal exploration of the modern condition found further definition in the trilogy of novels that followed Naked Lunch: The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express. "In these books," according to Passaro, "Burroughs . . . developed an underground politics of shamanistic resistance to 1950s U.S. triumphalism." The author continued to draw on the notes and routines he had written in Tangier, but now threw in a new technique for making such surreal sketches even more random. Influenced by the "cut-up" technique of his friend and painter Brion Gysin—which derived from the Dada art movement of the 1910s and 1920s—Burroughs began cutting up his passages of prose and randomly inserting cuttings from other writers and media to create a collage effect, further accentuating the accidental nature of the narratives. This trilogy forms what Burroughs referred to as a "mythology for the space age." Such plot as there is for the trilogy revolves around the Nova Mob, superhuman and extraterrestrial forces from outer space who have controlled mankind for three thousand years, taking on the form of a parasitic virus. They control the world by making humans addicted to sex, power, and drugs. Throughout the trio of books, the Mob is fought by the Nova Police, and once again Agent Lee is in attendance on the side of good, trying to "wise up the marks," as Burroughs puts it in street parlance, or expose the Mob's operations and intentions to mankind. The series of novels ends, however, with the battle between the two forces at a stalemate. In all of these early books Burroughs consistently portrays addiction as a metaphor for the human condition, and the act of writing as a subversive, anti-control tactic. For Skerl, this trilogy, "taken as one work, is an achievement equal to Naked Lunch both in its innovation and its power." Yet Skerl also noted that Burroughs's extensive use of the cut-up technique "makes the trilogy inaccessible to many readers."

An End to Exile

Burroughs lived in Paris from 1959 to 1964 while writing his trilogy, then moved back to the United States. After the obscenity trials of Naked Lunch, he moved to London where he resided until 1974. From 1964 to 1971 Burroughs published no new novel-length work, as he had by now used up the pages of notes and routines accumulated during his days in Tangier. Instead he once again gathered new experiences out of which he could fashion longer fictional works. His next major novel, a science-fiction fantasy, was Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead, about a group of homosexual youths who smoke hashish and travel through both time and space, beyond normal societal controls. Told in eighteen scenes and in a more accessible genre style than his earlier fiction, Wild Boys is still concerned with the traditional Burroughs themes of personal freedom and independence from the shackles of society. Skerl noted that Wild Boys marked a new phase in Burroughs's work with a new mythology and metaphor. For Skerl, if addiction was the metaphor of the author's work up to the late 1960s, thereafter it was sexuality which serves as the "central metaphor." Burroughs began exploring the idea of sex and death as the biological trap in much of his later work.

Exterminator!, published in 1973, continues in this more direct and simple style, but with even briefer scenes, and Port of Saints followed in 1975, which continues to develop similar themes and plots of the previous two novels, but also re-introduces themes and characters from Naked Lunch. Because of such an overlap and inter-connectedness between his fictional works, some critics have observed that all of Burroughs's work forms one giant novel. Amid this life lived on an artistic plane, personal tragedy continued to haunt Burroughs. His son, Bill, had become, like his father, a writer; also like his father he abused drugs and alcohol. For Bill such abuse turned into alcoholism that damaged his liver. Despite a transplant, Bill Burroughs died in 1981.

By this time Burroughs had settled in Lawrence, Kansas, and was well on his way to becoming a cultural shibboleth. He made appearances on Saturday
Night Live and started giving public readings of his work throughout the country, becoming the inspiration for a new generation of rebels and societal misfits. He also continued to publish new novels. His 1981 Cities of the Red Night features the private detective Clem Snide, who is trying to solve a case of ritual murder. Other stories and routines also pop up; one plot line is set a thousand years ago in the Gobi Desert, and the main story follows an eighteenth-century gang of homosexual pirates who are trying to set up free-spirited communities for themselves in South America. Burroughs employs genre styles from the detective to science fiction and boys' adventure tales in this novel.

As usual, Burroughs elicited both praise and condemnation for his prose. Newsweek's Peter S. Prescott, for example, complained that "the inspiration behind [Cities of the Red Night] seems retarded: the masturbatory fantasies of a 12-year-old boy," while John Tytell in the American Book Review declared that the same work "is a powerful book and a hauntingly macabre entertainment." Burroughs joined the ranks of established and venerated American writers when he was invited to become a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1983. He accepted, and when asked to send material that could be included in an exhibit of the work of new members, Burroughs asked if they would be interested in one of the pieces of art he had begun to create by hanging bags or cans of paint on a plywood panel and using it for target practice with a shotgun. The Academy politely but firmly declined the offer.

In 1984 Burroughs published a novel set in the 1890s, The Place of Dead Roads, and populated it with another gang of homosexual youths who wage war against the straight society. Called the "first gay western" by David Donnell in the Toronto Globe & Mail, the novel was panned by Anatole Broyard in the New York Times: "For a celebrated author to publish a novel as poor as The Place of Dead Roads requires a degree of collusion or encouragement on our part." In 1986 the novel Queer was published. Though Burroughs actually wrote the book as his second novel, he did not publish it for over three decades, supposedly because its homosexual content was too strong for most publishers. Passaro found that Queer "is the book that now seems to define [Burroughs] most." In it, according to Passaro, Burroughs first developed his "true comic-psychotic voice and his time-and character-shredding narrative style." Two further novels followed in the 1980s, The Western Lands and Interzone, edited by Burroughs's long-time friend, secretary, and promoter, James Grauerholz.

If you enjoy the works of William S. Burroughs

If you enjoy the works of William S. Burroughs, you may also want to check out the following books:

Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception, 1954.

J. G. Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition, 1970.

Francesca Lia Block, The Hanged Man, 1994.

Burroughs's reputation continued to grow among a new generation of readers, partly spurred by his appearances in movies such as Drugstore Cowboy,My Own Private Idaho, and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. His influence on music, especially rock and roll, could be seen by groups that took their names (Steely Dan, Soft Machine) from titles of or characters in Burroughs's novels. Even the phrase "heavy metal" that describes a type of rock music comes from Naked Lunch. As Lewis MacAdams noted in Rolling Stone, "[Burroughs] collaborated with U2, Kurt Cobain and Tom Waits. Burroughs came to embody a Luciferian spirit to generations of musicians, from Lou Reed to David Bowie to Patti Smith to Trent Reznor." More than simply an influence on music, though, Burroughs also collaborated on the critically acclaimed musical theater piece The Black Rider, with music by Tom Waits.

Burroughs published mostly nonfiction toward the end of his life. His collected correspondence, The Letters of William S. Burroughs: 1945-1959, appeared in 1994, and his dream diary, My Education: A Book of Dreams, came out in the following year. At the time of his death in 1997, Burroughs was keeping a journal, which was published posthumously as Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs. His passing brought a reassessment of his life and his works. "The importance of Burroughs's writing is undeniable," wrote Lewis in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Robert Cohen of the New York Times Book Review called Burroughs "arguably the most influential American prose writer of the last forty years." Yet, as Gessert asserted, "Burroughs is not for everyone. He wrote neither for those interested only in the mundane details of protected lives, nor for those who believe that some things should never be said." As Gessert further noted, Burroughs himself may be forgotten, but not the effects of his work: "He has already left such an indelible mark on culture that his anarchic spirit will enliven the arts whether or not his works are read. . . . He believed
. . . that history can be changed by art."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Bockris, Victor, With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker, St. Martin's Griffin (New York, NY), 1996.

Burroughs, William S., Jr. and David Ohle, Cursed from Birth: The Short, Unhappy Life of William S. Burroughs, Jr., Grove (New York, NY), 2003.

Caveney, Graham, Gentleman Junkie: The Life andLegacy of William S. Burroughs, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1998.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 1, 1973; Volume 2, 1974, Volume 5, 1976, Volume 15, 1980, Volume 22, 1982, Volume 42, 1987, Volume 75, 1993.

Contemporary Musicians, Volume 26, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Cook, Bruce, The Beat Generation, Scribner (New York, NY), 1971.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 2: American Novelists since World War II, 1978; Volume 8: Twentieth Century American Science Fiction Writers, 1981; Volume 16: The Beats: Literary Bohemians in Postwar America, 1983; Volume 152: American Novelists since World War II, Fourth Series, 1995.

Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1981, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1982.

Gifford, Barry and Lawrence Lee, Jack's Book: AnOral Biography of Jack Kerouac, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1978.

Lotringer, Sylvere, Burroughs Live (Double Agent S), Semiotext(e)/MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 2002.

McNally, Dennis, Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, theBeat Generation, and America, Random House (New York, NY), 1979.

Morgan, Ted, Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times ofWilliam S.Burroughs, Holt, 1988.

Murphy, Timothy S., Wising up the Marks: The Novels of William S. Burroughs, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1998.

Parkinson, Thomas,Poets, Poems, Movements, UMI Research Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1987.

Skerl, Jennie, William S. Burroughs at the Front, edited by Robin Lydenberg, Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale, IL), 1991.

Sobieszek, Robert, A., Ports of Entry: William S. Burroughs and the Arts, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Los Angeles, CA), 1996.

Vernon, John, The Garden and the Map: Schizophrenia in Twentieth-Century Literature and Culture, University of Illinois Press (Champaign, IL), 1973.


Advocate, June 24, 1997, "10 Most Hated Books," pp. 91-96.

Afterimage, January/February, 2004, Philip Fairbanks, "Gonzo Lives Underground," pp. 14-15.

American Book Review, May-June, 1981, John Tytell, review of Cities of the Red Night; January-February, 2003, Victor Bockris, "Captain Burroughs," pp. 1, 4-5; March-April, 2004, Regina Weinreich, "Good Will Hunting," p. 25.

American Spectator, October, 1993, review of The Letters of William S. Burroughs, pp. 80-82.

Antioch Review, fall, 1995, Blaine Steele, review of My Education, p. 494.

Artforum International, summer, 1995, Patrick McGrath, review of My Education, p. B21.

Booklist, December 1, 1998, Raul Nino, review of Word Virus, p. 646; February 15, 2000, Ray Olson, review of Last Words, p. 1070.

Economist, September 18, 1993, review of The Letters of William S. Burroughs, p. 98.

Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, summer, 2000, Lester Strong, "Intimations of Mortality," pp. 49-50.

Globe & Mail (Toronto, Canada), March 10, 1984, David Donnell, review of The Place of Dead Roads.

Harper's, April, 1998, Vince Passaro, "The Forgotten Killer: The Work of William S. Burroughs, Once Dangerous Is in Danger Itself," pp. 71-75.

Library Journal, November 15, 1994, Edward B. St. John, review of My Education: A Book of Dreams,
p. 86; December 1998, William Gargn, review of Word Virus, p. 104; p. 85; March 15, 2002, William Gargan, review of William S. Burroughs Live, p. 80; April 1, 2003, Michael Rogers, review of Junky,
p. 136.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 18, 1995, Benjamin Weissman, "Dream Control," p. 15.

New Republic, December 27, 1993, Robert Rustein, review of The Black Rider, p. 28.

New Statesman & Society, September 3, 1993, Michael Horovitz, review of The Letters of William S. Burroughs, p. 38; October 27, 1995, Guy Mannes-Abbott, review of My Education, pp. 47-48.

Newsweek, March 9, 1981, Peter S. Prescott, review of Cities of the Red Night.

New York Times, February 15, 1984, Anatole Broyard, review of The Place of Dead Roads. New York Times Book Review, January 15, 1995, Robert Cohen, "Dispatches from the Interzone," pp.
9. 11.

People, December 9, 1985, Campbell Geeslin, review of Queer, p. 24.

Publishers Weekly, May 10, 1993, review of The Letters of William S. Burroughs, p. 60; August 28, 1995, review of Ghost of Chance, p. 105; January 10, 2000, Jeff Zaleski, review of Last Words, p. 54.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, spring, 1994, Alan Ansen, review of The Letters of William S. Burroughs, pp. 272-273; fall, 1994, Steve Dickinson, review of Painting & Guns, p. 236; summer, 1995, Steven Moore, review of My Education, p. 227; spring, 1996, David Seed, review of Ghost of Chance, p. 150; spring, 1997, David Seed, review of My Education, pp. 169-170; fall, 2000, David Seed, review of Last Words, p. 146.

Time, December 6, 1993, Charles Michener, review of The Black Rider, p. 93.

Wilson Quarterly, summer, 1998, "The Last Modernist," p. 136.


Creem Magazine,http://www.creemmagazine.com/ (2003), Jeffrey Morgan, "William S. Burroughs: The Creem Interviews."



Advocate, January 20, 1998, Gary Indiana, "William S. Burroughs (1914-1997)," p. 78.

Economist, August 9, 1997, "William Burroughs,"
p. 77.

Entertainment Weekly, August 15, 1997, L. S. Klepp, "Last of the Beats," p. 9.

Lambda Book Report, October, 1997, Jim Marks, "William S. Burroughs (1914-1997)," p. 18.

Leonardo, Volume 31, number 3, 1998, George Gessert, "William S. Burroughs (1914-1997)," pp. 238-240.

Maclean's, August 18, 1997, "Died: William S. Burroughs," p.11.

National Review, September 1, 1997, "Deathwatch,"
p. 18.

People, August 18, 1997, "Word Addict," p. 90.

Rolling Stone, September 18, 1997, Lewis MacAdams, "William S. Burroughs," pp. 52-54.

Time, August 11, 1997, "Died: William S. Burroughs," p. 25.

U.S. News & World Report, August 18, 1997, Joshua Wolf Shenk, "Then There Were None," p. 9.*

Burroughs, William S.

views updated May 23 2018

William S. Burroughs

Novelist, multimedia artist

For the Record

Selected discography


William S. Burroughs is one of the most significant writers of the twentieth century. Books like Naked Lunch, Junky, The Soft Machine, Nova Express, The Ticket that Exploded, Cities of the Red Night, and The Western Lands pushed the form of the novel to its outermost limits and introduced previously-unexplored or taboo themes such as drug addiction, homosexuality, and systems of control. Published to great critical and legal controversyBurroughsfirst books were routinely banned for obscenityhis work early on won a small audience of writers, critics and enthusiasts that quickly grew. By the 1970s, Burroughs influence was being felt throughout the arts, by filmmakers, visual artists, and in particular musicians.

His affect on music was beginning to be felt early in the decade when groups like Soft Machine and Steely Dan took their names from Burroughs books. Interestingly heavy metal, the name given to the music of groups like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath, was an expression coined by Burroughs around 1960. But it was the punk and new wave movements that adopted Burroughs as their godfather. His highly critical view of government, the mass media and middle class life in general matched the rebellious sensibilities of groups like the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Dead Kennedys, Caberet Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle. It eventually became de rigueur for rock stars to visitand be photographedwith Burroughs. His guests ranged from Frank Zappa to Lou Reed and from Blondie, to U2.

Burroughs did not begin collaborating with popular musicians until the 1980s. However he began working systematically with tapes in the mid-1960s. The tape work grew out of writing techniques he developed, the fold-in and the cut-up: pages of writing would be folded or physically cut into pieces and recombined to form new juxtapositions of word and image. Burroughs tookthose ideas a step further with tape recordings. He recorded texts written by himself an other authors. He then rewound or fast-forwarded through the tape. At random points he inserted other texts, radio broadcasts, even noise recorded in the streets. Those tape cut-ups like the written onebroke down the associational patterns of thought and enabled the creation of new, previously unthought patterns to emerge. Burroughs believed those associational patterns were largely imposed by outside powers like the mass media. Breaking down those patterns, Burroughs theorized, would be an important step in freeing man from the forces of control all around him. A selection of Burroughs tape experiments was released in 1981 by Throbbing Gristles Genesis P-Orridge on the album Nothing Here Now but The Recordings.

Burroughs first album was a spoken word recording entitled simply Call Me Burroughs. On it he read from Naked Lunch and Nova Express. Unlike his friend Allen Ginsberg, who sang his own and others poems and songs at readings and on several recordings, reading was Burroughs essential modus operandi. He read excerpts of his work on several Giorno Poetry Systems albums; at public appearances he usually read selections from published or work-in-progress. In his frequent collaborations with musicians, Burroughs only sang on two pieces T Aint No Sin on Tom Waits The Black Rider and a thoroughly bizarre version of the Marlene Dietrich hit Falling in Love Again on Dead City Radio. Music made its first appearance on a Burroughs albums with Breakthrough in the Grey Room, which included pieces by the Master Musicians of Jajouka; one of his first appearances on a music album was the cut Sharkeys Night on Laurie Andersons Mister Heartbreak released in 1983. Their association went back at least five years to their earlier work together with Giorno Poetry Systems and the Nova Conference. On Sharkeys Night Andersons music provided the backdrop to Burroughs deadpan monologue. He appeared later in Andersons film Home of the Brave, in which he was her dance partner to the song, Language is a Virus. That piece, based directly on theories formulated at the time of his cut-up experiments, was just one example of the influence Burroughs was beginning to have on music at the time.

For the Record

Born as William Seward Burroughs, February 5, 1914, St. Louis, MO (died August 2, 1997); married llse Klapper, Joan Vollmer. Education: Attended Harvard University, received BA.

Met students Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in New York City, mid-1940s; published first book, Junkie, 1953; wrote Queer, early 1950s; first sections of Naked Lunch published, 1958; wrote cut-up novels, The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express, published, 1961-64; collaborated on series of films, including Towers Open Fire, with Anthony Balch, 1963; tape recorder experiments, 1964-68; appeared at Nova Convention, 1979; appeared on Saturday Night Live, 1981; published Cities of the Red Night, 1981; published Queer, 1985; appeared as old junkie in Gus Van Sants film Drugstore Cowboy; published The Western Lands, 1987; released Dead City Radio, Island Records, 1990; released Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales, IslandRecords, 1993; released The Priest They Called Him, with Kurt Cobain, Tim/Kerr Records, 1993; released The Black Rider, with Tom Waits, Island Records, 1993.

A 1981 appearance on Saturday Night Live led to Burroughs first full-blown musical project. The last piece he read was Twilights Last Gleaming from Nova Express. Music coordinator Hal Willner played The Star-Spangled Banner as background. The juxtaposition of the national anthem with Burroughs blackly satiric version of the sinking of the Titanic worked. Six years later, at the suggestion of Allen Ginsberg, Willner approached Burroughs about recording an entire album of similar material. Dead City Radio would be the image of a true and great American writer with The Star-Spangled Banner behind him a timeless album that would sound as if it could have been recorded tomorrow, as Willner wrote in the albums liner notes. One of the high points on the record is Burroughsreading of A Thanksgiving Prayer. He gives thanks for everything most shameful in American life and historythe ruin of the environment, the slaughter of the Indians and buffalo, hate crimes backed up with the kind of syrupy strings one is used to hearing behind inspirational platitudes mouthed on late night TV. In fact, Willner used old tapes of the NBC Symphony Orchestra on most of the cuts. Other musical contributions were made by John Cale, Steely Dans Donald Fagen, Sonic Youth, and Blondies Chris Stein.

Willner also co-produced, Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales, which came out in 1993. Parts of the project closely resemble Dead City Radios string arrangements; the rest of the music was constructed by the Disposable Heroes of Hihoprisy, a collaboration suggested by Burroughs secretary, James Grauerholz. The union of Burroughs and hip-hop suggests the extent of the writers influence: just as in the 1960s Burroughs had openly appropriated texts by other writers for his cut-up novels, music like rap, hip-hop and electrónica cut-up and appropriated the work of other musicians by means of sampling technology.

In 1993, Burroughs also released a record with Nirvanas Kurt Cobain, The Priest They Called Him. The piece, originally published in the book Interzone, tells the story of a sick junky looking for a fix on Christmas Eve. Interestingly the piece appears under the title The Junkys Christmas on Spare Ass Annie. The two are a study in contrasts. Junkys Christmas is awash with nostalgia, sentimentality even. The sound behind Priest is the junk-sick feedback wall of Cobains guitar doing to Silent Night what Jimi Hendrix did to The Star-Spangled Banner, in the words of Rolling Stones Al Weisel. And six months before Cobains violent suicide, according to Graham Caveneys Gentleman Junkie, Burroughs remarked of the Nirvana guitarist Theres something wrong with that boy. He frowns for no good reason.

Perhaps the most fruitful of Burroughs musical collaborations was The Black Rider, a piece for stage directed by Robert Wilson with music and songs by Tom Waits. The premise for the play was an old German folk tale about a hapless marksman, Wilhelm, who makes a deal with the Devil to win a shooting contest and thereby the hand of the girl he loves. The Devil offers some magic bullets guaranteed to hit whatever the shooter desires. The catch: The Devil reserves the right to aim the last bullet however and without meaning to Wilhelm kills his new bride. The story has a sinister parallel to Burroughs own life. In the early 1950s in Mexico, he killed his wife trying to shoot a wine glass off her head in a drunken game of William Tell. Burroughs wrote the libretto forthe opera and his texts formed the basis of the songs Waits wrote. William Burroughs was as solid as a metal desk and his text was the branch this bundle would swing from, Waits wrote in the Black RiderWner notes. His cut up text and open process of finding a language for this story became a river of words for me to draw from. In addition to his brilliant vocal on T Aint No Sin, he contributed the lyrics, drawn from his own hard experience, for Crossroads: Now, George was a good straight boy but there was bad blood in him someway he got into magic bullets and that leads straight to Devils work, just like marywanna leads to heroin You think you can take those bullets of leave em, do you? Just save a few for bad days. The Black Rider, unlike Burroughs earlier musical albums, was more than a hodgepodge selection of earlier writing. The pieces were new, they were unified by the plays story, and the music was composed by an artist as much as genius in his realm as Burroughs is in his, Tom Waits.

In the last four years of his life, Burroughs did not work on any other musical projects. Less than a year after his death in August 1997, a four-CD set of readings he did for Giorno Poetry Systems was released.

Selected discography

Call Me Burroughs, 1965, re-released on CD on Rhino 1999.

Nothing Here Now but The Recordings, Industrial Records, 1981.

Laurie Anderson: Mister Heartbreak, Warner Brothers, 1984.

Break Through In Grey Room, Sub Rosa, 1987.

Dead City Radio, Island, 1990

(with Kurt Cobain), The Priest They Called Him, Tim/Kerr Records, 1993.

Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales, Island Records, 1993.

(with Tom Waits), The Black Rider, Island, 1993

Best of William Burroughs From Giorno Poetry Systems, Mouth Almighty/Mercury, 1998



Caveney, Graham, Gentleman Junkie, Little Brown and Co., 1998.


Billboard, April 25, 1998.

New York Times, November 14, 1993.

Opera News, November 1993.

Rolling Stone, November 25, 1993.

Time, December 6, 1993.

Additional information obtained from the liner notes of The Black Rider and Dead City Radio.

Gerald E. Brennan

William S. Burroughs

views updated May 23 2018

William S. Burroughs

An innovative and controversial author of experimental fiction, William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) is best known for Naked Lunch (1959), a bizarre account of his fourteen-year drug addiction and a surrealistic indictment of middle-class American mores.

William S. Burroughs is the grandson of the industrialist who modernized the adding machine and the son of a woman who claimed descent from Civil War General Robert E. Lee. In 1936, he received his bachelor's degree in English from Harvard University. In 1944, after abortive attempts at, among other things, graduate study in anthropology, medical school in Vienna, Austria, and military service, he met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and began using morphine. The meeting of these three writers is generally regarded as the beginning of the Beat movement; the writers who later became part of this group produced works that attacked moral and artistic conventions. The escalation of Burroughs's drug addiction, his unsuccessful search for cures, and his travels to Mexico to elude legal authorities are recounted in his first novel, Junkie: The Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict (1953; republished as Junky). Written in the confessional style of pulp magazines under the pseudonym William Lee, the novel received little critical notice. In 1957, Burroughs traveled to London to undergo a controversial drug treatment known as apomorphine. Following two relapses, he was successfully cured of his addiction.

Ostensibly the story of junkie William Lee, Naked Lunch features no consistent narrative or point of view. The novel has been variously interpreted as a condemnation of the addict's lifestyle, as an allegory satirizing the repressiveness of American society, and as an experiment in literary form, exemplified by its attacks upon language as a narrow, symbolic tool of normative control. Consisting of elements from diverse genres, including the detective novel and science fiction, Naked Lunch depicts a blackly humorous, sinister world dominated by addiction, madness, grotesque physical metamorphoses, sadomasochistic homosexuality, and cartoon-like characters, including Dr. Benway, who utilizes weird surgical and chemical alterations to cure his patients. Escape from the imprisoning concepts of time and space are dominant themes in this work and in Burroughs's later fiction, reflecting the addict's absolute need for drugs and his dependency on what Burroughs termed "junk time." Burroughs explained the book's title as "the frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork."

Naked Lunch represents a selection from the wealth of material Burroughs had been writing for many years. The remaining work makes up the bulk of his immediately subsequent novels, The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1964). During the process of writing these works, Burroughs, influenced by artist Brion Gysin, developed his "cut-up" and "fold-in" techniques, experiments similar in effect to collage painting. Collecting manuscript pages of his narrative episodes, or "routines," in random order, Burroughs folds some pages vertically, juxtaposing these with other passages to form new pages. This material, sometimes drawn from the works of other authors, is edited and rearranged to evoke new associations and break with traditional narrative patterns. In the surrealistic, quasi-science fiction sequels to Naked Lunch, Burroughs likens addiction to the infestation of a malignant alien virus, which preys upon the deep-seated fears of human beings and threatens to destroy the earth through parasitic possession of its inhabitants. The title of The Soft Machine, a novel emphasizing sexuality and drugs as a means of normative control throughout history, indicates the innate biological device which allows the virus entry into the human body. Mind control through word and image is the subject of The Ticket That Exploded. In this novel and in Nova Express, Burroughs suggests a number of remedies to the viral infestation. Although he expresses a cautious optimism, the crisis remains unresolved, and humanity's fate is uncertain at the saga's end.

In 1970, Burroughs announced his intention to write a second " mythology for the space age." Although his recent novels have generally received less acclaim than Naked Lunch and its sequels, critics have discerned a remarkably straightforward approach to these works, which rely less on cut-up strategies and horrific elements and more on complex, interrelated plots and positive solutions to escaping societal constraints. As Jennie Skerl noted: "In Burroughs's recent fiction, pleasure and freedom through fantasy balance the experience of repression, bondage, and death that the earlier works had emphasized." The universe of The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead (1971) is similar to that of Burroughs's earlier books but is epic in proportion, encompassing galactic history and the whole of humanity in its scope. Time and space travel figure prominently in Cities of the Red Night: A Boys' Book (1981), in which detective Clem Snide traces the source of the alien virus to an ancient dystopian society. The Place of Dead Roads (1984) transfers the conflict to near-future South America, where descendants of the wild boys ally themselves with Venusian rebels in an escalating battle for galactic liberation.

Burroughs's novel Queer (1985) was written at the same time as Junkie and is considered its companion piece. According to Burroughs, the book was "motivated and formulated" by the accidental death of his wife in Mexico in 1951, for which Burroughs was held accountable. The novel centers once again on William Lee, chronicling a month of withdrawal in South America and his bitter, unrealized pursuit of a young American male expatriate. Harry Marten stated that the book functions as "neither a love story nor a tale of seduction but a revelation of rituals of communication which substitute for contact in a hostile or indifferent environment."

Burroughs is also well known for his nonfiction works. The Yage Letters (1963) contains his mid-1950s correspondence with Allen Ginsberg concerning his pursuit in Colombia of the legendary hallucinogen yage. Further correspondence is collected in Letters to Allen Ginsberg, 1953-1957 (1982). During the mid-1960s, Burroughs became an outspoken proponent of the apomorphine treatment, claiming that its illegal status in the United States was the result of a conspiracy between the Food and Drug Administration, police, and legal authorities. His arguments are presented in Health Bulletin, APO 33: A Report on the Synthesis of the Apomorphine Formula (1965) and APO 33, a Metabolic Regulator (1966). Burroughs's observations on literary, political, and esoteric topics appear in a collaborative venture with Daniel Odier, Entretiens avec William Burroughs (1969; revised and translated as The Job: Interviews with William Burroughs), and in his collection The Adding Machine: Collected Essays (1985). The Third Mind (1979), written in collaboration with Brion Gysin, is a theoretical manifesto of their early "cut-up" experiments. Burroughs has also written a screenplay, The Last Words of Dutch Schultz (1970).

Burroughs's controversial novels have provoked extreme critical reactions, ranging from claims of genius to allegations that he is little more than a pornographer. While his work can be offensive, it has elicited much serious criticism, and Burroughs is regarded by many scholars as an innovative, even visionary writer. Critics credit Burroughs's hallucinatory prose and antiestablishment views with inspiring the Beat movement and such counterculture groups as hippies and punks. Among other accomplishments, Burroughs has, perhaps more effectively than any other author, rendered the nightmarish, paranoid mindset of the drug addict. Harry Marten observed that Burroughs "has been mixing the satirist's impulse toward invective with the cartoonist's relish for exaggerated gesture, the collage artist's penchant for radical juxtapositions with the slam-bang pace of the carnival barker. In the process, he has mapped a grotesque modern landscape of disintegration whose violence and vulgarity is laced with manic humor."

The former heroin addict lived in the quiet town of Lawrence, Kansas with several cats and a collection of guns until his death from a heart attack on August 2, 1997. Although his business affairs were handled by his staff at the high tech William Burroughs Communications, the writer himself still used a typewriter. One of his more recent publications, The Letters of William S. Burroughs: 1945-1959 was used both as a journal and a sketchbook for his early work.

Further Reading

Bartlett, Lee, editor, The Beats: Essays in Criticism, McFarland, 1981.

Bowles, Paul, Without Stopping, Putnam, 1972.

Bryant, Jerry H., The Open Decision: The Contemporary American Novel and Its Intellectual Background, Free Press, 1970.

Burgess, Anthony, The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction, Norton, 1967.

Burroughs, William, Jr., Kentucky Ham, Dutton, 1973.

Burroughs, William S., Junky, Penguin, 1977.

Burroughs, William S., Cities of the Red Night, Holt, 1981. □

Burroughs, William S.

views updated May 23 2018

William S. Burroughs

American inventor William Seward Burroughs (1855-1898) designed the world's first commercially viable adding machine, the Burroughs Registering Accountant, in 1892. Strong sales laid the foundation for the Burroughs Corporation, which was a Detroit manufacturing and computer powerhouse for much of the twentieth century.

Burroughs was born on January 28, 1855, in Auburn, New York, a town in Cayuga County. His parents were Edmund and Ellen Julia Burroughs, and he had an older brother and sister as well as a younger sibling. Edmund Burroughs was a model-maker for castings, which were used to create prototypes for new products. Burroughs left the Auburn public schools at the age of 15 to train as a bank clerk, and it was this professional beginning that inspired his later invention. Clerks had to spend long hours poring over ledger columns to find errors in addition or subtraction when the columns refused to balance, and finding these mistakes was a tedious chore which was done entirely by hand. Burroughs later went on to hold similar jobs in a retail establishment and later a lumber yard.

Moved to St. Louis

Around 1875, when he was about 20 years old, Burroughs moved to St. Louis, Missouri, and over the next decade he married, started a family, and worked for a manufacturer of woodworking tools and machinery. He began to think about his own ideas and how they might be realized, especially for an adding machine he called the arithmometer. In 1884 he found a financial backer in the form of Thomas B. Metcalf, whom he had met on visit to Metcalf's shop. By this point Burroughs's father had also relocated to the area, and the the younger Burroughs worked on the first prototypes for the adding machine in his father's model shop. By the end of 1885 he had had come up with a rudimentary device, and though it was not yet commercially ready, it did help him and Metcalf to find more backers, this time in the form of a pair of St. Louis merchants. Their new company, founded with start-up capital of $100,000, was called the American Arithmometer Company. It was incorporated in January of 1886 with Burroughs as vice president and Metcalf as president.

The funding helped Burroughs finish a new model, which he called the Burroughs Registering Accountant. It had a nine-key design, and to prevent human error the keys would lock up if two of them were pressed at once. Furthermore, the user could easily verify that the sum just entered was correct because each key would stay depressed until the user pulled the handle lever to record the transaction. It also had printing capabilities and glass panels that allowed the user to see the workings. Burroughs contracted with the Boyer Machine Company in St. Louis to serve as the manufacturer, and the initial order of 50 machines was finished late in 1887. The machines, however, proved problematic and consistently broke down, and at one point Burroughs threw several machines from the defective shipment out of his office window.

First Model Sold for $475

In 1892 Burroughs received patents for a machine that recorded each item in the tally and the final result. The first Burroughs Registering Accountant machines, in muchimproved form, went on sale that same year for a price of $475 each. The exorbitant cost did not deter its sale to banks and other financial institutions, who were its first major customers once they saw that the device was both reliable and accurate. By 1895, 284 machines had been sold and the company opened a sales office in London. Unfortunately, Burroughs—whose health had been poor for much of his adult life—did not survive to see the impressive success his company would achieve. He died of tuberculosis on September 15, 1898, in Citronelle, Alabama, at the age of just 44. He and his wife, Ida Selover Burroughs, had four children: Jennie, Horace, Mortimer, and Helen. Mortimer's son was named in honor of his inventor grandfather, and went on to become a notable figure in American letters in the twentieth century as avant-garde novelist William S. Burroughs (1914-1997).

The company Burroughs founded would sell a stunning 1,500 adding machines in 1900. It soon moved its headquarters to Michigan, where it emerged as one of the mainstays of the local economy. The name was changed from the American Arithmometer Company to the Burroughs Adding Machine Company. Helmed by Joseph Boyer, who had owned the original company, it then contracted to manufacture the machines. The Burroughs Corporation, as it eventually became known, went on to develop impressive new technologies that paved the way for modern information science technology, including the first widely used mainframe computers. Its successes were often overshadowed by those of its nearest competitor, IBM, or International Business Machines, Inc. The company entered a new era in 1986 when it merged with the Sperry Corporation to become Unisys.


“Introduction: William S. Burroughs,” The Franklin Institute, http://www.fi.edu/learn/case-files/burroughs/ (April 15, 2008).

World of Computer Science, Online. Thomson Gale, 2006. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (April 15, 2008).

Burroughs, William S.

views updated May 14 2018

Burroughs, William S. ( Seward) (1914–97) US novelist, regarded as one of the founders of the beat movement. Burrough's best-known work, Naked Lunch (1959), deals in part with his heroin addiction. Other works, experimental in style, include The Ticket That Exploded (1962), The Wild Boys (1971), and The Western Lands (1987).

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William S. Burroughs

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William S. Burroughs