William S. Burroughs



William Seward Burroughs II (February 5, 1914 – August 2, 1997) was an American novelist, essayist, social critic, painter and spoken word performer. Much of Burroughs' work is semi-autobiographical, drawn from his experiences as an opiate addict, a condition which marked the last forty years of his life. He is a primary member of the Beat Generation, and regarded as an avant-garde author who affected popular culture as well as literature. In 1984, he was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Burroughs was born in 1914, the younger of two sons of a prominent family in St. Louis, Missouri. His grandfather, William Seward Burroughs I, founded the Burroughs Adding Machine company, which evolved into the Burroughs Corporation. Burroughs's mother, Laura Hammon Lee (1888-1970), was the daughter of a minister whose family claimed to be related to Robert E. Lee. His father, Mortimer Perry Burroughs, ran an antique and gift shop, first in St. Louis, then in Palm Beach, Florida.

Burroughs attended John Burroughs School in St. Louis where his first published essay, "Personal Magnetism," was published in the John Burroughs Review in 1929. He then attended The Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico. This period, although unexpectedly stressful for him, proved formative. He kept journals documenting an erotic attachment to another boy. These remained undiscovered, and in fact he kept his sexual orientation concealed well into adulthood. He was soon expelled from Los Alamos after taking chloral hydrate in Santa Fe with a fellow student.

He finished high school at Taylor School in St. Louis and, in 1932, left home for an arts degree at Harvard University. This period saw Burroughs's introduction to the gay subculture of New York City. He visited lesbian dives, piano bars, and the Harlem and Greenwich Village homosexual underground with a wealthy friend from Kansas City, Richard Stern. Burroughs, who had a lasting fascination with firearms and techniques of self-defense, nearly killed Stern with a mistakenly loaded revolver in an event that would foreshadow things to come.

Burroughs graduated from Harvard University in 1936. According to Ted Morgan's Literary Outlaw, "His parents, upon his graduation, had decided to give him a monthly allowance out of their earnings from Cobblestone Gardens, a tidy sum in those days. It was enough to keep him going, and indeed it guaranteed his survival for the next twenty-five years, arriving with welcome regularity. The allowance was a ticket to freedom; it allowed him to live where he wanted to and to forgo employment." However, Burroughs's parents never had a great fortune; they had sold the rights to his grandfather's invention and had no share in the Burroughs Corporation. Nevertheless, Burroughs lived a privileged life with little direction or need for a career; in fact, he noted in the Prologue to Junkie that until he became addicted to morphine, he did not worry about supporting himself.

After leaving Harvard, Burroughs' formal education ended, except for brief flirtations as a graduate student of anthropology at Harvard and as a medical student in Vienna, Austria. He traveled to Europe, which proved a window into Austrian and Hungarian Weimar-Era homosexuality; he picked up boys in steam baths in Vienna, and moved in a circle of exiles, homosexuals, and runaways. There, he met Ilse Klapper, a Jewish woman fleeing the country's Nazi government. The two were never romantically involved, but Burroughs married her, against the wishes of his parents, 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.

Burroughs enlisted in the U.S Army early in 1942, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into World War II. But when he was classified as a 1-A Infantry, not an officer, he became dejected. His mother recognized her son's depression and got Burroughs a civilian disability discharge — a release from duty based on the premise he should have not been allowed to enlist due to previous mental instability. After being evaluated by a family friend, who was also a neurologist at a psychiatric treatment center, Burroughs waited five months in limbo at Jefferson Barracks outside St. Louis before being discharged. During that time he met a Chicago soldier also awaiting release, and once Burroughs was free, he moved to Chicago and held a variety of jobs, including one as an exterminator. When two of his friends from St. Louis, Lucien Carr, a University of Chicago student, and David Kammerer, Carr's homosexual admirer, left for New York City, Burroughs followed.

In 1944, Burroughs began living with Joan Vollmer Adams in an apartment they shared with Jack Kerouac and Edie Parker, Kerouac's first wife. Vollmer Adams was married to a GI with whom she had a young daughter, Julie Adams. Burroughs and Kerouac got into trouble with the law for failing to report a murder. Burroughs began using morphine and quickly became addicted. He eventually sold heroin in Greenwich Village to support his habit.

In 1945, Burroughs and Kerouac collaborated on And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a mystery novel that was left unpublished. Years later, in the documentary, What Happened to Kerouac? Burroughs described it as "not a very distinguished work."

Vollmer also became an addict but her drug of choice was an amphetamine, Benzedrine, which was sold over-the-counter as a decongestant inhalant at that time. Because of her addiction and social circle, her husband immediately divorced her after returning from the war. Vollmer would become Burroughs’ common law wife. Burroughs was arrested for forging a narcotics prescription and was sentenced to return to his parents' care in St. Louis.

He returned to New York, released Vollmer from the psychiatric ward of Bellevue Hospital and moved with her and her daughter to Texas. Vollmer soon became pregnant with Burroughs's child. Their son, William S. Burroughs, Jr. was born in 1947. The family moved briefly to New Orleans in 1948.

He was arrested after police searched his 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. 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.

In 1951, Burroughs 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 "criminal imprudence", and was released on bail.

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.

Burroughs later said that shooting Vollmer was a pivotal event in his life, and one which instigated his writing: "I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would have never become a writer but for Joan's death...I live with the constant threat of possession, for control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invador, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out."

After Vollmer's death, Burroughs drifted through South America for several months, looking for a drug called Yage, which could supposedly ease opiate addiction. He produced two novels during this time, Junkie, (written with the encouragement of Allen Ginsberg) exploring his morphine 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. Ace Books published his first novel, Junkie, in 1953 under the pen name William Lee. The Yage Letters and Queer were not published until 1963 and 1985 respectively.

Burroughs went to Rome and then to Tangier, Morocco, and began to write a large body of text that he personally referred to as The Word Hoard, a subset of which would later become Naked Lunch. Under the influence of strong marijuana, Ginsberg and Kerouac helped Burroughs edit these episodes into Naked Lunch. Whereas Junkie and Queer were conventional in style, Naked Lunch--although not Burroughs's first foray into the cut-up technique--was his first venture into a non-linear style which shortly thereafter led him into slicing phrases and words up to create new sentences. He was inspired by his friend, Brion Gysin who had been employing the same technique with his paintings. Scenes were slid together with little care for narrative. Perhaps thinking of his crazed medic, Dr Benway, he described Naked Lunch as a book that could be cut into at any point. Although in no sense science fiction, the book does seem to forecast--with eerie prescience--such later phenomena as AIDS, liposuction and the crack pandemic.

Burroughs's "Interzone" could be seen as metaphorical vision of what the Internet may become someday in the future, but the term probably was derived from the "International Zone" in Tangier, where (as in Interzone), everything could be had for a price. When in Tangier, Burroughs's homonymous son Billy came to live with him, but they could not get along. A few months later Billy returned to Palm Beach to live with his grandparents again.

Burroughs sold Naked Lunch to Olympia Press publisher Maurice Girodias. After the novel was published in 1959, it became infamous across Europe and was popular within the counterculture of the 1960s — and at this time Burroughs pursued a friendship during his visits to London and Tangier with A Clockwork Orange author Anthony Burgess. In countries where the book was banned, copies and even printing plates were smuggled across borders. Once published in the United States, Naked Lunch was prosecuted as obscene by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, followed by other states. In fact, the stainless steel dildo in this work, Steely Dan, gave the band its name. 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.

The trunk of manuscripts known as The Word Hoard that produced Naked Lunch also produced the later works The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1963).

In the 1970s he moved to New York City where Ginsberg helped him find work teaching writing at City College of New York. Burroughs also associated with New York cultural players Andy Warhol, John Giorno, Patti Smith, Susan Sontag, Dennis Hopper, Terry Southern, and Mick Jagger.

The 1970s also saw Burroughs join, then leave the Church of Scientology. His subsequent critical writings about the church and his review of a book entitled Inside Scientology by Robert Kaufman led to a battle of letters between Burroughs and Scientology supporters that played out in the pages of Rolling Stone.

In 1981 his son Billy (who was also a famous novelist by then) died of liver cancer. Allen Ginsberg, old time friend of his father, had been for years looking after Billy - Billy and Burroughs Sr. could not get along very well. In mid 70s Billy began to express hostility towards his father. He published a damning article in Esquire magazine, explaining how his life was "ruined" by his father’s actions. Among other things, Billy revealed that he was sexually molested in Tangier by friends of his father. The estrangement between father and son was never reconciled. In spite of that, Burroughs wrote an afterword to a 1993 compilation of his son's books.

By late 1980s, Burroughs had become a counterculture giant and collaborated with performers ranging from Bill Laswell's Material and Laurie Anderson to Throbbing Gristle, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and Ministry, and in Gus Van Sant's 1989 film Drugstore Cowboy, playing a character largely based on himself. In 1990, he released the 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. He was inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1983

Burroughs moved to Lawrence, Kansas, in 1983 and lived the remainder of his life there. He became a member of the IOT (The Illuminates of Thanateros) in 1993 — a chaos magic organization. He lived with several cats who became significant in his personal mythology, and was watched over by friends and proteges. In 1991, with Burroughs's sanction, director David Cronenberg took on the seemingly impossible task of adapting Naked Lunch into a full-length feature film. The film opened to critical acclaim. Through the 1990s, Burroughs produced spoken word recordings, including collaborations with R.E.M., Kurt Cobain, Sonic Youth and Ministry.

A collaboration with other writers of the opiate sub-culture, including Nick Cave and Tom Waits resulted in a collection of short prose, "Smack my Crack" later released as a spoken word album in 1987.

Burroughs died aged 83 in Lawrence, at 6:50 p.m. on August 2, 1997 from complications of the previous day's heart attack. He is interred in the family plot in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri at these coordinates: 38.690310° N 90.231720° W. A few months after his death, a collection of writings spanning his entire career, Word Virus, was published. A collection of journal entries written during the final months of Burrough's life were published as the book Last Words and a memoir by Burroughs entitled Evil River, after initially being announced for a 2005 release, is now scheduled for release by Viking Press on October 30, 2006.

The major body of Burroughs's novels can be divided into three different categories:

* Junkie and Queer are quite straightforward novels with linear narratives.

* Naked Lunch, a fragmentary collection of "routines" from The Word Hoard-manuscripts from Tangier, Paris, and London, blending over into the cut-up and fold-in fiction also mainly based off The Word Hoard: The Soft Machine, Nova Express, The Ticket That Exploded, Dead Fingers Talk and the larger part of Interzone. The latter novels (besides Naked Lunch) use the famous cut-up and fold-in methods to various extent and are not easily read.

* The trilogy Cities of the Red Night, The Place of Dead Roads and The Western Lands - these are written as commonplace experimental prose.

The trilogy formed by The Soft Machine, Nova Express and The Ticket That Exploded is sometimes also referred to as "The Nova Trilogy" or "the Nova Epic". The books have been described by Burroughs as an attempt to create "a mythology for the space age".

Apart from these three themes, Burroughs has also produced numerous essays and a large body of autobiographical material, including a book with a detailed account of his own dreams (My Education: A Book of Dreams).

Several literary critics treated Burroughs's work harshly. For example Anatole Broyard and Philip Toynbee wrote devastating reviews of some of his most important books. In a short essay entitled A Review of the Reviewers, Burroughs answers his critics in this way:

Critics constantly complain that writers are lacking in standards, yet they themselves seem to have no standards other than personal prejudice for literary criticism. (...) such standards do exist. Matthew Arnold set up three criteria for criticism: 1. What is the writer trying to do? 2. How well does he succeed in doing it? (...) 3. Does the work exhibit "high seriousness"? That is, does it touch on basic issues of good and evil, life and death and the human condition. I would also apply a fourth criterion (...) Write about what you know. More writers fail because they try to write about things they don't know than for any other reason.

— William S. Burroughs, 'A Review of the Reviewers'

Burroughs clearly indicates that he prefers to be evaluated against such criteria over being reviewed based on the reviewer's personal reactions to a certain book. He specifically criticized Anatole Broyard for reading authorial intentionality into his works where there is none. Thus he distanced himself from the movement around New Criticism, by referring to the old school (as exemplified by Matthew Arnold).

The best known pictures of Burroughs were taken by photographer John Minihan, who photographed him between 1963 and 1991 and developed such a good relationship with the writer that he became, in effect, his official photographer.

Burroughs is often called one of the greatest and most influential writers of the twentieth century, most notably by Norman Mailer whose quote on Burroughs, "The only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius", appears on many Burroughs publications. Others, however, consider him overrated. Others still consider his concepts and attitude more influential than his prose. Prominent admirers of Burroughs's work have included British critic and biographer Peter Ackroyd, and the authors J.G. Ballard, Angela Carter, Jean Genet, William Gibson, and Ken Kesey.

Burroughs continues to be named as an influence by contemporary writers of fiction. Both the New Wave and, especially, the cyberpunk schools of science fiction, admirers from the late 1970s, early 1980s milieu of this sub-genre including William Gibson and John Shirley, to name only two. First published in 1982, the British slipstream fiction magazine (which later evolved into a more traditional science fiction magazine) Interzone paid tribute to him with its choice of name.

He is also cited as a major influence by musicians Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson, Pier Nine Brawl and Ian Curtis of the band Joy Division. He remains controversial because of his homosexuality, drug use, and the often criticized obscene or misogynistic tone of his works, though it should be noted that Burroughs's 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.

The themes of drugs, homosexuality and death, common to Burroughs's routines, are taken up by Dennis Cooper, of whom Burroughs said, "Dennis Cooper, God help him, is a born writer." Cooper, in return, wrote, in his essay 'King Junk', "along with Jean Genet, John Rechy, and Ginsberg, Burroughs helped make homosexuality seem cool and highbrow, providing gay liberation with a delicious edge." Splatterpunk writer Poppy Z. Brite has also continuously referenced this aspect of Burroughs' work.

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

The song "Seven Souls" by Material, which features Burroughs, figured prominently in the 2006 season premiere episode of "The Sopranos" entitled "Members Only."

Burroughs was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame in St. Louis, Missouri.

Burroughs also participated on numerous album releases by Giorno Poetry Systems, including The Nova Convention (also featuring Frank Zappa, John Cage and Philip Glass) and You're the Guy I Want to Spend My Money With (with John Giorno and Laurie Anderson). He featured doing a spoken word piece entitled "Sharkey's Night," on the Laurie Anderson album Mister Heartbreak. In addition, Burroughs provided vocal samples for the soundtrack of Anderson's 1986 concert film, Home of the Brave and cameoed in it. Furthermore, in 1992 he recorded "Quick Fix" with the band Ministry, which appeared on their single for "Just One Fix." The single featured cover art by Burroughs and a remix of the song dubbed the "W.S.B. mix." Burroughs also made an appearance in the video for "Just One Fix."

Burroughs appeared in a number of cameos in films and videos, such as David Blair's Wax: or the Discovery of Television among the Bees, 1991,in which he plays a beekeeper, in an elliptic story about the first Gulf War, and Decoder (1984) by Klaus Maeck. Rundown at Internet Movie Database. He played an aging junkie priest in Drugstore Cowboy by Gus Van Sant. He also made a number of short films in the 1960s based upon his works, directed by Antony 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. He also gave a reading on Saturday Night Live on 7 November 1981.

A documentary titled "Burroughs", directed by Howard Brookner, was released in 1984. It included footage of Burroughs and many of his friends and colleagues.

Burroughs also featured in the 1997 music video Last Night on Earth by U2. He appears at the end of the video pushing a shopping trolley with a large spotlight positioned inside it. The video ends with a close up of Burroughs's eyes. His scenes were filmed only a few weeks before his death.

In March 2006 the title track from the Material album Seven Souls, which features Burroughs, was played during the opening montage of the first episode of the sixth season of The Sopranos.

Burroughs narrated part of the 1980 documentary Shamans of the Blind Country by anthropologist and filmmaker Michael Oppitz.

Novels and other fiction:

* Junkie (1953)- (ISBN 0-14-200316-6)
* Naked Lunch (1959) (ISBN 0-8021-3295-2)
* The Soft Machine (1961) (ISBN 0-8021-3329-0)
* The Ticket That Exploded (1962) (ISBN 0-8021-5150-7)
* Dead Fingers Talk (1963) - excepts from Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded combined together to create a new narrative
* Nova Express (1964) (ISBN 0-8021-3330-4)
* The Dead Star (1969)
* The Last Words of Dutch Schultz (1969) (ISBN 1-55970-211-7)
* Ali's Smile (1971)
* The Wild Boys: A Book Of The Dead (1971) (ISBN 0-8021-3331-2)
* White Subway (1973)
* Port of Saints (1973) (ISBN 0-912652-64-0)
* The Book of Breething (aka "Ah Pook Is Here") (1974)
* Snack... (ISBN 0-85652-014-4) (1975)
* Blade Runner: A Movie (1979) (ISBN 0-912652-46-2)
* Cities of the Red Night (1981) (ISBN 0-03-053976-5)
* The Place of Dead Roads (1983) (ISBN 0-312-27865-9)
* Queer (written 1951-3; published 1985) (ISBN 0-14-008389-8)
* The Western Lands (1987) (ISBN 0-14-009456-3)
* Ghost of Chance (1991) (ISBN 1-85242-457-5)
* My Education: A Book of Dreams (1995) (ISBN 0-14-009454-7)

Non fiction

* The Yage Letters (1963) (with Allen Ginsberg)
* The Job (1969) (ISBN 0-14-011882-9) (with Daniel Odier)
* Jack Kerouac (1970) (with Claude Pelieu)
* The Electronic Revolution (1971)
* The Retreat Diaries (1976)
* Letters to Allen Ginsberg 1953-1957 (1976)
* Early Routines (1981)
* The Burroughs File (1984)
* The Adding Machine: Collected Essays (1985) (ISBN 1-55970-210-9)
* Uncommon Quotes Vol. 1 (1989)
* Selected Letters (1993)
* Burroughs Live : The Collected Interviews of William S. Burroughs, 1960-1997 (2000) (ISBN 1-58435-010-5)
* Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs (2000) (ISBN 0-8021-3778-4)
* The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1945-1959
* Evil River (scheduled for release October 30, 2006) (ISBN 0-670-81351-6)

Many of Burroughs's 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's death. An expanded edition of Yage Letters entitled Yage Letters Redux was published in April 2006.

Burroughs's son, William S. Burroughs Jr., also wrote two novels: Speed and Kentucky Ham. These books are often erroneously credited to his father.Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, with no Front-Cover Texts, and with no Back-Cover Texts.
Virtual Magic is a human knowledge database blog. Text Based On Information From Wikipedia, Under The GNU Free Documentation License. Copyright (c) 2007 Virtual Magic. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.1 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled "GNU Free Documentation License".

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