William S. Burroughs
|William S. Burroughs|
Burroughs in 1977
|Born||William Seward Burroughs II
February 5, 1914
St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.
|Died||August 2, 1997
Lawrence, Kansas, U.S.
|Pen name||William Lee|
|Alma mater||Harvard University|
|Genres||Satire, paranoid fiction|
|Literary movement||Beat Generation, Postmodernism|
|Notable work(s)||Naked Lunch (1959)|
|Spouse(s)||Ilse von Klapper (1937–1946)
Joan Vollmer (1946–1951)
|Children||William S. Burroughs, Jr.|
|Relative(s)||William Seward Burroughs I, grandfather
Ivy Lee, maternal uncle
William Seward Burroughs II (//; also known by his pen name William Lee; February 5, 1914 – August 2, 1997 ) was an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, painter, and spoken word performer. A primary figure of the Beat Generation and a major postmodernist author, he is considered to be "one of the most politically trenchant, culturally influential, and innovative artists of the 20th century". His influence is considered to have affected a range of popular culture as well as literature. Burroughs wrote 18 novels and novellas, six collections of short stories and four collections of essays. Five books have been published of his interviews and correspondences. He also collaborated on projects and recordings with numerous performers and musicians, and made many appearances in films.
He was born to a wealthy family in St. Louis, Missouri, grandson of the inventor and founder of the Burroughs Corporation, William Seward Burroughs I, and nephew of public relations manager Ivy Lee. Burroughs began writing essays and journals in early adolescence. He left home in 1932 to attend Harvard University, studied English, and anthropology as a postgraduate, and later attended medical school in Vienna. After being turned down by the Office of Strategic Services and U.S. Navy in 1942 to serve in World War II, he dropped out and became afflicted with the drug addiction that affected him for the rest of his life, while working a variety of jobs. In 1943 while living in New York City, he befriended Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, the mutually influential foundation of which grew into the Beat Generation, and later the 1960s counterculture.
Much of Burroughs's work is semi-autobiographical, primarily drawn from his experiences as a heroin addict, as he lived throughout Mexico City, London, Paris, Berlin, the South American Amazon and Tangier in Morocco. In the introduction to Queer, a novel written in 1953 but not published until 1985, Burroughs states, "I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would have never become a writer but for Joan’s death ... [S]o the death of Joan brought me into contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I had no choice except to write my way out". (Queer, 1985, p.xxii). Indeed, Burroughs accidentally killed his second wife, the brilliant Joan Vollmer, in 1951 in Mexico City, and was consequently convicted of manslaughter.
Finding success with his confessional first novel, Junkie (1953), Burroughs is perhaps best known for his third novel Naked Lunch (1959), a controversy-fraught work that underwent a court case under the U.S. sodomy laws. With Brion Gysin, he also popularized the literary cut-up technique in works such as The Nova Trilogy (1961–64).
In 1983, Burroughs was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and in 1984 was awarded the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by France. Jack Kerouac called Burroughs the "greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift", a reputation he owes to his "lifelong subversion" of the moral, political and economic systems of modern American society, articulated in often darkly humorous sardonicism. J. G. Ballard considered Burroughs to be "the most important writer to emerge since the Second World War", while Norman Mailer declared him "the only American writer who may be conceivably possessed by genius".
- 1 Early life and education
- 2 Beginning of the Beats
- 3 Beginning of literary career
- 4 Tangier
- 5 Death
- 6 Literary style and periods
- 7 Legacy
- 8 Appearances in media
- 9 Bibliography
- 10 Notes
- 11 References
- 12 Further reading
- 13 External links
Early life and education
Burroughs was born in 1914, the younger of two sons born to Mortimer Perry Burroughs (June 16, 1885 – January 5, 1965) and Laura Hammon Lee (August 5, 1888 – October 20, 1970). The Burroughses were a prominent family of English ancestry in St. Louis, Missouri. His grandfather, William Seward Burroughs I, founded the Burroughs Adding Machine company, which evolved into the Burroughs Corporation. Burroughs' mother was the daughter of a minister whose family claimed to be related to Robert E. Lee. His maternal uncle, Ivy Lee, was an advertising pioneer later employed as a publicist for the Rockefellers. His father ran an antique and gift shop, Cobblestone Gardens; first in St. Louis, then in Palm Beach, Florida.
As a boy, Burroughs lived on Pershing Ave. in St. Louis's Central West End. He attended John Burroughs School in St. Louis where his first published essay, "Personal Magnetism", was printed in the John Burroughs Review in 1929. He then attended the Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico, which was stressful for him. The school was a boarding school for the wealthy, "where the spindly sons of the rich could be transformed into manly specimens". Burroughs kept journals documenting an erotic attachment to another boy. According to his own account, he destroyed these later, ashamed of their content. Due to the repressive context where he grew up, and from which he fled, that is, a "family where displays of affection were considered embarrassing", he kept his sexual orientation concealed well into adulthood, when he became a well known homosexual writer after the publication of Naked Lunch in 1959. Some[who?] say that he was expelled from Los Alamos after taking chloral hydrate in Santa Fe with a fellow student. Yet, according to his own account, he left voluntarily: "During the Easter vacation of my second year I persuaded my family to let me stay in St. Louis."
Burroughs finished high school at Taylor School in Clayton, Missouri, and in 1932, left home to pursue an arts degree at Harvard University, where he was affiliated with Adams House. During the summers, he worked as a cub reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, covering the police docket. He disliked the work, and refused to cover some events, like the death of a drowned child. He lost his virginity in an East St. Louis brothel that summer with a female prostitute he regularly patronized. While at Harvard, Burroughs made trips to New York City and was introduced to the gay subculture there. He visited lesbian dives, piano bars, and the Harlem and Greenwich Village homosexual underground with Richard Stern, a wealthy friend from Kansas City. They would drive from Boston to New York in a reckless fashion. Once, Stern scared Burroughs so much, he asked to be let out of the vehicle.
Burroughs graduated from Harvard in 1936. According to Ted Morgan's Literary Outlaw,
His parents, upon his graduation, had decided to give him a monthly allowance of $200 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.
Burroughs's parents sold the rights to his grandfather's invention and had no share in the Burroughs Corporation. Shortly before the 1929 stock market crash, they sold their stock for $200,000 (equivalent to approximately $2,746,899 in today's funds).
After leaving Harvard, Burroughs's 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, an experience 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, in Croatia, against the wishes of his parents, to allow her to gain a visa to the United States. She made her way to New York City, and eventually divorced Burroughs, although they remained friends for many years. After returning to the U.S., he held a string of uninteresting jobs. In 1939, his emotional health became a concern for his parents, especially after he deliberately severed the last joint of his left little finger, right at the knuckle, to impress a man with whom he was infatuated. This event made its way into his early fiction as the short story "The Finger".
Beginning of the Beats
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 admirer, left for New York City, Burroughs followed.
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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 involving Lucien Carr, who had killed David Kammerer in a confrontation over Kammerer's incessant and unwanted advances. This incident inspired Burroughs and Kerouac to collaborate on a novel titled And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, completed in 1945. The two fledgling authors were unable to get it published, but the manuscript was eventually published in November 2008 by Grove Press and Penguin Books.
Vollmer also became an addict, but her drug of choice was Benzedrine, an amphetamine sold over the counter 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 soon arrested for forging a narcotics prescription and was sentenced to return to his parents' care in St. Louis. Vollmer's addiction led to a temporary psychosis which resulted in her admission to a hospital, and the custody of her child was endangered. Yet after Burroughs completed his house arrest 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.
Mexico and South America
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. Burroughs also attended classes at the Mexico City College in 1950 studying Spanish, as well as "Mexican picture writing" (codices) and the Mayan language with R. H. Barlow.
In 1951, Burroughs shot and killed Vollmer in a drunken game of "William Tell" at a party above the American-owned Bounty Bar in Mexico City. He spent 13 days in jail before his brother came to Mexico City and bribed Mexican lawyers and officials to release Burroughs on bail while he awaited trial for the killing, which was ruled culpable homicide. 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 reported every Monday morning to the jail in Mexico City while his prominent Mexican attorney worked to resolve the case. According to James Grauerholz, two witnesses had agreed to testify that the gun had gone off accidentally while he was checking to see if it was loaded, and the ballistics experts were bribed to support this story. Nevertheless, the trial was continuously delayed and Burroughs began to write what would eventually become the short novel Queer while awaiting his trial. However, when his attorney fled Mexico after his own legal problems involving a car accident and altercation with the son of a government official, Burroughs decided, according to Ted Morgan, to "skip" and return to the United States. He was convicted in absentia of homicide and was given a two-year sentence which was suspended. Although Burroughs was writing before the shooting of Joan Vollmer, this event marked him and, biographers argue, his work for the rest of his life.
After leaving Mexico, Burroughs drifted through South America for several months, looking for a drug called yagé, which promised the user telepathy. A book composed of letters between Burroughs and Ginsberg, The Yage Letters, was published in 1963 by City Lights Books.
Beginning of literary career
Burroughs later said that shooting Vollmer was a pivotal event in his life, and one which provoked his writing:
I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.
Yet he had begun to write in 1945. Burroughs and Kerouac collaborated on And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a mystery novel loosely based on the Carr/Kammerer situation and that was left unpublished. Years later, in the documentary What Happened to Kerouac?, Burroughs described it as "not a very distinguished work". An excerpt of this work, in which Burroughs and Kerouac wrote alternating chapters, was finally published in Word Virus, a compendium of William Burroughs's writing that was published by his biographer after his death in 1997.
Before Vollmer died, Burroughs had largely completed his first two novels in Mexico, although Queer was not published until 1985. Junkie was written at the urging of Allen Ginsberg, who was instrumental in getting the work published, even as a cheap mass-market paperback. Ace Books published the novel in 1953 as part of an Ace Double under the pen name William Lee, retitling it Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict (it was later republished as Junkie or Junky).
During 1953, Burroughs was at loose ends. Due to legal problems, he was unable to live in the cities towards which he was most inclined. He spent time with his parents in Palm Beach, Florida, and New York City with Allen Ginsberg. When Ginsberg refused his romantic advances, Burroughs went to Rome to meet Alan Ansen on a vacation financed from his parents' continuing support. When he found Rome and Ansen’s company dreary, and inspired by Paul Bowles' fiction, he decided to head for Tangier, Morocco. In a home owned by a known procurer of homosexual prostitutes for visiting American and English men, he rented a room and began to write a large body of text that he personally referred to as Interzone. Burroughs lived in Tangier for several months before returning to the United States where he suffered a combination of personal indignities and financial problems. Allen Ginsberg was at the time in California and refused to see him. A. A. Wyn, the publisher of Junkie, was not forthcoming with his royalties. Burroughs’ parents were threatening to cut off his allowance.
To Burroughs, all signs directed a return to Tangier, a city where drugs were freely available and where financial support from his family would continue. He realized that in the Moroccan culture he had found an environment that synchronized with his temperament and afforded no hindrances to pursuing his interests and indulging in his chosen activities. In 1950, Robert Ruark had described the unbridled tenor of the Moroccan city in his syndicated column. Compared to Tangier, Ruark wrote, “Sodom was a church picnic and Gomorrah a convention of Girl Scouts.” The misogyny of the social structure also appealed to Burroughs’ innate distrust and fear of women. In Tangier, the ubiquitously veiled and shrouded woman loudly broadcast the subservient female role.
He left for Tangier in November 1954 and spent the next four years there working on the fiction that would later become Naked Lunch, as well as attempting to write commercial articles about Tangier. He sent these writings to Ginsberg, his literary agent for Junkie, but none were published until 1989 when Interzone, a collection of short stories, was published. Under the strong influence of a marijuana confection known as majoun and a German-made opioid called Eukodol, Burroughs settled in to write. Eventually, Ginsberg and Kerouac, who had traveled to Tangier in 1957, helped Burroughs type, edit, and arrange these episodes into Naked Lunch.
Whereas Junkie and Queer were conventional in style, Naked Lunch was his first venture into a non-linear style. After the publication of Naked Lunch, a book whose creation was to a certain extent the result of a series of contingencies, Burroughs was exposed to Brion Gysin's cut-up technique at the Beat Hotel in Paris in September 1959. He began slicing up phrases and words to create new sentences. At the Beat Hotel Burroughs discovered "a port of entry" into Gysin's canvases: "I don't think I had ever seen painting until I saw the painting of Brion Gysin." The two would cultivate a long-term friendship that revolved around a mutual interest in artworks and cut-up techniques. Scenes were slid together with little care for narrative. Perhaps thinking of his crazed physician, Dr. Benway, he described Naked Lunch as a book that could be cut into at any point. Although not considered science fiction, the book does seem to forecast—with eerie prescience—such later phenomena as AIDS, liposuction, autoerotic fatalities, and the crack pandemic.
Excerpts from Naked Lunch were first published in the United States in 1958. The novel was initially rejected by City Lights Books, the publisher of Ginsberg's Howl; and Olympia Press publisher Maurice Girodias, who had published English-language novels in France that were controversial for their subjective views of sex and anti-social characters. But Allen Ginsberg worked to get excerpts published in Black Mountain Review and Chicago Review in 1958. Irving Rosenthal, student editor of Chicago Review, a quarterly journal partially subsidized by the university, promised to publish more excerpts from Naked Lunch, but he was fired from his position in 1958 after Chicago Daily News columnist Jack Mabley called the first excerpt obscene. Rosenthal went on to publish more in his newly created literary journal Big Table No. 1; however, these copies elicited such contempt, the editors were accused of sending obscene material through the United States Mail by the United States Postmaster General, who ruled that copies could not be mailed to subscribers. This controversy made Naked Lunch interesting to Girodias again, and he published the novel in 1959.
After the novel was published, it slowly became notorious across Europe and the United States, garnering interest from not just members of the counterculture of the 1960s, but also literary critics such as Mary McCarthy. Once published in the United States, Naked Lunch was prosecuted as obscene by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, followed by other states. In 1966, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declared the work "not obscene" on the basis of 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—that is, a work consisting of words only, and not including illustrations or photographs—prosecuted in the United States.
The "Word Hoard", the collection of manuscripts that produced Naked Lunch, also produced the later works The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1963). These novels feature extensive use of the cut-up technique which influenced all of Burroughs' subsequent fiction to a degree. During Burroughs' friendship and artistic collaborations with Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville, the technique was combined with images, Gysin's paintings, and sound, via Somerville's tape recorders. Burroughs was so dedicated to the cut-up method that he often defended his use of the technique before editors and publishers, most notably Dick Seaver at Grove Press in the 1960s and Holt, Rinehart & Winston in the 1980s. The cut-up method, because of its random or mechanical basis for text generation, combined with the possibilities of mixing in text written by other writers, deemphasizes the traditional role of the writer as creator or originator of a string of words, while simultaneously exalting the importance of the writer's sensibility as an editor. In this sense, the cut-up method may be considered as analogous to the collage method in the visual arts.
Paris and the "Beat Hotel"
Burroughs moved into a rundown hotel in the Latin Quarter of Paris in 1959 when Naked Lunch was still looking for a publisher. Tangier, with its easy access to drugs, small groups of homosexuals, growing political unrest, and odd collection of criminals, had become increasingly unhealthy for Burroughs. He went to Paris to meet Ginsberg and talk with Olympia Press. In so doing, he left a brewing legal problem, which eventually transferred itself to Paris. Paul Lund, a British former career criminal and cigarette smuggler whom Burroughs met in Tangier, was arrested on suspicion of importing narcotics into France. Lund gave up Burroughs, and some evidence implicated Burroughs in the possible importation of narcotics into France. Once again, the man faced criminal charges, this time in Paris for conspiracy to import opiates, when the Moroccan authorities forwarded their investigation to French officials. Yet it was under this impending threat of criminal sanction that Maurice Girodias published Naked Lunch; the publication helped in getting Burroughs a suspended sentence, since a literary career, according to Ted Morgan, is a respected profession in France.
The "Beat Hotel" was a typical European-style rooming house hotel, with common toilets on every floor, and a small place for personal cooking in the room. Life there was documented by the photographer Harold Chapman, who lived in the attic room. This shabby, inexpensive hotel was populated by Gregory Corso, Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky for several months after Naked Lunch first appeared. The actual process of publication was partly a function of its "cut-up" presentation to the printer. Girodias had given Burroughs only ten days to prepare the manuscript for print galleys, and Burroughs sent over the manuscript in pieces, preparing the parts in no particular order. When it was published in this authentically random manner, Burroughs liked it better than the initial plan. International rights to the work were sold soon after, and Burroughs used the $3,000 advance from Grove Press to buy drugs (equivalent to approximately $24,271 in today's funds). Naked Lunch was featured in a 1959 Life magazine cover story, partly as an article that highlighted the growing Beat literary movement.
The London years
Burroughs left Paris for London in 1966 to take the cure again with Dr. Dent, a well-known English medical doctor who spearheaded a reputedly painless heroin withdrawal treatment using the drug apomorphine. Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg would take this same cure in 1971, with Dr. Dent's nurse, Smitty. Dent's apomorphine cure was also used to treat alcoholism, although it was held by several people who undertook it to be no more than straightforward aversion therapy. Burroughs however was convinced. Following his first cure, he wrote a detailed appreciation of apomorphine and other cures, which he submitted to The British Journal of Addiction (Vol. 53, 1956) under the title "Letter From A Master Addict To Dangerous Drugs"; this letter is appended to many editions of Naked Lunch.
Though he ultimately relapsed, Burroughs ended up working out of London for six years, traveling back to the United States on several occasions, including one time escorting his son to the Lexington Narcotics Farm and Prison after the younger Burroughs had been convicted of prescription fraud in Florida. In the "Afterword" to the compilation of his son's two previously published novels Speed and Kentucky Ham, Burroughs writes that he thought he had a "small habit" and left London quickly without any narcotics because he suspected the U.S. customs would search him very thoroughly on arrival. He claims he went through the most excruciating two months of opiate withdrawal while seeing his son through his trial and sentencing, traveling with Billy to Lexington, Kentucky from Miami to ensure his son entered the hospital he once spent time in as a volunteer admission. Earlier Burroughs revisited St. Louis, Missouri, taking a large advance from Playboy to write an article about his trip back to St. Louis, one that was eventually published in The Paris Review, after Burroughs refused to alter the style for Playboy's publishers. In 1968 Burroughs joined Jean Genet, John Sack, and Terry Southern in covering the 1968 Democratic National Convention for Esquire magazine. Southern and Burroughs, who had first become acquainted in London, would remain lifelong friends and collaborators. In 1972, Burroughs and Southern unsuccessfully attempted to adapt Naked Lunch for the screen in conjunction with American game-show producer Chuck Barris.
Burroughs supported himself and his addiction by publishing pieces in small literary presses. His avant-garde reputation grew internationally as the hippie counterculture discovered his earlier works. He developed a close friendship with Anthony Balch and lived with a young hustler named John Brady who continuously brought home young women despite Burroughs' protestations. In the midst of this personal turmoil, Burroughs managed to complete two works: a novel written in screen play format, The Last Words of Dutch Schultz (1969); and the traditional prose-format novel The Wild Boys (1971).
In the 1960s, Burroughs joined and then left the Church of Scientology. In talking about the experience, he claimed that the techniques and philosophy of Scientology helped him and that he felt that further study into Scientology would produce great results. He was skeptical of the organization itself, and felt that it fostered an environment that did not accept critical discussion. His subsequent critical writings about the church and his review of Inside Scientology by Robert Kaufman led to a battle of letters between Burroughs and Scientology supporters in the pages of Rolling Stone magazine.
Return to U.S.
In 1974, concerned about his friend's well-being, Allen Ginsberg gained for Burroughs a contract to teach creative writing at the City College of New York. Burroughs successfully withdrew from heroin use and moved to New York. He eventually found an apartment, affectionately dubbed "The Bunker", on the Lower East Side of Manhattan at 222 Bowery. The dwelling was a partially converted YMCA gym, complete with lockers and communal showers. The building fell within New York City rent control policies that made it extremely cheap; it was only about four hundred dollars a month until 1981 when the rent control rules changed, doubling the rent overnight. Burroughs added "teacher" to the list of jobs he did not like, as he lasted only a semester as a professor; he found the students uninteresting and without much creative talent. Although he needed income desperately, he turned down a teaching position at the University at Buffalo for $15,000 a semester. "The teaching gig was a lesson in never again. You were giving out all this energy and nothing was coming back." His savior was the newly arrived, twenty-one-year-old book seller and Beat Generation devotee James Grauerholz, who worked for Burroughs part-time as a secretary as well as in a book store. It was Grauerholz who floated the idea of reading tours, something similar to rock and roll touring, or stand-up comedian dates in clubs across the country. Grauerholz had managed several rock bands in Kansas and took the lead in booking for Burroughs reading tours that would help support him throughout the next two decades. It raised his public profile, eventually aiding in his obtaining new publishing contracts. Through Grauerholz, Burroughs became a monthly columnist for the noted popular culture magazine Crawdaddy, for which he interviewed Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page in 1975. Burroughs decided to relocate back to the United States permanently in 1976. He then began to associate with New York cultural players such as Andy Warhol, John Giorno, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, and Susan Sontag, frequently entertaining them at the Bunker; he also visited venues like CBGB to watch the likes of Patti Smith perform. Throughout early 1977, Burroughs collaborated with Southern and Dennis Hopper on a screen adaptation of Junky. Financed by a reclusive acquaintance of Burroughs, the project lost traction after financial problems and creative disagreements between Hopper and Burroughs.
Organized by Columbia professor Sylvère Lotringer, Giorno, and Grauerholz, the Nova Convention was a multimedia retrospective of Burroughs's work held from November 30 to December 2, 1978, at various locations throughout New York. The event included readings from Southern, Ginsberg, Smith, and Frank Zappa (who filled in at the last minute for Keith Richards, then entangled in a legal problem), in addition to panel discussions with Timothy Leary & Robert Anton Wilson and concerts featuring The B-52's, Suicide, Philip Glass, and Debbie Harry & Chris Stein.
In 1976, Billy Burroughs was eating dinner with his father and Allen Ginsberg in Boulder, Colorado, at Ginsberg’s Buddhist poetry school (Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics) at Chogyam Trungpa's Naropa University when he began to vomit blood. Burroughs senior had not seen his son for over a year and was alarmed at his appearance when Billy arrived at Ginsberg’s apartment. Although Billy had successfully published two short novels in the 1970s, and was deemed by literary critics like Ann Charters as a bona fide "second generation beat writer", his brief marriage to a teenage waitress had disintegrated. Under his constant drinking, there were long periods where Billy was out of contact with any of his family or friends. The diagnosis was liver cirrhosis so complete that the only treatment was a rarely performed liver transplant operation. Fortunately, the University of Colorado Medical Center was one of two places in the nation that performed transplants under the pioneering work of Dr. Thomas Starzl. Billy underwent the procedure and beat the thirty-percent survival odds. His father spent many months in 1976 and 1977 in Colorado, helping Billy through many additional surgeries and complications. Ted Morgan’s biography asserts that their relationship was not spontaneous and lacked real warmth or intimacy. Allen Ginsberg was supportive to both Burroughs and his son throughout the long period of recovery.
In London, Burroughs had begun to write what would become the first novel of a trilogy. Between 1981 and 1987, he published Cities of the Red Night (1981); The Place of Dead Roads (1983); and The Western Lands (1987). Grauerholz helped edit Cities when it was first rejected by Burroughs' long-time editor Dick Seaver at Holt Rinehart, after it was deemed too disjointed. The novel was written as a straight narrative and then chopped up into a more random pattern, leaving the reader to sort through the characters and events. This technique was definitely different from the author's earlier cut-up methods, which were organically accidental from the start. Nevertheless, the novel was reassembled and published, still without a straight linear form, but with fewer breaks in the story. The back-and-forth sway of the read replicated the theme of the trilogy; time-travel adventures where Burroughs's narrators rewrite episodes in history and thus reform mankind. Reviews were mixed for Cities. Novelist and critic Anthony Burgess panned the work in Saturday Review, saying Burroughs was boring readers with repetitive episodes of pederast fantasy and sexual strangulation that lacked any comprehensible world view or theology; other reviewers, like J. G. Ballard, argued that Burroughs was shaping a new literary "mythography".
In 1981, Billy Burroughs died in Florida. He had cut off contact with his father several years before, even publishing an article in Esquire magazine claiming the author had poisoned his life and revealing that he had been molested by one of his father's friends as a fourteen-year-old while visiting his father in Tangier, something that he had previously kept to himself. The liver transplant had not cured his urge to drink, and Billy suffered from serious health complications years after the operation. He had stopped taking his transplant rejection drugs and was found near the side of a Florida highway by a stranger. He died shortly afterwards. Burroughs was in New York when he heard from Allen Ginsberg of Billy's death.
Burroughs, by 1979, was once again addicted to heroin. The cheap heroin that was easily purchased outside his door on the Lower East Side "made its way" into his veins, coupled with "gifts" from the overzealous if well-intentioned admirers who frequently visited the Bunker. Although Burroughs would have episodes of being free from heroin, from this point until his death he was regularly addicted to the drug. He died in 1997 on a methadone maintenance program. In an introduction to Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs, James Grauerholz (who managed Burroughs's reading tours in the 1980s and 1990s) mentions that part of his job was to deal with the “underworld” in each city to secure the author’s needed drugs.
Later years in Kansas
Burroughs moved to Lawrence, Kansas, in 1981 and lived the remainder of his life there, at 1927 Learnard Avenue. He once told a Wichita Eagle reporter that he was content to live in Kansas, saying, “The thing I like about Kansas is that it’s not nearly as violent, and it’s a helluva lot cheaper. And I can get out in the country and fish and shoot and whatnot.” In 1984 he signed a seven-book deal with Viking Press after he signed with literary agent Andrew Wylie. This deal included the publication rights to the 1953 unpublished novel Queer. With this money he purchased a small bungalow for $29,000. He was finally inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1983 after several attempts by Allen Ginsberg to get him accepted. He attended the induction ceremony in May 1983. Lawrence Ferlinghetti remarked the induction of Burroughs into the Academy proved Herbert Marcuse's point that capitalistic society had a great ability to incorporate its one-time outsiders.
Burroughs became a counterculture figure and inspired 1970s proto punk rock band Doctors of Madness. In the 1980s he 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 based on a short story he published in Exterminator!, "The "Priest" They Called Him". 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. A collaboration with musicians Nick Cave and Tom Waits resulted in a collection of short prose, Smack My Crack, later released as a spoken word album in 1987. He also collaborated with Tom Waits and director Robert Wilson to create The Black Rider, a play which opened at the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg in 1990, to critical acclaim, and was later performed all over Europe and the U.S. In 1991, with Burroughs'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.
In 1982 in Lawrence, Kansas, Burroughs developed a painting technique whereby he created abstract compositions by placing spray paint cans some distance in front of blank surfaces, and then shooting at the paint cans with a shotgun. These splattered and shot panels and canvasses were first exhibited in the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York City in 1987. By this time he had developed a comprehensive visual art practice, using ink, spray paint, collage and unusual things such as mushrooms and plungers to apply the paint. He created file-folder paintings featuring these mediums as well as "automatic calligraphy" inspired by Brion Gysin. He originally used the folders to mix pigments before observing that they could be viewed as art in themselves. Until his last years, he prolifically created visual art. Burroughs' work has since been featured in over 50 international galleries and museums including Royal Academy of the Arts, Centre Pompidou, Guggenheim Museum, ZKM Karlsruhe, Sammlung Falckenberg, New Museum, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Los Angeles County Museum, and Whitney Museum of American Art.
Burroughs's final filmed performance was in the music video for "Last Night on Earth" by Irish rock band U2, filmed in Kansas City, Missouri, directed by Richie Smyth and also featuring Sophie Dahl.
Burroughs died in Lawrence, Kansas, on August 2, 1997, from complications of a heart attack he had suffered the previous day. He was interred in the family plot in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri, with a marker bearing his full name and the epitaph "American Writer". The grave lies to the right of the white granite obelisk of William Seward Burroughs I (1857–1898).
After his death
Since 1997, several posthumous collections of Burroughs's work have been published. A few months after his death, a collection of writings spanning his entire career, Word Virus, was published (according to the book's introduction, Burroughs himself approved its contents prior to his death). Aside from numerous previously released pieces, Word Virus also included what was promoted as one of the few surviving fragments of And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a then-unpublished novel by Burroughs and Kerouac (ultimately, however, the complete work would be published in 2008). A collection of journal entries written during the final months of Burroughs's life was published as the book Last Words in 2000. Publication of a memoir by Burroughs entitled Evil River by Viking Press has been delayed several times; after initially being announced for a 2005 release, Web retailers such as indicated a 2007 release, complete with an ISBN number (ISBN 0670813516), but no such release has, to date, occurred. In December 2007, Ohio State University Press released Everything Lost: The Latin American Journals of William S. Burroughs. Edited by Oliver Harris, the book contains transcriptions of journal entries made by Burroughs during the time of composing Queer and The Yage Letters., with cover art and review information. In addition, special editions of The Yage Letters, Naked Lunch and Junkie/Junky have been published in recent years, all containing additional material and essays on the works.
Literary style and periods
Burroughs's major works can be divided into four different periods. The dates refer to the time of writing, not publication, which in some cases was not until decades later:
- Early work (early 1950s): Junkie, Queer and The Yage Letters are relatively straightforward linear narratives, written in and about Burroughs's time in Mexico City and South America.
- The cut-up period (mid-1950s to mid-1960s): Naked Lunch is a fragmentary collection of "routines" from The Word Hoard – manuscripts written in Tangier, Paris, London, as well as of some other texts written in South America such as "The Composite City", blending into the cut-up and fold-in fiction also heavily drawn from The Word Hoard: The Soft Machine, Nova Express, The Ticket That Exploded, also referred to as "The Nova Trilogy" or "the Nova Epic", self-described by Burroughs as an attempt to create "a mythology for the space age". Interzone also derives from this period.
- Experiment and subversion (mid-1960s to mid-1970s): This period saw Burroughs continue experimental writing with increased political content and branching into multimedia such as film and sound recording. The only major novel written in this period was The Wild Boys, but he also wrote dozens of published articles, short stories, scrap books and other works, several in collaboration with Brion Gysin. The major anthologies representing work from this period are The Burroughs File, The Adding Machine and Exterminator!.
- The Red Night trilogy (mid-1970s to mid-1980s): The books Cities of the Red Night, The Place of Dead Roads and The Western Lands came from Burroughs in a final, mature stage, creating a complete mythology.
Burroughs 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).
Reaction to critics and view on criticism
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 here that he prefers to be evaluated against such criteria over being reviewed based on the reviewer's personal reactions to a certain book. Always a contradictory figure, Burroughs nevertheless criticized Anatole Broyard for reading authorial intentionality into his works where there is none, which sets him at odds both with New Criticism and the old school as represented by Mathew Arnold.
Burroughs is often called one of the greatest and most influential writers of the 20th 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 consider his concepts and attitude more influential than his prose. Prominent admirers of Burroughs's work have included British critic and biographer Peter Ackroyd, the rock critic Lester Bangs, the philosopher Gilles Deleuze and the authors J. G. Ballard, Angela Carter, Jean Genet, William Gibson, Alan Moore, Kathy Acker and Ken Kesey. Burroughs had a profound influence on the German writer Carl Weissner, who in addition to being his German translator was a novelist in his own right and frequently wrote cut-up texts in a manner reminiscent of Burroughs.
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 are indebted to him. Admirers from the late 1970s—early 1980s milieu of this subgenre include William Gibson and John Shirley, to name only two. First published in 1982, the British slipstream fiction magazine Interzone (which later evolved into a more traditional science fiction magazine) paid tribute to him with its choice of name. He is also cited as a major influence by musicians Roger Waters, Patti Smith, Genesis P-Orridge, Ian Curtis, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Tom Waits and Kurt Cobain.
Drugs, homosexuality and death, common among Burroughs's themes, have been 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 frequently referenced this aspect of Burroughs's work. Burroughs's writing continues 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.
I first heard of the 23 Enigma from William S. Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch, Nova Express, etc. According to Burroughs, he had known a certain Captain Clark, around 1960 in Tangier, who once bragged that he had been sailing 23 years without an accident. That very day, Clark’s ship had an accident that killed him and everybody else aboard. Furthermore, while Burroughs was thinking about this crude example of the irony of the gods that evening, a bulletin on the radio announced the crash of an airliner in Florida, USA. The pilot was another Captain Clark and the flight was Flight 23.
Appearances in media
Burroughs appears on the cover of The Beatles' eighth studio album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Burroughs participated on numerous album releases by Giorno Poetry Systems, including The Nova Convention (featuring Frank Zappa, John Cage, and Philip Glass) and You're the Guy I Want to Share My Money With (with John Giorno and Laurie Anderson).
He is featured in a spoken word piece entitled "Sharkey's Night" on Laurie Anderson's 1984 album Mister Heartbreak, but the longer version of this track, with additional dialogue from Burroughs, was released only on a promotional 4-track 12" Ep (Warner Bros PRO-A-2123). In addition, Burroughs provided vocal samples for the soundtrack of Anderson's 1986 concert film, Home of the Brave, and made a cameo appearance in it.
Bill Laswell's Material collaborated with Burroughs to produce the 1989 album Seven Souls, wherein Burroughs recites passages from his book The Western Lands to musical accompaniment. The album was reissued in 1997 with 3 bonus remixes. In 1998, an additional unreleased six remixes (plus one previously released) were introduced on the album The Road To The Western Lands. Spring Heel Jack's remix of the track '"The Road to the Western Lands" from this album was also included on their Oddities album from 2000.
In 1990, Island Records released Dead City Radio, a collection of readings set to a broad range of musical compositions. It was produced by Hal Willner and Nelson Lyon, with musical accompaniment from John Cale, Donald Fagen, Lenny Pickett, Chris Stein, Sonic Youth, and others. The remastered edition of Sonic Youth's album Goo includes a longer version of "Dr. Benway's House", which had appeared, in shorter form, on Dead City Radio.
In 1992 he recorded "Quick Fix" with 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". The same year he also recorded the EP The "Priest" They Called Him; Burroughs reads the short story of the same name, while Kurt Cobain creates layers of guitar feedback and distortion. Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic is featured on the cover as the titular "Priest".
In 1992 Burroughs worked with The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy on Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales, with the duo providing musical background and accompaniment to Burroughs's spoken readings from several of his books. A 12" Ep was released with five different remixes of the Spare Ass Annie track Words of Advice for Young People, all done by Bill Laswell.
Burroughs recites the lyrics of R.E.M.'s "Star Me Kitten" for a special version of the song on the Songs in the Key of X: Music from and Inspired by the X-Files soundtrack.
Burroughs is featured on the 2000 compilation tribute album, Stoned Immaculate, on a track that pairs Jim Morrison yelping and groaning with Burroughs reading Morrison's poetry. The music was recorded by the surviving Doors members in 2000 specifically for this album.
Numerous bands have found their names in Burroughs's work. The most widely known of these is Steely Dan, a group named after a dildo in Naked Lunch. Also from Naked Lunch came the names The Mugwumps and The Insect Trust. The novel Nova Express inspired the names of Grant Hart's post-Hüsker Dü band Nova Mob, as well as Australian 1960s R&B band Nova Express. British band Soft Machine took its moniker from the Burroughs novel of the same name, as did protopunk band Dead Fingers Talk, from Hull, England; their only album was titled Storm the Reality Studios, after a quote from Nova Express. Alt-country band Clem Snide is named for a Burroughs character. Thin White Rope took their name from Burroughs's euphemism for ejaculation.
The American extreme metal band Success Will Write Apocalypse Across the Sky took their name from the 1989 text "Apocalypse", in which Burroughs describes "art and creative expression taking a literal and physical form".
In film and television
Burroughs played Opium Jones in the 1966 Conrad Rooks cult film Chappaqua, which also featured cameo roles by Allen Ginsberg, Moondog, and others. In 1968, an abbreviated—77 minutes as opposed to the original's 104 minutes—version of Benjamin Christensen's 1922 film Häxan was released, subtitled Witchcraft Through The Ages. This version, produced by Anthony Balch, featured an eclectic jazz score by Daniel Humair and expressionist narration by Burroughs. He also appeared alongside Brion Gysin in a number of short films in the 1960s directed by Balch. Jack Sargeant's book Naked Lens: Beat Cinema details Burroughs film work at length, covering his collaborations with Balch and Burroughs' theories of film.
Burroughs narrated part of the 1980 documentary Shamans of the Blind Country by anthropologist and filmmaker Michael Oppitz. He gave a reading on Saturday Night Live on November 7, 1981, in an episode hosted by Lauren Hutton.
In 1983 director Howard Brookner released Burroughs: the Movie. The film is perhaps the definitive account of Burroughs' life and Brookner and Burroughs maintained a very close collaboration during the shooting process. The film features interviews with many of Burroughs' friends and collaborators including Allen Ginsberg, Brion Gysin, Francis Bacon, Herbert Huncke, Patti Smith and Terry Southern.
Burroughs subsequently made cameo appearances in a number of other films and videos, such as David Blair's Wax or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees, an elliptic story about the first Gulf War in which Burroughs plays a beekeeper, and Decoder by Klaus Maeck. He played an aging junkie priest in Gus Van Sant's 1989 film Drugstore Cowboy. He also appears briefly at the beginning of Van Sant's Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (based on the Tom Robbins novel), in which he is seen crossing a city street; as the noise of the city rises around him he pauses in the middle of the intersection and speaks the single word "ominous". Van Sant's short film "Thanksgiving Prayer" features Burroughs reading the poem "Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28, 1986", from Tornado Alley, intercut with a collage of black and white images.
Burroughs was portrayed by Kiefer Sutherland in the 2000 film Beat, written and directed by Gary Walkow. Loosely biographical, the plot involves a car trip to Mexico City with Vollmer, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Lucien Carr, and includes a scene of Vollmer's shooting.
Burroughs is portrayed by Ben Foster in the 2013 film Kill Your Darlings, directed by John Krokidas and written by John Krokidas and Austin Bunn. The film tells the story of Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) and David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), with appearances by actors playing Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) and Kerouac (Jack Huston).
Near the end of his life, recordings of Burroughs reading his short stories "A Junky's Christmas" and "Ah Pook is Here" were used on the soundtracks of two highly acclaimed animated films.
Filmmakers Lars Movin and Steen Moller Rasmussen used footage of Burroughs taken during a 1983 tour of Scandinavia in the documentary Words of Advice: William S. Burroughs on the Road. A 2010 documentary, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, was made for Independent Lens on PBS.
As a fictional character
Burroughs was fictionalized in Jack Kerouac's autobiographical novel On the Road as "Old Bull Lee". He also makes an appearance in J. G. Ballard's semi-autobiographical 1991 novel The Kindness of Women. In the 2004 novel Move Under Ground, Burroughs, Kerouac, and Neal Cassady team up to defeat Cthulhu.
Burroughs appears in the first part of The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson during the 1968 Democratic Convention riots and is described as a person devoid of anger, passion, indignation, hope, or any other recognizable human emotion. He is presented as a polar opposite of Allen Ginsberg, as Ginsberg believed in everything and Burroughs believed in nothing. Wilson would recount in his Cosmic Trigger II: Down to Earth having interviewed both Burroughs and Ginsberg for Playboy the day the riots began, as well as his experiences with Shea during the riots, providing some detail on the creation of the fictional sequence.
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- Gilmore, John. Laid Bare: A Memoir of Wrecked Lives and the Hollywood Death Trip. Searching for Rimbaud. Amok Books, 1997.
- Harris, Oliver. William S. Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003.
- Johnson, Robert Earl. The Lost Years of William S. Burroughs: Beats in South Texas. Texas A&M University Press, 2006.
- Miles, Barry. William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible, A Portrait. New York: Hyperion, 1992.
- Sargeant, Jack. "Naked Lens: Beat Cinema" New York: Soft Skull, 2009 (third edition).
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- Wills, David S. Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the Weird Cult. Beatdom Books, London 2013.
- William Seward Burroughs Papers, 1957–1976 (2 linear feet) are held in the Columbia University Libraries.
- William S. Burroughs Papers, WSB97 (ca. 1945-ca. 1984_ (58 boxes) are held in the Ohio State University Libraries.
- William S. Burroughs collection (3 linear feet) are held in the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University.
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- European Beat Studies Network
- William S. Burroughs: A Man Within site for Independent Lens on PBS
- William S. Burroughs: A Man Within at the Internet Movie Database
- William S. Burroughs interviewed by Allen Ginsberg, March 1992 in Lawrence, Kansas, from Sensitive Skin magazine #8, published April, 2012