Study Guide

William S. Burroughs

William S. Burroughs Essay - Burroughs, William S. (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Burroughs, William S. (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Introduction

William S. Burroughs 1914–1997

American novelist, essayist, critic, poet, and scriptwriter.

For further information on Burroughs's life and career, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 5, 15, 22, 42, and 75.

A homosexual drug addict turned experimental novelist, Burroughs embodied for many observers the artist as outsider and rebel. As a Beat generation writer and avant-garde theorist, Burroughs greatly influenced the hippie and punk movements of the 1960s and 1970s, while making an important contribution to gay literature. Born in 1914 in St. Louis, Missouri, Burroughs was the grandson of the inventor of the adding machine and founder of the Burroughs Corporation. After graduating in 1936 from Harvard University, Burroughs worked odd jobs until the mid-1940s, when he became addicted to morphine and other drugs. In 1946 he met and married Joan Vollmer, who introduced him to fledgling Beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. They rekindled Burroughs's college dream of becoming a writer, and later facilitated the publication of Junkie (1953), Burroughs's memoir of his drug addiction. Under constant threat of arrest for drug offenses, Burroughs moved around the United States and eventually to Mexico, where in 1951, after a day of drinking and drugs, he accidentally shot and killed Vollmer in a game of William Tell. Shortly after his wife's death, Burroughs dealt indirectly with the incident in Queer, a novel that was not published until 1985. Burroughs next went to South America in search of the legendary hallucinogen yage; his correspondence with Ginsberg during this trip became the basis for The Yage Letters (1963). In 1953, Burroughs joined a community of expatriate American writers and artists in Tangiers, Morocco. Over the next four years he indulged his drug habits to the point of aimless inactivity, but still was able to compile a mass of notes based on his drug-induced experiences and fantasies; these notes were later collected and published in France as The Naked Lunch (1959). Composed of loosely related sections containing graphic descriptions of drug use, murder, and sadomasochistic homosexual acts, The Naked Lunch aroused critical debate in the United States in advance of its 1962 American edition, which appeared only after three years of court trials for obscenity. In 1957 Burroughs traveled to London to undergo treatment for drug addiction using the nonaddictive drug apomorphine; after several relapses he was cured in 1959. Using leftover material from his Tangiers notebooks, Burroughs applied the "cut-up" technique that he had used in Naked Lunch—derived from the collage method used in visual arts—and produced three books: The Soft Machine (1961), which outlines the use of control systems throughout human history; The Ticket That Exploded (1962), which borrows concepts from science fiction to illustrate linguistic control systems; and Nova Express (1964), which introduces the idea that writing is a powerful tool to resist control. Throughout the 1960s Burroughs experimented with cut-ups in fiction, film, and tape recordings, while gradually becoming aware of the cult figure status accorded him by "underground" culture. Burroughs abandoned the cut-up method in favor of a more conventional narrative style with The Wild Boys (1971), but his concerns about personal freedom, the control systems of society, and efforts to free oneself from social restrictions remained and continued in Exterminator! (1973), Port of Saints (1973), and Ah Pook Is Here (1979). During the 1980s Burroughs began a second career as a visual artist, which included such pursuits as painting, calligraphy, and writing screenplays and a libretto, as well as appearing in the films Drugstore Cowboy and Twister and a television ad for Nike shoes. Burroughs's most significant literary work of this period comprises the so-called "Red Night trilogy," and includes Cities of the Red Night (1981), The Place of Dead Roads (1983), and The Western Lands (1987), the latter of which many critics thought would be his last book. But Burroughs continued to write into the 1990s, producing Ghost of a Chance (1991) and My Education (1995). He died after a heart attack on August 2, 1997, in Lawrence, Kansas, where he had lived since 1981. Despite Burroughs's undeniable influence in the arts and popular culture, his works as a whole have not received widespread academic acceptance. The Naked Lunch, however, has received critical praise from most quarters and is considered a classic of American literature by some scholars. James McManus has said, "He's turning out to have been enormously influential, especially on artists who go into the inferno and report back. He was into sex and drugs and rock n' roll before anybody else. And his influence on gay literatuure is immeasurable."

Principal Works

Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict [under the pseudonym William Lee] (novel) 1953; also published as Junky [unexpurgated edition], 1977
The Naked Lunch (novel) 1959; also published as Naked Lunch, 1962
Minutes to Go [with Brion Gysin, Sinclair Beiles, and Gregory Corso] (poems) 1960
The Soft Machine (novel) 1961; revised edition, 1966
The Ticket That Exploded (novel) 1962; revised edition, 1967
The Yage Letters (letters) 1963
Nova Express (novel) 1964
Time (poems) 1965
The Job: Interviews with Williams S. Burroughs (interviews) 1970
The Last Words of Dutch Schulz: A Fiction in the Form of a Film Script (screenplay) 1970
Third Mind (novel) 1970
The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead (novel) 1971; revised edition, 1979
Exterminator! (novel) 1973
Port of Saints (novel) 1973
Ah Pook Is Here and Other Texts (prose) 1979
Blade Runner: A Movie (novel) 1979
Cities of the Red Night (novel) 1981
The Burroughs File (prose and diaries) 1984
The Place of Dead Roads (novel) 1983
The Adding Machine: Collected Essays (essays) 1985
Queer (novel) 1985
The Western Lands (novel) 1987
Interzone (novel) 1989
Ghost of a Chance (essays) 1991
The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1945–1959 (letters) 1993
My Education: A Book of Dreams (sketches and prose) 1995

∗This work was adapted for film by David Cronenberg in 1991.

†This work was originally written in 1953.

Obituaries

Richard Severo (obituary date 3 August 1997)

SOURCE: "William S. Burroughs Dies at 83; Member of the Beat Generation Wrote Naked Lunch," in The New York Times, August 3, 1997, p. B5.

[In the following obituary, Severo reviews Burroughs's life and literary achievements.]

William S. Burroughs, a renegade writer of the Beat Generation who stunned readers and inspired adoring cultists with his 1959 book Naked Lunch, died yesterday afternoon at Lawrence Memorial Hospital in Lawrence, Kan. He was 83.

The cause of his death, at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, was a heart attack that he suffered on Friday, his publicist, Ira Silverberg, said.

Over the years, Mr. Burroughs had lived in such places as New York, London, Paris, Mexico City and Tangier. But since 1981 he maintained a house in Lawrence, where he lived simply with three cats and indulged his interests in painting and photography and in collecting and discharging firearms.

Mr. Burroughs had undergone triple bypass surgery in 1991. He quit smoking after the operation. And though he continued to suffer from a leaky heart valve, from all reports, he regained robust health quickly for a man of his years.

His recovery was all the more noteworthy since he had spent so many of his younger days engulfed in narcotics addiction, an imperative so demanding that in 1954, while living in London, he sold his typewriter to buy heroin, although he kept working in longhand. He spent years experimenting with drugs as well as with sex, which he engaged in with men, women and children.

Naked Lunch, first published in Paris, and later by Grove Press in New York, was hailed as a masterly definition of what was hip, although the critics were not sure how to define the definition. Herbert Gold, writing in The New York Times, said that the book was "less a novel than a series of essays, puns, epigrams—all hovering about the explicit subject matter of making out on drugs while not making out in either work or love." Mr. Gold called the book "booty brought back from a nightmare."

Newsweek said that Naked Lunch possessed a "strange genius" and was a masterpiece "but a totally insane and anarchic one, and it can only be diminished by attempts to give it a social purpose or value whatever."

For his part, Mr. Burroughs said he agreed with the writer Mary McCarthy, who thought that Naked Lunch, and his other books, had a deep moral purpose.

"I do definitely mean what I say to be taken literally, yes, to make people aware of the true criminality of our times, to wise up to the marks," Mr. Burroughs told an interviewer in 1970.

Nobody found it especially easy to impose literality on Mr. Burroughs's sentences, either written or spoken. He described Naked Lunch as "a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork."

His work was not for traditionalists who loved a well-developed narrative. Dame Edith Sitwell was among those who demurred from the critics' praise, denouncing Naked Lunch as psychopathological filth. And even those who admired Mr. Burroughs's iconoclasm and his ruthless honesty had to admit that they could see flaws in the man. He was, in the final analysis, an alien among aliens, the ultimate odd duck.

"Just because he sleeps with boys, takes drugs and smokes dope doesn't mean that he tolerates or supports the majority of junkies, homosexuals or potheads," wrote Barry Miles In his 1993 biography, William Burroughs, which was subtitled El Hombre Invisible and published by Hyperion. "Bill simply doesn't like most people."

William Seward Burroughs was born on Feb. 5, 1914, in St. Louis, the son of Mortimer P. Burroughs, the owner of a plate-glass company, and Laura Lee Burroughs, who came from a prominent Southern family. His grandfather, for whom he was named, invented the perforated, oil-filled cylinder that made the Burroughs adding machine add and invariably get the right answer. The machine became a standard fixture in small and large businesses everywhere.

Mr. Burroughs's parents sold their stock in the Burroughs Company shortly before the stock market crash of 1929, and the $200,000 they received saw them nicely through the Depression. It did not leave the author with much of a legacy; his mother died in 1970, and what was left of her share of the estate was $10,000.

When Mr. Burroughs was a teen-ager, he read You Can't Win, an autobiography of Jack Black, a drifter who took drugs and pilfered his way through a sordid, predatory life. The book made a considerable impression on him and became grist for his own books years later. It was around this time that he, too, started experimenting with drugs.

Mr. Burroughs was educated, not happily, in private schools in St. Louis and in Los Alamos, N.M.

He was sent to Harvard University, which he did not like any better than he had his preparatory schools, although the time spent reading pleased him. His favorite writers gave no hint of what was ultimately to come out of his typewriter. They included Shakespeare, Coleridge and DeQuincy. Other writers he came to admire included James Joyce, Joseph Conrad, Jean Genet, Franz Kafka, Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler. He received a baccalaureate degree from Harvard in 1936.

He took a vacation to Europe after graduation and in Dubrovnik met Ilse Klapper, a German Jew who had fled the Nazis. She was stranded, unable to renew her Yugoslav passport and unable to go to the United States. To accommodate her, he married her. They never lived together, and dissolved the marriage almost immediately upon returning to the United States, but they remained friends.

After his return to the United States, he worked at many jobs, including bartender, private detective, factory worker and insect exterminator. Except for exterminating, which he rather enjoyed, these jobs bored him.

He later recalled his experiences in Exterminator! published by Viking in 1973.

In the years before World War II, he returned to Harvard and did some graduate work in cultural anthropology and ethnology. After the war began, he was drafted into the Army but got out after only three months. According to the Miles biography, his mother used her influence to win his discharge for physical reasons.

By 1944, Mr. Burroughs had an apartment on Bedford Street in Greenwich Village and developed an addiction to heroin. Among those he befriended in New York in the 1940's were Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. It was from these three and their friends and acquaintances that the term Beat Generation would later be applied. And it was Mr. Ginsberg who, several years later, inadvertently came up with the title Naked Lunch. He got it from misreading a bit of manuscript in Mr. Burroughs's scrawl, which actually referred to "naked lust."

Mr. Burroughs's first book, published by Ace in 1953 under the pseudonym William Lee, was called Junkie and told of his years as an addict.

The writing of Junkie came after what was arguably the saddest part of Mr. Burroughs's life. He had married Joan Vollmer in 1945 and in 1951 they were living in Mexico City. He was then using drugs heavily and had returned to Mexico City from a trip to Ecuador, where he had tried to learn more about a hallucinogen called yage. His wife was addicted to Benzedrine and, according to Barry Miles, did not mind Mr. Burroughs's homosexual interests. Indeed, she had borne him a son.

Their life in Mexico City was not especially happy. One September afternoon in 1951, they began to drink with friends. Eventually, Mr. Burroughs, who was quite drunk, took a handgun out of his travel bag and told his wife, "It's time for our William Tell act." There never had been a William Tell act but his wife laughed and put a water glass on her head. Mr. Burroughs fired the gun. The bullet entered her brain through her forehead, killing her instantly. Mexican authorities concluded that it was an accident; Mr. Burroughs was convicted only of a minor charge and served little time in jail.

Years later, he would say that he would never have become a writer had it not been for her death. His wife's death, he said, "brought me into contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice but to write my way out."

The incident did not stop his drug use, and in his introduction to Naked Lunch, he describes his addiction: "I have smoked junk, eaten it, sniffed it, injected it in vein-skin-muscle, inserted it in rectal suppositories. The needle is not important." Mr. Burroughs wrote that during the time he was an addict, he did "absolutely nothing." He said, "I could look at the end of my shoe for eight hours." When he was 45 years old, he ended 15 years of addiction by taking apomorphine, a chemical compound developed in Britain.

His son, William, died in 1981. He is survived by his companion and manager, James Grauerholz, who remained at Lawrence Hospital and declined to take phone calls.

No other Burroughs book attracted the attention of Naked Lunch, but his works always interested the critics. In 1960, he started inserting shards of sentences and paragraphs from newspapers and other authors into his own prose because, he said, he wanted to break the patterns that one normally finds in a book and emulate the peripheral impressions experienced in life itself.

"I don't plan a book out. I don't know how it's going to end," he told one interviewer. He readily admitted there was considerable overlap of material in his books.

In 1989, he collaborated on a comic opera, The Black Rider, which was performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House by the Thalia Theater of Hamburg and was based on Der Freischutz, a folk opera by Carl Maria von Weber. Mr. Burroughs wrote the libretto; Tom Waits wrote the songs, and it was staged by Robert Wilson. It was also produced in Europe. There were many other projects but some, like Ruski (1984), The Cat Inside (1986) and Ghost of a Chance (1991) were limited editions.

In his later years, he spent a great deal of time as a painter and calligrapher. He said he did a lot of painting "with my eyes closed," but there was interest in his art and sales of his works helped bail him out of the tough financial situation in which he found himself in the mid-1980's.

Only a week before his death, Mr. Burroughs had been helping to prepare selected writings to be published next year by Grove Press, Mr. Silverberg, the publicist, said. A reprinting of a novel, The Third Mind, is also scheduled by Grove Press for next year and last year Viking Press reissued My Education: A Book of Dreams.

A self-avowed animal-rights activist and environmentalist, he had been supporting a Duke University foundation dedicated to the survival of lemurs.

In a rare interview last November, Mr. Burroughs told The New York Times that he made entries in a journal each day but had given up formal writing, adding quietly, "I guess I have run out of things to say." He also said that he had temporarily given up painting. "I don't want to keep repeating myself," he said.

Several of his friends, fellow drug-users and contemporaries have died in the last two years, including Timothy Leary, Herbert Huncke and Allen Ginsberg.

To the end of his life, Mr. Burroughs remained pessimistic about the future for humankind. In Ghost of a Chance, he lamented the destruction of the rain forests and their creatures and wrote: "All going, to make way for more and more devalued human stock, with less and less of the wild spark, the priceless ingredient—energy into matter. A vast mudslide of soulless sludge."

The London Times (obituary date 4 August 1997)

SOURCE: An obituary for William Burroughs, in The London Times (online publication), August 4, 1997.

[In the following obituary, the writer provides an overview of Burroughs's life and career.]

William Burroughs saw himself as a campaigner against destruction of the self by all the agents that he believed were conspiring to depersonalize it. His metaphor for this was junk addiction. By junk, the one-time drug-addict meant anything that put a person's life beyond his or her control. He saw the world in the despairing terms of addiction and fragmentation of the psyche, and his vision made him one of the most controversial writers of the second half of the century. Described as "the big daddy of the Beats", he influenced much of the "underground" of the 1950s which...

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Overview

Thomas Parkinson (essay date Spring 1980)

SOURCE: "Critical Approaches to William Burroughs, or How to Admit an Admiration for a Good Dirty Book," in Poets, Poems, Movements, UMI Research Press, 1987, pp. 313-20.

[In the following essay, which originally appeared in 1980 in Occidem, Parkinson approaches Naked Lunch as continuing the "peculiar American tradition of hilarity" in literature.]

I want to begin by giving a retrospective view of my own relations to Burroughs. First, I saw both the Yage Letters and Naked Lunch before publication. In 1955 Allen Ginsberg lived in a little cottage four houses south of us on...

(The entire section is 35321 words.)

Reviews Of Burroughs's Recent Works

James Campbell (review date 15 October 1993)

SOURCE: "The Bare Facts," in Times Literary Supplement, October 15, 1993, p. 22.

[In the following review of the first volume of The Letters of William S. Burroughs, Campbell gleans the "facts" of Burroughs's early writing career from his correspondence, observing its relation to specific works and other Beat writers.]

There is no such thing as a Naked Lunch. In keeping with its conception as a fluid event rather than a frozen artefact ("the usual novel has happened", the author wrote. "This novel is happening"), William Burroughs's purgative, funny, wholly original book has continued...

(The entire section is 5144 words.)

Further Reading

Criticism

Mannes-Abbott, Guy. "The Beats Go On." New Statesman & Society (27 October 1995): 47-8.

Reviews My Education, suggesting that Burroughs's "carefully forged work will prove the accompaniment to [T. S.] Eliot's evocation of our century's waste lands."

Vickers, Scott. "Summer Reading." The Bloomsbury Review (May-June 1994): 7.

Details the insights on Burroughs's life and writings provided by The Letters of William S. Burroughs and William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible.

White, Edmund. "This Is Not a...

(The entire section is 186 words.)