Burroughs, William S. (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
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."
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,...
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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...
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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 Milvia Street in Berkeley. He came to see me first in my office before we realized that we were neighbors, and he enrolled for graduate study at Berkeley. Kenneth Rexroth had advised him to see me, and together we worked out the best possible program that our graduate school would allow: required courses in bibliography and Anglo-Saxon and a special studies course in the prosody of Whitman. At first we talked incessantly about Whitman, and practically every day he came to the house and read Whitman aloud, and we discussed and argued. At that time Ginsberg was much taken with Richard Chase's book on Whitman and kept arguing for Whitman's sense of humor. At first I was amused and suggested that he could also write on intentional jokes in the...
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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 to exhibit new forms over the years. As successive editions have followed the Paris one of 1959, passages which once appeared as footnotes have been integrated into the text or else excluded from it; new prefaces and appendices have been grafted on to the narrative, each becoming in the process an organic part. Even the title eludes definition, the American publishers offering plain old Naked Lunch, while the British, following the Paris original, garnish it with an article. Now, from this first volume of Burroughs's correspondence [The Letters of William S. Burroughs], a different shape emerges: Naked Lunch is actually a letter to Allen Ginsberg.
In the late 1940s, Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and their...
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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 Mammal: A Visit with William Burroughs." In The Burning Library, edited by David Bergman, pp. 107-14. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
Recounts a visit to Burroughs's residence shortly after reading Cities of the Red Night, commenting on its themes and relation to other works.
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