William S. Burroughs Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)
William S. Burroughs William S. Burroughs Image via writersmug.com

After the death of Jack Kerouac in 1969, William Seward Burroughs (BUR-ohz) assumed the title as the United States’ foremost avant-garde novelist. His parents, Mortimer Burroughs, the son of the inventor of the adding machine, and Laura Lee, the daughter of a distinguished minister, fell heir to only a small fraction of the Burroughs Company fortune, so their second son, named for his inventor grandfather, grew up in the upper middle class rather than the upper class. William S. Burroughs was educated at private schools in St. Louis and New Mexico and received his B.A. from Harvard University in 1936. He briefly attended medical school in Germany and returned to Harvard for graduate study in archaeology before moving to New York.

There he adopted a bohemian way of life, rejecting the bourgeois life of his parents. He sought out the city’s underworld and became familiar with the ways of drug users, petty thieves, pimps, and prostitutes. He began to express his sexual preference for men. In 1943, Burroughs returned to New York City and met Joan Vollmer, a student at Columbia University; they married in 1945. She introduced Burroughs to Kerouac, who in turn introduced him to Allen Ginsberg. Together, the three became the core of the group of writers known as the Beats. It was during this same period that Burroughs began a lifelong dalliance with heroin, and he supplemented the $150 monthly income from his family by pushing drugs and committing petty crimes. Burroughs moved to Texas in 1946, then to Louisiana in 1948. After a raid on his farm there, Burroughs relocated to Mexico City in 1950. In 1951, during a drunken party at home, he accidentally shot and killed his wife. Mexican authorities let the matter drop, but he soon left Mexico for Colombia. Burroughs returned to New York City in 1953.

The influences on Burroughs’s writing are clear, though extremely varied. His interest in hard-boiled detective fiction dated from his adolescence. The form of the vaudeville routine, the utopian vision of Alfred Korzybski, Reichian psychology and Freudian psychoanalysis, Oswald Spengler’s view of civilization, and Mayan cosmology came later. Junkie was Burroughs’s first novel, for which, out of consideration for his parents, he assumed the pseudonym William Lee. Printed by Ace Books in a back-to-back edition with another book about drug addiction, Junkie went virtually unnoticed. Like Junkie, Queer, written in 1952 but not published until 1985, chronicles the adventures of its hero in the world of drug addicts, criminals, and homosexuals in a deadpan tone that belies its sense of humor. Burroughs next traveled to Tangier, Morocco, where he lived...

(The entire section is 1104 words.)

William S. Burroughs Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

William Seward Burroughs II was born on February 5, 1914, in St. Louis, Missouri, to Mortimer Perry Burroughs, son of the industrialist William Seward Burroughs I, who founded the Burroughs Adding Machine company. His mother was Laura Hammond Lee, whose family claimed direct descent from Robert E. Lee, Civil War general and commander in chief of the Confederate army. Dominated by his mother’s obsessive Victorian prudery and haunted by vivid nightmares and hallucinations, Burroughs led a restless childhood. He was educated in private schools in St. Louis and Los Alamos, New Mexico, where he developed seemingly disparate fascinations with literature and crime. He later studied ethnology and archaeology at Harvard University, where he encountered a group of wealthy gay men. He graduated with an A.B. in 1936, and upon his graduation, his parents bestowed on him a monthly trust of two hundred dollars that allowed Burroughs a great deal of freedom from daily concerns.

Subsequently, Burroughs traveled to Europe. He briefly studied medicine at the University of Vienna, where he met Ilse Klapper, whom he married so that she—a Jewish woman fleeing Nazi Germany—could obtain an American visa. They remained friends, but Ilse divorced Burroughs nine years later, in 1946. Burroughs returned to the United States and Harvard to resume his anthropological studies, which he soon abandoned because of his conviction that academic life is little more than a series of intrigues broken by teas. Although he attempted to use family connections to obtain a position with the Office of Strategic Services, Burroughs was rejected after he deliberately cut off the first joint of his left little finger in a Vincent van Gogh-like attempt to impress a male friend. Moving to New York City, he worked as a bartender and in an advertising agency for a year and underwent psychoanalysis. Burroughs entered the U.S. Army in 1942 as a glider pilot trainee, engineered his discharge for psychological reasons six months later, and then moved to Chicago, where he easily found work as an exterminator and a private detective, among other odd jobs.

In 1943, Burroughs returned to New York City and met Joan Vollmer, a student at Columbia University; they married on January 17, 1945. Because Burroughs’s divorce from Ilse was not yet final, several sources describe Joan as his common-law wife. She introduced Burroughs to...

(The entire section is 980 words.)