Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1104
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 from 1955 to 1958. In 1959, he moved to Paris.
Burroughs’s reputation as the most innovative, extreme, and bizarre of the postwar American novelists rests upon his third novel, Naked Lunch, which was published first in France in 1959. Grove Press published it in the United States in 1962 after a protracted legal battle that ended in the Massachusetts supreme court. That censorship trial was the last large-scale legal proceeding over a work of literature in the United States in the twentieth century. The book presents a surrealistic version of the addict’s life, including some of the same details presented realistically in Junkie, but here Burroughs added a mixture of science fiction, explicit sadomasochism, and grotesque “routines” based on vaudeville comedy to create the most unusual texture of any recent American novel.
After Naked Lunch , under the influence of the Canadian painter Brion Gysin, Burroughs began to employ Gysin’s “cut-up” method of writing, in which a text is cut to pieces with scissors and rearranged. Using this method, but continuing to focus on the same themes of homosexuality, drug addiction, and an...
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