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."