William S. Burroughs Burroughs, William S. (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

William S. Burroughs 1914-1997

(Born William Seward Burroughs, also wrote under the pseudonyms William Lee and Willy Lee) American novelist, poet, short story writer, and nonfiction writer.

An innovative and controversial author, Burroughs is best known for Naked Lunch (1959), an amalgam of dream-like vignettes that often depict drug use, extravagant violence, and bizarre sex. This book, which is usually categorized as a novel for lack of a more accurate description of its literary genre, was the subject of a court trial to determine whether it could be designated as obscene. After three years, it was pronounced by the court to be a work of literature not subject to obscenity prohibitions, and the trial was the last of its kind to be held in the United States. Intended, according to Burroughs, to be “necessarily brutal, obscene, and disgusting,” Naked Lunch, as well as much of the author's subsequent fiction, uses addiction as a metaphor for the human condition, presenting a wide-ranging vision in which all of humanity is addicted to some form of illusory gratification. As Burroughs stated, his major concern throughout his work was “with addiction itself (whether to drugs, or sex, or money, or power) as a model of control, and with the ultimate decadence of humanity's biological potentials.”

Biographical Information

Burroughs was the grandson of the industrialist who modernized the adding machine and the son of a woman who claimed descent from the Civil War general Robert E. Lee. In 1936 he received his bachelor's degree in English from Harvard University. After studying medicine in Europe for a brief time, Burroughs returned to the United States and, while living in New York City, began to use morphine. During the 1950s, Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac became the central figures of what came to be called the Beat Movement, a loosely associated group of writers in New York and San Francisco whose works expressed their rejection of American social and literary conventions. Burroughs's addiction to narcotics, his unsuccessful attempts to find a cure for his drug habit, and his emigration to Mexico to elude legal authorities are recounted in his first book, Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict (1953). Another autobiographical work written during this period is Queer, which was not published until 1985, and which focuses on Burroughs homosexuality. According to Burroughs, this book was “motivated and formulated” by his accidental shooting of his wife, an incident that resulted in her death. In the wake of a police inquiry that declared him not culpable in the death. Burroughs left Mexico to travel to South America in pursuit of the legendary hallucinogen yage. This venture is documented in his correspondence with Allen Ginsberg collected in The Yage Letters (1963) and Letters to Allen Ginsberg, 1953-1957 (1982). Burroughs subsequently lived in Tangiers, Morocco, where much of Naked Lunch was written; London, where he underwent treatment for his drug addiction using the newly synthesized drug apomorphine; and Paris, where he lived at the “Beat Hotel” along with other American expatriate writers. Returning to the United States in the early 1960s, Burroughs found that he had attained a degree of celebrity that steadily increased until his death in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1997.

Major Works

A disjointed sequence of what Burroughs called “routines,” Naked Lunch has been variously perceived by commentators a an allegory satirizing the repressiveness of American society, an autobiographical account of Burroughs's life as a drug addict and homosexual, and an experiment in literary form as exemplified by its attack upon language as an instrument of social and political control. Consisting of elements from diverse genres, including the detective novel and science fiction, Naked Lunch depicts a blackly comic world dominated by sinister, cartoonish characters, most memorably Dr. Benway, who uses grotesque surgical and chemical procedures to “cure” his patients. Escape from what Burroughs viewed as the imprisoning concepts of time and space is a dominant theme in this work and in Burroughs's later fiction. Unused writings from Naked Lunch were employed in the trilogy of works that followed: The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1964). In these works Burroughs, influenced by artist Brion Gysin, employed his “cut-up” and “fold-in” techniques, in which he used portions of his own writings, as well as the writings of other authors, and literally cut or folded the pages of these works, then randomly typed them into a continuous, though frequently incomprehensible, manuscript. The purpose of this method was to create new meanings and associations that could not be attained by following the strictures of rationality inherent in language and in literary forms of the past. Despite the largely delirious nature of the texts resulting from this approach, there nonetheless emerged in this trilogy definite themes that conveyed Burroughs's ideas concerning addiction of all varieties—especially those relating to chemicals, sex, and power—as a means by which the thought and behavior of human beings are manipulated by inhuman or nonhuman forces. In Burroughs's fiction of the 1970s, he mostly abandoned his radical experimental techniques and returned to a more conventional, albeit highly idiosyncratic, style of narrative in which he continued to develop his now signature themes of escape from repressive authority and the pursuit of individual freedom. The works of this period include The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead (1971), Exterminator! (1973), and Port of Saints (1973). During the 1980s Burroughs produced his last major works in a trilogy of novels comprised of Cities of the Red Night (1981), The Place of Dead Roads (1983), and The Western Lands (1987). In these novels Burroughs employed elements of the detective novel, Western fiction, and Egyptian mythology to delineate a world in which his characters seek out utopian ideals of liberation from social norms while revolting against nightmarish realities that would thwart the realization of such ideals.

Critical Reception

Naked Lunch was first published in France and aroused heated critical debate in the United States and England even before it was made widely available to an English-speaking audience. While some reviewers denounced the book on moral grounds, condemning its graphic descriptions of drug use, murder, and sadomasochistic homosexual acts, such writers as Mary McCarthy, Allen Ginsberg, and Norman Mailer lauded it as a masterpiece notable for its dramatic break with past literary forms and for its daring subject matter. Nevertheless, neither Naked Lunch nor any of the other works that Burroughs produced throughout a long and prolific career ever gained full acceptance by the literary establishment. Instead, Burroughs's importance and influence have been restricted to later generations of young experimental writers, science fiction novelists, and popular musicians who identify with his rebellious spirit and lifelong interest in new ways of living, thinking, and creating works of art. As James McManus has observed of Burroughs: “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 anyone else. And his influence on gay literature is immeasurable.”

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict (novel) 1953

Naked Lunch (novel) 1959

Minutes to Go [with Brion Gysin, Sinclair Beiles, and Gregory Corso] (poems) 1960

The Soft Machine (novel) 1961

The Ticket That Exploded (novel) 1962

The Yage Letters (letters) 1963

Nova Express (novel) 1964

Time (poems) 1965

The Job: Interviews with William 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

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

Letters to Allen Ginsberg, 1953-1957 (letters) 1982

The Place of Dead Roads (novel) 1983

The Burroughs File (prose and diaries) 1984

The Adding Machine: Collected Essays (essays) 1985

*Queer (novel) 1985

The Western Lands (novel) 1987

Interzone (nonfiction, short stories, and prose) 1989

Ghost of a Chance (novella) 1991

The Cat Inside (journal) 1992

The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1945-1959 (letters) 1993

My Education: A Book of Dreams (autobiography) 1995

Last Words (journal) 2000

*This work was originally written in 1953.

Thomas Parkinson (essay date 1980)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Parkinson, Thomas. “Critical Approaches to William Burroughs, or How to Admit an Admiration for a Good Book.” In Poets, Poems, Movements, pp. 313-20. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1980.

[In the following essay, Parkinson provides an appreciation of Naked Lunch.]

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....

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Neal Oxenhandler (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Oxenhandler, Neal. “Listening to Burroughs's Voice.” In William S. Burroughs at the Front: Critical Reception, 1959-1989, edited by Jennie Skerl and Robin Lydenberg, pp. 133-47. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1981.

[In the following essay, Oxenhandler examines Burroughs's poetic voice.]

The artist's privilege is to liberate himself from his personal obsessions by incorporating them into the fabric of life, by blending them so thoroughly with other objects that we too are forced to become aware of them, so that he is no longer alone, shut up with his anguish in a horrible tête-à-tête.


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Jennie Skerl (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Skerl, Jennie. “A Mythology for the Space Age.” In William S. Burroughs at the Front: Critical Reception, 1959-1989, pp. 48-74. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Skerl discusses common elements in Burroughs's novels from Junkie to Nova Express.]

In the writing of Naked Lunch, Burroughs discovered the style that best conveyed his vision, and its publication released a great deal of creative energy. In quick succession thereafter, Burroughs produced three important novels: The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express (published in 1961, 1962, and 1964,...

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Robin Lydenberg (essay date 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lydenberg, Robin. “Sound Identity Fading Out: William Burroughs's Tape Experiments.” In Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde, edited by Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead, pp. 409-37. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Lydenberg analyzes Burroughs's literary voice as it is expressed on his experimental tape recordings.]

Most writers don't use their voices in their work. … But Burroughs writes with his voice. … One cannot simply read his texts; one must, in reading them, also hear them. It is necessary to throw oneself into the voice.

—Philippe Mikriammos,...

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Steven Shaviro (essay date 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Shaviro, Steven. “Two Lessons from Burroughs.” In Posthuman Bodies, edited by Judith Halberstam and Ira Livingston, pp. 38-54. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Shaviro explores Burroughs's place in the “landscape of postmodern biology.”]

Seattle, 1993. Don't believe the hype. I find myself stranded in this obsessively health-minded, puritanical, routinized, and relentlessly cheerful city, lifelines cut, lost without my vital supply of counteracting stimulants. Yes, some of the bands are still great, despite the insidious pressures of fame: Nirvana, Mudhoney, Seven-Year Bitch. But otherwise, nothing. I strain to hear...

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Edward J. Ahearn (essay date 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ahearn, Edward J. “The Sordid Sublime: Burroughs's Naked Lunch.” In Visionary Fictions: Apocalyptic Writing from Blake to the Modern Age, pp. 117-35. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Ahearn places Burroughs in the tradition of apocalyptic writing that includes William Blake and Lautréamont.]

Aragon and Breton reveal much about the visionary impulse in the twentieth-century setting. The notion(s) of the surreal itself, passionate and controversial stances on love, insanity, and history, premonitions of decentered écriture, have a relevance beyond the subsequent manifestations of French literature. This is the...

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Dennis A. Foster (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Foster, Dennis A. “Fatal West: W. S. Burroughs's Perverse Destiny.” In Sublime Enjoyment: On the Perverse Motive in American Literature, pp. 130-52. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Foster examines Burroughs's rejection of the values of Western civilization.]

Shortly before the suicide of Kurt Cobain, lead singer for the group Nirvana, I heard a cultural commentator say that if you find a kid who listens to Cobain and reads W. S. Burroughs, chances are he also uses heroin. A recent television advertisement for workout shoes featured Burroughs extolling the virtues of technology, his familiar image (black suit and hat,...

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Timothy S. Murphy (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Murphy, Timothy S. “No Final Glossary: Fugitive Words in Junky and Queer.” In Wising Up the Mark: The Amodern William Burroughs, pp. 46-66. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Murphy argues that Queer and Junkie contain no “abstract structure of rules,” such as linguistic rules, and that the only approach to understanding these texts is by following their textual “cartography.”]

“I awoke from The Sickness at the age of forty-five, calm and sane, and in reasonably good health except for a weakened liver and the look of borrowed flesh common to all who survive The Sickness” (Naked...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Goodman, Michael. William S. Burroughs: An Annotated Bibliography of His Works and Criticism. New York: Garland Publishing, 1975, 96 p.

Comprehensive primary and secondary bibliography to 1974.


Acker, Kathy. “William Burroughs's Realism.” In Bodies of Work, pp. 1-5. London: Serpent's Tail, 1997.

Observes that in his novels, “Burroughs saw the society around him so clearly, he announced the future. Writing that seemed radical when it appeared today looks like journalism. In other words: today in the United States, we are living in the worlds of Burroughs's...

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