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.”
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.
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.
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.”