Last reviewed: June 2017
American avant-garde writer
February 5, 1914
St. Louis, Missouri
August 2, 1997
After the death of Jack Kerouac in 1969, William Seward Burroughs 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 BA 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. 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. William S. Burroughs.
William S. Burroughs.
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 published 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, LGBT people, and other counterculture figures 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 perhaps the most unusual texture of any major American novel.
After Naked Lunch, under the influence of the Canadian painter Brion Gysin, a frequent collaborator 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 increasingly nightmarish vision of the authority of society, Burroughs produced the trilogy composed of The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express.
By the mid-1960s, Burroughs had settled in London. In the 1970s, Burroughs abandoned the cut-up method to return to his previous tough, realistic style. The Wild Boys and Port of Saints recount the adventures of a group of homosexual warrior packs that spread over Earth, practicing their own tribal customs and speaking their own languages. In 1974, he moved again to New York to teach writing at City College of New York. During this decade, Burroughs also began to write fiction in the form of unproduced film scripts, including The Last Words of Dutch Schultz and Blade Runner (which is unrelated to the 1982 film by Ridley Scott).
Burroughs began his fourth decade as a writer by publishing his only other novel to receive critical acclaim comparable to that accorded Naked Lunch. Cities of the Red Night involves the parallel adventures of a band of homosexual pirates and a private detective named Clem Snide. One of the cities alluded to in the title is plagued by a sexual virus that seems to anticipate the characteristics of acquired immunodefiency syndrome (AIDS). The work was the first in what would become known as the Red Night Trilogy. The second novel in Burroughs’s second trilogy, The Place of Dead Roads, features a homosexual gunslinger named Kim Carsons, modeled after Burroughs himself. The trilogy concludes with The Western Lands, in which the protagonist, Joe the Dead, tries to use his knowledge of evolutionary biology to avoid death.
Burroughs reemerged as a popular icon with Generation X postadolescents who identified with his themes of alienation and his propensity for a lifestyle alternative to that of the mainstream. In the late 1980s, Burroughs moved increasingly toward audio and visual media. He made the spoken word recording Dead City Radio (1990) backed by musicians John Cale and the rock group Sonic Youth. In 1993, he made a spoken word recording backed by Kurt Cobain of the immensely popular band Nirvana. These recordings went virtually unnoticed. In 1994, he appeared in a television commercial advertising Nike shoes. A film adaptation of Naked Lunch was directed by David Cronenberg in 1991. The most accessible visual impression of Burroughs is in the 1989 film Drugstore Cowboy. He died in 1997. Various edited and reissued versions of many of his works would be released posthumously, and his first attempt at writing a novel, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a collaboration with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in 1945, was finally published in 2008.
Many readers, literary critics, and scholars find the work of William Burroughs unreadable, but that has not prevented him from establishing a cult of readers both in the United States and in Europe. His special appeal among younger readers indicates that his vision impresses those with a stake in the future. There is no question that Burroughs treated subjects that most authors—and readers—prefer to ignore. He also treated his life as something of an experiment. The situation was complicated by the circumstance that America has seldom had, and never appreciated, a literary avant-garde. Burroughs was better appreciated in France than in his own country, but no one in the United States doubts that he was a serious writer; he is simply difficult to categorize.