Burroughs, William Seward

(1914–1997)
   William S. Burroughs has been absolutely central to the history of Beat literature, and yet his position within the Beat Generation was paradoxical from the outset and has been revised significantly over time.
   In relation to jack kerouac and allen ginsberg, Burroughs came quite literally from another generation (he was a decade older than both of them) as well as from a different social class (haute bourgeois), religious background (WASP), and region of the country (the Midwest). Burroughs turned his back on this establishment identity and was well on the way to becoming an “enemy within” his culture when the three future writers first met in the mid-1940s. Burroughs therefore entered the original Beat scene as the sardonic sophisticate, playing the part of the master and instructing his two jejune apprentices with knowledge of both high culture and the criminal underworld. And then, before the end of the decade, Burroughs had gone—leaving cold-war America to escape his criminalization as a homosexual and drug addict, to begin 25 years of expatriation. While the Beat Generation gathered momentum and attracted media attention at home, Burroughs was writing his first novels in Latin America, North Africa, and the capitals of Europe. By the time he returned in the mid-1970s, Burroughs had established a literary career that bore little obvious relation to Beat history. Unlike Kerouac, whose oeuvres largely had been completed by the end of the 1950s and whose early death sealed his Beat identity, Burroughs had developed his writing in new experimental directions. On the other hand, his body of work and international reputation now played a vital role in legitimizing Beat literature as a category, even if he was typically cast as the sinister third alongside Kerouac and Ginsberg (as in Naked Angels, John Tytell’s pioneering biographical–critical study of the Beat Holy Trinity). As the academic field of Beat Studies developed during the 1980s and 1990s, and as the dominance of the “Major Authors” approach faded, Burroughs’s increasingly anomalous presence gradually made way for neglected writers who were afforded space by new understandings of Beat culture and by revised critical agendas. It is true that Burroughs’s writing of the 1950s does share key outline features with the mainstream of Beat literature. Like the work of Kerouac and Ginsberg, Burroughs used his biography explicitly to give structure and content to his first novels, while his narratives of outlawed desire and drugs dissented radically from social, cultural, and political orthodoxies. More materially, however, Burroughs’s literary identity during that first decade was determined by Kerouac and Ginsberg in two ways central to the history of both Beat literature and Burroughs’s biography.
   Firstly, Burroughs developed as a writer in the 1950s while living outside America, so that he came to depend heavily on his closest friends during the personal crises and writing blocks of that decade. Ginsberg in particular played an essential role, helping to edit Burroughs’s writing and acting zealously as his literary agent to ensure that his works were published. Equally important, Burroughs’s acutely felt isolation abroad forced him to making a vital, even desperate, investment of creative energy in his long-distance correspondence with Ginsberg. After the break-up of the original Beat scene in the late 1940s, letter writing became the chief means for many of these writers to maintain personal and cultural solidarity. The paradox in Burroughs’s case was that, by generating much of his fiction through letter writing, he actually needed the geographic separation to write so that he became most materially involved in Beat literary and personal relations while most physically removed from any Beat context.
   Second, Burroughs’s fellow writers fabricated him as a legendary figure through their fictional portraits. This was part of the larger Beat project of group mythmaking but with a crucial difference. Kerouac in particular created a series of highly ambivalent fantasy images of Burroughs that, in his absence from America, inaugurated the mystique of an underground reputation. From on tHe road, where “Old Bull Lee” (the character based on Burroughs) appears as “something out of an old evil dream,” to vanity of duluoz, where he is called “a shadow hovering over western literature,” Kerouac mythologized Burroughs so seductively that, when his own writing came to be published, it was seen as the product of this already known quasifictional persona. Burroughs’s role in the Beat Generation was to be its shadowy, rather menacing dark genius, all the more alluring for being so ambiguously presented.
   Since the often sensational dramas of Burroughs’s personal life appeared to follow the fantasy role scripted for him, it is no surprise that biographical studies have been mired in mystification ever since. Compounding the difficulties, Burroughs accepted such confusions of fact and fiction for both artistic and philosophical reasons, as well as expedience. His insistence to Conrad Knickerbocker in a 1965 interview for The Paris Review that “there is no accurate description of the creation of a book, or an event” (collected in Burroughs Live: The Collected Interviews of William S. Burroughs 1960-1997), is a radical warning against received wisdom, urging us to doubt not only the official story of his literary history and biography but also the very possibility of a true account. William Seward Burroughs II was born on February 5, 1914, in St. Louis, Missouri. The younger of two sons, he was a child of privilege, modest wealth, and social status, brought up by an oversensitive, doting mother and a rather distant, businessman father. He was also the heir to two upper-middle class families that played significant parts in the modernization of corporate America. His paternal grandfather and namesake was a Northern inventor who, in the late 1880s, perfected the modern adding machine and founded the international company that bore the Burroughs name (although the family connection to the firm was broken in 1929). His mother, Laura Lee, was the daughter of a Southern Methodist minister whose brother, Ivy, also achieved national fame: One of the pioneers of modern public relations, Burroughs’s uncle earned the nickname Poison Ivy for his machinations on behalf of the captains of American industry. The Burroughs–Lee partnership therefore embodied traditions of American capitalism that their son— seemingly a disaffected insider from birth—would spend a literary career working to subvert. Nevertheless, after attending Los Alamos Ranch School for Boys in New Mexico, Burroughs in 1932 entered Harvard University, the proper training ground for a man of his class. On graduation in 1936, however, instead of following the expected career trajectory, Burroughs joined what he called the international queer set on a European tour. In Vienna, he stayed to study medicine and then, flouting his family’s expectations, married Ilse Klapper, a German Jew, so that she could escape the Nazi occupation (they separated on arrival in New York).
   In 1938 Burroughs returned to Harvard to study anthropology and while living there with his boyhood friend, Kells Elvins, made his first mature effort at writing (“Twilight’s Last Gleamings,” a comic sketch that featured the debut of Dr. Benway, later a key character in naked luncH). The following summer, Burroughs moved to Chicago and then in the fall moved back to New York to take anthropology classes at Columbia. In April 1940 Burroughs was forced by his parents—who still supported him with a generous monthly allowance— to begin psychoanalytic treatment after a traumatic episode fictionalized a dozen years later in “The Finger.” This black-humor short story narrates the incident when Burroughs cut off a finger joint in a futile effort to impress a young man. The tale not only reveals the masochistic nature of Burroughs’s sexual desire but, as a template for future “routines” (sardonic, usually comical and dark, sketches), suggests the psychoanalytical basis of his need to write.
   Moving back and forth between Chicago and New York during the early 1940s, Burroughs failed to enter the army because of his psychiatric record, tried his hand at a series of odd jobs—private detective, bug exterminator, bartender—and, as he put it in the prologue to junky “played around the edges of crime”: “It was at this time and under these circumstances that I came in contact with junk.” This is the point in Burroughs’s life where the autobiographical prologue to Junky stops, and it is important to appreciate that, for more than 30 years, this account provided the stencil through which his biography was read. But despite being factually accurate, the gloss it gives is actually very suspect. Equally important, this influential account of Burroughs’s life up to the mid-1940s is perforated by holes, including the largest and most revealing one of all: Like the narrative of Junky itself, there is not a word here about the encounters Burroughs would have next in New York City—encounters that would in turn initiate the Beat Generation.
   It was in spring 1943 that Burroughs joined a Columbia University circle that included Lucien Carr and David Kammerer, two old friends from St. Louis, and it was through Carr that Burroughs met first Ginsberg and then Kerouac. Together they began to form a still larger circle made up of students, street criminals, and would-be artists, including the Times Square hipster, herbert huncke, and two Barnard students, Joan Vollmer Adams and Frankie Edie Parker. The young women turned their 115th Street apartment into a bohemian salon, and, despite his homosexuality, Burroughs struck up an immediate rapport with Joan. Although it was not destined to last long, the original Beat scene was now in place.
   In his role as mentor, Burroughs offered Ginsberg and Kerouac an alternative to the conventional curriculum they received at Columbia. He introduced them to esoteric works of literature, philosophy, historiography, and economics—Céline, Cocteau, Korzybski, Reich, Spengler, Pareto— as well as to street-level experience of criminal subcultures. In summer 1945 Burroughs and Kerouac also had a go at collaborative writing—with “And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks,” based on Carr’s notorious killing in August 1944 of Kammerer after supposedly being sexually assaulted— but unlike his younger friends, Burroughs had no sense of his destiny as a writer, and the effort led nowhere.
   Forced to leave New York in April 1946 for forging a narcotics prescription, Burroughs returned home to St. Louis and then, to be with his old friend Kells Elvins, bought some land near Pharr, Texas. Burroughs might never have returned to New York to resume his relationship with Joan, but when she suffered a breakdown that summer, he did go back to rescue her from Bellevue. Together with Julie, her young daughter from a previous relationship, Burroughs and Joan settled on a 99-acre farm near Houston. When Huncke visited in 1947, he would find a curiously perverse domestic and rural scene, as Burroughs raised crops, built an orgone accumulator (Reich’s invention), and supported an on–off heroin habit. Joan, herself addicted to benzedrine, gave birth to their son, Billy, in July 1947.
   In 1948 Burroughs moved his family to Algiers, across the river from central New Orleans, and in the following January, Kerouac and neal cassady paid a visit that would become a famous episode in the cross-country travels fictionalized in On the Road. But firearms and drugs offenses forced Burroughs to move on again, and before the end of 1949 he had relocated his family to Mexico City. Delighted to have escaped cold-war America, Burroughs enrolled under the G.I. Bill at Mexico City College, explored the local drug and homosexual underworlds, and in early 1950 started to write the book he called “Junk” (first published as Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict in 1953; retitled Junky for the “unexpurgated” edition of 1977). Although Ginsberg would later claim that Burroughs wrote Junky in the course of their longdistance exchange of personal letters, in fact he began it more as an anthropological diary, a firstperson record of his experiences in addict subcultures during the immediate postwar years. When he did start to send material back to America, it was not to Ginsberg but to Kerouac, whose own first novel, The town and tHe city, had been published that March. No doubt inspired by Kerouac’s example, by the end of 1950 Burroughs had a 150-page manuscript, and 18 months later, aided by his enthusiastic agent Ginsberg, his first novel was published by one of the new pulp paperback houses. The text was poorly produced, heavily edited, and did not even appear either under his own name (he used the nom de plume, William Lee) or with his original title, but the fact of publication now confirmed Burroughs’s identity as a writer. Read as fictionalized autobiography, Junky has usually been hailed as one of the original works of Beat literature. However, Burroughs’s failure to represent his fellow Beats makes for a telling contrast to the typical work of Kerouac and Ginsberg and reveals the novel’s general failure to bear the hallmarks of Beat writing. Above all, far from expressing in free-flowing prose an idealistic desire for communal bonds and spiritual values, the world of Junky is cold, solitary, and grimly affectless. Only in the final quarter, set in Mexico and written during 1952, did the narrative thaw significantly. Far from coincidentally, this material overlapped the sequel that Burroughs had just begun, published (after a 30-year delay) as queer.
   But in between the writing of his first two manuscripts came the event that has become the most notorious episode in Burroughs’s biography: the catastrophic evening of September 6, 1951, when he recklessly shot and killed his wife, Joan, during a drunken game of William Tell. (The climax to director Gary Walkow’s film Beat [2000], starring Courtney Love, Keifer Sutherland, Ron Livingston, and Norman Reedus, is based on this infamous episode.) After years of silence or mystification, Burroughs would himself make dramatic claims about the importance of this disaster for his motivation as a writer (see his Introduction to Queer), although critics have, quite rightly, suspected his conclusion.
   Begun in March 1952, Queer shifted to the third-person to fictionalize events during the previous year when Burroughs became infatuated with a young American ex-serviceman from the expatriate bar scene in Mexico City, Lewis Marker. Describing their journey through Central America in pursuit of yagé, a fabled Amazonian hallucinogen, Queer presents the breakdown of that relationship and the traumatic disintegration of both Burroughs’s alter-ego, William Lee, and indeed the narrative itself, for although Queer was begun as an autobiographical sequel to Junky and at first seems to be its natural pair—another unabashed, first-hand report from a demonized minority—in fact they are radically divided from one another. This is principally because the second novel, in which Lee is driven by desire, initiates the dark fantasy mode that Burroughs called the routine.
   Lee’s routines display a visceral black humor charged with not only sexual but with political energies— they allow him to perform his identity as the Ugly American abroad—and the form would shortly become the essential unit of Burroughs’s seminal work, Naked Lunch. Its impact on Queer, however, was to fragment the narrative and make it impossible to complete. The other reason why Burroughs abandoned the manuscript was that Marker had abandoned him—leaving Mexico for Florida—and, as he explained in a letter to Ginsberg, he “wrote Queer for Marker”: “I guess he doesn’t think much of it or of me.” Meanwhile, Burroughs had escaped a prison sentence for the manslaughter of his wife, but he knew it was time to move on again. After leaving their son, Billy, with his parents and following a visit by Kerouac—who worked on doctor sax while Burroughs wrote Queer—Burroughs departed Mexico at the end of 1952. He set out, this time alone, on another quest in search of yagé. From January to July 1953 he traveled from Panama to Peru on this quasi-anthropological mission through the jungles of Latin America, aided by an encounter with the ethnobotanist Dr. Richard Evans Schultes. “In Search of Yage” (published in 1963 as the main part of The yaGe letters) is presented as a series of epistolary field reports from William Lee, and it has been read as a lightly edited sequence of Burroughs’s actual letters to Ginsberg. However, appearances are again deceptive, and it turns out that most of these letters were manufactured afterward from notebooks Burroughs kept on his travels. The fact that, like his second novel, his third would be left unpublished for some years also suggests the difficulty that Burroughs had in maintaining anything resembling a literary career. Burroughs returned to New York in August 1953, staying in Ginsberg’s apartment on the Lower East Side while they worked together on his rough manuscripts. The two men had not seen each other for more than six years, and when Burroughs pressured Ginsberg into an affair, the emotional strain forced Ginsberg to reject his former mentor. In December 1953 Burroughs set out yet again on foreign travels, this time crossing the Atlantic for Tangier.
   The North African port city, which would be his headquarters for the next four years, was then an international zone administered by colonial powers, and it drew Burroughs because of its image as an exotic haven for outcasts. Exploiting his privileged status as an American citizen, Burroughs was indeed able to live freely there as a drug addict and homosexual. He met the writer paul bowles, a longtime resident expatriate, and the painter Brion Gysin, but his chronic heroin addiction isolated him, and he did not befriend either of them at this time.
   Burroughs launched himself on a last-ditch effort to make a successful writing career. His creativity, however, was mostly tied to the long letters he mailed Ginsberg, and this desire-driven epistolary process resulted only in a series of increasingly wild routines. Texts such as “The Talking Asshole,” written in February 1955, while brilliantly inventive and loaded with both sexual and political meaning, could not give Burroughs what he still looked for: a narrative structure. Throughout 1955 he worked on what he now called “Interzone,” trying vainly to reconcile the spontaneous, fragmentary, typically obscene fantasies of his routines with plans for a coherent novel. Ironically—considering the popular myth of its drug-crazed production—it was only when the effort to impose conscious novelistic control failed that Burroughs’s innovative creativity prospered and the book found its final form. Meanwhile, his addiction had reached terminal point, and in spring 1956 Burroughs left for London to take the apomorphine treatment. When he returned to Tangier, cured, Burroughs found that he had also freed himself from his dependence on Ginsberg. In early 1957, Kerouac, Ginsberg, his new lover, Peter Orlovsky, and Alan Ansen all visited Tangier to help type and organize Burroughs’s chaotic manuscripts that now went under the title Naked Lunch. Although Ginsberg pressed for a more autobiographical structure, Burroughs resisted, preferring the less centered form of a collage of materials. In January 1958 Burroughs moved to Paris where he met up again with Ginsberg, Orlovsky, and gregory corso at the so-called Beat Hotel, a Left Bank rendezvous for artists and hipsters. Burroughs continued to work on Naked Lunch, despite rejections by publishers—frightened off by its formal disarray and shocking obscenity—including lawrence ferlinghetti at City Lights (who did later bring out The Yage Letters). After selected episodes caused a censorship controversy when they appeared in The Chicago Review, the book was finally published in Paris by Olympia Press, although it took a legal battle and another six years for it to go on sale in the United States. Inevitably, Naked Lunch became a succès de scandale and an iconic text of the emergent international counterculture. Naked Lunch completed the Beat Holy Trinity’s trio of popular masterpieces—alongside Ginsberg’s “howl” and Kerouac’s On the Road—but its publication also marked a turning point in Burroughs’s relation to the Beat movement. He now allied himself closely with Gysin, and the two men launched a new experimental project based on what they called the cut-up method. Drawing on European avant-garde traditions of chance procedures and collage practices and investing these techniques with scientific, magical, and political ambitions, the new techniques would keep Burroughs and Gysin busy for the next decade. Former comrades like Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Corso were alienated by it, but Burroughs went on to apply the principle across a whole range of media, experimenting with photomontages, tape recorders, scrapbooks, and even films. He produced hundreds of short texts and an extraordinary trilogy of full-length books that were revised several times: The soft macHine (1961; 1966; 1968), The ticket tHat exploded (1962; 1967), and nova express (1964).
   During the 1960s until the early 1970s Burroughs made his home in London, his public profile boosted by an appearance at the Edinburgh Writers conference in 1962 and, the following year, a controversy in the Times Literary Supplement. He was steadily acquiring an international underground reputation, although, after Nova Express, he did not publish another novel until The Wild Boys in 1971. The cut-up project had run its course in London: Burroughs found himself increasingly isolated, drinking heavily, and beset by financial crises. The sale of a huge archive of manuscripts financed his return to New York in early 1974, and, as he turned 60, Burroughs’s long career as an expatriate writer now came to an end.
   Based in New York, Burroughs rapidly acquired a cult reputation for a new generation as he began to move in celebrity avant-garde and punkrock-music circles. With practical and editorial support from a new aide, James Grauerholz, Burroughs saw his first full-length novel for a decade, cities of tHe red niGHt, published in early 1981 to general acclaim. Its success was overshadowed, however, by the death of his son, Billy, from liver failure caused by alcoholism.
   In winter 1981 Burroughs moved with Grauerholz to Lawrence, Kansas, and the small Midwest university town became his permanent home. He now launched a new—and lucrative—career as a visual artist, starting with his “shotgun paintings,” and published the next two novels of his final trilogy, The place of dead roads in 1984 and The western lands three years later. Burroughs also entered into creative collaborations with a host of young innovative artists, filmmakers, and musicians, from Keith Haring to Kurt Cobain, from Gus Van Sant to Tom Waits.
   Just three months after the death of Ginsberg, his lifelong friend, Burroughs died in the Lawrence Memorial Hospital on August 2, 1997. Although a highly contentious figure to the end—his work never mellowed by age—Burroughs not only received major critical attention but also exercised an enormously fertile influence on other writers and artists while leaving behind a unique and indelible cultural presence.
 Bibliography
■ Burroughs, William S. The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1945-1959. Edited by Oliver Harris. New York: Viking, 1993.
■ ——— Burroughs Live: The Collected Interviews of William S. Burroughs 1960-1997. Edited by Sylvère Lotringer. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2001.
■ Harris, Oliver. William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003.
■ Johnson, Rob. The Last Years of William S. Burroughs: Beats in South Texas. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2006.
■ Miles, Barry. William Burroughs, El Hombre Invisible: A Portrait. London: Virgin Books, 1992.
■ Morgan, Ted. Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs. New York: Holt, 1988.
■ Skerl, Jennie. William S. Burroughs. Boston: Twain, 1985.
■ Tytell, John. Naked Angels: The Lives and Literature of the Beat Generation. New York: Grove, 1976.
   Oliver Harris

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Burroughs,William Seward — I. Burroughs1, William Seward. 1855 1898. American inventor who in the early 1890s designed and patented the first practical adding machine.   II. Burroughs2, William Seward. 1914 1997. American writer noted especially for Naked Lunch (1959), a… …   Universalium

  • Burroughs, William Seward — ▪ 1998       American writer (b. Feb. 5, 1914, St. Louis, Mo. d. Aug. 2, 1997, Lawrence, Kan.), was the author of the notorious avant garde novel Naked Lunch (1959). After graduating from Harvard University in 1936, Burroughs moved to New York… …   Universalium

  • William Seward Burroughs — William S. Burroughs William S. Burroughs Activité(s) Écrivain Naissance 5 février 1914 Saint Louis Décès 2 ao …   Wikipédia en Français

  • William Seward Burroughs I — (January 281857 – September 141898) was an American inventor, born in Rochester, New York.Initially a bank clerk, he invented a calculating machine designed to ease the monotony of clerical work. He was a founder of the American Arithmometer… …   Wikipedia

  • William Seward Burroughs — kann sich beziehen auf: William Seward Burroughs I. (1857–1898), Erfinder einer Rechenmaschine und Firmengründer der Burroughs Corporation William S. Burroughs (1914–1997), Schriftsteller und Künstler, Enkel des Erstgenannten William S. Burroughs …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • William Seward Burroughs — may refer to:*William Seward Burroughs I (1857–1898), inventor of adding machine *William S. Burroughs (1914–1997), author and grandson of the above *William S. Burroughs, Jr. (1947–1981), author and son of the above …   Wikipedia

  • William Seward Burroughs — Уильям С. Берроуз William S. Burroughs Имя при рождении: Уильям Сьюард Берроуз II Псевдонимы: Уильям Ли Дата рождения: 5 февраля 1914 Место рождения: Сент Луис, США …   Википедия

  • William Seward Burroughs — n. (1855 1898) USA inventor of the 1st practical adding machine in 1892; William Seward Burroughs (1914 1997), USA author who wrote about the life of drug addicts, grandson of the inventor William Seward Burroughs …   English contemporary dictionary

  • Burroughs, William S. — ▪ American writer in full  William Seward Burroughs  born February 5, 1914, St. Louis, Missouri, U.S. died August 2, 1997, Lawrence, Kansas       American writer of experimental novels that evoke, in deliberately erratic prose, a nightmarish,… …   Universalium

  • William Seward Burroughs — noun 1. United States writer noted for his works portraying the life of drug addicts (1914 1997) • Syn: ↑Burroughs, ↑William Burroughs, ↑William S. Burroughs • Instance Hypernyms: ↑writer, ↑author 2. United States inventor who patented the first… …   Useful english dictionary

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.