William S. Burroughs

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This article is about the novelist. For the inventor, his grandfather, see William Seward Burroughs.


William Seward Burroughs II (February 5, 1914August 2, 1997) was an American novelist, essayist, social critic and spoken word performer. Much of Burroughs' work is semi-autobiographical. He saw all his writing as a single, vast book [1].



Burroughs was born to a prominent family in St. Louis, Missouri. His grandfather, William Seward Burroughs I, founded the Burroughs Adding Machine company, which evolved into the Burroughs Corporation. Burroughs' mother, Laura Hammon Lee (1888-1970), was the daughter of a minister whose family claimed to be related to Robert E. Lee. His father, Mortimer Perry Burroughs ran an antique and gift shop, first in St. Louis, then in Palm Beach, Florida.


Burroughs attended John Burroughs School in St. Louis, Missouri and The Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico. This period, although unexpectedly stressful for him, proved formative. He kept journals documenting an erotic attachment to another boy. These remained undiscovered, and in fact he kept his sexual orientation concealed well into adulthood. He was soon expelled from Los Alamos after taking chloral hydrate in Santa Fe with several fellow students.

He finished high school at Taylor School in St. Louis and, in 1932, left home for an arts degree at Harvard University. This period saw Burroughs' introduction to the gay subculture of New York City. He visited lesbian dives, piano bars, and the Harlem and Greenwich Village homosexual underground with a wealthy friend from Kansas City, Richard Stern. Burroughs, who had a lasting fascination with firearms and techniques of self-defense, nearly killed Stern with a mistakenly loaded revolver in an event that would foreshadow things to come.

Burroughs graduated from Harvard University in 1936. During college and much of his later life he received a monthly allowance from his family, although their fortune was not as large as many people assumed (his family had long since sold the rights to his grandfather's invention and had no share in the Burroughs Corporation). Burroughs stated in an interview that he seldom received the money, and when he did, it was rarely enough to free him of responsibilities.

Europe and graduate school

After leaving Harvard, Burroughs traveled to Europe, which proved another window into Austrian and Hungarian Weimar-Era homosexuality; he picked up boys in steam baths in Vienna, and moved in a circle of exiles, homosexuals, and runaways.

In Austria, Burroughs met Ilse Klapper, a Jewish woman fleeing the country’s Nazi government. The two were never romantically involved, but Burroughs married her in Croatia to allow her to gain a United States visa. She made her way to New York City, and eventually divorced Burroughs, although they remained friends for many years.

Burroughs enrolled as a graduate student of Anthropology at Harvard and later enrolled briefly at Medical School in Vienna, Austria. He was enlisted in the U.S Army in 1941 but was discharged for psychological reasons. In New York, he met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

Joan Vollmer

In 1944, Burroughs began living with Joan Vollmer Adams in an apartment they shared with Kerouac and Edie Parker, Kerouac's first wife. Vollmer Adams was married to a GI with whom she had a young daughter, Julie Adams. Burroughs and Kerouac got into trouble with the law for failing to report a murder. Burroughs began using morphine and quickly became addicted. He eventually sold heroin in Greenwich Village to support his habit.

In 1945, Burroughs and Kerouac collaborated on And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a mystery novel that was left unpublished. Years later, in the documentary, What Happened to Kerouac? Burroughs described it as "not a very distinguished work".

Vollmer also became an addict but her drug of choice was an amphetamine, Benzedrine, which was sold over-the-counter as a decongestant inhalant at that time. Because of her addiction and social circle, her husband immediately divorced her after returning from the war. Vollmer would become Burroughs’ common law wife. Burroughs was arrested for forging a narcotics prescription and was sentenced to return to his parents' care in St. Louis.

He returned to New York, released Vollmer from the psychiatric ward of Bellevue Hospital and moved with her and her daughter to Texas. Vollmer soon became pregnant with Burroughs’ child. Their son, William S. Burroughs Jr. was born in 1947. The family moved briefly to New Orleans in 1948.


He was arrested after police searched his home and found letters between Burroughs and Ginsberg referring to a possible delivery of marijuana. Burroughs fled to Mexico to escape possible detention in Louisiana's Angola state prison. Vollmer and their children followed him. Burroughs planned to stay in Mexico for at least five years, the length of his charge's statute of limitations.

In 1951, Burroughs accidentally shot and killed Vollmer in a drunken game of 'William Tell' at a party above an American-owned bar in Mexico City. He spent 13 days in jail before the killing was ruled accidental. Vollmer’s daughter, Julie Adams went to live with her grandmother, and William S. Burroughs, Jr. went to St. Louis to live with his grandparents.

Burroughs later said that shooting Vollmer was a pivotal event in his life, and one which instigated his writing: "I am forced to the appaling conclusion that I would have never become a writer but for Joan's death...I live with the constant threat of possession, for control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invador, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out."[2]

South America

After Vollmer's death, Burroughs drifted through South America for several months, looking for a drug called Yage, which could supposedly ease opiate addiction. He produced two novels during this time, Junkie, (written with the encouragement of Allen Ginsberg) exploring his heroin addiction, and Queer exploring his homosexuality. He also compiled correspondence with Allen Ginsberg about his search for and experiences with Yage as The Yage Letters. Ace Books published his first novel, Junkie, in 1953 under the pen name William Lee. The Yage Letters and Queer were not published until 1963 and 1985 respectively.


Naked Lunch

Burroughs went to Rome and then to Tangiers, Morocco, and began to write a large body of text that he personally referred to as The Word Hoard, a subset of which would later become Naked Lunch. Under the influence of strong marijuana, Ginsberg and Kerouac helped Burroughs edit these episodes into Naked Lunch. Whereas Junky and Queer were conventional in style, Naked Lunch--although not Burroughs' first foray into the cut-up technique--was his first venture into a non-linear style which shortly thereafter led him into slicing phrases and words up to create new sentences. He was inspired by his friend, Brion Gysin who had been employing the same technique with his paintings. Scenes were slid together with little care for narrative. Perhaps thinking of his crazed medic, Dr Benway, he described Naked Lunch as a book that could be cut into at any point. Although in no sense science fiction, the book does seem to forecast--with eerie prescience--such later phenomena as AIDS, liposuction and the crack epidemic.

Burroughs sold Naked Lunch to Olympia Press publisher Maurice Girodias. After the novel was published in 1959, it became infamous across Europe and was popular within the counterculture of the 1960s. In countries where the book was banned, copies and even printing plates were smuggled across borders. Once published in the United States, Naked Lunch was prosecuted as obscene by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, followed by other states. In fact, the stainless steel dildo in this work, Steely Dan, gave the band its name. In 1966 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declared the work "not obscene" based on criteria developed largely to defend the book. The case against Burroughs's novel still stands as the last obscenity trial against a work of literature prosecuted in the United States.

The trunk of manuscripts known as The Word Hoard that produced Naked Lunch also produced the later works The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1963).

New York City College

In the 1970s he moved to New York City where Ginsberg helped him find work teaching writing at City College of New York . Burroughs also associated with New York cultural players Andy Warhol, John Giorno, Patti Smith, Susan Sontag, Dennis Hopper, Terry Southern, and Mick Jagger.

The 1970s also saw Burroughs join, then leave the Church of Scientology [3]. His subsequent critical writings about the church and his review of a book entitled Inside Scientology by Robert Kaufman led to a battle of letters between Burroughs and Scientology supporters that played out in the pages of Rolling Stone.

By late 1980s, Burroughs had become a counterculture giant and collaborated with performers ranging from Bill Laswell's Material and Laurie Anderson to Throbbing Gristle, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and Ministry, and in Gus Van Sant's 1989 film Drugstore Cowboy, playing a character largely based on himself. In 1990, he released the spoken word album Dead City Radio, with musical back-up from producers Hal Willner and Nelson Lyon, and alternative rock band Sonic Youth. He also collaborated with director Robert Wilson and musician Tom Waits to create The Black Rider, a play which opened at the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg in 1990, to critical acclaim, and was later performed all over Europe and the U.S. He was inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1983


In 1991, with Burroughs’ sanction, director David Cronenberg took on the seemingly impossible task of adapting Naked Lunch into a full-length feature film. The film opened to critical acclaim. Through the 1990s, Burroughs produced spoken word recordings, including collaborations with R.E.M., Kurt Cobain, Sonic Youth and Ministry. Burroughs lived in Lawrence, Kansas through much of his later life. He became a member of the IOT (The Illuminates of Thanateros) in 1993 - a chaos magic organization. He lived with several cats who became significant in his personal mythology, and was watched over by friends and proteges.


Burroughs died in Lawrence, at 6:50 p.m. on August 2, 1997 from complications of the previous day's heart attack. A few months after his death, a collection of writings spanning his entire career, Word Virus, was published. A collection of journal entries written during the final months of Burrough's life were published as the book Last Words.

Literary style

The major body of Burroughs' novels can be divided into three different categories:

The trilogy formed by The Soft Machine, Nova Express and The Ticket That Exploded is sometimes also referred to as "The Nova Trilogy" or "the Nova Epic". The books have been described by Burroughs as an attempt to create "a mythology for the space age".

Apart from these three themes, Burroughs has also produced numerous essays and a large body of autobiographical material, including a book with a detailed account of his own dreams (My Education: A Book of Dreams).

Reaction to critics and view on criticism

Several literary critics treated Burroughs' work harshly. For example Anatole Broyard and Philip Toynbee wrote devastating reviews of some of his most important books. In a short essay entitled A Review of the Reviewers Burroughs answers his critics in this way:


Burroughs clearly indicates that he prefers to be evaluated against such criteria over being reviewed based on the reviewer's personal reactions to a certain book. He specifically criticized Anatole Broyard for reading authorial intentionality into his works where there is none. Thus he distanced himself from the movement around New Criticism, by referring to the old school (as exemplified by Matthew Arnold).


Burroughs is often called one of the greatest and most influential writers of the 20th century, most notably by Norman Mailer whose quote on Burroughs, "The only American novelist living today who may be conceivably be possessed by genius", appears on many Burroughs publications. Others, however, consider him overrated. Others still consider his concepts and attitude more influential than his prose. Prominent admirers of Burroughs' work have included British critic and biographer Peter Ackroyd, and the authors J.G. Ballard, Angela Carter, Jean Genet and Ken Kesey.

Burroughs continues to be named as an influence by contemporary writers of fiction. Both the New Wave and, especially, the cyberpunk schools of science fiction, admirers from the late 1970's, early 1980's milieu of this sub-genre including William Gibson and John Shirley, to name only two. First published in 1982, the British slipstream fiction magazine (which later evolved into a more traditional science fiction magazine) Interzone paid tribute to him with its choice of name.

He is also cited as a major influence by musicians Patti Smith and Pier Nine Brawl. He remains controversial because of his homosexuality, drug use, and the often criticized obscene or misogynistic tone of his works, though it should be noted that Burroughs' ideas about and attitudes towards women gradually became more friendly as he aged. Burroughs was regarded as being extremely intelligent and a generally quiet person.

The themes of drugs, homosexuality and death, common to Burrough's routines, are taken up by Dennis Cooper, of whom Burroughs said, "Dennis Cooper, God help him, is a born writer." Cooper, in return, wrote, in his essay 'King Junk', "along with Jean Genet, John Rechy, and Ginsberg, [Burroughs] helped make homosexuality seem cool and highbrow, providing gay liberation with a delicious edge."

Burroughs' works continue to be referenced years after his death. For example, a November 2004 episode of the TV series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation included an evil character named Dr. Benway (named for an amoral physician who appears in a number of Burroughs' works). This is an echo of the hospital scene in the movie Repo Man, made during Burroughs' lifetime, in which both Dr. Benway and Mr. Lee (a Burroughs pen name) are paged.

The song "Seven Souls" by Material, which features Burroughs, was featured prominently in a 2006 Episode of "The Sopranos" entitled "Members Only."

Burroughs was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame in St. Louis, Missouri.



Non Fiction




Many of Burroughs' works were later republished with revisions made by the author, and/or censored material restored. Both Junkie/Junky and Naked Lunch were published in "restored" editions following Burroughs' death. An expanded edition of Yage Letters entitled Yage Letters Redux was published in April 2006.

Burroughs' son, William S. Burroughs Jr., also wrote two novels: Speed and Kentucky Ham. These books are often erroneously credited to his father.

Recordings and Film Image:WilliamBurroughsCD.jpg

Appearances in Media

Burroughs also participated on numerous album releases by Giorno Poetry Systems, including The Nova Convention and You're the Guy I Want to Spend My Money With (with John Giorno and Laurie Anderson). He was also featured doing a spoken word piece entitled "Sharkey's Night," on the Laurie Anderson album Mister Heartbreak. Burroughs also provided vocal samples for the soundtrack of Anderson's 1986 concert film, Home of the Brave and cameo'd in it. Furthermore, in 1992 he recorded "Quick Fix" with the band Ministry, which appeared on their single for "Just One Fix." The single featured cover art by Burroughs and a remix of the song dubbed the "W.S.B. mix."

Burroughs appeared in a number of cameos in films and videos, such as David Blair's Wax: or the Discovery of Television among the Bees, 1991,in which he plays a beekeeper, in an elliptic story about the first Gulf War, and Decoder (1984) by Klaus Maeck. Rundown at Internet Movie Database. He played an aging junkie priest in Drugstore Cowboy by Gus Van Sant. He also made a number of short films in the 1960s based upon his works, directed by Antony Balch. Near the end of his life, recordings of Burroughs reading his short stories "A Junky's Christmas" and "Ah Pook is Here" were used to great effect on the soundtracks of two highly acclaimed animated film adaptations of the pieces. He also gave a reading on Saturday Night Live on 7 November, 1981.

Burroughs also featured in the 1997 music video Last Night on Earth by U2. He appears at the end of the video pushing a shopping trolley with a large spotlight positioned inside it. The video ends with a close up of Burrough's eyes. Burroughs' scenes were filmed only a few weeks before his death.

In March 2006, an archival recording of Burroughs was played during the opening montage of the first episode of the sixth season of The Sopranos.


  • Grauerholz, James. Word Virus. New York: Grove, 1998.
  • Miles, Barry. William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible, A Portrait, New York: Hyperion, 1992.
  • Morgan, Ted. Literary Outlaw. New York: Avon, 1988.
  • Gilmore, John. Laid Bare: A Memoir of Wrecked Lives and the Hollywod Death Trip. Searching for Rimbaud. Amok Books, 1997.
  • Joe Ambrose, Terry Wilson, Frank Rynne. Man From Nowhere; Storming the Citadels of Enlightenment with William Burroughs and Brion Gysin. 1992

External links


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