William Seward Burroughs II (– ; ) was an American novelist, essayist, social critic, painter and spoken word performer. Much of Burroughs's work is semi-autobiographical, drawn from his experiences as an opiate addict, a condition that marked the last fifty years of his life. A primary member of the Beat Generation, he was an avant-garde author who affected popular culture as well as literature. In 1984, he was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Burroughs attended John Burroughs School in St. Louis where his first published essay, "Personal Magnetism," was printed in the John Burroughs Review in 1929. He then attended The Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico, which was stressful for him. The school was a boarding school for the wealthy, "where the spindly sons of the rich could be transformed into manly specimens." . Burroughs 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 a fellow student.
Burroughs graduated from Harvard University in 1936. According to Ted Morgan's Literary Outlaw,
Burroughs's parents were not overly wealthy; they had sold the rights to his grandfather's invention and had no share in the Burroughs Corporation. Shortly before the 1929 stock market crash Burroughs's parents sold their stock in the Burroughs Corporation for $200,000.
In 1944, Burroughs began living with Joan Vollmer Adams in an apartment they shared with Jack 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. The murder involved Lucien Carr, who had killed David Kammerer in a confrontation over Kammerer's incessant and unwanted advances. During this time, Burroughs began using morphine and quickly became addicted. He eventually sold heroin in Greenwich Village to support his habit.
Vollmer also became an addict, but her drug of choice was Benzedrine, an amphetamine sold over the counter 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 soon arrested for forging a narcotics prescription and was sentenced to return to his parents' care in St. Louis. Vollmer's addiction led to a temporary psychosis, which resulted in her admission to a hospital, and the custody of her child was endangered. Yet after Burroughs completed his "house arrest" 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's child. Their son, William S. Burroughs, Jr., was born in 1947. The family moved briefly to New Orleans in 1948.
Burroughs was arrested after police searched his home and found letters between him and Allen 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. Burroughs also attended classes at Mexico City College in 1950 studying Spanish, "Mexican picture writing". codices, and the Mayan language.
In 1951, Burroughs shot and killed Vollmer in a drunken game of "William Tell" at a party above the American-owned Bounty Bar in Mexico City. He spent 13 days in jail before his brother came to Mexico City and bribed Mexican lawyers and officials, which allowed Burroughs to be released on bail while he awaited trial for the killing, which was ruled culpable homicide. 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 reported every Monday morning to the jail in Mexico City while his prominent Mexican attorney worked to resolve the case. According to James Grauerholz two witnesses had agreed to testify that the gun had gone off accidentally while he was checking to see if it was loaded, and the ballistics experts were bribed to support this story. Nevertheless, the trial was continuously delayed and Burroughs began to write what would eventually become the short novel Queer while awaiting his trial. However, when his attorney fled Mexico after his own legal problems involving a car accident and altercation with the son of a government official, Burroughs decided, according to Ted Morgan, to "skip" and return to the United States. He was convicted in absentia of homicide and sentenced to two years, which was suspended.
I am forced to the appalling 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 [sic], the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.Yet he had begun to write in 1945. Burroughs and Kerouac collaborated on And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a mystery novel loosely based on the Carr/Kammerer situation that was left unpublished. Years later, in the documentary What Happened to Kerouac?, Burroughs described it as "not a very distinguished work." An excerpt of this work, in which Burroughs and Kerouac wrote alternating chapters, was finally published in Word Virus, a compendium of William Burroughs's writing that was published after his death in 1997.
Before Vollmer died, Burroughs had largely completed his first two novels in Mexico, although Queer would not be published until 1985. His first novel was adapted from letters he originally wrote to Ginsberg who encouraged him to think of writing a novel. Junkie was written at the urging of Allen Ginsberg, who was instrumental in getting the work published, even as a cheap mass market paperback. Ace Books published the novel in 1953 as part of an Ace Double under the pen name William Lee, retitling it Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict. (it was later republished as Junkie or Junky). After Vollmer's death, Burroughs drifted through South America for several months, looking for a drug called Yage, which promised the user an ability for telepathy. A book resulted from this time, The Yage Letters, published in 1963 by San Francisco's City Lights Books which comprised the letters between Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg.
During 1953, Burroughs was at loose ends. Due to legal problems, he was unable to live in the cities towards which he was most inclined. He spent time with his parents in Palm Beach, Florida, and New York City with Allen Ginsberg. When Ginsberg refused his romantic advances, Burroughs went to Rome to meet Alan Ansen on a vacation financed from his parents' continuing support. When he found Rome and Ansen’s company dreary, inspired by Paul Bowles' fiction, he decided to head for Tangier, Morocco. In a home owned by a known procurer of homosexual prostitutes for visiting American and English men, he rented a room and began to write a large body of text that he personally referred to as Interzone. Burroughs lived in Tangier for several months, before returning to the United States where he suffered several personal indignities - Ginsberg was in California and refused to see him, A. A. Wyn, the publisher of Junkie, was not forthcoming with his royalties and his parents were threatening to cut off his allowance. All signs pointed him back to Tangier, a place where his parents would have to continue the support and one where drugs were freely available. He left in November 1954 and spent the next four years there working on the fiction that would later become Naked Lunch, as well as attempting to write commercial articles about Tangier. He sent these writings to Ginsberg, his literary agent for Junkie, but none were published until 1989 when Interzone, a collection of short stories, was published. Under the strong influence of a marijuana confection known as majoun and a German-made opioid called Eukodol (oxycodone), Burroughs settled in to write. Eventually, Ginsberg and Kerouac, who had traveled to Tangier in 1957, helped Burroughs edit these episodes into Naked Lunch.
Whereas Junkie and Queer were conventional in style, Naked Lunch was his first venture into a non-linear style. At around the time he was composing Naked Lunch, Burroughs was also exposed to Brion Gysin's cut-up technique at the Beat Hotel in Paris in September 1959, he began slicing up phrases and words to create new sentences. At the Beat Hotel Burroughs discovered "a port of entry" into Gysin's canvases: "I don't think I had ever seen painting until I saw the painting of Brion Gysin. The two would cultivate a long-term friendship that revolved around a mutual interest in artworks and cut-up techniques. Scenes were slid together with little care for narrative. Perhaps thinking of his crazed physician, Dr Benway, he described Naked Lunch as a book that could be cut into at any point. Although not science fiction, the book does seem to forecast — with eerie prescience — such later phenomena as AIDS, liposuction, autoerotic fatalities and the crack pandemic.
Burroughs's 'Interzone' could be seen as a metaphorical stateless city, but the term probably was derived from the "International Zone" in Tangier, a city occupied after World War II by French, English, Spanish, and American expatriate communities, each with its own courts and administration. During this time in its history, Tangier was an international refuge for criminals, artists, drug smugglers and tax-evading tycoons. It was not an exaggeration to say everything could be had for a price. When in Tangier, Burroughs's son Billy, now a teenager, came to live with him at the insistence of his parents. It was Burroughs's lover, Ian Sommerville, who recognized that the boy was homesick and urged Burroughs to send him back to the U.S. and the surroundings he had grown up in. After several months with his father, Billy returned to Palm Beach to live with his grandparents again.
Excerpts from Naked Lunch were first published in the United States in 1958. The novel was initially rejected by City Lights Books, the publisher of Ginsberg's Howl, and Olympia Press publisher Maurice Girodias, who had published English language novels in France that were controversial for their subjective views of sex and anti-social characters. But Allen Ginsberg worked to get excerpts published in Black Mountain Review and Chicago Review in 1958. Irving Rosenthal, student editor of Chicago Review, a quarterly journal partially subsidized by the university, promised to publish more excerpts from Naked Lunch, but he was fired from his position in 1958 after Chicago Daily News columnist Jack Mabley (1915-2006) called the first excerpt obscene. Rosenthal went on to publish more in his newly created literary journal Big Table No. 1; however, these copies elicited such contempt, the editors were accused of sending obscene material through the United States Mail by the United States Postmaster General, who ruled that copies could not be mailed to subscribers. This controversy made Naked Lunch interesting to Maurice Girodias again, and he published the novel in 1959. After the novel was published, it slowly became notorious across Europe and the United States, garnering interest from not just members of the counterculture of the 1960s, but literary critics such as Mary McCarthy. Once published in the United States, Naked Lunch was prosecuted as obscene by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, followed by other states. In 1966 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declared the work "not obscene" on the basis of 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 — that is, a work consisting of words only, and not including illustrations or photographs — prosecuted in the United States.
The manuscripts that produced Naked Lunch also produced the later works The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1963). These novels feature extensive use of the cut-up technique, which influenced all of Burroughs subsequent fiction to a degree. During his friendship and artistic collaborations with Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville the technique was combined with images, Gysin's paintings, and sound, via Somerville's tape recorders. Burroughs was so dedicated to the cut-up method that he often defended his use of the technique before editors and publishers, most notably Dick Seaver at Grove Press in the 1960s and Holt, Rinehart & Winston in the 1980s. The cut-up method, because of its seemingly random or mechanical basis for text generation, combined with the possibilities of mixing in text written by other writers without descending to plagiarism, to some extent de-emphasizes the traditional role of the writer as creator or originator of a string of words, while simultaneously exalting the importance of the writer's sensibility as an editor. In this sense the cut-up method may be considered as analogous to the collage method in the visual art.
The 'Beat Hotel' was a typical European style rooming house hotel, with common toilets on every floor, and a small place for personal cooking in the room. Life there was documented by the photographer Harold Chapman, who lived in the attic room. This shabby, inexpensive hotel was populated by Gregory Corso, Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky for several months after Naked Lunch first appeared. The actual process of publication was partly a function of its 'cut-up' presentation to the printer. Girodias had given Burroughs only ten days to prepare the manuscript for print galleys, and Burroughs sent over the manuscript in pieces, preparing the parts in no particular order. When it was published in this authentically ‘random’ manner, Burroughs liked it better than the initial plan. International rights to the work were sold soon after, and Burroughs used the $3,000 advance from Grove Press to buy drugs. Naked Lunch was featured in a 1959 Life magazine cover story, partly as an article that highlighted the growing Beat literary movement.
Burroughs supported himself and his addiction by publishing pieces in small literary presses. His avant garde reputation grew internationally as the hippie counterculture discovered his earlier works. He developed a close friendship with Anthony Balch and lived with a young hustler named John Brady who continuously brought home young women despite Burroughs' protestations. In the midst of this personal turmoil, Burroughs managed to complete two works: a novel written in screen play format, The Last Words of Dutch Schulz (1969); and the traditional prose-format novel The Wild Boys (1971).
In the 1960s Burroughs also joined and left the Church of Scientology. In talking about the experience, he claimed that the techniques and philosophy of Scientology helped him and that he felt that further study into Scientology would produce great results. However, he was skeptical of the organization itself, and felt that it fostered an environment that did not accept critical discussion. His subsequent critical writings about the church and his review of Inside Scientology by Robert Kaufman led to a battle of letters between Burroughs and Scientology supporters in the pages of Rolling Stone magazine.
Organized by Columbia professor Sylvère Lotringer, Giorno, and Grauerholz, the Nova Convention was a multimedia retrospective of Burroughs's work held from 30 November to 2 December 1978 at various locations throughout New York. The event included readings from Southern, Ginsberg, Smith, and Frank Zappa (who filled in at the last minute for Keith Richards, then entangled in a legal problem) in addition to panel discussions with Timothy Leary & Robert Anton Wilson and concerts featuring The B-52s, Suicide, Philip Glass, and Debbie Harry & Chris Stein.
In 1976, Billy Burroughs was eating dinner with his father and Allen Ginsberg in Boulder, Colorado at Ginsberg’s Buddhist poetry school (Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics) at Chogyam Trungpa's Naropa University when he began to vomit blood. Burroughs senior had not seen his son for over a year and was alarmed at his appearance when Billy arrived at Ginsberg’s apartment. Although Billy had successfully published two short novels in the 1970s, and was deemed by literary critics like Ann Charters as a bona fide "second generation beat writer", his brief marriage to a teenage waitress had disintegrated. Under his constant drinking, there were long periods where Billy was out of contact with any of his family or friends. The diagnosis was liver cirrhosis so complete the only treatment was a rarely performed liver transplant operation. Fortunately, the University of Colorado Medical Center was one of two places in the nation that performed transplants under the pioneering work of Dr. Thomas Starzl. Billy underwent the procedure and beat the thirty percent survival odds. His father spent many months in 1976 and 1977 in Colorado, helping Billy through many additional surgeries and complications. Ted Morgan’s biography asserts that their relationship was not spontaneous and lacked real warmth or intimacy. Allen Ginsberg was supportive to both Burroughs and his son throughout the long period of recovery.
In London, he had begun to write what would become the first novel of a three book trilogy. Between 1981 and 1987 he published Cities of the Red Night (1981), The Place of Dead Roads (1983) and The Western Lands (1987). Grauerholz helped edit Cities when it was first rejected by Burroughs’ long-time editor Dick Seaver at Holt Rinehart, after it was deemed too disjointed. The novel was written as a straight narrative and then chopped up into a more random pattern leaving the reader to sort through the characters and events. This technique was definitely different than earlier cut-up methods which were organically accidental from the start. Nevertheless, the novel was reassembled and published, still without a straight linear form, but with fewer breaks in the story. The back and forth sway of the read replicated the theme of the trilogy, time travel adventures where Burroughs’ narrators re-write episodes in history and thus reform mankind. Reviews were mixed for Cities. Novelist and critic Anthony Burgess panned the work in Saturday Review saying Burroughs was boring readers with repetitive episodes of pederast fantasy and sexual strangulation that lacked any comprehensible world view or theology, but other writers, like J. G. Ballard argued Burroughs was shaping a new literary "mythography".
In 1981, Billy Burroughs died in Florida. He had cut off contact with his father several years before, even publishing an article in Esquire magazine claiming the author had poisoned his life and revealing that he had been molested by one of his father's friends as a fourteen year old while visiting his dad in Tangier, something that he had previously kept to himself. The liver transplant had not cured his urge to drink and Billy suffered from serious health complications years after the operation. He had stopped taking his transplant rejection drugs, and was found near the side of a Florida highway by a stranger. He died shortly afterwards. Burroughs was in New York when he heard from Allen Ginsberg of the tragedy. Burroughs himself, by 1979, was once again addicted to heroin. The cheap heroin that was easily purchased outside his door in the Lower East Side "made its way" into his veins, coupled with "gifts" from the overzealous if well-intentioned admirers who frequently visited the Bunker. Although Burroughs would have episodes of being free from heroin, from this point until his death, he was regularly addicted to the drug; he died in 1997 on a methadone maintenance program and James Grauerholz mentioned in an introduction to Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs that it was part of his job, while managing Burroughs reading tours in the 80s and 90s, to deal with the “underworld” in each city to secure the author’s needed drugs.
By late 1980s, Burroughs had become a counterculture figure 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 based on a short story he published in Exterminator!, "the "Priest" they called him". 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. A collaboration with musicians Nick Cave and Tom Waits resulted in a collection of short prose, Smack my Crack, later released as a spoken word album in 1987. He also collaborated with Tom Waits and director Robert Wilson 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. In 1991, with Burroughs's 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. He became a member of a chaos magic organization, the Illuminates of Thanateros in 1993, a group whose very existence would not have been possible without Burroughs's works.
During his later years in Kansas, Burroughs also developed a painting technique whereby he created abstract compositions by placing spray paint cans in front of, and some distance from, blank canvasses, and then shooting at the paint cans with a shot gun. These splattered canvasses were shown in at least one New York City gallery in the early 1990s.
Burroughs's final filmed performance was in the video for "Last Night on Earth" by Irish rock band U2, filmed in Kansas City, Missouri, directed by Richie Smyth and also featuring Sophie Dahl.
In March 2008, Penguin Books announced that the Kerouac/Burroughs manuscript, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks will be published for the first time in November 2008. Previously, a fragment of the manuscript had been published in the compendium, Word Virus.
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).
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 continues to be named as an influence by contemporary writers of fiction. Both the New Wave and, especially, the cyberpunk schools of science fiction are indebted to him, admirers from the late 1970s, early 1980s 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, Genesis P-Orridge, Ian Curtis, Laurie Anderson, and Kurt Cobain.
The themes of drugs, homosexuality and death, common to Burroughs'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." Splatterpunk writer Poppy Z. Brite has also continuously referenced this aspect of Burroughs's work. Burroughs's 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's works). This is an echo of the hospital scene in the movie Repo Man, made during Burroughs's lifetime, in which both Dr. Benway and Mr. Lee (a Burroughs pen name) are paged.
In 1990, Island Records released Dead City Radio, a collection of readings by Burroughs set to a broad range of musical compositions. It was produced by Hal Willner and Nelson Lyon, with musical accompaniment from John Cale, Donald Fagen, Lenny Pickett, Chris Stein, and Sonic Youth, among others. The remastered edition of Sonic Youth's 1990 album Goo features an instrumental piece entitled "Dr. Benway's House," which had appeared, in a shorter version, on Dead City Radio.
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 also made an appearance in the video for "Just One Fix."
Burroughs and Kurt Cobain collaborated on a CD entitled The Priest They Called Him, in which Burroughs does a spoken word performance of the short story of the same name, while Cobain creates layers of guitar feedback and distortions. Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic is featured on the cover as the titular "Priest."
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 cart with a large spotlight positioned inside it. The video ends with a close up of Burroughs's eyes. His scenes were filmed only a few weeks before his death.
Burroughs made cameo appearances in a number of films and videos, such as David Blair's Wax: or the Discovery of Television among the Bees, in which he plays a beekeeper, in an elliptic story about the first Gulf War, and Decoder by Klaus Maeck. He played an aging junkie priest in Drugstore Cowboy by Gus Van Sant. He appears briefly at the beginning of "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" (based on the Tom Robbins novel, also directed by Gus Van Sant) in which he is seen crossing a city street; as the noise of the city rises around him he pauses in the middle of the intersection and speaks the single word "ominous". He also made a number of short films in the 1960s based upon his works, directed by Anthony 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, in an episode hosted by Lauren Hutton. A documentary titled "Burroughs", directed by Howard Brookner, was released in 1984. It included footage of Burroughs and many of his friends and colleagues.
Played Opium Jones in the 1966 film Chappaqua, written and directed by Conrad Rooks, with cameo roles from other Beat poets, Allen Ginsberg and Moondog. In 1968, an abbreviated version of the film Häxan (77 minutes as opposed to the original's 104 minutes) was released subtitled Witchcraft Through The Ages. This version featured an eclectic jazz score by Jean-Luc Ponty and dramatic narration by William S. Burroughs, produced by Anthony Balch. Burroughs narrated part of the 1980 documentary Shamans of the Blind Country by anthropologist and filmmaker Michael Oppitz. The short film "Thanksgiving prayer" by Gus Van Sant is a reading of the poem "Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28, 1986" from Tornado Alley. It features a collage of black and white images intercut with Burroughs reading the poem. The video was played on MTV Europe, mostly during the nighttime.
Burroughs appears in the first part of The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson during the 1968 Democratic Convention riots and is described as a person devoid of anger, passion, indignation or hope or any other humanly recognizable emotion. He is presented as a polar opposite of Allen Ginsberg, as Ginsberg believed in everything and Burroughs believed in nothing. Robert Anton Wilson would recount in his Cosmic Trigger Vol II his having interviewed both Burroughs and Ginsberg for Playboy the day the riots began as well as his experiences with Robert Shea during the riots, providing some detail on the creation of the fictional sequence.