William Seward Burroughs II, born Feb. 5, 1914 in St. Louis, Missouri, died Aug. 2, 1997 in Lawrence, Kansas, more commonly known as William S. Burroughs, was an American novelist, essayist, social critic, painter and spoken word performer.
Much of Burroughs' work is semi-autobiographical, drawn from his experiences as an opiate addict, a condition that marked the last fifty years of his life. He was a primary member of the Beat Generation, 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.
Early life and education
Burroughs was born in 1914, the younger of two sons of 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, Cobblestone Gardens, first in St. Louis, then in Palm Beach, Florida.
Burroughs attended John Burroughs School in St. Louis where his first published essay, "Personal Magnetism," was published 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.
He finished high school at Taylor School in St. Louis and, in 1932, left home to pursue an arts degree at Harvard University. During the summers, he worked as a cub reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, even covering the police docket. He disliked the work, and refused to cover some events like the death of a drowned child. He lost his virginity in an East St. Louis whore house that summer with a female prostitute he regularly patronized. Back at Harvard, Burroughs was introduced 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. They would drive from Boston to New York in a reckless fashion. Once, Stern scared Burroughs so much, he asked that he be let out of the vehicle. Burroughs graduated from Harvard University in 1936. According to Ted Morgan's Literary Outlaw,
His parents, upon his graduation, had decided to give him a monthly allowance of $200 out of their earnings from Cobblestone Gardens, a tidy sum in those days. It was enough to keep him going, and indeed it guaranteed his survival for the next twenty-five years, arriving with welcome regularity. The allowance was a ticket to freedom; it allowed him to live where he wanted to and to forgo employment. However, Burroughs's parents never had a great fortune; they had sold the rights to his grandfather's invention and had no share in the Burroughs Corporation.
After leaving Harvard, Burroughs' formal education ended, except for brief flirtations as a graduate student of anthropology at Harvard and as a medical student in Vienna, Austria. He traveled to Europe, which proved a 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. There, he met Ilse Klapper, a Jewish woman fleeing the country's Nazi government. The two were never romantically involved, but Burroughs married her, against the wishes of his parents, 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." After returning to the U.S., he held a string of uninteresting jobs. In 1939, his emotional health became a concern to his parents, especially after he deliberately severed the last joint of his left little finger to impress a man he was infatuated with. This event made its way into his early fiction as the short story "The Finger".
Beginning of The Beats
Burroughs enlisted in the U.S. Army early in 1942, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into World War II. But when he was classified as a 1-A Infantry, not an officer, he became dejected. His mother recognized her son's depression and got Burroughs a civilian disability discharge — a release from duty based on the premise he should have not been allowed to enlist due to previous mental instability. After being evaluated by a family friend, who was also a neurologist at a psychiatric treatment center, Burroughs waited five months in limbo at Jefferson Barracks outside St. Louis before being discharged. During that time he met a Chicago soldier also awaiting release, and once Burroughs was free, he moved to Chicago and held a variety of jobs, including one as an exterminator. When two of his friends from St. Louis, Lucien Carr, a University of Chicago student, and David Kammerer, Carr's homosexual admirer, left for New York City, Burroughs followed.
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 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 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 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' 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 the Mexico City College in 1950 in Spanish,"Mexican picture writing" and 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 distributed funds to 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 to start. 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.
Birth of a writer
Burroughs later said that shooting Vollmer was a pivotal event in his life, and one which instigated his writing:
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' 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 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 novel resulted from this time, The Yage Letters, published in 1963 by San Francisco's City Lights Books comprising 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 advance, Burroughs went to Rome to meet Alan Ansen on a vacation financed by 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. He 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 marijuana and a German-made opiate 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 which led him into slicing phrases and words up to create new sentences. In Tangier, he met Brion Gysin, a Swiss-Canadian painter who owned 1001 Nights, a popular bar. Burroughs initially found Gysin's paintings tedious and uninspiring, yet in time the two would cultivate a rich friendship that revolved around a mutual interest in 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 the French, English, Spanish, and Americans each with their 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, but the young man returned to Florida after several months with his father. It was Burroughs' boyfriend, Ian Sommerville, who recognized the boy was homesick and urged Burroughs to send him back to the U.S. and the surroundings he had grown up in. A few months later 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 rejected initially 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, when he was fired from his position in 1958 after Chicago Daily News columnist Jack Mabley 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 convicted of sending obscene material through the United States Mail by the United States Postmaster General, meaning the 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 infamous across Europe and the United States, garnering interest from not just members of the counterculture of the 1960s, but literary critics like 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" 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 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 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, Somerville's tape recorders. Burroughs was so dedicated to the cut-up method, he often defended his use of the technique to editors and publishers, most notably Dick Seaver - at Grove Press in the 1960s and Holt Rinehart in 1980s.
Paris and the ‘Beat Hotel’
Burroughs moved to a run down hotel in Paris' Latin Quarter neighborhood in 1959 when Naked Lunch was still looking for a publisher. Tangier with its easy access to drugs, small cliques of homosexuals, growing political unrest and odd collection of criminals grew heavy on Burroughs. He went to Paris to meet Ginsberg and talk with Olympia Press. In so doing, he left a brewing legal problem, which eventually transferred itself to Paris. Paul Lund, a former British career criminal and cigarette smuggler Burroughs met in Tangier, was arrested on suspicion of importing narcotics into France.
Lund gave up Burroughs and some evidence implicated Burroughs in the possible importation into France of narcotics. Once again, the man faced criminal charges, this time in Paris for conspiracy to import opiates, when the Moroccan authorities forwarded their investigation to French officials. Yet it was under this impending threat of criminal sanction that Maurice Girodias published Naked Lunch, and it was helpful in getting Burroughs a suspended sentence, as a literary career, according to Ted Morgan, is a respected profession in France.
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.
The London years
Burroughs left Paris for London in 1966 to take the cure again with Dr. Dent, a well known English medical doctor who spearheaded a painless heroin withdrawal treatment which utilized an electronic box affixed to the patient's temple. Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg would take this same cure over a decade later from Dr. Dent's nurse, Smitty. Though he ultimately relapsed, Burroughs ended up working out of London for six years, traveling back to the United States on several notable occasions, including one time escorting his son to Lexington Narcotics Farm and Prison after the younger Burroughs had been convicted of prescription fraud in Florida.
In the "Afterward" to the compilation of his son's two previously published novels Speed and Kentucky Ham, Burroughs writes that he thought he had a "small habit" and left London quickly without any narcotics because he suspected the U.S. customs would search him well upon arrival. He claims he went through the most excrutiating two months of opiate withdrawal while seeing his son through his trial and sentencing, actually traveling with Billy to Lexington, Kentucky from Miami to ensure his son entered the hospital he once spent time in as a volunteer admission. This confession, published in 1981, might strike many readers as proof of Burroughs poor parenting and example, but read in full light of the difficult circumstances he found himself in, it seems like some stubborn proof that Burroughs did care enough about his son to return and see him through the criminal process, even though it caused him much personal pain.
Earlier Burroughs revisited St. Louis, Missouri taking a large advance from Playboy to write an article about his trip back to St.Louis that eventually was published in the Paris Review, after Burroughs refused to alter the style for Playboy publishers. In 1968 Burroughs joined Jean Genet, John Sack, and Terry Southern in covering the 1968 Democratic National Convention for Esquire magazine. Southern and Burroughs, who first became acquainted with one another in London, would remain lifelong friends and collaborators. In 1972, Burroughs and Southern unsuccessfully attempted to adapt Naked Lunch for the screen in conjunction with American game show producer Chuck Barris.
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, he 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).
The 1960s also saw Burroughs join, then leave the Church of Scientology. 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.
In 1974, concerned about his friend's well-being, Allen Ginsberg got Burroughs a contract to teach creative writing at the City College of New York. Burroughs successfully withdrew from heroin and moved to New York. He eventually found an apartment, affectionately dubbed 'The Bunker', on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The dwelling was partially a converted YMCA gym, complete with lockers and communal showers. The building fell within New York City rent control policies that made it extremely cheap; in fact, it was only about four hundred dollars a month until 1981 when the rent control rules changed doubling the rent overnight.
Burroughs chalked up 'teacher' to another one of the jobs he did not like, as he lasted only a semester teaching; he found the students uninteresting and without much creative talent. Although he needed income desperately, he even turned down a teaching position at the University at Buffalo for $15,000 a semester. "The teaching gig was a lesson in never again. You were giving out all this energy and nothing was coming back." His saviour was the newly arrived, twenty-one year old book seller and beat generation devotee James Grauerholz, who worked for Burroughs part-time as a secretary as well as in a book store. It was Grauerholz who floated the idea of reading tours, something similar to rock and roll touring, or stand-up comedian dates in clubs across the country.
Grauerholz had managed several rock bands in Kansas and took the lead in booking Burroughs reading tours that would help support him throughout the next two decades. It raised his public profile which eventually aided in new publishing contracts. Thus Burroughs capitalized on the emerging American celebrity culture, deciding to relocate back to the United States permanently in 1976. He then began to associate with New York cultural players Andy Warhol, John Giorno, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, and Susan Sontag, frequently entertaining them at the Bunker. Throughout early 1977, Burroughs collaborated with Southern and Dennis Hopper on a screen adaptation of Junky. Financed by a reclusive acquaintance of Burroughs, the project lost traction after financial problems and creative disagreements between Hopper and Burroughs.
Organized by Columbia professor Sylvere Lotringer, Giorno, and Grauerholz, the Nova Convention was a multimedia retrospective of Burroughs' work held from November 30th-December 2nd 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 Deborah 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. William 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 fallen apart. Under his constant drinking, there were long periods where Billy was out of contact with any 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. Interestingly, the novel was written as a straight narrative and then chopped up into a more random pattern leaving the reader to sort through the hip-hop of 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. Although reviews were not generally favorable for Cities, 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, the novel proved Burroughs was still a creative force worth noting. Emerging 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 claiming the famous author had ruined 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 Tangiers, 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.
Later years in Kansas
Burroughs moved to Lawrence, Kansas, in 1983 and lived the remainder of his life there. In 1984 he signed a seven-book deal with Viking Press after he signed with literary agent Andrew Wylie. This deal included the publication rights to the 1953 unpublished novel Queer. With this money he purchased a small bungalow for $29,000. He was finally inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1983 after several attempts by Allen Ginsberg to get him accepted. He attended the induction ceremony in May 1983. Lawrence Ferlinghetti remarked the induction of Burroughs into the Academy proved Hebert Marcuse's point that capitalistic society had a great ability to incorporate its one-time outsiders.
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 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 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. 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' works.
Burroughs died at the age of 83 in Lawrence, at 6:50 p.m. on August 2, 1997 from complications of the previous day's heart attack. He is interred in the family plot in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri at these coordinates: 38.690310° N 90.231720° W. The grave is unmarked as of March 26, 2007 and to the right of William S. Burroughs (1857-1898) white granite obelisk. 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 and a memoir by Burroughs entitled Evil River, after initially being announced for a 2005 release, is now scheduled for release by Viking Press in 2007.
Literary style and periods
Burroughs's major works can be divided into four different periods. The dates refer to the time of writing, not publication, which in some cases was not until decades later:
Early Work (early 1950s): Junkie, Queer and The Yage Letters are relatively straightforward linear narratives, written in and about Burrough's time in Mexico City and South America.
The Cut-Up Period (mid 1950s to mid 1960s): Naked Lunch is a fragmentary collection of "routines" from The Word Hoard - manuscripts written in Tangier, Paris, and London, blending over into the cut-up and fold-in fiction also heavily drawn from The Word Hoard: The Soft Machine, Nova Express, The Ticket That Exploded, also referred to as "The Nova Trilogy" or "the Nova Epic", self-described by Burroughs as an attempt to create "a mythology for the space age". Interzone also derives from this period.
Experiment & Subversion (mid 1960s to mid 1970s): This period saw Burroughs continue experimental writing with increased political content and branching into multimedia such as film and sound recording. The only major novel written in this period was The Wild Boys, but he also wrote dozens of published articles, short stories, scrap books and other works, several in collaboration with Brion Gyson. The major anthologies representing work from this period are The Burroughs File, The Adding Machine and Exterminator!.
The Red Night Trilogy (mid 1970s to mid 1980s): The books Cities of the Red Night, The Place of Dead Roads and The Western Lands came from Burroughs in a final, mature stage, creating a complete mythology.
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's 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:
Critics constantly complain that writers are lacking in standards, yet they themselves seem to have no standards other than personal prejudice for literary criticism. (...) such standards do exist. Matthew Arnold set up three criteria for criticism: 1. What is the writer trying to do? 2. How well does he succeed in doing it? (...) 3. Does the work exhibit "high seriousness"? That is, does it touch on basic issues of good and evil, life and death and the human condition. I would also apply a fourth criterion (...) Write about what you know. More writers fail because they try to write about things they don't know than for any other reason.
– William S. Burroughs, 'A Review of the Reviewer.
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).
The best known pictures of Burroughs were taken by photographer John Minihan, who photographed him between 1963 and 1991 and developed such a good relationship with the writer that he became, in effect, his official photographer.
Burroughs is often called one of the greatest and most influential writers of the twentieth century, most notably by Norman Mailer whose quote on Burroughs, "The only American novelist living today who may 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's work have included British critic and biographer Peter Ackroyd, the rock critic Lester Bangs and the authors J.G. Ballard, Angela Carter, Jean Genet, William Gibson, Alan Moore 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 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. 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's ideas about and attitudes towards women gradually became friendlier as he aged. Burroughs was regarded as being extremely intelligent and a generally quiet person.
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' 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.
Burroughs was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame in St. Louis, Missouri.
Burroughs is also cited by Robert Anton Wilson as being the person to first notice the '23' phenomena. While in Tangiers, Burroughs one day met a 'Captain Clark', who had captained a water taxi from Tangiers for 23 years witout incident. That next day, Captain Clark's boat sank. From that point, Burroughs kept a dairy of odd synchronicites and coincidences, and noticed an overwhelming occurence of the number 23. "Captain Clark welcomes you aboard".
Appearances in media
Worked in the role of father Tom, in the movie "Drugstore Cowboy."
Burroughs participated on numerous album releases by Giorno Poetry Systems, including The Nova Convention (also featuring Frank Zappa, John Cage and Philip Glass) and You're the Guy I Want to Share My Money With (with John Giorno and Laurie Anderson). He featured doing a spoken word piece entitled "Sharkey's Night," on the Laurie Anderson album Mister Heartbreak. In addition, Burroughs provided vocal samples for the soundtrack of Anderson's 1986 concert film, Home of the Brave and cameoed 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 also made an appearance in the video for "Just One Fix."
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 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 (host: Lauren Hutton; musical guest: Rick James). The reading received mixed responses.
A documentary titled "Burroughs", directed by Howard Brookner, was released in 1984. It included footage of Burroughs and many of his friends and colleagues.
Burroughs and Kurt Cobain collaborated on a track called "The Priest They Called Him," in which Burroughs preforms a spoken word of a short story and Cobain creates layers of guitar feedback and distortions. Nirvana bassist Krist Novaselic is featured on the cover as "the 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.
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 patriotic images intercut with Burroughs reading of the poem to great effect. The video was played on MTV europe, mostly during the nighttime.
In March 2006 the title track from the Material album Seven Souls, which features Burroughs, was played during the opening montage of the first episode of the sixth season of The Sopranos.
The song Atlantis to Interzone (2006) by London band Klaxons is named after Atlantis, the mythical lost city, and Burrough's concept of 'Interzone' - the idea of a non-space.
Burroughs appears in the first part of The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson (initially during a student riot), 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.