William S. Burroughs

An innovative and controversial author of experimental fiction, William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) is best known for Naked Lunch (1959), a bizarre account of his fourteen-year drug addiction and a surrealistic indictment of middle-class American mores.

William S. Burroughs is the grandson of the industrialist who modernized the adding machine and the son of a woman who claimed descent from Civil War General Robert E. Lee. In 1936, he received his bachelor's degree in English from Harvard University. In 1944, after abortive attempts at, among other things, graduate study in anthropology, medical school in Vienna, Austria, and military service, he met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and began using morphine. The meeting of these three writers is generally regarded as the beginning of the Beat movement; the writers who later became part of this group produced works that attacked moral and artistic conventions. The escalation of Burroughs's drug addiction, his unsuccessful search for cures, and his travels to Mexico to elude legal authorities are recounted in his first novel, Junkie: The Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict (1953; republished as Junky). Written in the confessional style of pulp magazines under the pseudonym William Lee, the novel received little critical notice. In 1957, Burroughs traveled to London to undergo a controversial drug treatment known as apomorphine. Following two relapses, he was successfully cured of his addiction.

Ostensibly the story of junkie William Lee, Naked Lunch features no consistent narrative or point of view. The novel has been variously interpreted as a condemnation of the addict's lifestyle, as an allegory satirizing the repressiveness of American society, and as an experiment in literary form, exemplified by its attacks upon language as a narrow, symbolic tool of normative control. Consisting of elements from diverse genres, including the detective novel and science fiction, Naked Lunch depicts a blackly humorous, sinister world dominated by addiction, madness, grotesque physical metamorphoses, sadomasochistic homosexuality, and cartoon-like characters, including Dr. Benway, who utilizes weird surgical and chemical alterations to cure his patients. Escape from the imprisoning concepts of time and space are dominant themes in this work and in Burroughs's later fiction, reflecting the addict's absolute need for drugs and his dependency on what Burroughs termed "junk time." Burroughs explained the book's title as "the frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork."

Naked Lunch represents a selection from the wealth of material Burroughs had been writing for many years. The remaining work makes up the bulk of his immediately subsequent novels, The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1964). During the process of writing these works, Burroughs, influenced by artist Brion Gysin, developed his "cut-up" and "fold-in" techniques, experiments similar in effect to collage painting. Collecting manuscript pages of his narrative episodes, or "routines," in random order, Burroughs folds some pages vertically, juxtaposing these with other passages to form new pages. This material, sometimes drawn from the works of other authors, is edited and rearranged to evoke new associations and break with traditional narrative patterns. In the surrealistic, quasi-science fiction sequels to Naked Lunch, Burroughs likens addiction to the infestation of a malignant alien virus, which preys upon the deep-seated fears of human beings and threatens to destroy the earth through parasitic possession of its inhabitants. The title of The Soft Machine, a novel emphasizing sexuality and drugs as a means of normative control throughout history, indicates the innate biological device which allows the virus entry into the human body. Mind control through word and image is the subject of The Ticket That Exploded. In this novel and in Nova Express, Burroughs suggests a number of remedies to the viral infestation. Although he expresses a cautious optimism, the crisis remains unresolved, and humanity's fate is uncertain at the saga's end.

In 1970, Burroughs announced his intention to write a second " mythology for the space age." Although his recent novels have generally received less acclaim than Naked Lunch and its sequels, critics have discerned a remarkably straightforward approach to these works, which rely less on cut-up strategies and horrific elements and more on complex, interrelated plots and positive solutions to escaping societal constraints. As Jennie Skerl noted: "In Burroughs's recent fiction, pleasure and freedom through fantasy balance the experience of repression, bondage, and death that the earlier works had emphasized." The universe of The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead (1971) is similar to that of Burroughs's earlier books but is epic in proportion, encompassing galactic history and the whole of humanity in its scope. Time and space travel figure prominently in Cities of the Red Night: A Boys' Book (1981), in which detective Clem Snide traces the source of the alien virus to an ancient dystopian society. The Place of Dead Roads (1984) transfers the conflict to near-future South America, where descendants of the wild boys ally themselves with Venusian rebels in an escalating battle for galactic liberation.

Burroughs's novel Queer (1985) was written at the same time as Junkie and is considered its companion piece. According to Burroughs, the book was "motivated and formulated" by the accidental death of his wife in Mexico in 1951, for which Burroughs was held accountable. The novel centers once again on William Lee, chronicling a month of withdrawal in South America and his bitter, unrealized pursuit of a young American male expatriate. Harry Marten stated that the book functions as "neither a love story nor a tale of seduction but a revelation of rituals of communication which substitute for contact in a hostile or indifferent environment."

Burroughs is also well known for his nonfiction works. The Yage Letters (1963) contains his mid-1950s correspondence with Allen Ginsberg concerning his pursuit in Colombia of the legendary hallucinogen yage. Further correspondence is collected in Letters to Allen Ginsberg, 1953-1957 (1982). During the mid-1960s, Burroughs became an outspoken proponent of the apomorphine treatment, claiming that its illegal status in the United States was the result of a conspiracy between the Food and Drug Administration, police, and legal authorities. His arguments are presented in Health Bulletin, APO 33: A Report on the Synthesis of the Apomorphine Formula (1965) and APO 33, a Metabolic Regulator (1966). Burroughs's observations on literary, political, and esoteric topics appear in a collaborative venture with Daniel Odier, Entretiens avec William Burroughs (1969; revised and translated as The Job: Interviews with William Burroughs), and in his collection The Adding Machine: Collected Essays (1985). The Third Mind (1979), written in collaboration with Brion Gysin, is a theoretical manifesto of their early "cut-up" experiments. Burroughs has also written a screenplay, The Last Words of Dutch Schultz (1970).

Burroughs's controversial novels have provoked extreme critical reactions, ranging from claims of genius to allegations that he is little more than a pornographer. While his work can be offensive, it has elicited much serious criticism, and Burroughs is regarded by many scholars as an innovative, even visionary writer. Critics credit Burroughs's hallucinatory prose and antiestablishment views with inspiring the Beat movement and such counterculture groups as hippies and punks. Among other accomplishments, Burroughs has, perhaps more effectively than any other author, rendered the nightmarish, paranoid mindset of the drug addict. Harry Marten observed that Burroughs "has been mixing the satirist's impulse toward invective with the cartoonist's relish for exaggerated gesture, the collage artist's penchant for radical juxtapositions with the slam-bang pace of the carnival barker. In the process, he has mapped a grotesque modern landscape of disintegration whose violence and vulgarity is laced with manic humor."

The former heroin addict lived in the quiet town of Lawrence, Kansas with several cats and a collection of guns until his death from a heart attack on August 2, 1997. Although his business affairs were handled by his staff at the high tech William Burroughs Communications, the writer himself still used a typewriter. One of his more recent publications, The Letters of William S. Burroughs: 1945-1959 was used both as a journal and a sketchbook for his early work.

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Further Reading on William S. Burroughs

Bartlett, Lee, editor, The Beats: Essays in Criticism, McFarland, 1981.

Bowles, Paul, Without Stopping, Putnam, 1972.

Bryant, Jerry H., The Open Decision: The Contemporary American Novel and Its Intellectual Background, Free Press, 1970.

Burgess, Anthony, The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction, Norton, 1967.

Burroughs, William, Jr., Kentucky Ham, Dutton, 1973.

Burroughs, William S., Junky, Penguin, 1977.

Burroughs, William S., Cities of the Red Night, Holt, 1981.