William S. Burroughs

William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) was one of the foremost writers of the Beat Generation, which championed personal liberation and resistance of the status quo. Today best known for his novel Naked Lunch (1959), Burroughs penned 18 novels and novellas, four essay collections, and six short story collections. With themes ranging from sexual liberation, the gritty underworld of drug addiction, and resistance to conformity, Burroughs was one of the leading voices of the 20th century.

William S. Burroughs William S. Burroughs

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    Content warning: contains themes of drugs and violence

    William S. Burroughs, Content warning, StudySmarter

    William S. Burroughs's Biography

    William Seward Burroughs was born into a wealthy family in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1914. His grandfather founded the Burroughs Adding Machine company, and his father owned a store called Cobblestone Gardens. Money was never an issue for Burroughs, who attended private school and was given a monthly salary from his parents well into adulthood.

    In 1932, Burroughs left home to continue his education at Harvard University. After graduating in 1936, he traveled to Europe, where he experienced homosexual relationships for the first time. He married a Jewish woman in order to help her escape the Nazis. The two later divorced. When the United States entered World War II after the bombing at Pearl Harbor, Burroughs enlisted in the army but was later released due to concerns about his mental health. The rejection caused him to turn to drugs, eventually becoming addicted to morphine and heroin.

    William S. Burroughs, Pearl Harbor bombing, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Burroughs wanted to fight in World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor but was ultimately unable to because of his mental health.

    In 1943, Burroughs moved to New York City. There, he met Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who would become two of Burroughs's closest friends and, along with Burroughs, principle figures in the Beat Generation. A year late, Burroughs began living with Joan Vollmer Adams. Although they never had an official marriage, Vollmer lived with Burroughs as his common-law wife.

    Burroughs, Kerouac, and Ginsberg are considered the founding members of the Beat Generation. The Beat Generation was a literary movement situated in post-war America that rejected traditional values, social norms, and economic materialism.

    Beat writers celebrated sexual liberation and resistance to conformity. The Beat Generation was largely influenced by jazz music and argued that one could find heightened awareness through jazz music, sex, and drug usage.

    Burroughs' Naked Lunch (1959), Ginsberg's Howl (1956), and Kerouac's On the Road (1957) encompass some of the major literature of the Beat Generation.

    Burroughs was often in trouble with the law for misdemeanors, causing him to flee to Mexico with his family in 1949. They intended to stay in Mexico for five years, but their time was cut short when Burroughs shot and killed Vollmer after a drunken prank gone wrong. He awaited trial in Mexico for a while before returning to the United States, where he was given a two-year suspended sentence.

    Burroughs then spent time wandering through the Amazon searching for a drug called yagé; this experience is recorded in his book The Yage Letters (1963). Facing legal issues and the loss of his family, Burroughs spent the next several years traveling to Rome, London, Paris, and Tangier.

    He published his first novel, Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict (later republished as Junky in 1977), under the pseudonym William Lee in 1953. This novel is considered confessional, as it delves into drug ("junky") culture and is influenced by Burroughs's own struggle with drug use. Junky was followed by the highly-controversial Naked Lunch, published in Paris in 1959 but not published in the United States until 1962 due to obscenity laws.

    William S. Burroughs, Pills and a thermometer, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Many of Burrough's novels center around his experience with drug use.

    Naked Lunch became notorious for its controversial depiction of sexuality (especially homosexuality). The Commonwealth of Massachusetts actually prosecuted the novel in a court case, claiming that the book violated obscenity laws. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declared that the book was not obscene in 1966. Naked Lunch is still banned in many schools today.

    Around the same time as the novel's release, Burroughs began experimenting with the cut-up literary technique, which he popularized with British writer and artist Brion Gysin. In this literary technique, a written text is cut up and rearranged to create an entirely new text. It was intended to promote new ways of thinking, free readers from conventional limitations, and give new life to language.

    The cut-up technique is the literary equivalent of a collage in the visual arts.

    Burroughs's later novels used the cut-up technique extensively. A few of these works include The Soft Machine (1961), Exterminator! (1973), Cities of the Red Night (1981), Queer (1985), The Western Lands (1987), and My Education: A Book of Dreams (1995). Burroughs's experimentation with traditional structures of the novel situates him firmly in the postmodernist movement.

    Burroughs settled in Kansas in 1981. His novel Queer, written in 1952, was finally published in 1985. Burroughs was inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1983. He continued using heroin until the end of his life and died at the age of 83 from a heart attack.

    William S. Burroughs's Famous Work

    Two of Burroughs's most famous works are the novels Naked Lunch and Junky.

    Naked Lunch

    The controversial novel Naked Lunch was first published in 1959. Naked Lunch is told in a nonlinear narrative and follows William Lee, a drug addict on the run from the police. Lee flees New York and makes his way to Mexico. After he reaches Mexico and acquires some cocaine, he proceeds to the fictional country of Freeland. In Freeland, things are orderly, and the government maintains complete totalitarian power. Lee is assigned to Dr. Benway, a shady doctor who Lee later learns runs unethical experiments on drug addicts and homosexuals. Lee escapes Freeland and makes his way to the Interzone, a city where drugs are freely available, and orgies are common. Lee stays in Interzone for ten years and becomes an agent for Islam Inc., where Dr. Benway works. Eventually, Lee returns to New York, where two narcotics officers are still chasing him. He shoots them and hides but can find no evidence of their death in the papers the next day.

    William Lee serves as Burroughs's alter ego. Much of the novel is based off his own experiences.

    Junky

    Junky, Burroughs's first novel, also follows the character William Lee and his experiences in the world of "junk" (or drugs). Lee is addicted to heroin and becomes increasingly more dependent on it as the novel progresses. He lives in New York City, and the novel opens with him shooting morphine for the first time. Lee has a wife and kids, but his relationship with drugs takes center stage in his life and the novel. He becomes involved in the underground world of New York City, selling drugs to make enough money to fuel his own habit.

    Lee's life soon centers entirely around drugs. When he gets in trouble with a group of police informants, he escapes New York and travels to Texas, where he is sober for a few months. Lee becomes bored with life and starts having sex with men to entertain himself. This doesn't work for long, and he soon starts shooting heroin again to avoid his boredom. Throughout the novel, Lee falls into a cycle of sobriety followed by boredom and drug use. At the end of the novel, he travels to South America in order to find a new mind-altering drug.

    William S. Burroughs, New York Skyline, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Many of Burrough's works including Junky are set in New York City, where Burroughs met Kerouac and Ginsberg.

    William S. Burroughs's Characters

    Burroughs's writing is often confessional in nature, meaning it is inspired by his own life experiences and personal struggles. His characters, most notably William Lee, function as Burroughs's alter egos and experience a similar world of drugs that Burroughs did in his own lifetime. Burroughs struggled with addiction to both heroin and morphine until his death. Many of his characters experiment with homosexuality, often with the intent of escaping the boredom of everyday life.

    Burroughs himself was publicly bisexual, and many of his works examine homosexuality in one way or another. This was taboo in the mid-20th century and made his books controversial.

    Like his characters, Burroughs experienced periods of sobriety but could never fully escape his addiction. This affected his writing and his relationships, but it also made him an icon in the Beat world of the mid-20th century. Also like his characters, Burroughs was often in trouble with the law because of his addiction and its indirect effects. Burroughs, for example, was arrested for forging drug prescriptions, lying to the police, and shooting his wife while high on drugs.

    Burroughs wrote many of his stories after the death of his second wife. Haunted by her death, Burroughs's characters reflect the same hopelessness, anxiety, and depression he experienced. His characters are often incredibly intelligent but crippled by poverty, drug usage, and society—tortured geniuses like Burroughs himself.

    William S. Burroughs Short Stories

    Burroughs wrote six short story collections, including Interzone (1989) and Exterminator! (1973).

    Interzone

    Originally published in 1989, Interzone is a collection of early short stories and other writings by Burroughs. It is divided into three sections: Stories, Lee's Journals, and WORD (a novella-length story that was cut out of the Naked Lunch manuscript). Several stories included in Interzone were previously published or helped to inspire Naked Lunch.

    "Interzone" is a fictional city in Naked Lunch, where drugs and sex are abundant and common. Interzone was also considered as a title for the novel before Burroughs settled on Naked Lunch.

    Exterminator!

    The short story collection Exterminator! was originally published in 1973. Exterminator! contains some of Burrough's best-known short stories such as "Twilight's Last Gleamings," "Ali's Smile," and the titular poem "Exterminator!" Like his novels, his short stories were often influenced by his own life. "Exterminator!," for example, was inspired by Burroughs's time working as an exterminator in Chicago. The collection consists of 30 loosely-connected vignettes. Like much of Burroughs's work, the short pieces in this collection are experimental and often have no clear plot line, instead diving into the narrator's mind.

    William S. Burroughs, Mouse trap with cheese, StudySmarter

    Fig. 4 - The titular poem was inspired by Burroughs's time working as an exterminator.

    William S. Burroughs's Quotes and Writing

    Below are some of Burroughs's most famous quotes.

    Silence is only frightening to people who are compulsively verbalizing."

    Burroughs originally said this quote in an interview in the 1960s, and it was printed in the collection The Job: Interviews with William S. Burroughs (1969). Burroughs valued silence and was especially weary of politicians who spoke just to hear themselves speak. Like many Beat writers, Burroughs was a non-conformist and did not particularly trust the government or traditional values.

    [Most drug addicts] did not start using drugs for any reason they can remember. They just drifted along until they got hooked. If you have never been addicted, you can have no clear idea what it means to need junk with the addict’s special need. You don’t decide to be an addict. One morning you wake up sick and you’re an addict."

    This quote is included in the prologue of Burroughs's Junky. As mentioned above, Burroughs explores much of his own relationship with drugs in this novel. Drugs and their effects are a central theme in much of Burroughs's work, and many rebels in the Beat Generation romanticized drug use. In this quote, Burroughs reveals the complicated mind of a drug addict—it's not that they want to get addicted to drugs, it's that they were running from something else, and now they can't stop.

    The junk merchant doesn't sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client. (Introduction)”

    Coming from Naked Lunch, this quote once again reveals the gritty world of drugs. The narrator implies that drug addicts are dehumanized by the supplier, who only cares about making money. The more the consumer buys, the more addicted they become and the more money the "merchant" makes.

    William S. Burroughs - Key takeaways

    • William S. Burroughs was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1914.
    • He was a famous writer in the Beat Generation, along with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.
    • Burroughs was addicted to heroin for most of his life and recorded his experiences in drug culture in many of his novels and short stories.
    • Burroughs is most famous for his 1959 novel Naked Lunch, which was the subject of an obscenity trial for its lurid, taboo content.
    • Burroughs died in 1997 from a heart attack.

    William S. Burroughs, Crisis banner, StudySmarter

    Frequently Asked Questions about William S. Burroughs

    Who is William S. Burroughs?

    Burroughs was a famous writer from the Beat Generation in 20th century American literature.

    What was William S Burroughs known for?

    Burroughs is best know for his confessional depiction of drug usage, especially in his novel Naked Lunch

    What happened to William Burroughs's daughter?

    Burroughs helped raise Joan Vollmer's daughter, Julie Adams, but Adams went to live with her grandparents after Burroughs accidentally killed Vollmer. 

    What was William S. Burroughs credited for?

    He is credited with being one of the founding members of the Beat Generation. 

    What happened to Burroughs?

    After a lifetime of drug addiction, Burroughs died at the age of 83 from a heart attack. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or false: Burroughs graduated from Harvard? 

    True or false: many of Burroughs's characters are representations of Burroughs himself? 

    What drug was Burroughs addicted to for most of his life?

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