William Burroughs (1914–97) is widely recognized as one of the most original, innovative, and culturally influential writers of the twentieth century. At the same time, his place in the academy and within American literary history has remained highly problematic and controversial, a position that has three principal causes. First, while Burroughs initially emerged in the late 1950s as part of the Beat generation, even that context was more apparent than real and became increasingly tenuous as a result of his longstanding expatriation, which lasted for a quarter of a century until the mid-1970s. Second, both the uncompromising sexual and political content of Burroughs's writing and the sensational drama of his personal life brought him in conflict with the law, which guaranteed his status as a countercultural icon while deterring serious academic attention. And third, Burroughs's relationship to American literary history has been complicated by the radical experimental methods in several media that he developed during the decade he lived in Paris and London, and that came largely out of European avant garde art traditions. Significantly, the first book-length critical studies appeared not in America but in England and France.
William Seward Burroughs was born on February 5, 1914 in St. Louis, Missouri, the heir to two families that played significant roles in the modernization of corporate America. His paternal grandfather perfected the modern adding machine and founded the international company that bore the Burroughs name, while his maternal uncle, “Poison” Ivy Lee, also achieved national fame as one of the pioneers of modern public relations. After attending Harvard during the 1930s, Burroughs's subsequent trajectory inverted the expectations of his class and so established his identity as a disaffected insider. His homosexuality further alienated him from the social and religious values of his background, and led him away from the career promises of official culture and toward a milieu of outcasts and nonconformist artists.
Following graduate studies in anthropology at Columbia and Harvard, Burroughs settled in New York in the early 1940s, where he moved in a circle of students, street criminals, and drug addicts. Here he met Joan Vollmer, who became his common-law wife, and befriended Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, acting as an elder mentor figure for the would-be writers and fellow founders of the Beat generation. While this New York scene has become one of the most familiar episodes in American literary history and popular culture, Burroughs's own writing did not begin seriously until the end of the decade, when, after moving first to Louisiana and then Texas, he settled with Joan and their two young children in Mexico City. The accidental shooting death of his wife there, in September 1951, confirmed Burroughs's notoriety and exile from America.
Although only the first was published at the time, Burroughs wrote two comparatively realist autobiographical novellas in Mexico, Junkie (2003a ; later republished as Junky) and Queer (1985). A seemingly cool and ironic work of reportage, the former documented his life as a heroin addict, while the latter dramatized his experience as a homosexual. Each constituted an implicit blast against the moral and political order of Cold War America, but Burroughs's persona as the Ugly American in Queer, given to manic flights of sadistic fantasy, more significantly anticipated the unsettling and ambiguous politics of his later work, especially to do with race and religion in Naked Lunch (2003b ). Published as a pulp paperback, Junkie did not receive any critical attention, but during the 1950s Burroughs was already achieving an underground reputation through the writing of Ginsberg and, especially, Kerouac.
In 1953, Burroughs left Mexico for a long expedition through the jungles of South America to discover yagé, a hallucinogen long used by native peoples but barely studied by Western science. The result was “In Search of Yage” (later published in The Yage Letters ), a short hybrid text that combined picaresque satire with ethnography. Its epistolary format (largely contrived from original journals) was also significant as a sign of Burroughs's unique investment of his creative energy in correspondence during the 1950s, mainly through regular long-distance letters to Allen Ginsberg.
Burroughs's most important and influential work, Naked Lunch, grew out of the next four years, which he spent in Tangier, then a colonially administered International Zone and haven for Western outcasts. Naked Lunch is often labeled a story about drug addiction, but this is wildly simplistic and ignores the origins of much of the text, obscuring the desire-driven creativity behind its sexual content. For while Burroughs struggled with a desperate narcotics addiction, his most famous novel (or, more properly, anti-novel) was paradoxically the result of his protracted failure to sustain conventional linear narrative or to impose a stable and coherent structure. Instead, he produced material that parodied various pulp genres, showing an extraordinary command of idiom, and a multitude of politically and sexually explosive satirical fragments of fantasy he termed “routines.” The final collage form of Naked Lunch was inseparable from the rehearsal of these routines in Burroughs's letters to Ginsberg, his would-be lover, and then the haphazard circumstances of his manuscript's editing. Naked Lunch was a significantly collaborative and contingent venture, benefiting first from the editorial input of Kerouac and Ginsberg in Tangier, and then the artist Brion Gysin and others in Paris, where Burroughs moved in early 1958. This long and exotic history of production would become mythologized as a key part in the novel's popular reception.
The unbridled dystopian content of Naked Lunch, as well as its challenging form, led to publication in Paris rather than America. However, Olympia Press in Paris published Burroughs's book only after the appearance of episodes in American little magazines had caused a scandal and generated publicity. Burroughs's confrontation with obscenity laws and the book's subsequent trial in Boston (resolved in his favor only in 1966) firmly established Naked Lunch in the tradition of works such as Ulysses, as a crucial test case of cultural change in terms of literary freedom from censorship.
Following Ginsberg's “Howl” (1956) and Kerouac's On the Road (1957), Naked Lunch became the dark, third key text of the Beat generation. However, its publication in 1959 coincided with a dramatic shift in Burroughs's work and allegiances, as he took the aesthetic innovations of Naked Lunch to an entirely new level with his development, in partnership with Gysin, of “cut-up” methods. In the tradition of dada and surrealist practices of the 1920s, and coinciding with a more general postwar revival of collage techniques and chance operations, Burroughs invested the splicing and recombination of texts with quasi-magical, scientific, and political aims. He also applied cut-up methods beyond the text to produce scrapbooks, photomontages, tapes, and films. Announcing a radical assault on traditional definitions of authorship and the ambitions of a literary career, the wraparound band attached to the multiauthor pamphlet that launched the method, Minutes to Go (1960), declared its avant garde aim: “Un règlement de comptes avec la literature.”
The brinkmanship of Burroughs's enthusiasm for his experimental methods was highly productive, resulting in a trilogy of novel-length works and a mass of short texts in various formats that circulated through the burgeoning little magazines of the 1960s and established Burroughs as a singular countercultural presence. His trilogy, whose chronology became confused through constant revisions, comprised The Soft Machine (1968 [1961, 1966]), The Ticket That Exploded (1967 ), and Nova Express (1964). Minimally structured through an apocalyptic science fiction conspiracy scenario that pitted Nova Police against Nova Criminals, these three highly discontinuous texts integrated the radical methods of their production into a revolutionary call to sabotage the power structures of “reality” based on language, or “the word virus.” Burroughs's trilogy thereby combined a strident didacticism, advocating an insurgency against “Control,” with an extraordinarily complex and challenging textual experience, by turns poetic, shocking, repetitive, inspiring, and disturbing.
Toward the end of the 1960s, Burroughs's experimental project began to suffer from a law of diminishing returns, and sales. Although he and Gysin produced an illustrated volume of cut-up collage and theory, The Third Mind, it would not be published until 1978, and The Wild Boys (1971) was his last novel to use cut-up texts to any great extent. This novel, a utopian queer fantasy of terrorist boy heroes, also saw a return to more sustained narrative and marked a period of transition in his oeuvre. Burroughs summarized his theories of politics and writing in The Job (1970), but the direction of his oeuvre was on the point of major change, a shift that coincided with his decision to leave London in the early 1970s and return, after 25 years abroad, to America.
Burroughs's identity in his homeland had not advanced significantly since the days of his mythologization by the Beats, but when he settled in New York in 1974, he began to reinvent his image and reputation as a writer. Moving in celebrity avant garde and rock music circles, in 1978 Burroughs was feted at the Nova Convention held in his honor, where figures from Laurie Anderson to Frank Zappa and from John Cage to Timothy Leary confirmed his totemic status and reasserted his cultural influence.
Under the guidance of James Grauerholz, and relocating with him to Kansas, Burroughs published a final major trilogy of novels, beginning with Cities of the Red Night in 1981. Generally regarded as his most consistently impressive work since Naked Lunch, the novel interwove a series of genre narratives stamped with Burroughs's trademark political conspiracies and satirical humor. The Place of Dead Roads and The Western Lands completed the trilogy. Although these were Burroughs's last major works, the 1980s and early 1990s were more remarkable for his own new career as an exhibiting artist and, above all, for the fertility of his influence on other innovative writers, artists, and musicians, from William Gibson and Keith Haring to U2, which led to numerous important collaborations. Now a key figure in postmodern culture, Burroughs began to receive sustained critical attention, but gained only an ambivalent place in the canon, a situation he embraced. “Twenty years ago, they were saying I belonged in jail,” he said after his induction into the Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1983. “Now they're saying I belong in their club. I didn't listen to them then, and I don't listen to them now” (Morgan 1988, 13).
SEE ALSO: Acker, Kathy (AF); Kerouac, Jack (AF); Postmodernist Fiction (AF); Queer Modernism (AF); Utopian and Dystopian Fiction (AF)
- Minutes to Go. Paris: Two Cities. (with ; ; ), (1960).
- Nova Express. New York: Grove. (1964).
- The Ticket That Exploded . New York Grove. (1967).
- The Soft Machine [1961, 1966]. London: Calder and Boyards. (1968).
- The Wild Boys. New York: Grove. (1971).
- The Third Mind. New York: Viking. (with ), (1978).
- Cities of the Red Night. New York: Henry Holt. (1981).
- The Place of Dead Roads. New York: Henry Holt. (1984).
- Queer. New York: Viking. (1985).
- The Western Lands. New York: Viking. (1987).
- The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1945–1959 (ed. Harris, O. ). New York: Viking. (1993).
- Junky: The Definitive Text of “Junk” (ed. Harris, O. ). New York: Penguin. (2003a).
- Naked Lunch: The Restored Text (ed. Grauerholz, J. ; Miles, B. ). New York: Grove. (2003b).
- The Yage Letters Redux (ed. Harris, O. ). San Francisco: City Lights. (2006).
- William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. (2003).
- The Lost Years of William S. Burroughs: Beats in South Texas. College Station: Texas A&M Press. (2006).
- Word Cultures: Radical Theory and Practice in William S. Burroughs’ Fiction. Chicago: University of Illinois Press. (1987).
- William S. Burroughs at the Front: Critical Reception: 1959–1989. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. ; (1991).
- Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs. New York: Henry Holt. (1988).
- Wising Up the Marks: The Amodern William Burroughs. Berkeley: University of California Press. (1997).
- Queer Burroughs. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. (2001).
- Retaking the Universe: William S. Burroughs in the Age of Globalization. London: Pluto. ; (2004).
- William S. Burroughs. Boston: Twayne. (1985).
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