William S Burroughs

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This article is about the novelist. For the inventor, his grandfather, see William Seward Burroughs.
William S. Burroughs

William Seward Burroughs (February 5, 1914August 2, 1997) was an American novelist, essayist, social critic and spoken word performer. Much of Burroughs' work is semi-autobiographical. He saw all his writing as a single, vast book.


Burroughs was born to a prominent family in St. Louis, Missouri. His grandfather, also named William Seward Burroughs, founded the Burroughs Adding Machine company, which evolved into the Burroughs Corporation. Burroughs' mother, Laura Lee Burroughs, was the daughter of a distinguished minister whose family claimed to be descendants of Robert E. Lee. Burroughs’ parents ran an antique and gift shop, first in St. Louis, then in Palm Beach, Florida. Burroughs attended John Burroughs School in St. Louis, and The Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico, but was expelled from the latter because staff had found private journals concerning a budding erotic attachment to another boy. He kept his sexual orientation concealed well into adulthood. Burroughs graduated from Harvard University in 1936.

After leaving Harvard, Burroughs traveled to Europe, where he contracted syphilis. In Austria, Burroughs met Ilse Klapper, a Jewish woman fleeing the country’s Nazi government. The two were not romantically attached, but Burroughs married her 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. Burroughs enrolled as a graduate student of Anthropology at Harvard and later enrolled briefly at Medical School in Vienna, Austria. He was enlisted in the U.S Army in 1941 but was discharged for psychological reasons. Burroughs lived on a monthly trust account from his parents, and this provided him little need, or desire, to earn money. In New York, he met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

In 1944, Burroughs began living with Joan Vollmer Adams in an apartment they shared with 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. 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 the inhaled form of the amphetamine, Benzedrine. 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 arrested for forging a narcotics prescription and was sentenced to return to his parents' care 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.

He was arrested after police searched his home and found letters between Burroughs and 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. In 1951, Burroughs accidentally shot and killed Vollmer in a drunken game of 'William Tell' at a party above an American-owned bar in Mexico City. He spent 13 days in jail before the killing was ruled accidental. 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 was also a member of the Illuminates of Thanateros.


After Vollmer's death, Burroughs drifted through South America for several months, looking for a drug called Yage, which could supposedly ease opiate addiction. He produced two novels during this time, Junky, exploring his heroin addiction, and Queer exploring his homosexuality. He also compiled correspondence with Allen Ginsberg about his search for and experiences with Yage as The Yage Letters. Ace Paperbacks published his first novel, Junky, in 1953 under the pen name William Lee. The Yage Letters and Queer were not published until 1963 and 1985 respectively.

Original Ace Double edition of Junkie (a.k.a. Junky) from 1953, credited to "William Lee". This was Burroughs' first novel publication.

Burroughs went to Rome and then to Tangiers, Morocco, and began to write what would become Naked Lunch. Ginsberg and Kerouac helped Burroughs edit these episodes into Naked Lunch, an amalgam of experimental fiction and science fiction. Burroughs sold Naked Lunch to Olympia Press publisher Maurice Girodias. After the novel was published in 1959, it became infamous across Europe and was popular within countercultures of the 1960s. In countries where the book was banned, copies and even printing plates were smuggled across borders. Published in the United States, Naked Lunch was prosecuted as obscene by the state 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 trunk of manuscripts that produced Naked Lunch also produced The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1963).

In the 1970s he moved to New York City where Ginsberg helped him find work teaching writing at New York City College. Burroughs also associated with New York cultural players Andy Warhol, Patti Smith, Susan Sontag, Dennis Hopper, Terry Southern, and Mick Jagger. The 1970s also saw Burroughs join, then leave the Church of Scientology [1]. 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. By late 1980s, Burroughs was a counterculture giant and collaborated with performers ranging from Bill Laswell's Material and Laurie Anderson to Ministry, and in Gus Van Sant's 1989 film Drugstore Cowboy, playing a character largely based on himself. 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. 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.

He was inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1983.

In 1991, with Burroughs’ 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. Through the 1990s, Burroughs produced spoken word recordings, including collaborations with R.E.M.. Burroughs lived in Lawrence, Kansas through much of his later life. Burroughs died in Lawrence, at 6:50 p.m. on August 2, 1997 from complications of the previous day's heart attack. 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.


Burroughs is often called one of the greatest and most influential writers of the 20th century, most notably by Norman Mailer whose quote on Burroughs, "The only American novelist living today who may be conceivably be possessed by genius", appears on many Burroughs publications. Others, however, consider him overrated. Others still consider his conceptual ideas more influential than his prose.

Burroughs continues to be named as an influence by contemporary fiction writers like William Gibson. The late postmodern writer Kathy Acker often cited Burroughs as her first major influence. He remains controversial because of his homosexuality, drug use, and the often criticized obscene and misogynistic tone of his works, though it should be noted that Burroughs' ideas about and attitudes towards women gradually became more friendly as he aged. Burroughs was regarded as being extremely intelligent and a generally quiet person.

Burroughs' 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' works). Similarly, in the hospital scene in the movie Repo Man both Dr. Benway and Mr. Lee (a Burroughs pen name) are paged.



  • Junkie (1953)- (ISBN 0142003166) - novel
  • Naked Lunch (1959) (ISBN 0802132952)- novel
  • Minutes To Go (1960)
  • The Exterminator (1960) (with Bryon Gysin)
  • The Soft Machine (1961) (ISBN 0802133290) - novel
  • The Ticket That Exploded (1962) (ISBN 0802151507) - novel
  • Dead Fingers Talk (1963) - novel
  • The Yage Letters (1963) (with Allen Ginsberg)
  • Nova Express (1964) (ISBN 0802133304) - novel
  • Valentine's Day Reading (1965)
  • Roosevelt After Inauguration and Other Atrocities (1965; later republished 1979) - short stories
  • Time (1965)
  • APO-33 (1966)
  • So Who Owns Death TV? (1967)
  • The Dead Star (1969)
  • The Job (1969) (ISBN 0140118829) (with Daniel Odier)
  • The Last Words of Dutch Schultz (1969) (ISBN 1559702117)
  • Jack Kerouac (1970) (with Claude Pelieu)
  • "Ali's Smile" (1971)
  • The Wild Boys (1971) (ISBN 0802133312)- novel
  • Electronic Revolution (1971)
  • Bryon Gysin Let the Mice In (1973) (with Gysin)
  • Exterminator! (1973) (ISBN 0140050035) (a different book than the 1960 volume)- short stories
  • White Subway (1973)
  • Mayfair Academy Series More or Less (1973)
  • Port of Saints (1973) (ISBN 0912652640) - novel
  • The Book of Breething (1974)
  • Sidetripping (1975) (with Charles Gatewood)
  • Snack (1975)
  • Cobble Stone Gardens (1976)
  • The Retreat Diaries (1976)
  • Colloque de Tangier (1976) (with Bryon Gysin)
  • Letters to Allen Ginsberg 1953-1957 (1976)
  • The Third Mind (1977) (with Gysin; first English printing in 1978)
  • Ali's Smile/Naked Scientology (1978)
  • Colloque de Tangier Vol. 2 (1979) (with Bryon Gysin, Gérard-Georges Lemaire)
  • Blade Runner, A Movie (1979)
  • "Dr. Benway" (1979)
  • "Ah Pook is Here!" (1979)
  • Streets of Chance (1981)
  • Early Routines (1981)
  • Cities of the Red Night (1981) (ISBN 0030539765) - novel
  • Ah Pook is Here, Nova Express, Cities of the Red Night (1981) (ISBN 0312278462)
  • "Sinki's Sauna" (1982)
  • The Place of Dead Roads (1983) (ISBN 0312278659) - novel
  • "Ruski" (1984)
  • The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1984)
  • The Burroughs File (1984)
  • The Adding Machine: Collected Essays (1985) (ISBN 1559702109)
  • Queer (1985) (ISBN 0140083898)- novel
  • The Cat Inside (1986) (with Bryon Gysin) - novella
  • The Western Lands (1987) (ISBN 0140094563) - novel
  • The Whole Tamale (c.1987-88)
  • Interzone (1987) (ISBN 0140094512) - short stories
  • Apocalypse (1988) (with Keith Haring)
  • Tornado Alley (1989) - short stories
  • Uncommon Quotes Vol. 1 (1989)
  • Ghost of Chance (1991; later reprinted 1997) (ISBN 1852424575) - novella
  • "Seven Deadly Sins" (1992)
  • Paper Cloud; Thick Pages (1992)
  • Selected Letters (1993)
  • My Education: A Book of Dreams (1995) (ISBN 0140094547) - novel
  • Word Virus : The William Burroughs Reader (1998) (ISBN 0006552145)
  • Burroughs Live : The Collected Interviews of William S. Burroughs, 1960-1997 (2000) (ISBN 1584350105)
  • Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs (2000) (ISBN 0802137784)

Many of Burroughs' works were later republished with revisions made by the author, and/or censored material restored. Both Junkie/Junky and Naked Lunch were published in "restored" editions following Burroughs' death.

Burroughs' son, William S. Burroughs Jr., also wrote two novels: Speed and Kentucky Ham. These books are often erroneously credited to his father.

Recordings and Film

William S. Burroughs' popular 1990 spoken word CD, Dead City Radio.

Burroughs also participated on numerous album releases by Giorno Poetry Systems, including The Nova Convention and You're the Guy I Want to Spend My Money With (with John Giorno and Laurie Anderson). He was also featured doing a spoken word piece entitled "Sharkey's Night," on the Laurie Anderson album Mister Heartbreak. Burroughs also provided vocal samples for the soundtrack of Anderson's 1986 concert film, Home of the Brave and made a cameo appearance in the movie.

Burroughs appeared in a number of cameo roles in various films and videos, such as Wax: Or Discovery of Television among the Bees, 1991, where 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 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.

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 trolley with a large spotlight positioned inside it. The video ends with a close up of Burrough's eyes. Burroughs' scenes were filmed only a few weeks before his death.


  • Grauerholz, James. Word Virus. New York: Grove, 1998.
  • Miles, Barry. William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible, A Portrait, New York: Hyperion, 1992.
  • Morgan, Ted. Literary Outlaw. New York: Avon, 1988.

External links

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