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William S. BurroughsWilliam S. Burroughs

the "Godfather of the Beat Generation"

William Seward Burroughs was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on February 5, 1914. His grandfather, for whom he was named, founded the Burroughs Adding Machine Company, which evolved into the Burroughs Corporation. He attended the John Burroughs School in St. Louis, where he also published his first essay, "Personal Magnetism," in the John Burroughs Review, in 1929. He then attended The Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico, but was expelled after being caught taking chloral hydrate. After finishing high school at the Taylor School in St. Louis, he attended Harvard University, from which he received a Bachelor's Degree in English in 1936.

After leaving Harvard, Burroughs traveled to Europe. While in Austria, he met Ilse Klapper, a Jewish woman fleeing the Nazis. Although the two were not romantically involved (for Burroughs had by now begun to explore his homosexual tendencies), Burroughs agreed to marry her so that she could gain entry into the United States. The two eventually divorced, but they remained friends for many years.

Returning to the United States, Burroughs returned to Harvard as a graduate student in anthropology. He later enrolled briefly at the Medical School in Vienna, Austria. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942, but was discharged for psychological reasons.

In 1944, Burroughs began living with Joan Vollmer Adams, the wife of a soldier serving overseas, in an apartment they shared with Jack Kerouac and Edie Parker, in New York City. He also became addicted to morphine at about this time, while Vollmer developed an addiction to Benzedrine, an over-the-counter decongestant inhalant. Because of her addiction and her social circle, Vollmer's husband divorced her upon his return to the states. Soon after, Burroughs was arrested for forging a narcotics prescription and sentenced to return to his parents' care in St. Louis; Vollmer, meanwhile, was committed to the psychiatric ward of Bellevue Hospital. Returning to New York in 1947, Burroughs checked Vollmer out of Bellevue and the two (along with Vollmer's daughter) moved to Texas. Their son, William S. Burroughs, Jr., was born there in 1947.

Moving to New Orleans in 1948, Burroughs again found himself in legal trouble when he was accused of trafficking in marijuana. Rather than face a possible stint in Louisiana's notorious Angola State Prison, Burroughs decided to flee to Mexico, where he planned to stay until the five-year statute of limitations had run its course; Vollmer and their children soon joined him there.

In 1951, following a day of drinking and drugs, Burroughs accidentally shot and killed Vollmer. He spent thirteen days in a Mexico City jail before the killing was ruled accidental. Vollmer's daughter was sent to live with her grandmother, and William S. Burroughs, Jr., was sent to live with his grandparents in St. Louis. This incident would change Burroughs' life forever. In a biography published in 1982, Burroughs said: "I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out."

After Vollmer's death, Burroughs spent several months wandering through South America in quest of a drug called Yage, which was said to ease opiate addiction. He produced his first two novels during this period: Junkie, Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict, an exploration of his heroin addiction, and Queer, in which he explored his homosexuality. He also compiled correspondence with Allen Ginsberg about his search for and experiences with Yage as The Yage Letters. Junkie was published in 1953 under the pen name William Lee. The Yage Letters and Queer were not published until 1963 and 1985, respectively.

It was while visiting Rome and Morocco, however, that Burroughs began writing the novel which would become his most important and well-known work. Published in Europe in 1959, The Naked Lunch used unconventional writing techniques to depict an underground world fighting a technological society that was self-destructing. Burroughs wrote the book without using standard narrative prose. Instead, he used abrupt transitions, placed the chapters in random order and wrote in a stream-of consciousness style that he called the "cut-up technique." The book became popular within the counterculture of the 1960's, especially because many countries banned publication of the book outright. Upon publication in the United States, in 1962, The Naked Lunch was actually 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. Not surprisingly, the obscenity trial made The Naked Lunch even more popular among the growing counterculture, and Burroughs soon became known as the "Godfather of the Beat Generation."

Burroughs continued his unconventional "cut-up" technique in subsequent books, including The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket that Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1964).

In 1974, Burroughs returned to New York City, where Allen Ginsberg helped him get the first actual job he had ever had -- teaching writing at City College of New York. About this same time he met James Grauerholz, who became his personal secretary and helped renew Burroughs' career by scheduling readings across the country and in Europe.

Burroughs' son, who had become a famous novelist in his own right, died of liver cancer in 1981. (He had also inherited his father's penchant for drugs and alcohol.)

Burroughs began using drugs again and Grauerholz, who went to school at the University of Kansas, convinced Burroughs to move to Lawrence, Kansas, in 1981. It would prove to be one of the best moves Burroughs would ever make, as he was able to once again get off the drugs and resume his literary career.

After the move, Burroughs began to write more conventional narratives, including Place of the Dead Roads (1984) and The Western Lands (1987). He also began a second career as a visual artist, as well as writing screenplays, co-creating a play (The Black Rider), appearing in films (Drugstore Cowboy and Twister), writing an opera text, and even appearing in a Nike television ad. He was inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1983. In 1991, director David Cronenberg adapted The Naked Lunch into a full-length feature film, which opened to critical acclaim. Through the 1990's, Burroughs produced several spoken word recordings.

Burroughs suffered a heart attack on August 1, 1997, and died at Lawrence Memorial Hospital the following day. He is interred in the family plot in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri. A few months after his death, a collection of writings spanning his entire career was published under the title Word Virgus. A collection of journal entries written during the final months of his life was published under the title Last Words.

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The Robinson Library >> Linguistics, Languages, and Literatures >> American Literature >> 1900-1960

This page was last updated on 02/05/2017.