• James Letter

The frenzied life of William S. Burroughs

“Desperation is the raw material of drastic change. Only those who can leave behind everything they have ever believed in can hope to escape”


William S. Burroughs is one of the most acclaimed and thought-provoking writers of the previous generation. He began writing at around 1945 at the age of roughly thirty, and continued to write novels, essays and produce visual art until his death in 1997. He was one of the more influential members of the Beat Generation, pioneering a postmodern writing style which will be elaborated on in a later paragraph. Alongside other members of the Beat Generation, he regularly indulged in drugs and alcohol, which became a driving force behind many of the themes he explores through his writing. However, he took it one step further, and began suffering from a severe heroin addiction; his first novel ‘Junkie’ published in 1953, was semi-autobiographical and explored his unwavering dependence for heroin and its effect on his life. It was not until 1958 until Burroughs claimed to have been ‘cured’ - he wrote of this in the introduction to his 1959 novel (and his most noteworthy work) ‘Naked Lunch’ after being ascribed an unorthodox treatment in London wherein he was administered apomorphine as a substitute, which is a drug that primarily treats those with Parkinson’s disease. Burroughs was also notoriously a homosexual - his 1985 novel ‘Queer’ (written between 1951-53) is again a semi-autobiographical investigation into his own life experience, detailing his search for a drug named ‘Yage’ (Ayouasca) in South America whilst engaging in varying homosexual acts.


Burroughs was born in 1914 into a wealthy, successful family. He was sent to an acclaimed boarding school, which he severely disliked; it was here where he began to discover his sexuality, keeping journals detailing an attraction to another boy. He hereafter cast these aside and hid his homosexuality for many years from his family, even going as far as to marry after graduating - his homosexuality only became wide-known after Naked Lunch was publicised in 1959. He left the school early, citing that he had persuaded his family to do so, yet other accounts suggest he was expelled for drug use.


In 1932, he arrived at Harvard University to pursue an arts degree - although he finished his studies in 1936 (without honours), he later wrote about how much he despised studying there; he stated that ‘everything about the place was dead’. Burroughs immediately began to travel Europe after graduating, partaking in the LGBT culture there. He met and later married a Jewish woman in 1937 (against the wishes of her parents) whom he befriended; she was fleeing from the Nazis and required a Visa to the United States. They were involved in a non-sexual relationship with each other, a marriage based on pure necessity, as Burroughs continued to indulge in Viennese young men throughout the entire extravaganza. After travelling Europe, Burroughs had strangely enough applied to the army (presumably at the pushing of his parents), however was declared a paranoid schizophrenic after cutting off a piece of his finger (he revealed that a drunken Van-Gogh inspired epiphany forced him to do this; however, other accounts state it was to impress another man1) and was not allowed entry into the forces. It was at this point where Burroughs came to the realisation that a conventional life adorned with wealth and a family was not for him, and began to live with little regard to the security of his future (first using heroin in the year of 1944). He owed his family for being able to do this; their wealth and esteem propelled him along his journey as they bestowed unto him a fixed trust fund, fuelling his hedonistic activity, his raucous escapades across Tangiers, his frequent visitations of gay bars, and his wild drug-fuelled misadventures. This funding meant that Burroughs had little motivation or reason to find employment.


It was during these strange years in which Burroughs became acquainted with what would later become known as the members of the Beat Generation. He had already cultivated a friendship with poet Allen Ginsberg whom he met at Columbia University (Burroughs had​ very briefly studied anthropology there and had dropped out). After he was finally discharged from the army, he travelled to New York City with friend Lucien Carr, another member of this generation, and met Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg whom he was involved in close friendships with for the years to come. Burroughs ended up living with Kerouac and his first wife, Edie Parker, in 1944, and a woman named Joan Parker. Their friend Lucien (earlier mentioned) had murdered a man stalking him that year, with Burroughs and co. helping him hide the body and the weapon - they later were in trouble with law enforcement. This inspired Burroughs first genuine foray into writing longer stories, collaborating with Kerouac to write a novel called And the Hippos were Boiled in their Tanks. It was unable to get published until after his death in 2008.


At this time, Burroughs was seriously addicted to heroin. He was now even selling it, and Joan Vollmer (his housemate) began using drugs alongside Burroughs; after she divorced her husband, Burroughs became ‘intellectually and emotionally linked’ with her, and they later married (although it was never finalised). Vollmer had been admitted to a psychiatric ward temporarily which had prompted Burroughs to lend his helping hand, fearing the sanctity of her first child. They had their own child in 1947, appropriately named William S. Burroughs Jr., who later became a writer himself before dying of alcohol-related cirrhosis fourteen years before his father’s death, at the age of 33.

In 1951, an event happened which Burroughs cited as the catalyst for his literary career: he had killed Vollmer in a William Tell act gone wrong in 1951. The story of this has changed accordingly over the years; Burroughs later admitted that he had dropped the gun before, causing it to set off. This generated great suspicion, as Burroughs and Vollmer’s relationship was becoming increasingly fractured upon moving to Mexico; Burroughs was suffering from heroin withdrawals and began to engage in coitus with men again to satisfy himself, and Vollmer became further deranged and critical of his behaviour. After a number of years Burroughs was finally acquitted of the charges after his brother had bribed Mexican prison guards (he had only been imprisoned for 13 days). He then began writing furiously, all whilst travelling South America in search of a drug called Yage- it was then where he wrote his third novel The Yage Diaries which was published in 1963 and arguably a major inspiration for some parts of his most decorated work, the 1959 novel Naked Lunch.

Throughout his childhood, Burroughs was obsessed with the occult and magic, which many believe to be a driving force behind his addictive personality and desire for perception-altering narcotics - it is a theme that is explored in many of his adult works. He believed himself to be ‘possessed’ by an ‘ugly spirit’. Matthew Levi Stephens has mentioned that Burroughs’ use of cut-up techniques and disjointed prose was some form of method to protect himself from this possession. In an interview with friend Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs admitted that he partakes in a ‘Shamanic’ ceremony with the aim of exorcising himself from this demon. He was also known to partake in various magical practices in seeking out visions and messages, and was even said to cast curses on those whom he did not take a liking to.


Very soon after being released from prison Burroughs had finished his first complete novel ​Junkie, ​which soon found a publisher in 1953 thanks to the vigorous efforts of Ginsberg in finding one. Although controversial in content, its writing style was far more conventional than some of Burrough’s later works, and its relative success inspired Burroughs to continue writing. Burroughs and Ginsberg lived together during this period, before the former moved onto Rome, before quickly becoming bored and moving to the Tangier international Zone; yet another location thought to play a part in his next novel ​Naked Lunch, under the pseudonym ​‘Interzone’.It was here wherein Burroughs began writing ​Naked Lunch, ​an amalgamation of snippets from his crazed life disordered and mashed up into a concoction of nonlinear events and images. It was over this period where he suffered worst from his heroin addiction, before improving in 1957 after finding the apomorphine cure; it was during this year when Ginsberg and Kerouac came to live with him and helped edit the messiness of ​Naked Lunch into some form of loose coherence.


The text began as a series of vignettes, or what Burroughs referred to as ‘routines’ being written from the perspective of his alter ego, William Lee (the name which he published ​Junkie under). The novel was non-chronological, to the effect that one can start reading at any point and still enjoy its content, depicting various strange places visited by the protagonist and various masochistic characters. Its blunt descriptions of highly controversial and graphic homosexual acts, sodomy, medical examinations gone wrong, murder, necrophilia, physical torture and the effects of heroin addiction gave it the title of one of the most polarising works of the 20th century. Random extracts were released in The Chicago Review ​in 1958 to drum up some popularity and make it known to publishers, resulting in those particular issues being banned. Eventually,​ Olympia Press decided to publish the book in France in 1959 after Burroughs had moved to Paris for a short time; it was not until 1962 when it hit the shelves of the United States.

Following its release in the US a number of bans in states followed, outlawing the immediate sale of the book; one book store owner was arrested in Boston in 1963 for selling it. Yet this did not diminish its popularity; it exchanged hands in the underground book market, garnering somewhat of a cult following and impressing various literary critics and authors. Finally, in 1965, the book was put on trial and those defending its publication cited that it had social value. After a loss and an appeal, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled for Naked Lunch ​to be uncensored and sold henceforth.

Burroughs was now a big figure in literature; he had achieved fame, alongside friends Kerouac and Ginsberg who had gained popularity from novel On the Road ​and extended poem Howl ​in the years preceding, and they became widely known as the Beat Generation. In the years between 1959 and ‘62, Burroughs resided in what was known as the Beat Hotel for several months, alongside writers such as Gregory Corso and Peter Orlovksy, experimenting with drugs and occult-like techniques, causing Burroughs to have distinct self-induced hallucinations. The notoriety of Naked Lunch caused Burroughs to release short texts in quick succession afterwards also favouring the famous cut-up technique that he incidentally also picked up at the​ Beat Hotel ​under the influence of writer and painter Brion Gysin.

Burroughs moved on to release what was referred to as the Nova Trilogy; ​the first of the three novels T he Soft Machine, released in 1961 and​ written in the same style as ​Naked Lunch and involving many of the same characters, and involves Burroughs giving an account of his recovery from drug addiction. The second was published only a year later entitled The Ticket that Exploded.This novel marked Burroughs entrance into the Science-fiction genre, and examined his ideas for a social revolution through using technology. The cut-up style was taken to an extreme in this novel as passages from the other two books of the trilogy were repeated and rearranged throughout at random intervals. The final book N​ova Express hit​ the shelves in 1964, developing from the style of ​The Ticket that Exploded ​which Burroughs called the ‘fold-in’ method, a version of the cut-up. This is still regarded as one of Burroughs’ greatest works, and perhaps is better when not compared to the other members of the trilogy as critics state that the fold-in method of repeated passages of homoerotic fantasies became tedious if the books were read from start to finish. It is well esteemed amongst many sci-fi novels, and serves as somewhat of an homage to apomorphine, the treatment which Burroughs credits as curing his addiction, which he promoted throughout the rest of his years. It is of note that he was living in London for much of this period, which is where he was cured.


The next years of Burroughs life involved him relapsing back into his addiction and releasing little; he reconvened with his son and they began to build a relationship, although his son had been arrested on charges of prescription fraud; he supported himself and his addiction through writing various articles for magazines and collecting royalties from his previous work, for example receiving a large sum of money to write for Playboy, ​and worked alongside writer Jean Genet when working for magazine Esquire. ​Eventually, Burroughs managed to find his groove yet again, and released two more novels. It was at this point where Burroughs left his experimental writing style behind and began to publish more conventional work; in 1969, the novel written akin to a screenplay The Last Words of Dutch Schultz​ was released, before his full return to ordinary prose came alongside the book TheWildBoys​in 1971.

Unsurprisingly, Burroughs was engaged somewhat with the Church of Scientology; he cites that the study of the religion could potentially produce fantastic results, yet still criticised it for being a somewhat self-centred religion which was not accepting of critical discussion. He wrote a review of ​Inside Scientology by Robert Kaufmann which generated intense judgement from those involved in the religion, hereafter justifying his decision to leave the faction altogether.

Burroughs briefly dabbled in teaching creative writing in New York in 1974, yet only lasted one semester, dubbing his pupils uncreative and boring. At this point in his life Burroughs was phenomenally broke and in dire need for some steady income, as his previous two novels had not been major successes. Twenty-one year old Beat enthusiast James Grauerholz essentially saved his life, promoting reading tours for Burroughs to do alongside bands. The income Burroughs gained from this supported him for a number of decades afterwards, and generated more popularity as he became a somewhat celebrity author due to these public appearances and strange, distinct voice. Burroughs enjoyed a relatively lukewarm few years having finally rid himself of addiction, and enjoyed his time in the limelight; he became friends with artist Andy Warhol, and often frequented live jazz shows alongside friends and other Beat enthusiasts.


Burroughs’ son (who was referred to as Billy to avoid confusion) had written two novels during the 1970s which had received decent acclaim, in similar styles to his father. They had a fractured relationship throughout his childhood however, due to their similar interests, became closer as the son grew from teen to young man. Despite this, Billy had his own problems; both his father and mother were lifelong drug addicts, which left him certainly predisposed to the same fate. After not seeing his son for a year, Billy began to vomit blood at the dinner table due to his heavy drinking; his marriage had disintegrated and he had turned to the bottle for years on end, often not contacting friends or family for months at a time during his darkest days. Billy made a full recovery against the odds, however, and his father remained with him until 1977 to help him through many subsequent stomach surgeries.

Burroughs moved back to London and began work on his next trilogy of novels, released in 1981, ‘83 and ‘87. Initially rejected by Burroughs’ long time collaborator for being too mash-up, Burroughs and his secretary Grauerholz edited the first of the three into a more coherent shape. Despite it finally being published, there views were mixed to bad, with acclaimed author of AClockwork Orange and critic Anthony Burgess sternly casting aside the first of the three as ‘boring’ and implying that Burroughs was regressing as a writer. Some fans still remained and enjoyed it, yet it seemed that his glory days were coming to an end.


When Billy Burroughs and his father first met again in Tangiers when the former was 14 years old, both of their lives were bleak. Burroughs boyfriend at the time was not a fan of a teenager throwing spanners in their works and mistreated him, and Billy himself stated that at multiple times people attempted to rape him in Tangiers, going as far as writing an essay addressed to his father and revealing that he was molested by one of his friends, with Burroughs’ Sr. granting him permission. He had a disjointed life, and had cut off contact from his father in 1977 after he had left for London. He was driven back to the bottle, and was found dead in 1981 by a stranger. Bear in mind that from 1979 Burroughs was once again addicted to heroin, and throughout his life struggled with this addiction; the death of his son was not likely to help him through this. Even when his death came in 1997, he was on a methadone replacement. Interestingly, Burroughs denounced the claim of ‘Once an addict, always an addict’ he had made in his first novel Junkie, citing that apomorphine made him question this statement in a later interview. However, many argue against this due to Burroughs’ multiple relapses and need for replacements until his death. He also stated that the effects of heroin and other drugs on his health were minimal in this interview, which has also been called into question.

He moved to Kansas, seemingly unfazed by his son’s death the same year, signing a seven-book deal with Viking Press which granted him steady income until his death. His unpublished work, Queer ​(mentioned earlier, written as a sequel to Junkie) ​was thus published in 1984. Burroughs popularity was now off the scale, a ‘counterculture icon’. He enjoyed an emphatic few years ahead, engaging with pop culture and bands inspired by his works. He even collaborated with Kurt Cobain at one point and released a number of spoken word albums. Burroughs began to flourish in terms of visual art, developing a technique where he would place spray cans next to blank canvases and shoot at them with a shotgun; he generated decent income through selling his abstract paintings and his work features in a number of museums. He kept doing heroin throughout this period with various young members of pop culture, with many of them coming out after his death and telling tales of varying hilarity regarding the elder’s strange antics. He underwent triple bypass surgery in 1991 and enjoyed a rather quiet next six years before passing away due to heart complications in 1997.

William S. Burroughs lived an emphatic life, full-to-the-brim with almost situations one can regard as strange or wacky. Surprisingly, out of the original members of the Beat Generation, he lived the longest, until the ripe age of 83, despite arguably having more run-ins with drugs and alcohol than any of his contemporaries. He was a wildly intelligent human being with a wide range of interests and ideas that were permeated throughout his literary career. He has gained a somewhat cult following from his works such as ​Naked Lunch ​and Junkie, ​and is still talked about aplenty today. His morose, unconventional explorations of addiction, the human psyche, totalitarianism and magic still resonate with many, and his works are something that has yet to be truly replicated in the world of art. Fourteen years before his death the documentary ​Burroughs: the Movie was released, a true homage to one of the most fantastical minds that graced the 20th century.

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