William Seward Burroughs
February 5th 1914 - August 2nd 1997
William Burroughs died on Saturday August 2, 1997 at 6:50 pm in Lawrence, Kansas where he had lived since 1981.The apparent cause of his death was a heart attack suffered on Friday August 1. Burroughs was 83.
William Burroughs was the grandson of the founder of the Burroughs Adding Machine company, which evolved into the Burroughs Corporation, which made huge, now outdated mainframe computers. The Burroughs corporation eventually merged with Sperry Univac and got absorbed into Unisys.
Burroughs was born on February 5, 1914 in St. Louis, Missouri. His upper-class
midwestern background did not suit his tastes.
A bookworm with strong homoerotic urges, a fascination with guns and crime and a natural inclination to break every rule he could find, there seemed to be no way Burroughs could ever fit into normal society. His parents seemed to accept this and continued to support him financially as he experimented with various lifestyles.
In addition to Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs is credited with defining the Beat Generation. He is also the most elusive of the three. Eight years older than Kerouac and 12 years older than Ginsberg, Burroughs exercised great influence over his younger friends by exposing them to his library which consisted of authors outside the mainstream literature the students would have found on the reading lists for the courses at Columbia University. Burrough's list included Kafka, Celine, Spengler, Cocteau, Rimbaud and Wilhelm Reich.
After attending Harvard University he lived in Chicago and then moved to New York in 1943
where he met Lucien Carr, another
St. Louis native.
Through Carr, Burroughs met Ginsberg and Kerouac and the pollination of the Beat Generation, the "New Vision", the vortex, began. Burroughs would soon move into Joan Vollmer Adams' communal apartment on the upper West Side of New York City. Despite Burroughs' homosexuality, Joan would be with him until the end of her life.
His Columbia friends, particularly Kerouac and Ginsberg, were interested in Burroughs' underworld experimentation, though they would not follow him very far into it. Kerouac and Ginsberg had writing careers to keep themselves busy; by his mid-thirties Burroughs had still not begun to write.
Burroughs' introduction to this world occurred when he met a street-wise criminal who exerted an important influence on the Beat Generation vortex, Herbert Huncke. Huncke was a street-wise hustler. A good example of the fellaheen that Burroughs extolled. Oswald Spengler had written about the fellaheen in his book, Decline of the West, a book Burroughs would lend to Kerouac. The fellaheen represent the society's marginal people, at the edge of a culture in spiritual decline. Burroughs lent his copy of Spengler's book to Kerouac who also became intrigued by the concept.
At first indifferent to serious literary ideals, Burroughs wrote 'Junky,'
a heroin-tinged autobiography, and allowed Ginsberg to arrange for it's publication
as a pulp paperback by Ace Books, run by the uncle of Ginsberg's friend Carl Solomon.
Burroughs followed this by a similar study of his homosexuality, 'Queer,' but this was too much even for the pulps, and would not be published for decades.
Burroughs was the first American writer to depict gay sex in a completely explicit way -- and not simply explicitly but as over-the-top, orgiastic entertainment. He conjured a world in which the most common sexual event was anal intercourse, with the ejaculations of hanging victims running a close second. Sex is both a sacramental act and a vampiric one: Often Burroughs's characters discard their bodies during sex and colonize those of their partners. He cooked up utopias in which armies of beautiful youths, fucking one another senseless between battles against Authority, circumvent the normal reproductive process by cloning themselves.
At the same time, sex in Burroughs's universe is one of myriad addictions. Burroughs wanted to free people from the slavery of addiction, whether to heroin or money or sex. "The Garden of Earthly Delights" was his shorthand for the diseased saturnalia of American affluence. From his earliest writings Burroughs foresaw a time when human beings, drenched in orgasmic "freedom," would be reduced to their bodies, their minds completely manipulated by advertising and mass media. As intoxicated consumers people would become blind to their own exploitation.
There are moments of immense tenderness in Burroughs's novels. These usually harken back to the blow jobs and buggery of his St. Louis adolescence. Drenched in the sadness of time lost, such passages evoke the fragility of all pleasure and happiness. Like Warhol, Burroughs knew that sex is just the memory of sex. All of his writing is shaded with the certainty of death and the hope of immortality -- this is true even of the wonderful little book he wrote about cats, The Cat Inside. Burroughs was half nihilist, whose faint belief in salvation was that if it exists, it must be hidden somewhere truly unlikely and weird.
By the time he wrote Junky in the early 1950s, William S. Burroughs was well past his youth. He had traveled all over the United States, Europe, and South America and had lived the harsh, transient existence of a drug addict for over a decade. He came to literature, in other words, fully formed, with a life's worth of material under his belt. Like Joseph Conrad, whose books he revered, Burroughs started late but had everything he needed.
He was a tireless voyager in inner and outer space. Burroughs detested the limitations of living in a body and probed into anything that promised to shake his mind free from the earth plane -- Scientology, Whitley Streiber's aliens, sweat lodges, and, of course, yage, the "telepathy" drug he searched for in the jungles of Colombia and Peru. The cut-up and fold-in techniques he used to write Nova Express, The Soft Machine, and The Ticket That Exploded were intended to get beyond the limitations of the mind's repetitive language, to tap into some "third mind" just outside hearing range.
By this time Burroughs had already relocated to East Texas to try to live as a farmer, growing oranges, cotton and marijuana. Herbert Huncke and Joan Vollmer Adams joined him, and they all lived together in a state of drug-addled squalor while running the farm and raising two children, one from Joan's first marriage and one the child of Joan and Bill. Kerouac visited with Neal Cassady and others, and later described the wild scene in On The Road.
Pursued by the law for his drug activities,Burroughs took Joan and the children to Mexico,
and it was there that he committed the thoughtless act that would change his life.
Trying to show off his marksmanship to a couple of friends, he announced that he was
going to do his William Tell act.
Joan put a glass on her head and he killed her with a single shot.
Their son went to live with Burroughs' parents, and Burroughs wandered the world from South America to Tangier. He was living in Tangier while his New York friends were becoming a popular sensation as the 'Beat Generation', first in San Francisco and then all over America and the world. The writers Paul and Jane Bowles lived in Tangier too, and Tangier soon became a popular literary escape for new American celebrity writers, including Ginsberg and Kerouac. Kerouac didn't like Tangier, but he was knocked out by the messy pile of stories Burroughs had been idly writing, and he and Ginsberg helped to type them up. Kerouac also suggested a name for the whole thing: 'Naked Lunch.'
'Naked Lunch' made Burroughs an underground celebrity, and is widely considered his best work. He would go on to write many more books, plays, film scripts and essays. He went through a "cut-up" phase after 'Naked Lunch' during which he tried to compose novels from snippets of various texts. Not originally considered one of the Beat writers at all (in 1971, Bruce Cook wrote an important study of the Beat Generation in which he listed the top three Beat writers as Kerouac, Ginsberg and Gregory Corso), he is now a favorite to some, and hated by many more. Some women's groups find him offensive (he has published many nasty generalizations about women). In the early 90's, there was a zine devoted exclusively to disgust with Burrough's gender-based offences.
Guilt and regret were the impetus of his art, especially guilt over the accidental killing of his wife in what's usually described as a "drunken William Tell experiment." A later source of grief was the death of his son, Billy, who drank himself to death following a liver transplant.
Tea [marijuana] heads are not like junkies. A junky hands you the money, takes his junk and cuts. But tea heads don't do things that way. They expect the peddler to light them up and sit around talking for half an hour to sell two dollars' worth of weed... Tea heads are gregarious, they are sensitive, and they are paranoiac. If you get to be known as a "drag" or a "bring down," you can't do business with them. I soon found out I couldn't get along with theses characters and I was glad to find someone to take the tea off my hands at cost. I decided right then I would never push any more tea...
In 1937, weed was placed under the Harrison Narcotics Act. Narcotics authorities claim it is a habit forming drug, that its use is injurious to mind and body, and that it causes people who use it to commit crimes. Here are the facts: Weed is positively not habit forming. You can smoke weed for years and you will experience no discomfort if your supply is suddenly cut off...
Weed does not harm the general health. In fact, most users claim it gives you an appetite and acts as a tonic to the system. I do not know of any other agent that gives as definite a boot to the appetite. I can smoke a stick of tea and enjoy a glass of California sherry and a hash house meal...
Weed does not inspire anyone to commit crimes. I have never seen anyone get nasty under the influence of weed. Tea heads are a sociable lot. Too sociable for my liking. I cannot understand why the people who claim weed causes crimes do not follow through and demand the outlawing of alcohol. Every day, crimes are committed by drunks who would not have committed the crime sober...There has been a lot said about the aphrodisiac effect of weed. For some reason, scientists dislike to admit that there is such a thing as an aphrodisiac, so most pharmacologists say there is "no evidence to support the popular idea that weed possesses aphrodisiac properties." I can say definitely that weed is an aphrodisiac and that sex is more enjoyable under the influence of weed than without it. Anyone who has used good weed will verify this statement...
You hear that people go insane from using weed...Weed psychosis corresponds more or less to delerium tremens and quickly disappears when the drug is withdrawn. Someone who smokes a few [marijuana] cigarettes a day is no more likely to go insane than a man who takes a few cocktails before dinner is likely to come down with the D.T.'s...
One thing about weed. A man under the influence of weed is completely unfit to drive a car. Weed disturbs your sense of time and consequently your sense of spatial relations. Once, in New Orleans, I had to pull over to the side of the road and wait until the weed wore off. I could not tell how far away anything was or when to turn or put on the brakes for an intersection.
- from JUNKY by William Burroughs
Brief Article by Gary Indiana
I knew William Burroughs personally only in the last seven years of his life. He had the courtly manners of an old-fashioned gentleman and the quietly fierce aura of someone who had, without question, been through everything. Living in Lawrence, Kan., with his many cats, his goldfish in the backyard rock pool, and his prodigious collection of sword canes and firearms, Burroughs had come to terms with his demons, though they continued to haunt the dreams he painted on canvas and recorded in one of his last books, My Education. He was the spirit of rebellion in the casual wardrobe of a retired banker. He was the most important American writer of the last 50 years -- easily. He liked a vodka and Coke around 5 in the afternoon.
"So cheat your landlord if you can and must, but do not try to shortchange the Muse.
It cannot be done. You can't fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal ."
- William Burroughs
"We must find out what words are and how they function.
They become images when written down,
but images of words repeated in the mind
and not of the image of the thing itself."
- William Burroughs
William Burroughs Bibliography
Junkie (as William Lee), Ace, New York 1953.
The Naked Lunch, Olympia Press, 1959.
Minutes To Go (with Brion Gysin, Sinclair Beiles and Gregory Corso), Two Cities, Paris, 1960.
Exterminator (with Brion Gysin), Auerhahn, San Francisco 1960.
The Soft Machine, Olympia Press, Paris, 1961.
The Ticket that Exploded, Olympia Press, 1962.
Dead Fingers Talk, Calder, London, 1963.
The Yage Letters (with Allen Ginsberg), City Lights, San Francisco, 1963.
Nova Express, Grove Press, New York, 1964.
Valentines Day Reading, American Theater for Poets, New York, 1965 (limited edition)
Roosevelt after Inauguration, Fuck You Press, New York, 1965.
Time, C-Press, New York, 1965 (limited edition)
APO-33, Fuck You Press, New York, 1965. Reprinted Beach Books, 1966.
The Soft Machine (first revision), Grove Press, New York, 1966.
So Who Owns Death TV? (with Claude Pelieu and Carl Weissner), Beach Books, San Francisco, 1967.
The Ticket that Exploded (revised), Grove Press, New York, 1967.
The Soft Machine (second revision), Calder, London, 1968.
The Dead Star, Nova Broadcast Press, San Francisco, 1969.
Entretiens avec William Burroughs (WSB interviewed by Daniel Odier, issued in English as The Job), Pierre Belfond, Paris 1969.
The Job, Grove Press, New York, 1970
The Last Words of Dutch Schultz, Cape Goliard, London, 1970.
Jack Kerouac (in French; with Claude Pelieu), L'Herne, Paris, 1971.
Ali's Smile, Unicorn, Brighton, 1971 (limited edition)
The Wild Boys, Grove Press, New York, 1971.
Electronic Revolution, Blackmoor Head, Cambridge, 1971 (limited edition).
Brion Gysin Let the Mice In (by Brion Gysin, texts by WSB) Something Else, West Glover, V., 1973.
Exterminator!, Viking, New York, 1973.
White Subway, Aloes seolA, London, 1973.
Mayfair Academy Series More or Less, Urgency Rip-Off Press, Brighton, 1973.
Port of Saints, Covent Garden, London, 1973 (1975) (limited edition).
The Book of Breathing, Ou, Ingatestone, Essex, 1974 (reprinted in Ah Pook is Here).
The Job (revised edition, paperback only) New York, 1974.
Sidetripping (text to book of photographs by Charles Gatewood), Strawberry Hill, New York, 1975.
Snack, Aloes, London, 1975.
The Last Words of Dutch Schultz (revised edition), Viking, New York, 1975.
Cobble Stone Gardens, Cherry Valley Editions, Cherry Valley, New York, 1976.
The Retreat Diaries, City Moon, New York, 1976.
Colloque de Tanger (with Brion Gysin; conference papers, in French), Christian Bourgois, Paris, 1976.
Junky (unexpurgated), Penguin, New York, 1977.
Oeuvre Croise'e (French edition of The Third Mind), Flammarion, Paris, 1977.
The Third Mind (with Brion Gysin), Viking, New York, 1978.
Letters to Allen Ginsberg, Givaudon/Am Here, Geneva, 1976 (limited edition; reprinted by Full court Press, New York, 1982).
Naked Scientology (with Ali's Smile), Expanded Media, Bonn, 1978 (bilingual edition).
Colloque de Tanger, vol. 2, (with Brion Gysin and Gerard-Georges Lemaire; conference papers, in French), Christian Bourgois, Paris, 1979.
Blade Runner, A Movie, Blue Wind, Berkeley, 1979.
Dr. Benway, Brad Morrow, Santa Barbara, 1979 (limited edition).
Ah Pook is Here, Calder, London, 1979.
Port of Saints (revised edition), Blue Wind, Berkeley, 1980.
Streets of Chance, Red Ozier, New York, 1981 (limited edition).
Early Routines, Cadmus, Santa Barbara, 1981 (limited edition).
Cities of the Red Night, Holt Rinehart, New York, 1981.
Sinki's Sauna, Pequod, New York, 1982.
A William Burroughs Reader, Picador, London, 1982.
The Place of Dead Roads, Holt Rinehart, New York, 1983.
Ruski, Hand Job, New York, 1984 (limited edition).
The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (bilingual), Expanded Media, Bonn, 1984.
The Burroughs File, City Lights, San Francisco, 1984.
The Adding Machine, Calder, London, 1985.
Queer, Viking, New York, 1985.
The Cat Inside (with Brion Gysin), Greenville, New York, 1986 (limited edition).
The Western Lands, Viking, New York, 1987.
The Whole Tamale, Horse Press, nd (limited edition).
Apocalypse (with Keith Haring), Mulder Fine Arts, New York, 1988 (limited edition),
Interzone, Viking, New York, 1987.
Tornado Valley, Cherry Valley Editions, Cherry Valley, New York, 1989.
Ghost of Chance, Whitney Museum, New York, 1991 (limited edition).
Seven Deadly Sins, Lococo-Mulder Fine Arts, Los Angeles, 1992 (limited edition)
Arthur C Clarke
Theatre of Blood
Edgar Allan Poe
Grandads Potting Shed
Last updated - July 26th 2006