Icons in Focus: William S. Burroughs


Today marks the 100th birth anniversary of American postmodernist author and one of the key figures of the Beat Generation, William S. Burroughs.

Photo via Flavorwire

William Seward Burroughs II was born on February 5, 1914 to an affluent and influential family in St. Louis, Missouri. His affinity for writing manifested at an early age. He was only 8 years old when he began to pen his own stories. At 15, his first published essay appeared in the John Burroughs Review. Around that time he also kept journals that chronicle “an erotic attachment to another boy,” but later on destroyed them out of shame – Burroughs would be repressing his sexuality until adulthood.

Burroughs was an alumna of the prestigious Harvard University, where he graduated from in 1936 with bachelor’s degree in American literature. After briefly pursuing graduate studies in anthropology in Harvard, psychology and anthropology in Columbia University, and medicine in University of Vienna in Austria, he traveled across Europe and became involved with other gay intellectuals. It was in this circle where he met Ilse Klapper, a German Jewish woman whom he agreed to marry for her to be able to enter the United States. They divorced after the war.

By 1939, it became obvious to Burroughs’ family that his emotional health was on a decline. He famously cut off his left little finger with a pair of shears due to heartbreak caused by unreciprocated infatuation for another man. One of his short stories, “The Finger,” was based on this.

After abovementioned episode, Burroughs was admitted to a psychiatric facility for a period of time. In 1942 he was drafted in the military, but was disheartened when he wasn’t classified as an officer. With the help of his mother, Burroughs was discharged some months after on the grounds that he suffered a “previous mental instability.”

Burroughs (far right) with (from left) Carl Solomon, Patti Smith, and Allen Ginsberg in 1977. Photo via Wikipedia

Burroughs took on different jobs like being an insect exterminator before following Lucien Carr and David Kammerer, two of his friends from St. Louis, to New York City in 1944. There, they shared an apartment with Jack Kerouc and his first wife Edie Parker, and Joan Vollmer, Burroughs’s partner. Burroughs would also meet Allen Ginsberg during his stay there. Later on, Burroughs, Kerouac, and Ginsberg would become known as the central figures of the 1950s “Beat Generation.”

Boroughs and Kerouac, 1953. Photo via The New York Times

Unfortunately, Burroughs and Kerouac would get into trouble after failing to report Carr’s murder of Kammerer. The two would collaborate on the novel And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks based on this mishap.

Around this time, Burroughs was already dealing with a heavy addiction to morphine to the point where he’d also sell the drug to support it. Vollmer, who later on became his common-law-wife, was likewise addicted but to the over-the-counter amphetamine drug called Benzedrine. Burroughs had several run-ins with the law, all involving drugs, before accidentally killing Vollmer in 1951 at a party in a bar in Mexico after drunkenly attempting to shoot a glass balanced on the latter’s head. The two had a son, William S. Burroughs, Jr., born in 1947. While awaiting trial, Burroughs began writing what would become his novel Queer. Vollmer’s death was said to have impacted Burroughs and his work for the rest of his life. Following his release from prison Burroughs went on a trip to South America in search of a drug called yage, which supposedly gave its users telepathic powers. Burroughs’ addiction to drug continued on for most of his life.

“Naked Lunch” first edition published by Olympia Press, Paris in July 1959 with misprinted title. Photo via Reality Studio

Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict was Burroughs’ first published semi-autobiographical novel released in 1953, published under the pen name William Lee. His most famous work, the controversial Naked Lunch (1959), was written while in Tangier, Morocco where he lived for four years beginning in 1954. Apparently, Tangier was said to be a city where activities that Burroughs fancied were easier to do.

After Tangier, Burroughs would also have stints in Paris’ “Beat Hotel” and London in the ‘60s, where he would seek treatment for his heroin addiction. But by then, and despite being known for his addiction, Burroughs was already an established literary figure.

William S. Burroughs in 1988. Photo via They Live

In 1981 Burroughs finally settled in Lawrence, Kansas, where he died on August 2, 1997 (83) due to complications of a heart attack he suffered the day before. At the time of his death, Burroughs had written 14 novels and long fiction, 12 non-fiction works including compilations of letters, 25 stories and novellas, and 14 other works in collaboration with other writers. Although a number of critics frowned upon Burroughs’ works, he is nevertheless regarded as one of the greatest and most influential writers of the 20th century. He was not only admired but was also an inspiration to other writers. His legacy wasn’t confined within the literary world, either; in one way or another, Burroughs and his work inspired several songs, band names, film, and television.

All information in this article were sourced from the Wikipedia pages of William S. Burroughs and William S. Burroughs’ bibliography, American National Biography Online, and Famous Authors. Further information about William S. Burroughs may also be found in these websites.

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written by chooolss on 2014-02-05 in #lifestyle #icons-in-focus #william-s-burroughs #william-lee

One Comment

  1. bsdunek
    bsdunek ·

    Too bad he had so many problems, especially mental problems. He could have been a great man, but it was not to be. The 'Beat Generation' led into the 60'a Hippie movement which went much farther into drugs and scummy lifestyle. I knew Jack Kerouacs baby sister in college in the 50's. She was pretty nice and intelligent, with out all the problems of drugs and sex. Haven't seen her since, but hope she made out OK.

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