Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

William S. Burroughs

By Levi Asher on Wednesday, July 27, 1994 08:01 am

William Seward 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the founder of the Burroughs Adding Machine company, which evolved into the Burroughs Corporation, which made huge, now outdated mainframe computers.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 after he graduated from Harvard they continued to support him financially as he experimented with various lifestyles.

In his early thirties he traveled to New York and decided to pursue freedom by joining the city's gangster underworld. He became a heroin addict quite intentionally, in the process meeting the prototypical junkie drifter and future Beat hero Herbert Huncke. His St. Louis friends David Kammerer and Lucien Carr introduced him to a crowd of crazed young nonconformists studying at Columbia University, including Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Burroughs' future common-law wife, Joan Vollmer Adams. He was older than them, but they were impressed by his obvious intelligence and worldly cynicism. Kerouac described him as 'Tall, 6 foot 1, strange, inscrutable because ordinary looking (scrutable), like a shy bank clerk with a patrician thinlipped cold bluelipped face.'

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 William S. Burroughs had still not begun to write.

But everybody who hung around with Ginsberg and Kerouac ended up writing something. At first indifferent to serious literary ideals, Burroughs wrote 'Junky,' a heroin-tinged autobiography, and allowed Ginsberg to arrange for its 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followed this by a similar study of his homosexuality, 'Queer,' but this was too much even for the pulps, and would not be published for decades.

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 (for good reason; he has published many nasty generalizations about women). In the early 90's, there was a zine devoted exclusively to disgust with Burroughs' gender-based offenses.

I must confess that, while I admire his humor and talent with words, I find him the least appealing of the major Beat figures. Maybe this is because of his essential creepiness; it is a telling fact that he was the only major Beat figure not strongly influenced by Buddhist thought. Still, I admire the crystalline clarity and raw power of his writing. I also like his strong emphasis on personal freedom, even if I sometimes don't care for the things Burroughs chooses to do with his freedom.

A film of 'Naked Lunch', directed by the very talented David Cronenberg, earned Burroughs much attention in the early 90's. He has been cited as an inspiration by many rock musicians, and both the influential London psychedelic-scene band The Soft Machine and the American 70's jazz-rock band Steely Dan took their names from Burroughs' writings. In 1992 Kurt Cobain released an album with Burroughs, 'The Priest They Called Him' in which Cobain plays electric guitar over Burroughs' spoken voice. It is shocking to realize that Burroughs would go on to outlive Kurt Cobain.

Burroughs has a strong presence in contemporary literature, especially alternative branches like cyberpunk and modern postmodern. While he is considered part of the Beat tradition, he also stands separately as a part of the wave of pop-culture media philosophers that flourished in the 60's, along with Timothy Leary, Marshall McLuhan, Andy Warhol, Alvin Toffler, etc. The internet has a natural affinity for these media-conscious thinkers, and many web sites devoted to his work sprung up in the early days of the web.

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