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William S. Burroughs
Burroughs in 1983
Burroughs in 1983
Born William Seward Burroughs II
(1914-02-05)February 5, 1914
St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.
Died August 2, 1997(1997-08-02) (aged 83)
Lawrence, Kansas, U.S.
Pen name William Lee
Occupation Author
Alma mater Harvard University
Genre Beat literature, surrealism
Literary movement Beat Generation, postmodernism
Notable works Junkie (1953)
Naked Lunch (1959)
The Nova Trilogy (1961–1964)
Cities of the Red Night (1981)
The Place of Dead Roads (1983)
Spouse Ilse Klapper (1937–1946)
Joan Vollmer (1946–1951)
Children William S. Burroughs Jr.
Relatives William Seward Burroughs I (grandfather)
Ivy Lee (maternal uncle)


William Seward Burroughs II ( February 5, 1914 – August 2, 1997) was an American writer and visual artist, widely considered a primary figure of the Beat Generation and a major postmodern author who influenced popular culture and literature. Burroughs wrote eighteen novels and novellas, six collections of short stories and four collections of essays, and five books have been published of his interviews and correspondences; he was initially briefly known by the pen name William Lee. He also collaborated on projects and recordings with numerous performers and musicians, made many appearances in films, and created and exhibited thousands of visual artworks, including his celebrated "Shotgun Art". Burroughs is perhaps best known for his third novel, Naked Lunch (1959).

Burroughs is often called one of the greatest and most influential writers of the 20th century.

Early life and education

Burroughs was born in 1914, the younger of two sons born to Mortimer Perry Burroughs (June 16, 1885 – January 5, 1965) and Laura Hammon Lee (August 5, 1888 – October 20, 1970). His family was of prominent English ancestry in St. Louis, Missouri. His grandfather, William Seward Burroughs I, founded the Burroughs Adding Machine company, which evolved into the Burroughs Corporation. Burroughs' mother was Laura Hammond Lee Burroughs, whose brother, Ivy Lee, was an advertising pioneer later employed as a publicist for the Rockefellers. His father ran an antique and gift shop, Cobblestone Gardens in St. Louis; and later in Palm Beach, Florida when they relocated. Burroughs would later write of growing up in a "family where displays of affection were considered embarrassing".

It was during his childhood that Burroughs' developed a lifelong interest in magic and the occult – topics which would find their way into his work repeatedly across the years. Burroughs later described how he saw an apparition of a green reindeer in the woods as a child, which he identified as a totem animal, as well as a vision of ghostly grey figures at play in his bedroom.

As a boy, Burroughs lived on Pershing Avenue (now Pershing Place) in St. Louis' Central West End. He attended John Burroughs School in St. Louis where his first published essay, "Personal Magnetism" – which revolved around telepathic mind-control – was printed in the John Burroughs Review in 1929. He then attended the Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico, which was stressful for him. According to his own account, he left the school of his own will: "During the Easter vacation of my second year I persuaded my family to let me stay in St. Louis."

William S. Burroughs' childhood home
William S. Burroughs' childhood home on Pershing Place in St. Louis

Burroughs attended Harvard University, studied English, studied anthropology as a postgraduate, and attended medical school in Vienna. In 1942, Burroughs enlisted in the U.S. Army to serve during World War II, but was turned down by the Office of Strategic Services and the Navy. In 1943, while living in New York City, he befriended Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Their mutual influence became the foundation of the Beat Generation, which was later a defining influence on the 1960s counterculture.

Joan Vollmer

In 1944, Burroughs began living with Joan Vollmer Adams in an apartment they shared with Jack Kerouac and Edie Parker, Kerouac's first wife. Vollmer soon became pregnant with Burroughs' child. Their son, William S. Burroughs Jr., was born in 1947.

In 1950, Burroughs, Vollmer and their children moved to Mexico. Their life in Mexico was by all accounts an unhappy one.

One night while at a party in the American-owned Bounty Bar in Mexico City, Burroughs, unsober, killed Vollmer while attempting to perform a "William Tell" stunt. Soon after the incident, Burroughs changed his account, claiming that he had dropped his gun and it had accidentally fired. Burroughs spent 13 days in jail before his brother came to Mexico City and bribed Mexican lawyers and officials to release Burroughs on bail. After Burroughs returned to the United States, he was convicted of manslaughter in absentia and received a two-year suspended sentence.

Vollmer's daughter, Julie Adams, went to live with her grandmother, and William S. Burroughs Jr. went to St. Louis to live with his grandparents.

Burroughs described Vollmer's death as a pivotal event in his life, and one that provoked his writing by exposing him to the risk of possession by a malevolent entity he called "the Ugly Spirit":

Literary career

While heavily experimental and featuring unreliable narrators, much of Burroughs' work is semiautobiographical. He lived variously in Mexico City, London, Paris and the Tangier International Zone near Morocco, and traveled in the Amazon rainforest, with these locations featuring in many of his novels and stories. With Brion Gysin, Burroughs popularized the cut-up, an aleatory literary technique, featuring heavily in works such as The Nova Trilogy (1961–1964). Burroughs' work also features frequent mystical, occult, or otherwise magical themes, which were a constant preoccupation for Burroughs, both in fiction and in real life.

Burroughs' major works can be divided into four different periods:

Early work (early 1950s)
Junkie, Queer and The Yage Letters are relatively straightforward linear narratives, written in and about Burroughs' time in Mexico City and South America.
The cut-up period (mid-1950s to mid-1960s) includes such works as Naked Lunch , The Word Hoard, The Soft Machine, Nova Express, The Ticket That Exploded.
Experiment and subversion (mid-1960s to mid-1970s)
This period saw Burroughs continue experimental writing with increased political content and branching into multimedia such as film and sound recording. Perhaps the defining and most important of which works is The Third Mind (with Brion Gysin) announced in 1966 and not published until the late '70s. The only major novels written in this period are The Wild Boys, and Port of Saints (republished in a different rewritten form in 1980, in the style Burroughs would adopt at that time). However he also wrote dozens of published articles, short stories, scrap books and other works, several in collaboration with Brion Gysin. The major anthologies representing work from this period are The Burroughs File, The Adding Machine and Exterminator!.
The Red Night trilogy (mid-1970s to mid-1980s)
The books Cities of the Red Night, The Place of Dead Roads and The Western Lands came from Burroughs in a final, mature stage, creating a complete mythology.

Burroughs also produced numerous essays and a large body of autobiographical material, including a book with a detailed account of his own dreams (My Education: A Book of Dreams).

Burroughs moved to Lawrence, Kansas in 1981, taking up residence at 1927 Learnard Avenue where he would spend the rest of his life. He once told a Wichita Eagle reporter that he was content to live in Kansas, saying, "The thing I like about Kansas is that it's not nearly as violent, and it's a [...] lot cheaper. And I can get out in the country and fish and shoot and whatnot." In 1984, he signed a seven-book deal with Viking Press after he signed with literary agent Andrew Wylie. This deal included the publication rights to the unpublished 1952 novel Queer. With this money he purchased a small bungalow for $29,000. He was finally inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1983 after several attempts by Allen Ginsberg to get him accepted. He attended the induction ceremony in May 1983. Lawrence Ferlinghetti remarked the induction of Burroughs into the Academy proved Herbert Marcuse's point that capitalistic society had a great ability to incorporate its one-time outsiders.

By this point, Burroughs was a counterculture icon. In his final years, he cultivated an entourage of young friends who replaced his aging contemporaries. In the 1980s he collaborated with performers ranging from Bill Laswell's Material and Laurie Anderson to Throbbing Gristle. Burroughs and R.E.M. collaborated on the song "Star Me Kitten" on the Songs in the Key of X: Music from and Inspired by the X-Files album. In 1989, he appeared with Matt Dillon in Gus Van Sant's film, Drugstore Cowboy. In 1990, he released the spoken word album Dead City Radio, with musical backup from producers Hal Willner and Nelson Lyon, and alternative rock band Sonic Youth. He collaborated with Tom Waits and director Robert Wilson on The Black Rider, a play that opened at the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg in 1990 to critical acclaim, one that was later performed across Europe and the U.S. In 1991, with Burroughs' approval, director David Cronenberg adapted Naked Lunch into a feature film, which opened to critical acclaim.

During 1982, Burroughs developed a painting technique whereby he created abstract compositions by placing spray paint cans in front of blank surfaces, and then shooting at the paint cans with a shotgun. These splattered and shot panels and canvasses were first exhibited in the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York City in 1987. By this time he had developed a comprehensive visual art practice, using ink, spray paint, collage and unusual things such as mushrooms and plungers to apply the paint. He created file-folder paintings featuring these mediums as well as "automatic calligraphy" inspired by Brion Gysin. He originally used the folders to mix pigments before observing that they could be viewed as art in themselves. He also used many of these painted folders to store manuscripts and correspondence in his personal archive Until his last years, he prolifically created visual art. Burroughs' work has since been featured in more than fifty international galleries and museums including Royal Academy of the Arts, Centre Pompidou, Guggenheim Museum, ZKM Karlsruhe, Sammlung Falckenberg, New Museum, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Los Angeles County Museum, and Whitney Museum of American Art.

In 1990, Burroughs was honored with a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.

In June 1991, Burroughs underwent triple bypass surgery.

In 1983, Burroughs was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1984, he was awarded the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by France. Jack Kerouac called Burroughs the "greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift". J. G. Ballard considered Burroughs to be "the most important writer to emerge since the Second World War", while Norman Mailer declared him "the only American writer who may be conceivably possessed by genius".

William S. Burroughs and James Grauerholz in the alley behind the Jazzhaus in Lawrence, Kansas (1996)

He became a member of a chaos magic organization, the Illuminates of Thanateros, in 1993.

He was a voice actor in the 1995 video game The Dark Eye based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, in which he recites "Annabel Lee".

Burroughs' last filmed performance was in the music video for "Last Night on Earth" by Irish rock band U2, filmed in Kansas City, Missouri, directed by Richie Smyth and also featuring Sophie Dahl.


Burroughs died August 2, 1997, in Lawrence, Kansas, from complications of a heart attack he had suffered the previous day. He was interred in the family plot in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri, with a marker bearing his full name and the epitaph "American Writer". His grave lies to the right of the white granite obelisk of William Seward Burroughs I (1857–1898).

Posthumous works

Since 1997, several posthumous collections of Burroughs' work have been published. A few months after his death, a collection of writings spanning his entire career, Word Virus, was published (according to the book's introduction, Burroughs himself approved its contents prior to his death). Aside from numerous previously released pieces, Word Virus also included what was promoted as one of the few surviving fragments of And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a novel by Burroughs and Kerouac. The complete Kerouac/Burroughs manuscript And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks was published for the first time in November 2008.

A collection of journal entries written during the final months of Burroughs' life was published as the book Last Words in 2000. Publication of a memoir by Burroughs entitled Evil River by Viking Press has been delayed several times; after initially being announced for a 2005 release, online booksellers indicated a 2007 release, complete with an ISBN (ISBN: 0-670-81351-6), but it remains unpublished.

New enlarged or unexpurgated editions of numerous texts have been published in recent years as "Restored Text" or "Redux" editions all containing additional material and essays on the works or incorporating material edited out of previous versions.

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See also

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