William Burroughs - Biography
William Burroughs (1914-1997) was more than just a homosexual who got away with murdering his second wife, Joan Villmer, after shooting her in the head. However, William Burroughs’s misogyny, misanthropy, and drug addiction flavor the literary works that made Burroughs a significant figure in American letters in the twentieth century. Burroughs was a renowned novelist, predominant member of the Beat movement. In addition, he was also called “the Godfather of Punk.” Allen Ginsberg praised William Burroughs by saying Burroughs was so interesting and intelligent and worldly wise that he seemed like some sort of intellectual spiritual man of distinction.” Burroughs is one of the few beats whose books have remained in print. His anarchic stance in his literature was crucial for the development of many subcultures of the twentieth century (Beats, Hippies, and Punks).
In 1914, William Seward Burroughs was born into a prominent family in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1929, William S. Burroughs published the essay, “Personal Magnetism.” He was eventually enrolled in The Los Alamos Ranch School, a boarding school in New Mexico. The school promised to turn boys into “manly specimens.” During this period, Burroughs kept a journal in which he described his erotic feelings to another student. In the repressive social and familial environment, William Burroughs destroyed this journal and hid his sexual orientation until he was already established in his literary career.
William Burroughs left The Los Alamos Ranch School under questionable circumstances. It is rumored that he was expelled for using chloral hydrate (a hypnotic and anesthetic.) Burroughs returned to St. Louis to complete high school. In 1932, Burroughs enrolled in Harvard University. While he was pursuing his degree, William Burroughs explored the homosexual subculture of New York.
During his summer breaks, William Burroughs returned to St. Louis. He was employed as a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He hated the work and refused to cover some stories. It was during a stay in St. Louis that he lost his virginity to a female prostitute in a local brothel.
After graduating from Harvard, William Burroughs was given a monthly allowance of $200. He considered graduate school at Harvard for anthropology and in Vienna for medicine. These considerations were brief lived. Instead of pursuing a graduate education, Burroughs traveled to Europe. He explored the homosexual communities of Austria and Hungary.
During his travels, William Burroughs met Ilse Klapper who was trying to escape the Nazi suppression and execution. Despite the protests of his family, Burroughs married her in Croatia. Burroughs brought her to New York where they would divorce.
After returning to the United States of America, William Burroughs mental health deteriorated. In 1939, Burroughs severed the tip of his left pinky finger at the knuckle. Burroughs would fictionalize this event in the story “The Finger.”
In 1942, William Burroughs joined the U.S. Army. The army classified him as infantry. Burroughs became depressed because he was not classified for service as an officer. His mother was able to pull strings and get William Burroughs released from duty based on his mental instability.
After his discharge, William Burroughs moved to Chicago. He bounced from job to job. At one point, Burroughs even worked as an exterminator. Burroughs returned to New York with his friends Lucien Carr and David Kammerer.
It was during this time (in 1944) that William Burroughs would meet his second wife Joan Vollmer (who Burroughs would later shoot in the head) and the male hustler Herbert Hunke (who introduced Burroughs to drugs.) Herbert Hunke would be the inspiration for the character Herman in Junkie.
William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac would collaborate on a novel, And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks. Despite the eventual prominence of the authors, the book would not be published until 2008. William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac violated their legal responsibilities when they did not report the murder of David Kammerer by Lucian Carr. William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac were also responsible for destroying evidence of this murder. (Burroughs destroyed a pack of cigarettes stained with Kammerer’s blood, and Kerouac disposed of the murder weapon [a Boy Scout knife].)
When Junkie was released in 1958, it marked William Burroughs as a skillful writer and as a target for police scrutiny. The scrutiny made it difficult for Burroughs to score heroin. To increase the ease of access to drugs, William Burroughs moved Joan Vollmer, and their son to Texas, and then Louisiana. In 1948, when they were living in New Orleans, the police seized letters between William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg that referred to a delivery of marijuana. Burroughs, Vollmer and the children would finally move to Mexico City to avoid prosecution in Louisiana.
In 1951, William Burroughs shot Joan Vollmer in the head. Burroughs and his later acolytes would excuse this murder of his second wife by claiming it was a game of William Tell gone amiss or that it was simply an accident. However, Burroughs was convicted of culpable homicide. Burroughs would escape justice in part due to his family’s money, which (allegedly) was used to bribe officials. The trial was delayed. Eventually, Burroughs fled back to the South America to evade justice. This experience would serve as the basis for Burrough’s novel, Queer.
In 1953, William Burroughs stayed with his parents in Palm Beach, Florida and Allen Ginsberg in New York City. Allen Ginsberg rejected Burroughs’s advances. Burroughs would later travel to Rome and Tangiers. He would use this experience in the composition of Naked Lunch. Originally this book was to be called Naked Lust; however, a misreading of the manuscript gave it the title that it is known by. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg would aid William Burroughs in editing this manuscript. The book would face accusations of obscenity.
Naked Lunch represented a break in William Burroughs linear narrative style. He would also become known for the cut-up style that he would learn from Brion Gysin. This technique would dominate his work for the rest of his life. In 1959, William Burroughs relocated to the Latin Quarter in Paris. He lived in the so-called Beat Hotel that hosted Peter Orlovsky, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Harold Chapman.
In 1966, William Burroughs moved to London. Burroughs wanted to explore Dr. Dent’s painless heroin withdrawal treatment. Burroughs also joined and left the Church of Scientology during the 1960s. But Burroughs distrusted the Church’s organization.
In 1974, Allen Ginsberg managed to get William Burroughs an instructional position at the City College of New York. Burroughs did not enjoy this position. Burroughs made contact and established relationships with John Giorno, Lou Reed, Patty Smith, Susan Sontag and Andy Warhol. In 1978, Sylvere Lotringer (the current Jean Baudrillard Chair at the European Graduate School) and John Giorno held the Nova Convention , a retrospective of Burroughs work.
In 1981, William Burroughs relocated to Lawrence, Kansas. Two years later, the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters inducted Burroughs. Burroughs collaborated with musicians including Throbbing Gristle, Tom Waits, Sonic Youth and Nick Cave. In the nineties, Burroughs began a career as a visual artist. He used a process, which involved shooting cans of paint with a shotgun. Critics like Dennis Cooper record that the reaction to these paintings was at best ambivalent.
In 1997, a heart attack killed William S. Burroughs in his home in Lawrence, Kansas. Before his death, he asked in his journal if he had anything else to say.
The vast catalog of William Burroughs’s fiction includes And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks (with Jack Kerouac), Junkie, Queer, Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, Dead Fingers Talk, Nova Express, The Last Words of Dutch Schultz, The Wild Boys: A Book Of The Dead, Port of Saints, Cities of the Red Night, The Place of Dead Roads, The Western Lands, My Education: A Book of Dreams, Rules of Duel (with Graham Masterton), Valentine's Day Reading, Time, APO-33, The Dead Star, Ali's Smile, Mayfair Academy Series More or Less, White Subway, The Book of Breething, Snack... , Cobble Stone Gardens, Dr. Benway, Die Alten Filme (The Old Movies) , Streets of Chance, Early Routines,Sinki's Sauna, Ruski, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Cat Inside, The Whole Tamale, Interzone, Tornado Alley, Ghost of Chance, Seven Deadly Sins, and Paper Cloud; Thick Pages.
Burroughs’s non-fiction work includes The Job: Interviews with William S. Burroughs (with Daniel Odier), Jack Kerouac (with Claude Pelieu), The Electronic Revolution, The Retreat Diaries, Letters to Allen Ginsberg, Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs, and Everything Lost: The Latin American Notebook of William S. Burroughs.