This Day In Literary History
On February 5th, 1914, the legendary American writer William S. Burroughs was born in St. Louis, Missouri. He was born into a wealthy and prominent family; his grandfather, whom he was named after, invented the adding machine and founded the Burroughs Adding Machine Company.
It would later became the famous, international Burroughs Office Machine Corporation. Bill's parents sold their stake in the company shortly before the 1929 stock market crash. His father owned and ran an antique store and gift shop.
Though he had protected the family from the crash, Mortimer Burroughs Sr. had also prevented them from sharing in the wealth when the company returned to prominence following the Great Depression.
William S. Burroughs had an older brother, Mortimer Burroughs Jr. Their mother, Laura Lee Burroughs, was a descendant of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. She was into astrology and spiritualism and kindled young Bill's interest in the occult.
At fifteen, Bill was sent to the Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico, a boarding school for boys "where the spindly sons of the rich could be transformed into manly specimens."
Burroughs hated Los Alamos. He kept to himself and enjoyed going for solitary hunting, fishing, and hiking trips. He avoided team activities and became a chronic malingerer.
Two important things happened to Burroughs during his time at Los Alamos: he became aware of his homosexuality and he conducted his first experiment with drugs. He fell in love with another boy, but kept it a secret, expressing his feelings only in his journals.
Though he had gotten caught taking chloral hydrate, he wasn't expelled for it, as some claim. He left voluntarily after persuading his parents to let him come home.
When he got home, Burroughs realized that some of his belongings were missing, including his telltale journals. The school had agreed to send the rest of his personal effects to him later. They did. Everything was sent back, including his journals.
Still, Burroughs was terrified that someone had read them. He destroyed his journals and vowed never to write again, a vow he would keep until middle age, even though as a child he longed to be a writer.
At the age of eight, Burroughs had written his first short story, Autobiography Of A Wolf. When asked if he meant biography, he said no. He meant autobiography. The year he attended Los Alamos, he had an essay, Personal Magnetism, published in the John Burroughs Review. (No relation.)
When he was twelve, he read You Can't Win, the celebrated autobiography of Jack Black, a hobo who rode the rails and drifted through the seedy underworld of late 19th century America and Canada, becoming a professional thief and opium addict.
To the young, alienated Burroughs, the book was a revelation in its depiction of the Johnson Family, a community of thieves, bums, and hobos who proved to be more honorable and compassionate than the so-called proper society of late 19th century America.
After graduating high school in 1932, Burroughs enrolled at Harvard University, majoring in liberal arts. During the summers, he worked as a cub reporter and covered the police docket. He hated the work and refused to cover events he considered distasteful, like the drowning of a child.
Around this time, although he was gay, he hung out at an East St. Louis brothel and lost his virginity to a female prostitute whom he would frequently patronize. After graduating from Harvard, Burroughs went to Europe to study medicine at a school in Vienna.
While living there, he enjoyed the city's open and active gay community. He met a Jewish woman named Ilse Klapper and married her so she could escape the Nazis and emigrate to the United States. As the Nazis were about to take over Austria, Burroughs himself left the country and returned to the U.S.
Back home, he worked a series of menial jobs and fell into a deep depression. To impress a man he had become infatuated with, Burroughs cut off his left pinky finger at the knuckle. He would later base a story on it called The Finger. After the Pearl Harbor attack led the U.S. into World War II, Burroughs joined the Army.
He was disappointed by his classification of 1-A Infantry; he wanted to be an officer. His mother got him a disability discharge due to his mental instability, but he would remain in limbo, living in the barracks for five months before the discharge went through.
Burroughs moved to Chicago and worked at several jobs including as an exterminator, an experience that found its way into his writing. When his friends Lucien Carr and David Kammerer moved to New York City, Burroughs followed suit.
By 1944, he was sharing an apartment with new friend Jack Kerouac, his wife Edie, and a young poet and college student named Allen Ginsberg. Burroughs, who had taken up writing again, collaborated with Kerouac on a novel, And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks. It would be published posthumously in 2008.
The novel was based on the fate of their friends Lucien Carr and David Kammerer. Carr had been stalked by the lovesick Kammerer, who was gay. Carr was straight and had tried unsuccessfully to convince Kammerer that they couldn't be anything more than friends.
He wouldn't take no for an answer and Carr ended up killing him in self-defense. A panicked Carr then asked Jack Kerouac to help him. Together, they covered up the crime, dumping Kammerer's body in the Hudson River.
After living in fear of being caught, they took Burroughs' advice and turned themselves in. Carr served a brief sentence for covering up the crime. Kerouac was acquitted of wrongdoing.
As for Burroughs, he made another friend - Herbert Huncke. He was the quintessential Times Square hustler - a petty crook, junky, drug dealer, con man, and occasional male prostitute, though he wasn't gay. He also happened to be a writer.
After Burroughs' failed attempts at romance with Allen Ginsberg put a strain on their friendship, Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac decided to find someone else for Burroughs. That person turned out to be a woman named Joan Vollmer.
A divorcee and single mother of a six-year-old daughter, Joan was a libertine who possessed an intellect equal to Burroughs. She moved into the apartment and they got along famously.
Joan also possessed Burroughs' taste for narcotics; while he indulged in his morphine habit, she became addicted to benzedrine, an amphetamine legally sold over the counter at the time and dispensed in an inhaler.
She huffed so much benzedrine that she became delusional and had to be hospitalized following a severe psychotic episode. Meanwhile, to support his habit, Burroughs sold heroin and engaged in petty thievery such as rolling drunks in the subway.
While Joan languished in Bellevue, Burroughs was arrested for forging a drug prescription. He completed his "house arrest" in St. Louis, returned to New York, released Joan from the psychiatric ward, and moved with her to Texas.
There, she bore him a son, William S. "Billy" Burroughs, Jr. Billy was born addicted to benzedrine and couldn't be breastfed because his mother's milk was loaded with the drug. A year later, Burroughs, Joan, and their friends moved to New Orleans.
In New Orleans, police searched Burroughs' house and found letters to and from Allen Ginsberg that mentioned a delivery of marijuana they were planning to sell. To avoid a prison term at Angola, Burroughs fled to Mexico to wait out the statute of limitations on his charges.
He enrolled at Mexico City College in 1950, where he studied Spanish, Aztec codices, and the Mayan language. A year later, while partying with their friends at home, Burroughs and Joan, both very drunk, decided to play a game of William Tell.
Joan put her highball glass on top of her head and told Bill to shoot it off with his pistol. Sober, Burroughs was a skilled marksman; drunk, he missed the glass and shot Joan in the forehead, killing her instantly.
Burroughs' brother arrived and bribed Mexican officials to let Bill out on bail while he awaited trial on a charge of negligent homicide. He hired a prominent Mexican attorney who bribed ballistics experts to support Bill's story that the gun had gone off accidentally.
Bill's parents took care of his son and Julie (Joan's daughter from a previous marriage) went to her mother's parents. After Bill's lawyer fled to escape his own legal troubles, he decided to do the same and returned to the States.
In the Mexican court, he was convicted in absentia and given a two-year suspended sentence. The death of Joan would haunt Burroughs the rest of his life and, ironically, inspire him to finally become a serious writer.
After drifting around South America for a few months in a fruitless search for yage - an elusive drug allegedly used by Mayan shamans to experience visions and develop psychic abilities - Burroughs took off for Tangier, Morocco.
Tangier was then an "international zone" controlled by several different countries. Drugs were plentiful, homosexuals lived openly, and the police rarely bothered people because there were few laws to enforce. The city was a haven for smugglers, artists, writers, and expatriates of all sorts.
Before Joan died, Burroughs had completed his first published novel. Junky (1953) a semi-autobiographical, straightforward tale of one man's experiences as a drug addict and hustler, told in a detached, non-judgmental narrative, was published as a pulp novel by Ace Books, with some help from Allen Ginsberg.
Burroughs had also written Queer, a groundbreaking novel (also semi-autobiographical) about an American writer living in Mexico who comes to terms with his homosexuality and embarks on a love affair with another man that is doomed from the start. Queer would not be published until 1985.
In Tangier, Burroughs found a new boyfriend - Kiki, a sweet-natured Spanish rent boy who prostituted himself to foreign tourists. He and Bill spent their days together getting high and making love. After Kiki helped him kick a heroin habit, Burroughs regained his health and began writing what would become one of the most celebrated and controversial novels of the 20th century.
Naked Lunch (1959) was an experimental, loosely connected collection of what Burroughs called "routines." They were basically short stories and sketches edited together in the format of a novel. Surreal in nature with non-linear narratives, the routines were blistering satires of 1950s American life.
They contained profane language, drug use, explicit straight and gay sex, and extremely graphic albeit comic violence - all of which were alien and shocking to 1950s readers. It was Swiftian satire at finest, aimed at the banal and hypocritical heart of Eisenhower's America.
One particular passage, a satire of capital punishment in the tradition of Jonathan Swift's classic essay A Modest Proposal, begins as a humorous parody of a stag film, with a woman and two men - Mary, Mark, and Johnny - having a bisexual three-way encounter that turns into a surreal nightmare.
After engaging in sexual acts that become increasingly more bizarre, the menage a trois descends into Dante-like madness that includes cannibalism and climaxes (pun intended) with all three of the lovers hanged. Then they come back to life and take a bow. It was all just a show.
When Jack Kerouac came to Tangier to help Burroughs type up the manuscript, the writing literally gave him nightmares: "I had nightmares of great long baloneys coming out of my mouth. I had nightmares typing that manuscript."
Allen Ginsberg later arrived in Tangier to help Bill with the manuscript, along with his new boyfriend, Peter Orlovsky. Eventually, Ginsberg and Orlovsky settled in Paris at what came to be called the Beat Hotel, and Burroughs joined them there.
The Beat Hotel, named by American Beat poet Gregory Corso, was a ramshackle rooming house located in the Latin Quarter of Paris, known for the famous Beat artists, writers, and musicians who lived there.
The landlady, Madame Rachou, was notorious for her stinginess with the heat and electricity, though she would sometimes accept paintings and manuscripts from her often cash-strapped tenants in lieu of rent.
Naked Lunch was submitted for publication to Maurice Girodias, whose Olympia Press publishing house was known for publishing both celebrated, controversial works of literature and pornographic novels. Girodias rejected Naked Lunch as disorganized and confused.
After Ginsberg helped Burroughs edit and organize the manuscript, they sent excerpts to the Chicago Review - a literary magazine published by the University of Chicago. The editor, Irving Rosenthal, published the excerpts in the spring and autumn 1958 issues of the magazine.
Not long afterward, a local conservative columnist devoted one of his columns to attacking the Chicago Review's editorial policies for publishing what he considered obscene material. News of the column reached the Dean's office, and he demanded to see the galleys for the winter issue.
He was appalled not only by the Burroughs material, but also by the writings of Jack Kerouac and other authors who appeared in the magazine. The Dean suppressed the entire contents of the winter issue.
Rosenthal resigned as editor in protest. He founded his own literary magazine, Big Table, and republished the Naked Lunch excerpts and the other material that the Dean had kept out of the Chicago Review.
The censorship controversy and the ensuing media coverage caught Maurice Girodias' attention. After he read the excerpts in Big Table, he agreed to publish Naked Lunch. Though a maverick publisher, Girodias was a lousy businessman, and Burroughs saw little money from his novel.
Then, legendary publisher Barney Rosset of Grove Press published the book in the United States in 1962, which resulted in a landmark obscenity trial in Boston where Naked Lunch was ruled to be not legally obscene. The republication made Burroughs' name as a writer.
While living at the Beat Hotel, Burroughs made another friend - an important friend who would take him into the next phase of his literary career. Brion Gysin was a gay bohemian artist of Swiss-Canadian descent. He and Burroughs never became lovers, but they did become lifelong friends and collaborators.
One day, while working on collages, Gysin pasted together parts of different newspaper articles. Combined, they produced hilarious results, and Gysin would laugh hysterically at them. Burroughs saw lots of literary potential in what Gysin had done. It reminded him of the works of Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara, whom he had met.
Burroughs began creating what he called "cut-ups" - pieces of writing made by cutting up two different texts and putting them together. Gregory Corso, a close friend of Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac, was appalled. He considered literary cut-ups too random to be of any real artistic value.
Burroughs argued that the randomness was offset by the fact that producing a coherent whole out of two different halves required a lot of editing. He would take cut-ups even further by creating entire cut-up novels. He bought himself a tape recorder and experimented with audio cut-ups, splicing together various recordings.
In the early 1960s, Burroughs wrote and published his amazing "cut-up trilogy" of novels, The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1964).
These novels used both straightforward narratives and surreal tapestries of cut-up texts to tell the story of Nova Police Inspector Lee's pursuit of the Nova Mob. Lee must destroy their word and image machine, with which they control reality as we know it.
In this bold new vision, language becomes a virus, and the word hoard must be rubbed out. Burroughs' cut-up novels are considered to be the very first works of cyberpunk science fiction. They also contain some of the most dazzling prose poetry ever written.
By 1966, Burroughs left Paris and moved to London to kick another heroin habit, taking the cure once again from Dr. Dent, a British physician who had invented a painless heroin withdrawal treatment using an electronic box attached to the patient's temple. After kicking, Burroughs remained in London for several years.
He visited the U.S. occasionally to help his son Billy, who had been arrested for forging prescriptions in Florida. Billy had become a writer and published two noted novels, Speed and Kentucky Ham, but he was a hopeless drug addict and alcoholic who ultimately drank himself to death - after receiving a liver transplant.
While in London, Burroughs collaborated with celebrated British underground filmmaker Antony Balch and made several experimental short films, the best of which was Towers Open Fire. It featured footage of the "dream machine" invented by Brion Gysin.
In the early 1970s, Burroughs wrote two more novels, The Wild Boys (1971) and Port Of Saints (1973), where he returned to mostly straightforward narratives. In need of money, he returned to the U.S. and taught creative writing at several colleges.
He settled in New York City, in a basement apartment on the Lower East Side. He called it "the Bunker." It was part of an old YMCA building that had been renovated. It included lockers and communal showers.
The punk rock scene that exploded in England had reached the U.S., and Burroughs found himself the idol of not just punk rockers, but other rock musicians as well. His new secretary and occasional lover, James Grauerholz, was a 21-year-old bookseller and rock musician.
Burroughs became a columnist for the pop culture magazine Crawdaddy. When his punk rocker friends got him hooked on heroin again, James helped Burroughs kick the habit and launched him on a new career path - that of a traveling performer.
Burroughs performed live readings from his works everywhere, from universities to punk rock clubs, with James acting as his agent and tour manager. He even read on an episode of Saturday Night Live. The money was good, but soon, a huge rent increase and the ever present temptation of heroin drove him out of the Bunker.
He settled in Lawrence, Kansas, and began work on his last great trilogy of novels: Cities Of The Red Night (1981), The Place Of Dead Roads (1983), and The Western Lands (1987).
Burroughs had a memorable co-starring role in director Gus Van Sant's classic 1989 film, Drugstore Cowboy, where he played Father Tom, the junky priest and friend of the main character, Bob, (Matt Dillon) a junky who robs drugstores to score his fixes.
In the 1990s, Burroughs recorded several new albums of readings, the background music provided by his rock musician friends. His 1993 album, Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales, featured music by hip-hop group The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy.
The album included a reading of Burroughs' classic short story The Junky's Christmas, which appeared in his 1987 short story collection, Interzone. Francis Ford Coppola directed a short claymation film adaptation of the story, featuring live action footage of Burroughs.
In 1992, the legendary film director David Cronenberg made a feature film adaptation of Naked Lunch. It was praised by critics, but received mixed reviews from Burroughs fans because it wasn't really an adaptation of the novel - it was a hodgepodge of elements from the novel and events from Burroughs' life.
Still, it makes for a strange and surreal viewing experience. I enjoyed it. Cronenberg said that it would be impossible to faithfully adapt Naked Lunch for the screen because it would cost many millions of dollars to make and no one would want to see it. I disagree.
During his final years, Burroughs took up painting and developed an unusual technique for creating abstracts: shooting cans of spray paint placed in front of canvasses. His final film appearance was in a music video for Last Night On Earth by Irish rock band U2. He died in 1997 of complications following a heart attack at the age of 83.
Quote Of The Day
“A writer does not own words any more than a painter owns colors. So lets dispense with this originality fetish. Look, listen, and transcribe and forget about being original.” - William S. Burroughs
Today's video features a rare 1982 BBC radio interview with William S. Burroughs. Enjoy!