William S. Burroughs Biography (1914-1997)

Full name, William Seward Burroughs (after his grandfather); born February 5,1914, in St. Louis, MO; died of complications from a heart attack, August 2,1997, in Lawrence, KS; son of Perry Mortimer (in business) and Laura (Lee) Burroughs; married Ilse Herzfeld Klapper, 1937 (divorced, 1946); married JoanVollmer Adams, January 17, 1946 (accidentally shot and killed by Burroughs, September, 1951); children: (second marriage) William Seward Burroughs, Jr. (deceased).

Born February 5, 1914, in St. Louis, MO; died following a heart attack, August 2, 1997, in Lawrence, KS. Artist and author. The grandson of the inventor of the adding machine, Burroughs defied his conventional, aristocratic upbringing to become one of the founding members of the Beat Generation of the 1950s, along with writers Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Herbert Huncke. The Beats took an unconventional approach to literature--which included writings onthe experimentation with drugs, sex, and petty crime-- and spawned the counterculture of the 1960s. Burroughs was the last surviving member of the original Beats and was known as "the big daddy of the Beats," according to a writerfor the London Times. He discarded his privileged upbringing to experience life among the lower fringes of society, showing Kerouac and Ginsberg around some of New York City's seedy areas. He led a nomadic life, living in such places as Mexico, Tangier, South America, Paris, London, and Texas, among others. While his written work was reviled by some as filth, he earned critical praise for controversial writings such as The Naked Lunch. Some critics viewed the work as a social commentary on the evils and soullessness of humanity, while others perceived it as "gibberish masquerading as social commentary," as noted in the Los Angeles Times. Burroughs also became popular in the pop culture of the 1990s as the Beat Movement was revived. He appeared in a video by the rock group U2, performed with rap artists Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy,and hung out with groups such as The Rolling Stones.

Burroughs was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1914. He was educated in ethnology, poetry, anthropology, and yoga at Harvard and studied medicine at ViennaUniversity. He served briefly in the U.S. Army during World War II, being discharged after only three months of service for physical reasons. Reportedly,his mother intervened to have him discharged. Following his service, he worked in a variety of jobs--bartender, pest controller, private detective, factory worker, etc. He also claimed to be on the fringe of crime. According to aNew York Times contributor: "He spent years experimenting with drugs as wellas with sex, which he engaged in with men, women and children." He describedhis drug use, particularly heroin, in The Naked Lunch: "I have smoked junk, eaten it, sniffed it, injected it in vein-skin-muscle, inserted it in rectal suppositories. The needle is not important." He once sold his typewriter to buy drugs. According to the Washington Post, after Burroughs kicked the heroinehabit with the help of a British doctor, he "end{ed} what he said were yearsof 'staring at the toe of my foot.'"

Burroughs was married twice. His first wife was a German-Jewish woman who fled the Nazis by marrying him and coming to the United States. The marriage wasended shortly thereafter. His second marriage to Joan Vollmer ended in controversy. While living in Mexico, he asked Vollmer to play a game of "William Tell" with him before friends in 1951. Although he was reportedly drunk at thetime, he suggested that Vollmer place a glass on her forehead so he could shoot it off like the legendary archer who could shoot an apple off of someone's head. Instead, Burroughs shot his wife through the forehead, killing her instantly. Mexican authorities ruled the shooting accidental. In his later years, he lived with his longtime companion James Grauerholz.

Burroughs wrote of his drug experiences in the 1953 book Junkie: Confessionsof an Unredeemed Drug Addict. The work was issued under the name William Lee.In 1959 he published The Naked Lunch, which was allegedly titled "Naked Lust" in manuscript stage, until Ginsberg misread Burroughs's handwriting and thought the title was "Naked Lunch." The book, according to a Los Angeles Timeswriter, was "written in a stream of consciousness style, and the prose is meant to repel, even nauseate, the reader with descriptions of bodily functions,sex acts and grotesque medical procedures." The work became the subject of alengthy court battle regarding obscenity in the United States, and was ultimately published by Grove Press in 1962. Burroughs continued with The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded.

Burroughs also received notice for his writings that employed the "cut up" method--he intertwined his prose with that of other writers, cutting up the manuscript and reassembling it at will. Among his "cut up" books are Minutes toGo, written with Sinclair Beiles, Gregory Corso, and Brion Gysin, and The Exterminator, also written with Gysin. He also penned screenplays, including TheLast Words of Dutch Schultz. He appeared in films as well, such as Twister and Drug Store Cowboy. In his later years, Burroughs wrote what critics consider to be more conventional books, including The Western Lands and The Place of Dead Roads. He also collaborated on The Black Rider, a comic opera that featured the music of Tom Waits and Burroughs' libretto. He also appeared on Saturday Night Live, where he read from The Naked Lunch, and he made numerous recordings, including Spare Ass Annie in 1993.

Burroughs also lent his creative energies to art, putting together pieces that were bought by many of his admirers, including the late Nirvana singer KurtCobain. His art was featured in a show in Chicago in 1988 and in Los Angelesin 1996. He also was concerned with animal rights, the rain forest, and other environmental issues.

writer, actor
Birth Details
February 5, 1914
St. Louis, Missouri, United States
Death Details
August 2, 1997
Lawrence, Kansas, United States

Famous Works

Recent Updates

March 1, 2006: The New York Public Library purchased the Burroughs's archive for its Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and AmericanLiterature, which also includes Jack Kerouac's literary and personal archive. Source: New York Times, www.nytimes.com, March 1, 2006.

Further Reference



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