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by Bamber Gascoigne

William (Seward) Burroughs (1914-1997)


American writer of experimental novels, who lived long times in Mexico City, Tanger, Paris, and London. William Burroughs' homosexual themes in The Naked Lunch (1959) and the frankness with which he dealt with his own experiences as a drug addict sparkled the last major obscenity trial in U.S., but won him a following among writers, musicians, and film makers. Burroughs produced the bulk of his writing after he moved to London and took an apomorphine cure under the direction of Dr John Dent.

"You know how old people lose all shame about eating, and it makes you puke to watch them? Old junkies are the same about junk. They gibber and squeal about the sight of it. The spit hangs off their skin, and their stomach rumbles and all their guts grind in peristalsis while they cook up, dissolving the body's decent skin, you expect any moment a great blob of protoplasm will flop right out and surround the junk. Really disgust you to see it." (from The Naked Lunch)

William Seward Burroughs II was born in St. Louis, Mo. into a successful business family. His mother, Laura Lee, was a direct descendant of Robert E. Lee, his grandfather the inventor of the Burroughs adding machine. The Burroughs Corporation ultimately merged with the Sperry Corporation to create Unisys. By the time of Burroughs's birth, his father Mortimer had already sold his stock in the company.

After six years at the private Community School, Burroughs sent to the John Burroughs School. He also spent some time at the Los Alamos Ranch School for boys. "As a boy," he later recalled, "I was much plagued by nightmares. I remember a nurse telling me that opium gives you sweet dreams, and I resolved that I would smoke opium when I grew up." At the age of 14, he read Jack Black's You Can't Win. This autobiographical account of hobo life had a profound effect on his world view and later influenced The Naked Lunch. Burroughs graduated in English literature from Harvard University in 1936. During this period he lost his heterosexual virginity in an East St. Louis brothel. However, he had also recorded his homosexual fantasies in a diary at Los Alamos.

Burroughs traveled in Europe, where he studied medicine in Venice for a year. While in Austria he married a Jewish woman who wanted to escape the Nazis. After returning to the United States Burroughs studied anthropology at Harvad. In the early 1940s he lived in New York City and worked for an advertising agency. When the war began, Burroughs joined the army. He was trained as a glider pilot, but was discharged as unfit for service in 1942. The major reason was his relationship with a hustler named Jack Anderson. Burroughs had amputated one of his little fingers after Anderson left him. Rejecting his background, Burroughs plunged into an alternative life-style that included drugs, odd jobs, and bisexuality. While working in the shipyards of New York, he became addicted to heroin, or what he called Opium Jones, G(od's) O(wn) (Medicine). Drug addiction was not new in the family. Burroughs's uncle Horace used morphine. He committed suicide in 1915.

In the mid-1940s Burroughs befriended with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, with whom he would be linked as key figures in the Beat Movement. He was named in Kerouac' s novel On the Road as Old Bull Lee. "He was an exterminator in Chicago, a bartender in New York, a summons-server in Newark. In Paris he sat at café tables, watching the sullen French faces go by. In Athens he looked up from his ouzo at what he called the ugliest people in the world. In Istanbul he threaded his way through crowds of opium addicts and rug-sellers, looking for the facts. In English hotels he read Spengler and the Marquis de Sade." (from On the Road)

With Joan Vollmer, his common law wife, Burroughs moved to Texas, where he grew cotton and marijuana crops. To avoid legal problems, they moved to Mexico City. Joan could no longer get Benzedrine, instead she drank cheap tequila. To her friends she said that her days were numbered. In September 1951 Burroughs killed Vollmer accidentally. They were partying in a room above a bar when he announced the assembled company he would perform shooting in the Wilhelm Tell style. Vollmer placed a water glass on top of her head, and Burroughs shot at it from about six feet away with the gun he carried – missing tragically and Vollmer fell dead. Burroughs was never tried for the accident. Their son William Burroughs III died at the age of 32 from drink and drug abuse. The author have stated that "Im forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death..." It has been said, that Ginsberg's opus Howl! was written after a dream of Joan.

Burroughs lived for a time in Tangier in a male brothel. Ginsberg and Kerouac visited Tangiers in 1957. In 1959 Burroughs published The Naked Lunch, which was banned in 1962; the ruling was overturned in in 1965 by the Massachusetts Supreme Court.

Now the work is accepted as a modern classic. Norman Mailer said in its 1962 blurb: "Naked Lunch is a work of great beauty, great difficulty, and manically exquisite insight. I think that William Burroughs is the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius."

Much of the structure of the book was planned by Allen Ginsberg, who gathered the scraps of paper that he found scattered around in Burroughs's room. The narrative consists of twenty-one satirical pieces that purport to lay bare the horrors of reality: hence the title. "Let them see what they eat." It featured such characters as Dr Benway, a mad scientist dedicated to Automatic Obedience Processing, and the Lobotomy Kid, who manufactures the Complete All-American male, a blob of jelly. Some critics compared Burroughs' humor to that of Jonathan Swift.

First it was published by Olympia Press in Paris. In England it appeared in 1964, as part of Dead Fingers Talk, an amalgam which also included The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded. The nightmarish visions of William Lee, a junk addict contains science fiction, biological fantasy, disgusting images, and sick jokes. "May all your troubles be little one, as one child molester says to the other." (from Naked Lunch) It also tries to find from the use of drugs and homosexuality a philosophical statement – addiction is seen as a metaphor of the human condition.

The plotless novel was a tough challenge for the Canadian film director David Cronenberg, whose science fiction films often deal with biological mutations. "Given an impossibly difficult text to film, Cronenberg made an excellent decision to avoid the kind of ponderous, literal (mis)reading of a classic American novel that marks, for instance, Joseph Strick's Ulysses. Instead, he used the entire Burroughs opus and the legendary biography as the interpretation for his film that became a brilliant response to the novel, rather than an adaptation per se." (from Novels into Films by John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welsh, 1999) Cronenberg added in the film scenes from Burroughs' life, accidentally shooting of his wife, literary friends who have much similarities with Ginsberg and Kerouac, and an American expatriate couple, referring to Paul and Jane Bowles.

In Paris Burroughs' address at 9, rue Git-le-Coeur was known as "the Beat Hotel," but his focus had began to shift to another kind of literarure. He became friends with the painter Brion Gysin, who influenced his fiction, especially his 'cut-up' technique. Burroughs' ideas on writing has never been orthodox. "My basic theory is that the written word was actually a virus," he once said, "that made the spoken word possible. The word has not been recognized as a virus because it has achieved a state of stable symbiosis with the host..." (from The Job, 1974)  

Burroughs moved in the mid-1960s to London, where he studied Scientology and started to use the E-Meter, a piece of equipment that operated like a lie detector and was developed by the Scientologists. Ali's Smile / Naked Scientology (1972) collected Burroughs's opinions on the movement. Following an apomorphine treatment devised by Dr. John Yerby Dent, Burroughs temporarily freed himself from his heroin addiction. Most of the 1960s, Burroughs' boyfriend was Ian Sommerville, a mathematician, who operated Paul McCartney's studio at 34 Montagu Square. Burroughs used the studio for his experimental 'Hello, Yes, Hello' tapes. "He was very interesting but we never really struck up a huge conversation," recalled McCartney. "I actually felt you had to be a bit of a junkie, which was probably not true."

In the 1970s Burroughs returned to New York, where he got hooked on heroin again. Eventually he settled in the small university town, Lawrence, Kansas. When he moved into the town he brought along his favorite cat, Ruski, a Russian Blue. Soon after his arrival he was befriended by three or four stray cats. A longhaired orange female was named Ginger. She mated with Ruski and produced "the orange litter," which included Calico Jane.Cat-doors were arranged to allow the animals to come in and go out at will.

Burroughs' house on Learnard Avenue was a modest two-bedroom cottage built in 1929 from a Sears & Roebuck house kit. Over the years the most frequent visitors were the poets John Giorno and Allen Ginsberg. Usually Burroughs woke early in the morning, took his methadone, and fed his cats which took up considersable time. He liked to walk in his garden in the afternoon, and practice knife throwing. After the first vodka-and-Coke and a few puffs on a joint he had a quiet moment to write in his journal. Burroughs was was a light sleeper. In case of trouble, he had his pistol under the covers.

In 1983 Burroughs became a writer in residence to the university and devoted to his spare time to a vegetable garden. His last years Burroughs lived with cats (Calico Jane, Ruski, Fletch, Horatio, Smoky, Ed, Ginger, Wimpy, et al.) and handguns and rifles. He also exhibited "action paintings" produced by taking potshots at tins of paint. Burroughs died of heart failure on August 2, 1997, in Lawrence.

In his works Burroughs developed with painter Brion Gysin a cut-up method, that employed cutting and blending several random texts into one hybrid narrative. Thus Burroughs has attempted to avoid conventional language patterns and to restructure readers consciousness. He began writing in the 1930s, but his first book, Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict, came out in 1953 under the pen name William Lee – he did not want to upset his parents. Part of the sequel, Queer (1985), Burrough wrote already in 1952. The book was not published until decades later due to its homosexual content.

The Naked Lunch was completed after Burroughs's treatment for drug addiction. Other works include The Soft Machine (1961), Nova Express (1964), and The Wild Boys (1971). Christopher Isherwood proclaimed Burroughs' Cities of the Red Night (1981) as a masterpiece. Although it mixed a virus plague and CIA with a missing boy, intergalactic conspiracy, and an eighteen-century pirate captain, it is considered one of Burroughs's most coherent novels. However, while writing the book, he underwent several operations in an effort to close an abdominal cyst and spent much of his time and money on drugs. In the sequels of The Red Night trilogy, The Place of Dead Roads (1983), a western where cowboys are gay, and The Western Lands (1987), Burroughs also depicted a deadly virus plaguing humankind, "inexorably headed for extinction." The Yage Letters, published in 1963, was based on Burroughs' travels through the Amazon region of South America in search for the drug yage, the notorious "final fix".

The Wild Boys was set in the year 1988. Adolescent guerrilla packs of specialized humanoids are routing the forces of civilized nations and ravaging the earth. When wholesale slaughter erupts, the battle continues underground where the survivors evolve into The Wild Boys, hordes of pitiless homosexual warriors who move in and destroy the cities.

Burroughs has warned of the "Control Machine," forces of conformity that would destroy the unique qualities of the individual. In Nova Express and The Ticket That Exploded they are agents from other space and a virus from Venus. Material for his novels the author has borrowed from all areas of popular culture. In science fiction his influence can be seen in the works of J.G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, John T. Sladek, Norman Spinard, and others. Overt pastiches of his works include Barrington J. Bayley's The Four-Color Problem (1971) and Philip José Farmer's The Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod(1968).Apart from the bands (Soft Machine, Dead Fingers Talk), which took their names directly from his works, David Bowie, Debbie Harry, REM, Nirvana, and others have paid homage to Burroughs. The writer is also found from the cover of the famous Beatles album Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967).

Burroughs even appeared in an advert for Nike and in a strange Japanese "document," which depicted the search of Albert Einstein's brains – finally found in a class jar, owned by a downhill scientist. In Drugstore Cowboy Burroughs acted Matt Dillon's elder brother. His other films include Twister and U2 music video Last Night on Earth. Burroughs recorded with Laurie Anderson, Kurt Cobain, and Michael Stipe. He has been awarded the honour of inventing the music term "heavy metal."

The novella Blade Runner: A Movie (1979), had nothing to do with Ridley Scott's film, based on Philip K. Dick's novel. Burroughs' work, set in New York City ("a city which has come to represent all cities") in the year 2014 and exploring welfare and Medicare apocalypse, was written as a treatment for an adaptation of Alan E. Nourse's science fiction book The Bladerunner (1974), published by Ballantine. Noteworthy, Nourse interest in the medical field was natural because he was a trained doctor. Burroughs suggested that his book was "about a second chance for Billy the blade runner, and for all humanity." At the end of the credist in the movie, Scott acknowledges the borrowing of the title from Burroughs and Nourse. 

For further reading: City of Words by T. Tanner (1971); The Incarnate Word by C. Nelson (1973); The Garden and the Map by J. Vernon (1973); Naked Angels by J. Tytell (1976); William Burroughs: The Algebra of Need by Eric Mottram (1977); Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs by Ted Morgan (1988); Everything is Permitted: The Making of 'Naked Lunch', edited by Ira Silverberg (1992); Women of the Beat Generation by Brenda Knight (1996); Gentleman Junkie: The Life and Legacy of William S. Burroughs by Graham Caveney (1998); The Beat Generation by Jamie Russell (2002); Blondie, From Punk to the Present: A Pictorial History, edited by Allan Metz (2002); Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs by Ted Morgan (2012); The Stray Bullet: William S. Burroughs in Mexico by Jorge García-Robles; translated by Daniel C. Schechter (2013); William S. Burroughs Cutting up the Century, edited by Joan Hawkins and Alex Wermer-Colan; contributing editors: Charles Cannon, Tony Brewer, and Landon Palmer (2019); William S. Burroughs & the Cult of Rock 'n' Roll by Casey Rae (2019); Understanding William S. Burroughs by Gerald Alva Miller, Jr. (2020); Fever Spores: the Queer Reclamation of William S. Burroughs, edited by Brian Alessandro and Tom Cardamone (2022); Burroughs Unbound: William S. Burroughs and the Performance of Writing, edited by S. E. Gontarski (2022)

Selected works:

  • Junkie, 1953 (unexpurgated version in 1977; see also Nelson Algren's novel The Man with the Golden Arm )
    - Nisti (suom. Jaakko Yli-Juonikas, 1987)
  • Naked Lunch, 1959
    - Alaston lounas (suom. Risto Lehmusoksa, 1971)
    - Film 1991, directed by David Cronenberg, starring Peter Weller, Judy Davis. A story about a drug-addicted writer who kills his wife accidentally and flees to his paranoid fantasies.
  • Exterminator, 1960 (with B. Gysin)
  • Minutes To Go, 1960 (with S. Beiles, G. Corso, B. Gysin)
  • The Soft Machine, 1961
  • The Ticket That Exploded, 1962
  • The Yage Letters, 1963 (with Allen Ginsberg)
  • Dead Fingers Talk, 1963
  • Roosevelt After Inauguration and Other Atrocities, 1964 (as Willy Lee)
  • Nova Express, 1964
  • Time, 1965
  • Health Bulletin, 1965
  • Exterminator!, 1967
  • So Who Owns Death TV?, 1967 (with C. Pelieu, C. Weisser)
  • They Do Not Always Remember, 1968
  • Ali's Smile, 1969
  • The Dead Star, 1969
  • The Last Words of Dutch Schultz, 1969
  • The Electronic Revolution, 1970
  • The Wild Boys: A Book Of The Dead, 1971
    - Hurjat pojat: kuolleiden kirja (suom. Kari Lempinen, 1983)
  • Ali's Smile  / Naked Scientology, 1972
  • Exterminator!, 1973
  • Port of Saints, 1973
  • Brion Gysin Let the Mice In, 1973 (edited by Jan Herman, with texts by William Burroughs & Ian Sommerville)
  • White Subway, 1973
  • The Book of Breething, 1974 (ill. by Robert F. Gale)
  • The Job: Interviews with William S. Burroughs, 1974 (with  Daniel Odier)
  • Snack... , 1975 (with E. Mottram)
  • Sidetripping, 1975 (with Charles Gatewood)
  • The Last Words of Dutch Schultz, 1975 (film script)
  • The Retreat Diaries, 1976 (with The dream of Tibet by Allen Ginsberg)
  • Colloque de Tangier, 1976 (with Brion Gysin)
  • Cobble Stone Gardens, 1976
  • The Third Mind, 1978 (with B. Gysin)
  • Dr. Benway, 1979
  • Blade Runner: A Movie, 1979 (nothing to do with the film)
  • Ah, Pook Is Here and Other Texts , 1979
  • Letters to Allen Ginsberg, 1981
  • Streets of Chance, 1981
  • Early Routines, 1981
  • With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker, 1981 (compiled by Victor Bockris)
  • Cities of the Red Night: A Boy's Book, 1981 (Cities of the Night, book 1)
    - Punaisen yön kaupungit (suom. Elina Koskelin, 2007)
  • Mummies, 1982 (etchings by Carl Apfelschnitt)
  • Sidetripping, 1982
  • Sinki's Sauna, 1982
  • The Place of Dead Roads, 1983 (Cities of the Night, book 2)
    - Kuolleitten katujen paikka (suom. Elina Koskelin, 2009)
  • The Burroughs File, 1984
  • Ruski, 1984
  • The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 1984
  • Queer, 1985
    - Hämy (suom. Elina Koskelin, 2004)
  • The Adding Machine: Collected Essays, 1985
  • The Piano Players, 1986
  • Routine, 1987
  • The Western Lands, 1987 (Cities of the Night, book 3)
    - Lännen maat (suom. Elina Koskelin, 2010)
  • Apocalypse, 1988 (with K. Haring)
  • The Cat Inside, 1988 (drawings by Brion Gysin)
    - Kissa sisälläni (suom. Elina Koskelin, 2005)
  • Paintings and Drawings, 1988
  • The Black Rider, 1989 (with Tom Waits and Robert Wilson)
  • Interzone, 1989 (ed. James Grauerholz)
    - Interzone (suom. Elina Koskelin, 2011)
  • Tornado Alley, 1989 ( illustrations by S. Clay Wilson)
  • Ghost of Chance, 1991 (illustrated by George Condo)
  • Seven Deadly Sins, 1992
  • Paper Cloud / Thick Pages, 1992 
  • The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1945-1959, 1993 (edited by Oliver Harris)
  • My Education: A Book of Dreams, 1995
    - Koulutukseni - unien kirja (suom. Elina Koskelin, 2012)
  • My Kind of Angel: I. M . William Burroughs, 1998 (edited by Rupert Loydell)
  • Word Virus: The William Burroughs Reader, 1998 (edited by James Grauerholz and Ira Silverberg)
  • Conversations With William S. Burroughs, 1999 (edited by Allen Hibbard)
  • Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs, 2000 (edited and with an introduction by James Grauerholz)
    - Viimeiset sanat (suomentanut Elina Koskelin, 2012) 
  • Burroughs Live: The Collected Interviews of William S. Burroughs, 1960-1997, 2001 (edited by Sylvère Lotringer) 
  • The Yage Letters Redux, 2006 (4th ed., edited and with an introduction by Oliver Harris)
  • And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, 2008 (with Jack Kerouac, written in 1945; afterword by James W. Grauerholz)
    - Ja virtahevot kiehuivat altaissaan (suom. Sami Heino & Elina Koskelin, 2010)
  • Everything Lost, The Latin American Notebook of William S. Burroughs, 2008 (general editors: Geoffrey D. Smith and John M. Bennett; volume editor, Oliver Harris)
  • Rules of Duel, 2010 (with Graham Masterton)
  • Rub Out the Words: The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1959-1974, 2012 (edited by Bill Morgan)
  • Everything Lost: the Latin American Notebook of William S. Burroughs, 2017 (rev. ed.; editors Geoffrey D. Smith, John M. Bennett, and Oliver Harris)
  • Don't Hide the Madness: William S. Burroughs in Conversation with Allen Ginsberg, 2018 (edited by Steven Taylor; photos by Allen Ginsberg)
  • Queer, 2022 (edited and with an Introduction by Oliver Harris)

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