William Burroughs

“Watch what everyone is doing, and don’t do it.”

Born: February 5, 1914, St. Louis, Missouri
Died: August 2, 1997, Lawrence, Kansas

If you ever listen to William S. Burroughs’ readings of Dr. Benway or Twilight’s Last Gleamings, you’ll realize his sardonic humor that strikes an immediate cynical chord with the audience. You’ll laugh, because Burroughs is funny. I guess he’s a bit weird, too, but not so alien or out there that it’s impossible to relate to his mindset. He edges on the planet, with a couple feet here and there, but for all that’s been written about him, I think that he’s rather infectiously part of folks’ thoughts–whether or not we care to admit it.

Unlike some of the other beats, who were born into various forms of struggle and poverty, Burroughs was born into comfort. His grandfather had invented the adding machine, and his uncle Ivy Lee actually was Hitler’s publicist and an image-builder to John D. Rockefeller Jr., after the Ludlow Massacre of 1914. Burroughs thoughts of the Nazi regime were that, according to Word Virus (Grove Press), “When gangsters write the laws, as Burroughs was sure they did, not only in the Third Reich but in most of the post-WWII West, ethics become fugitives, sanity is branded madness, and the artist’s only option is total resistance.”

He was a thin, wrangly child–an outcast among “normal” children. Though very intelligent, he was an early rebel against the status-quo. He was branded as a “problem child” in school and was interested in drugs, homosexuality, trickery, and non-convention. After St. Louis, the family lived in New Mexico, and Burroughs attended Los Alamos Ranch (he dropped out, but attended Harvard later).

Three years after his graduation from Harvard, he went to Chicago and held a job as an exterminator (see The Naked Lunch). Here, he hung out with dealers and let his imagination grow. In 1943, he moved to New York, where his friend Lucien Carr was attending Columbia University. This is where Burroughs also met Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Edie Parker, and his future common-law wife, Joan Vollmer. Documented essays and biographies of the beats tell that these times in NYC in the early 1940s comprised the “real” beginning of the beat generation. The West Coast variety was alive too, with political poetry and underground presses–but this initial gang, also including Herbert Huncke, who Burroughs met in New York City, had not yet gotten to know the poets in San Francisco. It was out of the Kerouac/Burroughs/Ginsberg/Vollmer/Parker/Carr/Huncke clan that the words such as beatific, seeking, and furtive came about.

Burroughs was older than the rest, and mentored the others’ writing styles. They were all seekers of a new philosophy, and inspired by Rimbaud’s poetry (particularly “Seasons in Hell”) attempted to put their literary and spiritual quests into a label or definition. They came up with a “New Vision.” According to the Portable Beat Reader, Burroughs “discouraged their more extravagant antics, like their candlelit exercises writing poetry with their own blood, and urged them to read one of his favorite books, Oswald Spengler’s Decline and Fall of the West, in an effort to help them develop a more substantial historical context for their New Vision.”

Burroughs, though discouraging seemingly “more extravagant antics,” of his younger peers, was on a darker trail. He became addicted to heroin, and did what most junkies will do: sell prized possessions for more dope. He sold his typewriter in 1954, and wrote longhand. His addiction to heroin lasted 15 years.

In 1951, he was living in Mexico with Joan Vollmer. There was a party. I’ve heard variations of the story (he was attempting to shoot a glass of champagne, no, of water, etc.) off Joan’s head. This was his “William Tell” act. He missed, and Joan died. This one act, though Burroughs got off easily with the aid of a lawyer, dug at him his whole life. Though Burroughs was a homosexual, and interested in Joan in other ways (they had great familiarity, and their minds clicked, and they loved each other), he was heartbroken about this event. Perhaps not heartbroken in the typical sense, for there’s not much typical to Burroughs–but he was not an alien, and Joan’s death affected him greatly. His writing was influenced by her thereafter, and he grieved her loss like anyone would grieve the loss of a loved one.

Thirty-three years after this event, Burroughs finally wrote about it in his introduction to Queer: “[the death] brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have no choice except to write my way out.”

Burroughs left the country after Joan’s death, and until 1973, lived as an expatriate. During this time, he traveled extensively, wrote, and collaborated with Brion Gysin in the cut-up methodology. After returning to the United States, he met James Grauerholz, who would become Burroughs’ biographer–and who helped Burroughs create some of his extravagant characters, such as Dr. Benway. Later in Burroughs life, he infected punk music and musicians such as Patti Smith, acted in movies (such as The Drugstore Cowboy), went on the television show Saturday Night Live, and went down the path that other beats went: into further subcultures, further paths, and further media.

Burroughs was a genius, really, who developed his own perspective of the world at a very young age, and who continued his sneer against conformity up until his dying day, when he smoked the “sacred herb” (August, 1997).

Allow me to stop here and put Burroughs into the “beat category,” which is an awful label in one way–but which exists nonetheless. The beats, as we call them now, did form a bond that was more closely tied to a central conciousness than to similarity in writing styles. Burroughs was nothing like Gary Snyder, for example. Burroughs seemed dark, comparably, and was coming from the East Coast circle of beats of peers Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, and Herbert Huncke. He was an alien. Snyder, from the West Coast poetry scene, was lighter, completely immersed in nature and culture. Their approaches were different. But one thing in common with these types of beat personalities is that the way, or dao, was off the beaten path. To be beat, simply, to me seems to be off the path–writers who go off into their own style of wilderness to see what is out there and to come back to express what they found.

With that thought in mind, here are the kinds of things Burroughs wrote in his 83 years of existence on this planet:
(Taken and varied from Adrien Begrand’s review of Word Virus):

Short Stories:

  • “Personal Magnetism” shows his trademark sense of humor starting to peek through his writing.
  • “Twilight’s Last Gleamings,” his famous collaboration with buddy Kells Elvins, is the first example of Burroughs’ brilliant satirical imagination.
  • In “And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks,” an early collaboration with Jack Kerouac, they both (in alternating chapters) embellished the story of the famous David Kammerer murder


Junkie, Queer, and Yage Letters are all key to Burroughs, with his touching, famous introduction to Queer, where he mourns the loss of his companion Joan (saying it was his mission to write his way out of the darkness created by the shooting incident); and “Roosevelt After The Inauguration,” a savagely funny routine from The Yage Letters, which describes, in the way only Burroughs can describe, the first few days of a power-mad politician’s presidency. The apocalyptic, horrific, hilarious story marks a real turning-point in Burroughs’ writing. However, the real turning point is Interzone.

Interzone is the real stuff, the start of the journey into Burroughs’ apocalyptic vision. The book Word Virus starts off with excerpts from the book Interzone, including the section “Word”. In it Burroughs finally lets go, attempting for the first time a sream-of-consciousness style, writing anything that pops into his head. He accurately describes his experience as finally letting loose an enema that had been inside him for forty-odd years. He let the shit fly, and the world (and the Word) was all the better for it.

The Naked Lunch, one of Burroughs’ trademarks, has Dr. Benway, the immortal “Atrophied Preface”, and, of course, the talking asshole.

The cut-up novels of the mid-sixties, The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express comprise another trilogy. The Soft Machine is the best book of the three, with “The Mayan Caper” ranking among Burroughs’ all-time best pieces. The Ticket That Exploded, when read in full, is an alternately fascinating and frustrating book, where Burroughs lets the cut-ups and fold-ins nearly spiral out of control, but the excerpts provided highlight the best parts of the book, and make his ‘language as a virus’ theory more clear and comprehensible.

The Nova Express excerpts also keep things a bit more focused, instead of going into cut-up overkill. “Inspector Lee: Nova Heat” (Word Virus) is definitive of Burroughs’ cut-up theory, but rapidly loses momentum in the pieces “Who Is The Third That Walks Beside You” and “Last Post Danger Ahead.”

The selections from The Third Mind, Burroughs’ collaboration with Gysin, are at first interesting, but quickly bog down in far too much cut-up experimentation. It’s a stultifying read, and what memorable parts there are hard to find again amid the mess of random phrases. The pieces from The Job are a bit too long, nearly thirty pages devoted to Burroughs’ rambling on and on about tape splicing, L. Ron Hubbard’s e-meters, and other subjects.

The Job was never a book I really totally got into in the past, and I still found it a bit boring. The last half of the section, however, redeems the meandering of the previous selections. “Remembering Jack Kerouac” is a beautiful tribute to Burroughs’ good friend, and there’s a pang of regret there, for the two didn’t see eye to eye in Jack’s later years. “When Did I Stop Wanting To Be President?” is another classic hilarious routine, describing Burroughs’ demented fantasy of being named Commissioner of Sewers for the City of St. Louis. “The Limits Of Control”, “Immortality”, and “The Johnson Family”, all from The Adding Machine, are outstanding as well.

Two of Burroughs’ best books, The Wild Boys and Exterminator!, are excerpted in the next section. The Wild Boys is given only twenty pages, and is missing “The Green Nun”, one of my favorite parts. What is there is great, though. Several stories from Exterminator!, such as “The Discipline of DE”, “What Washington? What Orders?”, and the classic “The Priest, They Called Him”, pay fitting tribute to one of Burroughs’ most underrated books.

The Red Night Trilogy is next, and it is obvious that editors James Grauerholz and Ira Silverberg (and William himself) wanted to stress the importance of the three books: Cities Of The Red Night, The Place Of Dead Roads, and The Western Lands. The section is given a whopping one hundred-or-so pages, and deservedly so. Along with Naked Lunch and Soft Machine, the Red Night Trilogy marks the high point of Burroughs’ writing. He introduces several memorable characters like Clem Snide, Audrey Carsons, Joe the Dead, Neferti, and Burroughs’ own old-age pseudonym William Seward Hall. Starting in ‘Cities’, a send-up of old children’s pirate novels, Burroughs makes the journey towards death, redemption, and eventual immortality, which continues through ‘Dead Roads’ (in Old-Western form), and culminates in the Egyptian-inspired Western Lands, where William seems to see the writing on the wall, saying he “had reached the end of words, the end of what can be done with words.” He realizes that his pilgrimage will be an ongoing one, and seems to accept the end of his journey as a writer. After reading the Red Night section, I had a better understanding of the entire trilogy than when I first read it, and it’s a fitting, monumental climax to the Reader.

The ‘Later Work’ section features small excerpts from The Cat Inside and My Education: A Book Of Dreams, and beautifully shows Burroughs’ tender side, especially in his loving ode to his cats. I remember Patricia Elliott telling us on the beat-l mailing list two years ago that William was very broken up about the death of his favorite cat, and James Grauerholz mentions the same thing. With all of Burroughs’ best friends dead, the death of his cat Fletch was the clincher, and he never totally recovered.

I would have liked to have seen excerpts from such books as Port Of Saints, Ah Pook Is Here, Ghost Of Chance, Blade Runner, and Last Words Of Dutch Schultz, but, as it is, the book is overflowing with essential material. It is noted in the book that all the pieces which were included met with Burroughs’ approval, shortly before he died, so there is consolation in the fact that this was the book that Burroughs himself wanted to put out.

Burroughs is in several Kerouac books: as Will Dennison in Town and the City, Wilson (Will) Holmes Humbbard in Vanity of Duluoz, Old Bull Lee in On the Road, Frank Carmody in Subterraneans, and Bull Hubbard in Desolation Angels and Book of Dreams. He is also known as Dennison in Holmes’ Go.

Books and Audio

Streets of Chance (1981)
A William Burroughs Reader (1982)
Ah Pook is Here! (1979)
Ali’s Smile (1971)
Apocalypse (1988)
Blade Runner (1979)
Brion Gysin Let the Mice In (1973)
Cities of the Red Night (1981)
Cobble Stone Gardens (1976)
Colloque de Tanger (1976, 1979)
Dead Fingers Talk (1963, 1970)
Early Routines (1981)
Electronic Revolution (1971, 1976)
Entretiens avec William Burroughs (1969)
Exterminator (1960, 1973)
Ghost of Chance (1991)
Interzone (1987)
Jack Kerouac (1971)
Junkie (1953, 1973, 1977)
Letters to Allen Ginsberg (1953-1957)
Mayfair Academy Series More or Less (1973)
Minutes To Go (1960)
Naked Scientology (1978)
Oeuvre Croise’e (1977)
Paper Cloud (1992)
Port of Saints (1973, 1975)
Port of Saints (1980)
QueerViking (1985, 1987)
Roosevelt after Inauguration And Other Atrocities (1965, 1979)
Ruski (1984)
Seven Deadly Sins (1992)
Sidetripping (1975)
Sinki’s Sauna (1982)
Snack (1975)
So Who Owns Death TV? (1967)
The Adding Machine: Collected Essays (1985)
The Book of Breathing
The Burroughs File (1984)
The Cat Inside (1986)
The Dead Star (1969)
The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (1984)
The Job (1970)
The Last Words of Dutch Schultz (1970)
The Last Words of Dutch Schultz (1975, 1987)
The Naked Lunch (1959)
The Place of Dead Roads (1983)
The Retreat Diaries (1976)
The Soft Machine (1961)
The Soft Machine (1966, 1968)
The Third Mind (1978)
The Ticket that Exploded (1962)
The Ticket that Exploded (1967)
The Western Lands (1987_
The Wild Boys (1971)
The Yage Letters (1964, 1992)
Time (1965,1966)
Uncommon Quotes, Vol. 1. (1989)
Valentines Day Reading (1965)
White Subway (1973)

One thought on “William Burroughs

  1. Let me know more sometimes, I am deeply interested. I met William Burroughs in April 1975 in New York.

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