"After one look at this planet any visitor from outer space would say 'I want to see the manager.'"

Happy Birthday, William S. Burroughs!


William Seward Burroughs (February 5th, 1914 - August 2nd, 1997) was an American writer, poet and spoken word performer. Alongside his friends Allan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, Burroughs was part of the Beat Generation. This echelon of post Second-World War writers rejected social standards and celebrated narcotics, sexuality and Eastern religion in their lives and in their poetry. Burrough's most well-known work includes the novels Junkie (1953), Naked Lunch (1959) and the Nova Trilogy (1961 - 1964). Burroughs lived in many places across the globe whilst dealing with the trials and tribulations of a continuous heroin addiction. In 1983, Burroughs was honored by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. His name and work goes down in literary history as a major influence in popular culture and American history.

William S. Burroughs was born in Missouri to a family of English ancestry. His parents came from a background of entrepreneurs and sent him to a wealthy school. The institution was a boarding school and the repressive, stifling atmosphere provided much material for Burrough's earliest work. These  controversial texts referred to his attraction to another schoolboy and were destroyed by Burroughs in shame. Burroughs attended Harvard University after high school where he pursued a degree in the arts. A local newspaper in his hometown of St. Louis paid him to cover small events in the summer breaks, which Burroughs hated. He would travel to New York City throughout university and began to slowly submerge into the subcultures there.

William S. Burroughs On Dreams

In the stock market crash of 1929, Burrough's grandfather sold his company and his parents offered Burroughs a gift of $200. In the economy of the day, this money went a long way. Burroughs would continue to live off his parents financial support for many years and in many locations. After graduating from Harvard, Burroughs searched for his vocation and dabbled in anthropology and medicine. Both endeavors were short lived. He preferred to associate with the runaways, rebels and exhiles of society. He spent much of his time in Europe, and on returning to the States, experimenting with his sexuality.

Burroughs enlisted in the US Army in 1942 but was discharged due to a history with depression. After a string of odd jobs in Chicago, Burroughs followed his friends to the bright lights of New York.


In 1944, Burroughs lived with soon-to-be pop culture icons Jack Kerouac, Edie Parker and Joan Vollmer Adams, as well as her daughter. It was during this era that Burroughs became infatuated with morphine and would sell heroin in Greenwich Village to support his new addiction. Burroughs and Vollmer fled to Mexico City to avoid a quandary with the law involving two friends. Vollmer became pregnant and gave birth to their son, William "Billy" Burroughs Jr. The father and son would have a rocky relationship until Billy's death in 1981.

heirs-pistol-kills-his-wifeThe drugs and the witnessing of their friend David Kammerer's murder were just the beginnings of Burrough's run-ins with the law. After he and Joan left New York with their children, they temporarily lived in New Orleans and Texas. Burroughs was arrested on suspicion of trading marijuana with Allen Ginsberg and the family fled to Mexico so that Burroughs could out-wait the statute of limitations.

The event that would change Burrough's life and career forever was the "accidental" murder of his common-law wife. Burroughs shot Joan in a drunken ocassion of the game "William Tell". Their children were sent to live with grandparents and Burroughs spent time in jail while awaiting a trial.

Burroughs wrote the short story Queer while in jail. However, it was the death of his wife that he claimed turned him into a real writer:

"I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out."

Burroughs was able to leave jail when his lawyer became entangled in his own legal drama. He traveled south in search of a telepathy-inducing drug called "yagé". Burrough's letters to Ginsberg about the quest would become published in The Yage Letters, 1963.


One of Burrough's first works Junkie, was published in 1953. The book was about his intimate experiences with the New York world of heroin. Had it not been for Ginsberg's support and determination to produce it, the book may have never been published. It was released under the pen name William Lee.

nakedlunchWhile living in Tangier, a city Burroughs appreciated for the free flowing availability of drugs, Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch. He would write while deep under the influence of various drugs and it would be four years before the work was completed. Ever the believers in Burrough's talent, Ginsberg and Kerouac came to visit and help him edit the work. The full Naked Lunch was published in 1959, following the release of smaller excerpts. The work would become his most famous and read book.



"You were not there for the beginning. You will not be there for the end. Your knowledge of what is going on can only be superficial and relative" - from Naked Lunch



William Burroughs (L) and Jack Kerouac in New York in 1953

Over the next years of his life, Burroughs would live in both Paris and London. While in France, Burroughs became inspired by the work of painter Brion Gysin and his non-linear, abstract approach. He was influenced deeply, both by the discard of conventional narrative and the themes of social unrest and disease. In France, writing was considered a high-status career. Burroughs lived in an old hotel in the Latin Quarter. The building would become a sanctuary for writers and artists, and would one day be coined "The Beat Hotel" to mark this significant period in culture. Other artists who lived in the building were Harold Chapman, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg.

"Political conflicts are merely surface manifestations. If conflicts arise you may be sure that certain powers intend to keep this conflict under operation since they hope to profit from the situation. To concern yourself with surface political conflicts is to make the mistake of the bull in the ring, you are charging the cloth. That is what politics is for, to teach you the cloth. Just as the bullfighter teaches the bull, teaches him to follow, obey the cloth." - Journal For the Protection of All Beings, 1961

burroughsBurroughs moved to London to seek a cure for his drug addiction and ended up liking his life in the UK. He would spend six years living and writing in London. While working on rehabilitation, Burroughs wrote Letter From A Master Addict To Dangerous Drugs for the The British Journal of Addiction (Vol. 53, 1956) - a seminal work of its own. But despite his best intentions, Burroughs never found freedom from the hold of his habit. He experimented with various drugs and supported his it through commercial writing. His name was becoming well-known for his previous work and while in England, Burroughs finished The Last Words of Dutch Schultz (1969) and The Wild Boys (1971).

"I was standing outside myself trying to stop those hangings with ghost fingers... I am a ghost wanting what every ghost wants-a body-after the Long Time moving through odorless alleys of space where no life is, only the colorless no smell of death...Nobody can breath and smell it through pink convolutions of gristle laced with crystal snot, time shit and black blood filters of flesh." - from Naked Lunch

It seems that Burroughs never stopped searching for that inner contentment. In the 1960s, Burroughs looked into the Church of Scientology. He would return to New York yet again in 1974, where Ginsberg had arranged for him to teach at the City College of New York. Burroughs was not satisfied with teaching, but he did find James Grauerholz in the process. Grauerholz was a big fan of Burroughs and was fascinated by the Beat Generation. He helped Burroughs do book tours, something that was not a convention at the time. He also set Burroughs up with a writing job at magazine Crawdaddy.

wsbIn the late 1970s Burroughs became friends with Andy Warhol, John Giorno, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, and Susan Sontag. Retrospectives of Burrough's work would be shown all over the city, with support from musicians The B-52's, Suicide, Philip Glass, Frank Zappa, Debbie Harry & Chris Stein.

Billy Burroughs Jr. was diagnosed with liver cirrhosis and after many operations, he died in 1981. His father tried to spend time with him but felt alienated with the son he had estranged for most of his life.

"Whether you like it or not, you are committed to the human endeavor. I cannot ally myself with such a purely negative goal as avoidance of suffering. Suffering is a chance you take by the fact of being alive." - Letters to Allen Ginsberg, 1953-1957


His trilogy, Cities of the Red Night (1981) The Place of Dead Roads (1983) and The Western Lands (1987) came out throughout the 1980s. They were met with mixed reviews. Burrough's never quite kicked the habit of his life-long companion, heroin. Fans of his work would bring him a supply as a "gift". In a way, the source was constant supply of his writing genius. One could not function without the other.

In the twilight years of his life, Burroughs resided in Kansas. He was included into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1983. His work would inspire, and continue to influence, writers, lyricists and artists of all kinds. He died in 1997 but his work would live on. Naked Lunch would be his most remembered work but even his essays, letters and articles would all be published eventually. He is remembered as an integral part of The Beat Generation and his dark tales would give insight to a wide range of readers about the lusts, dangers and mysteries of drugs.


burroughs-junkie"The question is frequently asked: Why does a man become a drug addict? The answer is that he usually does not intend to become an addict. You don't wake up one morning and decide to be a drug addict. It takes at least three months' shooting twice a day to get any habit at all. I think it no exaggeration to say it takes about a year and several hundred injections to make an addict.

The questions, of course, could be asked: Why did you ever try narcotics? You become a narcotics addict because you do not have strong motivations in the other direction. Junk wins by default. I tried it as a matter of curiosity. I ended up hooked. If you have never been addicted, you can have no clear idea what it means to need junk with the addict's special need. You don't decide to be an addict. One morning you wake up sick and you're an addict." - from Junkie

William S. Burrough's Advice for Young People

Additional Info

  • Birthday Date: Wednesday, 05 February 2014
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