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William S. Burroughs (William Seward Burroughs) Biography

(1914–1997), (William Seward Burroughs), On The Road, Queer, Junkie, The Naked Lunch

American novelist, born in St Louis, educated at Harvard. Burroughs served as the basis for the character of Old Bull in Kerouac's On The Road. Despite having close relations with the Columbia circle who formed the early core of the Beat Generation, he later disclaimed any real affinity with this aesthetic movement, seeing his work as standing in a more ‘European’ line of experimentalism. He presents a life of aimless drifting, working as a journalist, private detective, and bartender from 1936 to 1944, when he became addicted to morphine. He moved to Mexico City in 1949, and in 1951 tragically shot his wife in a shooting accident, a matter dealt with indirectly in Queer (1986), a homosexual romance written just after the events in Mexico City. Several years of travel in South America and Morocco followed, where his first novel, Junkie (1953), was completed under the pseudonym of William Lee. In a painfully realistic portrayal of the life of an addict, Junkie tells the story of drug addicts' involvement with the underworld. It was in this work that Burroughs made the notorious statement that addiction was ‘a biological need like water’ and then proceeded to analyse the whole of human society from the perspective of this insight. The themes of addiction and totalitarianism continued to dominate his work even after his own withdrawal from heroin addiction in the late 1950s. From the masses of notes written whilst living in Tangier in 19538 came the notorious The Naked Lunch (1959). Several other novels derive from the Tangier notes, all of which explore the techniques of The Naked Lunch, by introducing the ‘cut-up’ and ‘fold-in’ methods of collage writing. The Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine (1961), whose writing refers to the human brain, The Ticket that Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1964) form a tetralogy which explores the activities of the Nova Mob in a science fiction world in which the addictions are found to be the work of the Mob. Other works produced at this time include The Exterminator (1960); Minutes To Go: Poems (1960, written with Sinclair Beiles and Gregory Corso); Dead Fingers Talk (1963), a compilation of previous novels; and The Yage Letters (1963), with Allen Ginsberg. The 1970s saw the publication of Speed (1970); The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead (1971), about a group of homosexual hashish smokers who travel through time and space beyond social control; and Port of Saints (1973). There was a later resurgence in his writing, with the trilogy Cities of the Red Night (1981), in which characters from The Wild Boys return; The Place of Dead Roads (1983), set in the 1890s and featuring Will Seward Hall, an author of Westerns; and The Western Lands (1985). In 1990 he recorded his first record and published Ghost of a Chance, a novella in the territory of Cities of the Red Night. My Education: A Book of Dreams (1995) pays homage to Burroughs' Mentor Brion Gysin and others. The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1945–1959, edited by Oliver Harris, appeared in 1993. A biography, Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs (1988), was written by Ted Morgan. The best critical introduction to his work remains William Burroughs: The Algebra of Need (1970) by Eric Mottram. Maintaining a huge cult following, Burroughs has exercised a considerable influence as an avant-garde theorist and forerunner of counter-cultures in rock music, film, and writing.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Burghers of Calais to Peter Carey Biography