William S. Burroughs
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"'Nihilism, unrelieved despair and negation, misanthropy, pessimism' - very much the same set of clichés that greeted Louis-Ferdinand Celine's Journey to the End of the Night, which to my mind is a very funny book, in a picaresque tradition stretching back to Petronius and to The Unfortunate Traveller by Thomas Nashe. I have always seen my own work in the light of the picaresque - a series of adventures and misadventures, horrific and comic, encountered by an antihero." --William S. Burroughs, William S. Burroughs At the Front: Critical Reception, 1959 - 1989
William Seward Burroughs II (February 5 1914 - August 2, 1997) was an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, painter, and spoken word performer. A primary figure of the Beat Generation and a major postmodernist author. His influence is considered to have affected a range of popular culture as well as literature. Burroughs wrote 18 novels and novellas, six collections of short stories and four collections of essays. Five books have been published of his interviews and correspondences. He also collaborated on projects and recordings with numerous performers and musicians, and made many appearances in films.
He was born to a wealthy family in St. Louis, Missouri, grandson of the inventor and founder of the Burroughs Corporation, William Seward Burroughs I, and nephew of public relations manager Ivy Lee. Burroughs began writing essays and journals in early adolescence. He left home in 1932 to attend Harvard University, studied English, and anthropology as a postgraduate, and later attended medical school in Vienna. After being turned down by the Office of Strategic Services and U.S. Navy in 1942 to serve in World War II, he dropped out and became afflicted with the drug addiction that affected him for the rest of his life, while working a variety of jobs. In 1943 while living in New York City, he befriended Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, the mutually influential foundation of what became the countercultural movement of the Beat Generation.
Much of Burroughs's work is semi-autobiographical, primarily drawn from his experiences as a heroin addict, as he lived throughout Mexico City, London, Paris, Berlin, the South American Amazon and Tangier in Morocco. Finding success with his confessional first novel, Junkie (1953), Burroughs is perhaps best known for his third novel Naked Lunch (1959), a controversy-fraught work that underwent a court case under the U.S. sodomy laws. With Brion Gysin, he also popularized the literary cut-up technique in works such as The Nova Trilogy (1961–64). In 1983, Burroughs was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and in 1984 was awarded the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by France. Jack Kerouac called Burroughs the "greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift", a reputation he owes to his "lifelong subversion" of the moral, political and economic systems of modern American society, articulated in often darkly humorous sardonicism. J. G. Ballard considered Burroughs to be "the most important writer to emerge since the Second World War", while Norman Mailer declared him "the only American writer who may be conceivably possessed by genius".
Burroughs had one child, William Seward Burroughs III (1947–1981), with his second wife Joan Vollmer. Vollmer died in 1951 in Mexico City. Burroughs was convicted of manslaughter in Vollmer's death, an event that deeply permeated all of his writings. Burroughs died at his home in Lawrence, Kansas, after suffering a heart attack in 1997.
Novels and other long fiction
- Junkie (1953) (ISBN 0-14-200316-6)
- Queer (written 1951-3; published 1985) (ISBN 0-14-008389-8)
- Naked Lunch (1959) (ISBN 0-8021-3295-2)
- The Soft Machine (1961) (ISBN 0-8021-3329-0)
- The Ticket That Exploded (1962) (ISBN 0-8021-5150-7)
- Dead Fingers Talk (1963) - excerpts from Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded combined together to create a new narrative
- Nova Express (1964) (ISBN 0-8021-3330-4)
- The Last Words of Dutch Schultz (1969) (ISBN 1-55970-211-7)
- The Wild Boys: A Book Of The Dead (1971) (ISBN 0-8021-3331-2)
- Port of Saints (1973) (ISBN 0-912652-64-0)
- Cities of the Red Night (1981) (ISBN 0-03-053976-5)
- The Place of Dead Roads (1983) (ISBN 0-312-27865-9)
- The Western Lands (1987) (ISBN 0-14-009456-3)
- My Education: A Book of Dreams (1995) (ISBN 0-14-009454-7)
- The Job: Interviews with William S. Burroughs (1969) (ISBN 0-14-011882-9) (with Daniel Odier)
- Jack Kerouac (1970) (with Claude Pelieu)
- The Electronic Revolution (1971)
- The Retreat Diaries (1976) - later included in The Burroughs File
- Letters to Allen Ginsberg 1953-1957 (1976)
- Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs (2000; ISBN 0-8021-3778-4)
- Everything Lost: The Latin American Notebook of William S. Burroughs (2007; ISBN 978-0814210802)
Stories and novellas
- Valentine's Day Reading (1965)
- Time (1965)
- APO-33 (1966)
- So Who Owns Death TV? (1967)
- The Dead Star (1969)
- Ali's Smile (1971)
- Mayfair Academy Series More or Less (1973)
- White Subway (1973) - later included in The Burroughs File
- Exterminator! (1973) (ISBN 0-14-005003-5) (a different book from the 1960 collaboration with Brion Gysin)
- The Book of Breething (aka "Ah Pook Is Here") (1974)
- Snack... (ISBN 0-85652-014-4) (1975)
- Cobble Stone Gardens (1976) - later included in The Burroughs File
- Blade Runner (a movie) (1979) (ISBN 0-912652-46-2)
- Dr. Benway (1979)
- Die Alten Filme (The Old Movies) (1979) - later included in The Burroughs File
- Streets of Chance (1981)
- Early Routines (1981)
- Sinki's Sauna (1982)
- Ruski (1984)
- The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1984)
- The Cat Inside (1986)
- The Whole Tamale (c.1987-88)
- Interzone (1987) (ISBN 0-14-009451-2)
- Tornado Alley (1989)
- Ghost of Chance (1991) (ISBN 1-85242-457-5)
- Seven Deadly Sins (1992)
- Paper Cloud; Thick Pages (1992)
- Roosevelt After Inauguration and Other Atrocities (1965)
- Ali's Smile/Naked Scientology (1978)
- Ah Pook is Here, Nova Express, Cities of the Red Night (1981) (ISBN 0-312-27846-2)
- The Burroughs File (1984)
- The Adding Machine: Collected Essays (1985) (ISBN 1-55970-210-9)
- Uncommon Quotes Vol. 1 (1989)
- Selected Letters (1993)
- Burroughs Live : The Collected Interviews of William S. Burroughs, 1960-1997 (2000) (ISBN 1-58435-010-5)
- The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1945-1959
- Word Virus : The William Burroughs Reader (1998) (ISBN 0-00-655214-5)
- And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks (1945 - scheduled for publication November 2008) (with Jack Kerouac)
- Minutes To Go (1960) (with Sinclair Beilles, Gregory Corso and Brion Gysin)
- The Exterminator (1960) (with Brion Gysin)
- The Yage Letters (1963) (with Allen Ginsberg)
- Brion Gysin Let the Mice In (1973) (with Brion Gysin)
- Sidetripping (1975) (with Charles Gatewood)
- Colloque de Tangier (1976) (with Brion Gysin)
- The Third Mind (1977) (with Brion Gysin)
- Colloque de Tangier Vol. 2 (1979) (with Brion Gysin and Gérard-Georges Lemaire)
- Apocalypse (1988) (with Keith Haring)
- The Final Academy Documents – (with various experimental film collaborations of Brion Gyson, Antony Balch, John Giorno and others)
The Final Academy - a 1982 tour in Britain, organized by David Dawson, Roger Ely and Genesis P-Orridge. The project was based on, featuring works of and was inspired by William S Burroughs. A DVD, 'The Final Academy Documents" is a DVD of edited highlights from the tour, including Burroughs' public appearance in 1982 and reading from his work at Manchester's infamous The Haçienda, a performance by John Giorno and includes the experimental film collaborations with Anthony Balch, Brion Gysin, and others - ‘Towers Open Fire' and ‘Ghosts at No. 9'. Further related information on these films mentioned above and other works of Burroughs' can be found here and here and also here on 3 various UbuWeb external links.
Many of Burroughs' works were later republished with revisions made by the author, and/or censored material restored. Both Junkie/Junky and Naked Lunch were published in "restored" editions following Burroughs's death. An expanded edition of Yage Letters entitled Yage Letters Redux was published in April 2006.
Burroughs also played a cameo part in the motion picture Drugstore Cowboy. He also collaborated on the documentary Words of Advice: William S. Burroughs On the Road released in 2007.
Recordings (partial list)
- Call Me Burroughs (1965) - The English Bookshop, Paris (reissued in 1995 by Rhino Word Beat)
- The Nova Convention (1979) by Burroughs and others - LP GPS 14-15
- Nothing Here Now But The Recordings (1981) with Brion Gysin - LP Industrial Records IR0016
- You're the Guy I Want to Share My Money With (1981) with John Giorno and Laurie Anderson - LP GPS 20-21 et al
- Poetry in Motion (1982) a film directed by Ron Mann - Burroughs is a featured writer.
- Mister Heartbreak (1984) by Laurie Anderson - Burroughs speaks the lyrics to the song "Sharkey's Night"
- Home of the Brave (1986) by Laurie Anderson - a sample of Burroughs intoning "Listen to my heart beat" is incorporated into the song "Late Show"
- UnCommon Quotes (1986) - Recorded live at the CARAVAN of DREAMS, September 11, 1986 () (ISBN 0 929856 00 7)
- Smack my Crack (1987) with Tom Waits and various artists
- Like A Girl I Want To Keep Coming (1989) by John Giorno - LP Giorno Poetry System
- Seven Souls (1989) by Material - Burroughs collaborates with Bill Laswell, later remixed in 1998 as The Road to the Western Lands
- Dead City Radio (1990) - Island Records
- The "Priest" they called him (1992) - Burroughs narrates and Kurt Cobain plays guitar
- Break Through In Grey Room (1992) - A collection of readings and cutups - Sub Rosa Records
- "Just One Fix" (1992) from the Ministry album Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs - Burroughs speaks the lyrics to the song "Quick Fix" and created the cover art
- The Black Rider (1992) - Musical co-authored with Tom Waits and Robert Wilson, sings on "T'ain't No Sin"
- Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales (1993) - Island Records (features the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy)
- "Words Of Advice" on the Material album Hallucination Engine (1994) - same piece as on Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales accompanied by different music
- The Elvis of Letters (1995) with Gus van Sant
- 10%: File under Burroughs (1996) - 2 CD set; Disc one: "Beats" (dance music using Burroughs's voice and Brion Gysin); Disc two: "Beat" (acoustic sounds and voices)
- Songs in the Key of X (1996) and In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003 bonus disc (2003) - Burroughs records his vocal over an instrumental version of R.E.M.'s "Star Me Kitten"
- Stoned Immaculate: The Music of the Doors (2000) - Burroughs reads poetry by Jim Morrison over music provided by The Doors on the track "Is Everybody In?"
Burroughs's work has inspired the name of several musical groups over the years. The most widely known of these is Steely Dan, a group named after a dildo in Naked Lunch. Also from Naked Lunch came the name The Mugwumps. The band Soft Machine took its name from the Burroughs novel of the same name, while alt-country band Clem Snide is named for a Burroughs character. The band The Soft Boys took its name from Burroughs' novels The Soft Machine and The Wild Boys. Proto-punk band Dead Fingers Talk from Hull, England, took their name from the novel of the same name, and their only album was titled Storm the Reality Studios, after a quote from Nova Express.