Childhood & Early life
William S. Burroughs was born on February 5, 1914 to Mortimer Perry Burroughs and Laura Hammon Lee in St Louis, Missouri, United States. He was the youngest son of the couple. While his father was an antique and gift shop owner, his mother came from a prestigious family and was daughter of a minister.
Academically, he first attended John Burroughs School, later on moving to Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico, finally completing his high school degree from Taylor School in Clayton, Missouri.
It was while at John Burroughs School that he wrote his first ever essay, titled ‘Personal Magnetism’ which was published in John Burroughs Review in 1929
In 1932, he enrolled at the Harvard University to pursue a degree in arts. During his summer vacation, he took up the job of a cub reporter for the city newspaper, St Louis Post-Dispatch, covering police docket. He graduated in 1936.
During his years at the Harvard, he made frequent trips to New York City. It were these voyages that opened gateways of the city’s gay subculture, lesbian joints and underground homosexual clubs.
With a guaranteed allowance of $200 coming from his parents, he was free from the pressure of earning for a living. The allowance allowed him to forgo employment and live life according to his own wish.
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Concluding his studies at Harvard, he moved to Europe and was exposed to the Austrian and Hungarian Weimar-era homosexuality. He spent much of his time with the homosexuals, runaways and exiles of the city.
Returning to US, he took up a series of odd jobs. His declining emotional health became a matter of concern for his parents. Furthermore, he was drafted as a 1-A Infantry and not an officer, in the US Army in 1942, which further left him depressed.
Released from the Army on grounds of mental instability, he was then treated by family friend who was a neurologist at a psychiatric treatment center. It was there that he befriended a Chicago soldier.
Released from the treatment center, he relocated to Chicago and took up a series of jobs. He moved to New York City and in 1944, became involved with Joan Vollmer Adams.
In 1945, he along with Vollmer, penned his first ever written work titled, ‘And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks’ which remained unpublished until 2008. The work gave an account of the real-life murder of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr, his friend.
Meanwhile, he became a drug addict and was arrested and put under house arrest. Completing his term, he relocated to New Orleans in 1948 along with Vollmer and his son.
He fled to Mexico to evade charges of marijuana delivery and detention. During his stay at Mexico, he enrolled at the Mexico City College in 1950 studying Spanish. A year later, while playing a drunken game, he accidentally shot Vollmer, eventually killing her. He remained in jail for 13 days before being bailed out.
It was during the trial of the Vollmer case that he penned a short novel, ‘Queer’ that remained unpublished until 1985. The event casted a deep impact on his mind and shaped his writing for the rest of his life.
Leaving Mexico, he moved to South America. He started taking his literary career seriously and began writing. He finished his third literary piece, titled ‘Junkie’. The book was retitled ‘Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict’ and published in 1953 under the pen name William Lee.
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In 1953, he stayed for a short time at Palm Beach, Florida before moving to Rome to meet Alan Ansen. However, his visit was short-lived as he soon moved to Tangier, Morocco. The culture and environment of the place synchronized with his temperament, thereby providing him with no limitation for pursuing his chosen activities.
He started working on his next piece of literary work, a fiction tale titled ‘Naked Lunch’. Meanwhile, he wrote commercial articles about Tangier and sent them to Ginsberg for publication. However, none of them were published until 1989 when ‘Interzone’, a collection of short stories, was published.
Unlike his earlier works, ‘Naked Lunch’ was his first attempt in non-linear writing. Published in 1959, the book provided glimpses of his experiences in US, Mexico and finally Tangier and his addiction with drugs.
Same year, he was exposed to Brion Gysin's cut-up technique at the Beat Hotel in Paris. Their mutual interest in artworks and cut-up techniques led the two to become good friends for life
‘Naked Lunch’ did not have many buyers in United States due to its subjective views of sex and anti-social characters. However, excerpts from the novel began to be published in various journals despite being tagged obscene. The controversy created finally led to the publication of the novel in 1959.
Right after its US release, the novel gained instant attention not only from the members of the counterculture of the 1960s but from critics as well. However, it was prosecuted as obscene by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, followed by other states. The work highlighted the growing Beat literary movement.
From 1961 to 1963, he came up with three more works, titled, ‘The Soft Machine’, ‘The Ticket That Exploded’ and ‘Nova Express’. The novels employed extensive use of the cut-up technique, which though diminished the role of the writer as a creator, highlighted his importance and sensibility as an editor.
In 1966, he moved to London to cure himself of the drug addiction. It was while he was undergoing the painless heroin withdrawal treatment that he wrote an essay detailing his indebtedness for the cure. It was titled, ‘Letter From Master Addict to Dangerous Drugs’. Despite the treatment, the addiction relapsed.
Towards the latter half of his life, he wrote small literary pieces to support himself and his addiction. Furthermore, he wrote two novels, ‘The Last Words of Ducth Schultz’ and ‘The Wild Boys’. His reputation grew as his works were recognized by the hippie counterculture.
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In 1974, he returned to US and took up an employment as the creative writing teacher at the City College of New York. However, he did not last for more than a season.
James Grauerholz, a Beat generation devotee instilled in him the idea of a reading tour, similar to a rock tour. The former managed the tour, which in turn automatically raised Burroughs reputation as a writer worldwide, with new publishing contracts coming in.
In 1981, he moved to Lawrence, Kansas. From 1981 until 1987, he published a trilogy, ‘Cities of the Red Night’, ‘The Place of Dead Roads’ and ‘The Western Lands’. Unlike the former works, he employed a different technique wherein the novel started with a straight narrative technique later moving to a random pattern.
Personal life & legacy
He married Ilse Klapper, a Jewish woman much against his parents’ wishes. However, the alliance was basically intended to provide her with a US visa. Eventually, the two separated and remained lifelong friends.
In 1944, he was in a relationship with Joan Vollmer Adams. Three years later, he was blessed with a son William S Burroughs Jr (Billy) from her. Vollmer was accidentally murdered in 1951.
An alcoholic, Billy was diagnosed with liver cirrhosis and underwent a liver transplant operation. However, he continued taking alcohol and breathed his last in 1981.
Burroughs Sr. spent the better part of his life battling with drug addiction. Despite undergoing several rehabilitation programs and treatment, his addiction relapsed.
He breathed his last on August 2, 1997, from complications of a heart attack. He was buried in the family plot in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri.