American writer, painter, spoken word performer, and legendary persona, William S. Burroughs left behind a deep wave on popular culture that has rippled beyond the realm of literature exclusively. A preeminent figure of the Beat Generation, Burroughs
was declared by Norman Mailer to be “the only American novelist living today who may be conceivably possessed by genius.” The life, literature, and legacy of William S. Burroughs continue to be critically examined today.
On February 5, 1914 in St. Louis, Missouri, William Seward Burroughs II was born into a family of relative affluence. His mother, Laura Lee, was the direct descendant of Robert E. Lee, the most celebrated general of the Confederate forces during the American Civil War. His grandfather on his father Mortimer’s side, from whom William was named after, was the inventor of the adding machine. Mortimer sold the stock to The Burroughs Adding Machine Corporation before William was born, and the corporation eventually evolved into Unisys, which manufactured huge, mainframe computers. Mortimer ran an antique and gift shop, first in St. Louis, then in Palm Beach, Florida.
Here and there, brief and sometimes altogether random sensory stimuli will occasionally trigger an unexpected and intense emotional response. Hear a song on the radio and be instantly reminded of your first romantic situation with a significant other. Behold a billboard while on the highway and suddenly recall the happiness of some long ago family vacation. Or, perhaps if youâ€™re lucky, take a snippet of an overheard conversation out of context, something about a road trip, and be blissfully reminded of youâ€™re first encounter with â€œBeatâ€ literature. You know. That time you read â€œOn the Roadâ€ during the summer between your freshman and sophomore years of High School. As with most, my first encounter with what I came to know as â€œBeatâ€ literature was a supremely happy one, and, as with most, those first pangs of pleasure were brought on in response to Jack Kerouacâ€™s â€œOn the Roadâ€. After all, expect invariably the answer of â€œJack Kerouacâ€ to the question â€œwho was your first Beat Generation readâ€ and be no guiltier of presumptuous behavior than anyone certain of the effects of gravity. But â€œOn the Roadâ€ only just wet the tongue, so to speak.
Indeed I had only just realized the true extent of my literary dehydrationâ€”further research and reading proved imperative, a matter of mental and even physical health. And so began the chain events that would lead inevitably to the heart of the matter, the various works of the father of â€œBeatâ€ literature, the man whom Norman Mailer referred to as â€œthe only American Novelist living today who might conceivably be possessed of geniusâ€, Mr. William S. Burroughs. Novelist, essayist, spoken word performer, film actor, film producer, William Seward Burroughs was what you might call a â€œheavy hitterâ€ in the world of art. I felt pangs of pleasure and intrigue at having read â€œOn the Roadâ€; my immediate and involuntary responses to Naked Lunch and Junky were simply too weird and perverse to express on this page. However, though a profoundly talented artist, it would be irresponsible to categorize him so singularly. If one is to truly understand the impressive personality that was William S. Burroughs, one must start from the beginning.
On February 5, 1914 in St. Louis, Missouri, William Seward Burroughs II was born into a family of relative affluence. His mother, Laura Lee, was the direct descendant of Robert E. Lee, the most celebrated general of the Confederate forces during the American Civil War. His grandfather on his father Mortimer’s side, from whom William was named after, was the inventor of the adding machine. Mortimer sold the stock to The Burroughs Adding Machine Corporation before William was born, and the corporation eventually evolved into Unisys, which manufactured huge, mainframe computers. Mortimer ran an antique and gift shop, first in St. Louis, then in Palm Beach, Florida, managing a comfortable upper-class existence. Though, apparently unbeknownst to his parents, Burroughs became aware of his unique personality traits at a young age. In his partial memoir Junky, Burroughs claimed to have been plagued as a child by unusual hallucinations. He also claimed to have been innately predisposed to the purposeful altering of his own consciousness, first by simply running around in circles until he collapsed, achieving the desired dizzying effect, and then through the use of drugs.
While attending the Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico, Burroughs also realized another important aspect of his personality: his sexual orientation. In a diary he kept at the time of his enrollment, Burroughs detailed an erotic relationship he had with another boy. The school was a boarding school for the wealthy, where the spindly sons of the rich could be transformed into manly specimens. Burroughs was expelled from the institution after he and another boy experimented with the sedative Chloral Hydrate.
In 1932, Burroughs left home to earn an arts degree at Harvard University. Upon his graduation in 1936, Burroughs’ parents decided to give him a monthly allowance of $200 dollars, a substantial sum at the time. This was his ticket to freedom, as he was able to forgo employment and enjoy a much richer, if not dangerous lifestyle. Soon after his graduation, Burroughs traveled to Europe, where he married a Jewish woman named Ilse Klapper so she could attain an American visa and escape Nazi persecution. They eventually divorced, and Burroughs began to indulge in a more active homosexual lifestyle. In 1939 his mental health became of concern to his parents after he deliberately severed one of his fingers in order to impress a male love interest. One of his earliest works of fiction, The Finger, was based on this incident. In 1942 Burroughs enlisted in the Army, but after receiving a rank of infantryman as opposed to the position of officer that he desired, he became dejected. He was able to secure a discharge based on the fact that he should not have been admitted to the army in the first place to due potentially severe mental instability.
After bopping around a few places and developing a serious addiction to heroin, Burroughs began living with a woman named Joan Vollmer Adams in an apartment they shared with Jack Kerouac and his then wife Edie Parker. Here Burroughs and Kerouac began a joint writing venture they named And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks. Although the work was never completed, Burroughs and Kerouac formed a close bond. Also during this time Joan gave birth to Bill Burroughs’ child, William Burroughs Jr., but the family was forced to flee to Mexico so Bill could escape imprisonment as a result of Marijuana possession. According to Bill, while extremely depressed and drunk at a party, during a game of William Tell, Burroughs accidentally shot and killed his wife while trying to shoot an apple off of her head. It was after this incident that Burroughs truly began his career as a writer.