William S. Burroughs

"Il Hombre Invisible" - Was One of The Holy Trinity of Beat Generation Writers



This Knol was written by Jon Hopwood

It is copied here under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License

As part of the Jon Hopwood Recovery Project

William Seward Burroughs II, the grandson and namesake of the man who invented the famous adding machine that bore the family surname, reinvented himself as an avant-garde writer in middle-age and became one of the three seminal writers of the Beat Generation, the other two being his friends Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

The second of two boys, he was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on February 5, 1914, to Mortimer Burroughs, the son of the founder of the Burroughs Adding Machine Co., and his wife, the former Laura Hammon Lee, who claimed descent from the Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The young Bill Burroughs grew up in patrician surroundings, his parents operating an antique store in St. Louis.

After attending prep school in St. Louis, Bill was sent to a private boarding school in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The Los Alamos Ranch School was chosen because of its salubrious desert climate as the young scion suffered from sinus trouble. (Fittingly, the school was later used to house the Manhattan Project during World War II. The absurdity, the insanity of Life Under the Bomb was the unsung leitmotif in Burrough's best work.)

Burroughs took his undergraduate degree at Harvard College (Class of 1936), but rebelled inwardly against the life that the upper-class Harvard man was supposed to lead during the pre-war period. Outwardly, he affected the dress of the patrician, a three-piece suit, necktie, black homburg and chesterfield overcoat being his standard wardrobe. His political options generally were also of his class, i.e., right-wing.

Of his alma mater, Harvard, Ginsburg said, "I hated the University and I hated the town it was in. Everything about the place was dead. The University was a fake English setup taken over by the graduates of fake English public schools."

Planning to become a physician, Burroughs moved to Germany to study medicine. Perhaps it was his exposure to the National Socialism of Adolf Hitler's Germany that raised Burroughs' interest in his lifelong fascination with the control mechanisms used by the state against its citizens. The plight of the Jews under the Nazis was desperate, and in 1937 Burroughs agreed to marry Ilse Herzfeld Klapper, a German Jewish woman, so she could leave Germany and eventually become a U.S. citizen.

Burroughs left Germany for the United States without completing his studies, bringing along Ilse. The two remained friends for many years after they moved back to the U.S., meeting often for lunch when Burroughs eventually settled in New York City in the early 1940s. They never lived together, and Burroughs formally divorced her in 1946 so he could marry his second wife, Joan Vollmer.

"In the U.S., you have to be a deviant or die or boredom." A homosexual in an extremely homophobic age, back in the U.S., he drifted from job to job while continuing his education as an autodidact.

He lived in Chicago, where he was an exterminator, which he claimed was the best job he ever had and which later figured in his writing. While in Chicago, he met the young Lucien Carr (later to be the father of best-selling novelist Caleb Carr, author of The Alienist) and David Kammerer.

Kammerer was a homosexual 14 years Carr's senior who had been his private school tutor and had stalked Carr obsessively afterward, following him from city to city. While Carr was disturbed by Kammerer's behavior, he was also immature and flattered by the attention, a moth attracted to the flame. When the moth got singed, he would fly away. Carr dropped out of the University of Chicago to attend Columbia in New York in order to escape Kammerer, and when Kammerer inevitably followed, Burroughs tagged along.

Through Carr, Burroughs made the connections that would change his life: Columbia drop-out Kerouac, then in the Merchant Marine, and Columbia undergrad Ginsberg, then studying pre-law at Columbia with the idea of becoming a labor lawyer. Intrigued by what he heard from Carr and Kammerer of Kerouac, Bill dropped in to see him at the apartment of Kerouac's girlfriend (and future wife) Edie Parker, who shared the flat with Burroughs' own future common-law wife, Joan Vollmer.

Joan Vollmer Adams was married to a U.S. serviceman, Paul Adams, who was stationed overseas, and the mother of a young daughter, Julie. A graduate of Barnard College, where she had met Edie, Joan had been raised by an upper-middle-class family in Albany, New York. Considering her a female equivalent of Bill Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg -- whose psychiatrist had convinced him to identify as heterosexual -- encouraged the two to have an affair, despite Bill's being gay.

Before the momentous meet-up with Joan, Edie, Jack & Allen, Burroughs had begun experimenting with morphine when he acquired a stash of the drug to sell, and he subsequently became hooked. Burroughs would be a serious heroin addict for much of the next several decades of his life and would never entirely kick his habit.

Long fascinated by "low-lifes" and the vitality they retained while the rest of "normal" Americans seemed wan and desiccated (this was the Great Depression, after all), Burroughs began conducting "field research" into New York's underworld. His peregrinations were aided and abetted by Herbert Huncke, a junkie and thief whom Burroughs befriended and let share his apartment in lower Manhattan. With Huncke playing Virgil to his Dante, Burroughs met the denizens of the demimonde, many of whom would become part of his fiction, as he journeyed through the rings of hell that made up the Inferno of World War II-era New York City.

"Sailor", who showed up as a character in his greatest novel, Naked Lunch (1959), was a thief and drug dealer who once borrowed Burroughs' pistol and went out and shot a storekeeper to death. Sailor later hanged himself in jail after being arrested for an unrelated crime. He was known as an informer and had turned in a rival narcotics dealer; when Sailor took his own life, he was facing an incarceration likely to be filled with beatings, torture and possibly murder.

Soon, Burroughs himself began to deal drugs in earnest in order to keep up with his own habit. He also established himself as a fence of stolen merchandise, becoming part of a den of thieves that spilled over into Edie and Joan's apartment. The patrician Burroughs, with his high standards, prided himself on giving the best "cut" of heroin available, with personal home delivery to boot.
Burroughs spent a lot of time at the apartment Kerouac shared with Edie and Joan. He particularly liked to psychoanalyze Kerouac and Ginsberg, and enjoyed having them act out scenarios, little dramas in which they would play roles: Burroughs an old queen/con artist, Ginsburg his pimp, and Kerouac as the gullible young American, mouth agape in a foreign land, ripe for the plucking. Their imaginations were quite fertile, and it fed Kerouac and Ginsberg's writing.

Although Bill Burroughs had served as a cub reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch during summers off from Harvard, it was Jack Kerouac who first urged Burroughs to write. Burroughs never really had any inclination to write until he met Kerouac, but he and Jack collaborated on a mystery novel they eventually entitled And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, after the last sentence of a BBC-Radio report on a fire at the London Zoo. Each wrote alternating chapters, and after the book was complete, the manuscript was passed around among New York publishers. There were no takers, and for a time, Burroughs lost interest in writing.

In 1945, Lucien Carr stabbed David Kammerer to death during a stroll along the bank of the Hudson River below Morningside Heights, an area that was a notorious gay cruising spot. After the dying Kammerer expired in his arms, Carr weighted down the body of his former tutor with rocks and sank it in the Hudson. In bloodied clothes, Carr sought out Burroughs, soliciting advice. Ignoring the elder's wise counsel to get a good lawyer and turn himself in, Carr then went to see Kerouac, who helped him dispose of the murder weapon and Kammerer's glasses. Both Burroughs and Kerouac were arrested (Burroughs as a material witness; Kerouac as an accessory after the fact), but eventually both were released without being prosecuted. The young Carr pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sent off to the Elmira Reformatory, where he was incarcerated for two years.

When Paul Adams returned from the war, he divorced Joan, who had become addicted to amphetamines after being introduced to the drug by Kerouac. Joan often would buy Benzedrine in nasal inhalers then available over-the-counter, and became a heavy user. Adams was not only appalled by her drug abuse, but by her coterie of friends, who were involved in dope dealing, theft and murder.
Burroughs and Vollmer became lovers in early 1946, and he divorced Ilse Klapper, who was now safe with the defeat of Nazi Germany. Bill soon was busted for prescription drug script forgery, and Joan's dependency on amphetamine led to her being committed to Bellevue Hospital's psychiatric ward for observation due to psychotic behavior. Burroughs was exiled back to his family in St. Louis by the court system, and when he returned to New York after his probation was over, he took Joan out of the madhouse.

New York City had became increasingly untenable as Burroughs was now known to the police, so he and Joan, who styled herself as Mrs. William S. Burroughs for the rest of her life, moved to Algiers, Louisiana, a suburb or New Orleans, to become farmers: Their anticipated crop was to be marijuana. Bill was busted for heroin by the New Orleans police, which meant the family had to move, and their son, Williams S. Burroughs, Jr. ("Billy"), was born in Conroe, Texas in 1947.

Bill was addicted to heroin, and Joan was a Benzedrine addict, and eventually, due to Bill's bust and other drug-related hassles, the family moved on to Mexico City, where living was cheaper and drugs easier to come by. Tragedy, which Bill and Joan had so far managed to ward off, like two characters in an ancient Greek play, fleeing from their furies, was stalking the Burroughs family and would soon strike.

By 1951, the physical passion between Bill and Joan was over. Burroughs had taken a long trip to the jungle with a young male lover, looking for the drug called "Yage". Yage, like peyote, was rumored to offer a key to opening the doors of perception and a heightening consciousness. At the time, there were rumors that Joan, herself, had been unfaithful to Burroughs with many men, and Allen Ginsberg, who had fallen in love with Bill himself, had urged her to leave him. Although they had never been legally married, either Bill or Joan reportedly filed a bill of divorcement in the Mexican courts that subsequently was withdrawn. This was the volatile background to which Bill Burroughs returned after his trip to the jungle.

Soon after Bill's return, at a party in which they both were drunk, an exhibitionistic Burroughs shot and killed Joan in an alleged accident where he reportedly attempted to mimic the "apple on the son's head" scene from William Tell.

As the story is told, Joan put a glass of liquor on top of her head after Burroughs beseeched her to perform the trick for the guests. There had never been a William Tell trick, Burroughs later ruefully admitted, and Joan wound up with a .32 slug in her head. Accounts of the death, which the Mexican police ruled a misadventure caused by a mistake in judgment, have never been entirely satisfactory. Like Lucien Carr before him, Burroughs may have consciously or subconsciously rid himself of a lover whom he no longer had any use for, or was piqued at, for at the time of the shooting, he was in love and heavily involved in a gay affair.

Burroughs formally withdrew his William Tell story, and pleaded that he had been showing off his pistol to a potential buyer when it went off and killed Joan. His older brother arrived in Mexico with funds to pay for legal representation, and possibly bribes to Mexican officials. Burroughs eventually was convicted, in absentia, of manslaughter for the death of Joan Vollmer. Her daughter Julie was sent to live with her father, and their son Billy was sent to live with his paternal grandparents.

After the death of Joan, Burroughs spent time journeying through Central and South America, looking for yage. He found it and distributed it among his friends.

In 1953, Allen Ginsberg managed to get Burroughs into print under the pen name "William Lee." Burroughs's autobiographical novel, Junkie, was published by Ace Books, as a 35-cent paperback original. (The son of the owner, Carl Solomon, was one of Ginsburg's friends) The formal title of the book, which was written as pulp fiction, was Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict, and it was published as "Two Books in One" back-to-back with another paperback original in the same volume.

Returning to Mexico City, by the mid-'50s, Burroughs had began writing in earnest while keeping up with his drug habit, living off a small trust fund of $200 a month provided to him by his parents. It was in Mexico City that he began writing the sketches that would turn into his major book, Naked Lunch. In 1956, he left Mexico City for Tangiers in Morocco, as the living was even cheaper than it was in Mexico, as were the drugs. The young men of Tangiers also were noted for their casual acceptance of homosexuality.

Naked Lunch has the distinction of being the last major book to be prosecuted for obscenity in the United States. The novel was written in Mexico City and Tangiers, crafted from fragments Burroughs wrote while addicted to heroin, and edited by Kerouac and Ginsberg, who visited Burroughs in 1957. Parts of Naked Lunch were published in small, literary magazines starting in 1958, and immediately attracted attention from prosecutors for being obscene.

After Naked Lunch was published in Paris by the Olympia Press in 1959, it quickly became notorious for its graphic descriptions of sexual encounters, sadism and murder, as well as its no-holds-barred use of language. In the late 1950s, it was the epitome of the "dirty book", thought to be utterly depraved due to its graphic sex scenes, described in no-holds-barred language and with no pretensions to moral uplift.

Many stalwart defenders of the First Amendment drew the line at Naked Lunch stating that they did not fight the good fight to get James Joyce's Ulysses and the works of D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller before the American public so that something like Naked Lunch could be printed and sold openly in the United States. Grove Press eventually acquired the rights to the book, but it was not published until 1962, as the publishing house awaited the outcome of other obscenity trials, including one involving Allen Ginsberg's epic poem Howl, which featured Burroughs as one of its hipsters searching for "an angry fix".

Guided by Justice William J. Brennan, the U.S. Supreme Court, starting in the late 1950s, had relaxed censorship standards to protect literature that had redeeming social value, no matter that individual passages in the works were accused of being obscene. Under the Brennan doctrine, a work had to be considered as a whole: To be banned, a work had to be utterly without redeeming social value. Undaunted, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts successfully prosecuted the book as obscene in its state courts.

For the initial Naked Lunch trial, Grove Press had gathered together an impressive list of "experts", including Norman Mailer, to defend the book. However, Burroughs' modern classic initially lost its plea to be considered literature and thus protected speech under the First Amendment. Naked Lunch was declared obscene, and was banned in Massachusetts. (A banned book would be destroyed, the copies already having been confiscated by the police, thus creating a financial loss for the publisher.)

The case was appealed, and in 1966, the Massachusetts Supreme Court found that Naked Lunch was "not without social value, and therefore, not obscene." With this ruling, an era that began in the 1870s when anti-smut crusader Anthony Comstock led the charge for stricter enforcement of obscenity laws by the federal and state governments, came to an end.

Burroughs is known for creating the "cut-up" style of writing along with Brion Gysin, in which sections of a story are cut up and reassembled to create a new story. This technique is similar to the "tape collage" style of experimental music, which Burroughs was known to dabble in. It was a logical outgrowth of his Naked Lunch work habits, in which he wrote individual sketches, with the typewritten pages falling to the floor, to be gathered up and collated, sometimes haphazardly. (Reportedly, Burroughs had wanted to call the book Naked Lust, but Jack Kerouac misread it as "Naked Lunch". Thus, a title was born.)

The Naked Lunch sketches from Mexico City and Tangiers eventually were worked into three subsequent Burroughs novels, The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1963).

Burroughs eventually moved to Paris in 1959, to escape trouble linked to a friend's drug-dealing and to seek a publisher for the manuscript of Naked Lunch. He lived in the Latin Quarter in a hotel-cum-roominghouse until 1966, when he moved to London, attracted by Dr. John P. Dent, M.D.'s apomorphine "cure" for drug addiction,. He continued to live and work in London until 1972.

At the urging of Ginsberg, Burroughs returned to America in the 1970s; after a long exile, he never did get reconciled to the country of his birth. While living in New York City in a windowless, former YMCA gym that was called "The Bunker," Burroughs hit the performance artist circuit, giving readings to crowds more attuned to rock n' roll than literature. Unable or unwilling to support himself teaching writing, Burroughs managed to generate an income with these personal appearances. They helped establish his reputation with not only a new generation, but with a mass audience that previously had eluded him when he was published in the small, literary magazines with limited circulation.

Burroughs moved to Lawrence, Kansas, in 1981, where he lived out for the remainder of his life. Though he never was able to follow up the artistic success of Naked Lunch, Burroughs lived long enough to eventually be hailed by critics and the public as a major American writer. In 1983, after the lobbying of Ginsberg, Burroughs achieved recognition from The Literary Establishment when he was inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Embraced by punk and grunge rockers, William S. Burroughs became an iconic figure in America by the 1980s a leading avatar of the counterculture. He died in 1997 on August 2nd, a day after suffering a heart attack. He was 83 years old.