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William S. Burroughs was a Beat Generation writer known for his startling, nontraditional accounts of drug culture, most famously in the book Naked Lunch.
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William S. Burroughs was born on February 5, 1914, in St. Louis, Missouri, and became one of the founding figures of the Beat Movement. An addict for years, he crafted books like Junky and Naked Lunch, which were harrowing, often grotesque looks at drug culture. He is cited as a major influence on countercultural figures in the world of music as well and worked on several recording projects. Burroughs died in Kansas in 1997.
"Most people don't see what's going on around them. That's my principal message to writers: for God's sake, keep your eyes open."
"People say to me, 'Oh, this is all very good, but you got it by cutting up.' I say that has nothing to do with it, how I got it. What is any writing but a cut-up?"
"Love? What is it? Most natural painkiller what there is."
"I do definitely mean what I say to be taken literally ... to make people aware of the true criminality of our times, to wise up the marks. All of my work is directed against those who are bent, through stupidity or design, on blowing up the planet or rendering it uninhabitable."
Born on February 5, 1914 in St. Louis, Missouri, William Seward Burroughs was born to Laura Lee and Mortimer Burroughs. William was named after his famous grandfather, an inventor who was a pioneer in adding-machine technology.
The younger Burroughs attended prep schools and later studied English literature at Harvard University, where he graduated in 1936. He travelled to Europe and met and married Ilse Klapper for the purpose of allowing her entry into the U.S. The two ended the union upon their entry into the states.
Trying different career paths to no avail, Burroughs eventually traveled to New York and met writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac in the mid-1940s. The three would be heralded as starting the Beat Movement, an artistic outpouring of nontraditional, free expression.
During the mid-1940s, Burroughs and Kerouac collaborated on a novel about the murder of a friend—And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks—that was published decades later posthumously. Burroughs developed a relationship with Joan Vollmer during this time as well and they would live together as husband and wife starting in 1945. Burroughs was also open about his attraction to men, with he and Ginsberg having been lovers.
Burroughs had started to use opiates and descended into heroin addiction. He was also a gun enthusiast and, while living with his family in Mexico City in 1951, played a drunken game of target practice with Vollmer and accidentally shot her to death. He did not receive major prison time, yet would struggle with demons for years to come as a result of the killing.
Burroughs published his first novel, Junky, in 1953 under the name William Lee. The work featured an unflinching, semi-autobiographical look at drug, or "junk," culture. He continued to travel and eventually ended up in Tangiers, strung out and running out of financial resources. He realized he would perish if he didn’t change his path and so traveled to London to receive apomorphine treatments, which he credits as curing his addiction.
With the help of Ginsberg and Kerouac, Burroughs wrote the novel Naked Lunch in Tangier, which continued to follow the exploits of William Lee in a disturbing drug culture journey. The book featured nonlinear narrative forms with elements of sadomasochism, metamorphoses and satire. Published in 1959, the book wouldn’t be released in the U.S. until the 1960s due to a highly publicized governmental ban over its content, which pushed Burroughs into the spotlight. He became a figure both acclaimed and spurned.
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They were radical, rebellious, experimental…and had a way with words. Starting in the 1950s, the Beat Generation rose to prominence in America, inspiring a culture of nonconformity and social revolution. Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac were some of the more famous faces synonymous to the group, as was William S. Burroughs. Their musings—both "beat up" and "beatific"—left highly influential marks in literature, music, film and ecology.
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