Friday’s Featured Beat: William S. Burroughs!


Name: William S. Burroughs

Born:   February 5, 1914 (St. Louis, Missouri)

Died:   August 2, 1997 (Lawrence, Kansas)

Seminal Work:  Naked Lunch (1959)

Relationship to The Beat Generation:

William S. Burroughs is often called the founder of The Beat Generation and the godfather of punk (music).  Although he was older, at the time, than most of the Beat writers, he was involved in their movement and was an inspiration to and role model, of sorts, for them.  Burroughs was a drug addict for much of his adult life and his addiction inspired him to write books such as Naked Lunch, Junky (1953), and his Nova Trilogy [The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket that Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1964)].  He was known for always carrying a gun, even in bed, and for using a walking cane which had a sword inside of it.

Importance to Literary History:

200px-NakedLunch1steditionThe Nova Trilogy, mentioned above, as well as some of his other works, were crafted using Burroughs’s now-signature “Cut-up” technique.  This is a type of narrative form which Burroughs created and which has since enjoyed a movement of its own.  This aleatory technique comes about when the writer writes a text (or texts), then “cuts-up” the original and rearranges it, creating a new text with the same content.  The technique was inspired by Brion Gysin, a painter-friend whom Burroughs visited in Paris in 1959.  Gysin used the cut-up technique on his paintings and Burroughs noticed that it was quite similar to what he had done (juxtaposition technique) in Naked Lunch, but even more radical.  His employment of the cut-up technique in literary form, coupled with his belief that was groundbreaking and innovative, and it has inspired the style of many postmodern writers.

William S. Burroughs on his cut-up technique:

Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, William Burroughs, New York 1953. c. Allen Ginsberg Estate.
Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, William Burroughs, New York 1953. c. Allen Ginsberg Estate.

“A page of text-my own or some one else’s-is folded down the middle and placed on another page- The composite text is then read across half one text and half the other-The fold in method extends to writing the flash back used in films, enabling the writer to move backwards and forwards on his time track-For example I take page one and fold it into page one hundred-I insert the resulting composite as page ten-When the reader reads page ten he is flashing forwards in time to page one hundred and back in time to page one-The déjà vu phenomena can so be produced to order-(This method is of course used in music where we are continually moved backwards and forward on the time track by repetition and rearrangement of musical themes-In using the fold in method I edit delete and rearrange as in any other method of composition-I have frequently had the experience of writing some pages of straight narrative text which were then folded in with other pages and found that the fold ins were clearer and more comprehensible than the original texts-Perfectly clear narrative prose can be produced using the fold in method-Best results are usually obtained by placing pages dealing with similar subjects in juxtaposition.”

Biographical Information & Fun Facts:

  • William Burroughs wrote his first story in 1922, at the age of eight.  This was also the year in which he fired his first gun.
  • He graduated from Harvard with a degree in English literature.  He was known for being that “quiet guy” on campus who could always be found playing with his gun (a .32 revolver).
  • In 1937, he married a European woman named Ilse von Klapper in order to help her escape Nazi occupation and emigrate to the U.S. They divorced a few years later.
  • He cut off one of his fingers (the left pinky) when he was 25.  On purpose. He brought the pinky to a mental hospital in order to be admitted, where he claimed he cut off his finger as part of an “initiation ceremony into the Crow Indian tribe.” (See his short story, “The Finger”).
  • In 1943, Burroughs moved from Chicago to New York City, where he met and became friends with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.
  • Burroughs and Kerouac collaborated on a novel, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, which was inspired by the true story of their witnessing the murder of their friend Dave Kammerer, by another of their friends, Lucien Carr.  Carr killed Kammerer because he (Kammerer) had made sexual advances toward him. And the Hippos was written in 1945, but not published until 2008.
Birth of the Beats ... William Burroughs (L) and Jack Kerouac in New York in 1953, photographed by Allen Ginsberg. Photograph: Corbis
Birth of the Beats … William Burroughs (L) and Jack Kerouac in New York in 1953, photographed by Allen Ginsberg. Photograph: Corbis
  • Burroughs and his new (common-law) wife, Joan Vollmer, moved to Texas and grew marijuana. They moved to Mexico in 1949, where Burroughs went to graduate school and studied Anthropology.
  • Burroughs killed Joan in 1951 when playing a game of “William Tell.”  He was trying to shoot a glass off her head, but shot her instead.  He served two weeks in jail, until his brother arrived and paid thousands of dollars to get him out.  He reported to the jail every Monday for a year, until returning to the U.S. He was convicted of manslaughter, but only received a two-year suspended sentence.
  • Burroughs later wrote that he did not believe he would have become a writer if not for Joan’s death.
  • Burroughs later moved to Colombia, then Tangiers, and then, in 1956, to Morocco, where Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Peter Orlovsky (Ginsberg’s lover) helped him to organize Naked Lunch.
  • Naked Lunch was rejected for publication in the United States, so Ginsberg and Burroughs took it to Paris, where it was published in 1959.  The editor of the Chicago Review, who had tried to publish portions of it in the U.S., was fired.
  • In 1966, obscenity charges were brought against Naked Lunch.  The courts rejected these chargers – this was the last major censorship hearing over literature in America, the ruling of which paved the way for much greater freedom of expression in literature and the arts.
  • Burroughs is on the cover of The Beatles’ album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  He is next to Marilyn Monroe, near the top center, just below and to the right of Edgar Allan Poe.


  • In 1993, Burroughs was featured in a TV. Commercial for GAP clothing.   In 1994, he was in an ad for Nike.
  • Kurt Cobain and William Burroughs collaborated on a speaking album (The “Priest” They Called Him).  Cobain visited Burroughs just six months before committing suicide.
  • Burroughs died of a heart attack in 1997.

Notable Quotes:

“Love? What is it? Most natural painkiller what there is. Love.” (These are the last lines from the last entry in William S. Burroughs’s personal journal).

“Your mind will answer most questions if you learn to relax and wait for the answer.”

“After one look at this planet any visitor from outer space would say, ‘I want to see the manager.’”

“Artists to my mind are the real architects of change, and not the political legislators who implement change after the fact.”

“Language is a virus from outer space.”

“In my writing, I am acting as a map-maker, an explorer of psychic areas, a cosmonaut of inner space, and I see no point in exploring areas that have already been thoroughly surveyed.”

“I am getting so far out one day I won’t come back at all.”

17 Comments on “Friday’s Featured Beat: William S. Burroughs!

  1. Very interesting post! Kurt Cobain’s relationship with Burroughs is what led me to his writing. I’ve read Naked Lunch and Junky, but it was a long time ago and I’m pretty sure it all went over my head. But I found it interesting enough to watch the movie adaptation of Naked Lunch in the hopes of understanding his writing better. Burroughs eventually turned into a fascination with Kerouac and Ginsberg, and the whole Beat lifestyle.


    • I think the film adaptation of Naked Lunch actually made it worse for me! Lol


      • Ha ha, yes it wasn’t very helpful for me either!


      • Yes, I remember walking out of the theater thinking … I was unable to think! Any of Cronenberg’s films are not for the faint of heart! You guys have piqued my interest to see it again — and of course read it again.


      • I need to read it again, too! It has been quite a few years… I think I last read it in 2006. I have a few more of his novels to read (for the first time), though, and I kind of want to get through his complete works before going around for re-reads on certain books again. And I’ve already read Naked Lunch twice.


  2. Great post! There is an excellent BBC Arena documentary on Burroughs from the early 1980s with some wonderful footage of the guy and very funny scenes – watchable on YouTube here and highly recommended:


      • I just find Burroughs infinitely cool – and I could listen to his voice forever…..!


      • Lol. Considering his godfather status, and his relationship with drugs/experimental art, I’m not surprised he was there.


      • Are there any other authors that have appeared on SNL giving a reading that you (or anyone reading this) know if off hand? I tried to google but I kept on getting hits about the SNL writers themselves. Amazing musical performances I know about, but not authors! I see loads of youtube-ing in my future 🙂


  3. Wow, that is some pretty serious stuff! Burroughs sounds like the epitome of a mad genius. If I’m brave enough to read Naked Lunch the info about his techniques should be helpful–maybe. I should probably just be prepared to be confused.


    • Yes, I think going in knowing that it’s not supposed to make a whole lot of sense (and then just going with the flow) is a great way to approach most of his works, but especially Naked Lunch and the Nova Trilogy. He’s definitely a mad genius – I loved learning more about him as a child and young man, because I always assumed it was the drug addiction that was responsible for his “eccentric” personality… but the truth is, he came from a very wealthy, very respectable family, he had all the advantages in the world, but he was always bizarre and different. He rejected the elite, easy life he could have had for one of his own… really admirable, in its way, though the way he went about life isn’t necessarily laudable at all.


  4. Pingback: Clip: Jazz and the Beat Generation | Stephanie Nikolopoulos

  5. Pingback: The Significance of Naked Lunch

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