William S. Burroughs



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A Glimpse into the Life of William S. Burroughs


Photo courtesy of: http://www.angelinajolin.com/stellan-holm-gallery/101

William S. Burroughs was born February 5th, 1914 in St. Louis, Missouri. He came from a relatively affluent family due to the profits of the Burroughs Adding Machine Corporation, founded by his grandfather. The wealth provided by the adding machine provided the financial security Burroughs needed later in life to explore alternative lifestyles.

As a young boy, Burroughs already displayed a proclivity for writing. His essay “Personal Magnetism” was published, while attending John Burroughs School in St. Louis in 1929.

He then attended a boarding school, the Los Alamos Ranch School. Burroughs felt the atmosphere there was too stifling. However, he kept journals of an explicit nature involving a boy he met, continuing his interests in both writing about taboo subjects and exploring homosexuality.

In 1932, Burroughs attended Harvard. During this time, Burroughs traveled frequently to New York City, where he was more fully exposed to the homosexual scene.

After graduating from Harvard in 1936, Burroughs traveled throughout Europe. He met and married Ilse Klapper, a Jewish woman seeking to escape the Nazi government, so she could gain a U.S. visa. Eventually they divorced, but remained close friends.

Once Burroughs returned from Europe, he held odd-jobs, but his mental health was suffering. In 1939, he severed his left little finger, down to the knuckle in an attempt to gain favor with a man he admired. This event inspired a short story, entitled, The Finger.

Burroughs attempted to join the military, but when things did not work out as expected, he was discharged on account of mental instability. After this, he followed his friend, Lucien Carr to New York City. At this time, Burroughs was fully introduced into the counterculture, which formed the basis of the Beat Generation. Burroughs met Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and his future wife Joan Vollmer Adams, who were studying at Columbia. Throughout this time, around 1944-45, Burroughs began his involvement with drug use. He quickly became addicted to morphine, among other substances, and sold heroine to support his habit. He eventually married Joan Vollmer Adams.

Burroughs ran into trouble with the law after police found letters alluding to a delivery of marijuana sent to Allen Ginsberg. He fled to Mexico to avoid being arrested. During this time, Burroughs experienced a tragic event. In 1951, Burroughs shot and killed his wife, while drunk and playing a game of “William Tell.” Joan placed a highball glass on the top of her head. Burroughs attempted to shoot the glass and missed. This played a pivotal role in influencing Burroughs’ writings, he said:

“I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing” (Introduction to Queer).

Although he attributes his wife's death with the beginning of his writing, he had already completed two novels, while in Mexico. Junkie was published in 1953 at the urging of Allen Ginsberg, who oversaw it's publication. In this novel, Burroughs examined his fascination and addiction to narcotics. In his other work, entitled Queer, Burroughs explores his homosexuality. This work was considered to obscene and was not published until 1985.

After his wife's death, Burroughs moved to Tangier, Morocco, where he continued writing under the influence of various drugs. Ginsberg and Kerouac traveled to Tangier in 1957 to assist Burroughs in editing and arranging what would become Burroughs best known work, Naked Lunch. Similarly to Ginsberg's, Howl, Naked Lunch, would also undergo obscenity trials, which would lessen government control over censorship.

The next few decades of Burroughs' life were filled with traveling, writing, and dabbling in other art forms.

In 1981, Burroughs moved to Lawrence, Kansas and spent the remainder of his life there. He died August 7th, 1997 from a heart attack at the age of 83.


Asher, Levi. "William S. Burroughs." Literary Kicks: Opinions, Observations, and Research. Web. 27 July 1994. 15 September 2010. <http://www.litkicks.com/WilliamSBurroughs>

"William S. Burroughs." Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004. Encyclopedia.com. 15 Sep. 2010 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.


This is a link to a few short audio clips. http://www.netherworld.com/~mgabrys/william/prev.html

This is part one of an excellent six-part documentary on Burroughs by the BBC.