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William S. Burroughs

William Seward Burroughs II was born on February 5, 1914, in St. Louis, Missouri. His parents, Mortimer and Laura Burroughs, lived a comfortable life, complete with a maid, nanny, cook, and gardener. The family fortune came from Burroughs's grandfather, who had invented and patented the first adding machine in 1888 and later established the lucrative Burroughs Adding Machine Company. Mortimer and Laura maintained a solid, faithful marriage that led to a strong household environment for their children. They enjoyed their bourgeois existence, but never delved too deeply into the city's snobby and elitist social life. In fact, the WASPs of St. Louis found the Burroughs family to be a bit mangy and uncouth. This was deemed to be true especially of young William, affectionately called Billy as a child. Neighbors considered Billy an odd child and a bad influence, as he had a sickly complexion, unathletic frame, sinus problems, and a sepulchral sense of humor.

While his mother treasured Billy's funny antics, his schoolmates shunned and feared him. Burroughs thus became introspective, considering himself a young isolated artist. Consequently, Burroughs became extremely close to his Welsh nanny, who taught him occult curses, offensive rhymes, and incantations. His relationship with her was so intimate that he demanded to spend all his time with her, even on her off-days.

Burroughs attended high school at the Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico, where he learned to shoot rifles and throw knives. He also began to experiment heavily with drugs. At the age of 16, Burroughs purchased and ingested a bottle of chloral hydrate. He nearly died, and when later asked why he did it, Burroughs replied that he "just wanted to see how it worked." His homosexual desires developed at Los Alamos, as he became obsessed with sexual fantasies and masturbation. Two months before graduation, his treacherous classmates learned of his infatuation with one of their peers, and Burroughs demanded that his parents remove him from the school. He finished his studies at a college-preparatory high school in Saint Louis and enrolled at Harvard in 1932.

At Harvard, Burroughs became more disenchanted with elitist social scenes and his own sexual inexperience. He lost his virginity during his senior year in college, but up until then lacked even the most rudimentary knowledge of sex. Thus he kept mainly to himself, spending much time in his room playing with a .32 revolver and his pet ferret. Academically, his mind was expanding. He enjoyed reading many of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's and Thomas De Quincey's opium-induced writings. However, upon graduation, Burroughs was not yet ready to work as a writer, for he worried about the criticism of others. His parents sent him to Europe for a year with a $200 monthly stipend (which would continue for the rest of his life), and there he became interested in psychoanalysis. He decided to settle in Vienna to study medicine, but the Nazi occupation irked him.

In 1937, he returned to the States with a wife on his arm. Much to his and everyone else's surprise, Burroughs had married a middle-aged Jewish woman named Ilse Klapper, in order for her to emigrate to the United States. Burroughs completed this marriage of convenience wholly out of the kindness of his heart and expected no reward.

For four years, Burroughs continued to study psychology at Harvard and Columbia, but he never completed any of his classes. In 1939, he met his first boyfriend, Jack Anderson. The two had a sado-masochistic relationship, and Anderson did not remain faithful. Through the thin walls separating their apartments, Burroughs could hear the sounds of Anderson's sexual affairs. Later that year, Burroughs cut the tip of one of his fingers off for Anderson. Soon after, he was hospitalized at Bellevue Hospital.

In 1942, Burroughs moved to the North Side of Chicago and finally seemed to find a place to fit in. David Kammerer, Burroughs's old-time friend from St. Louis, had befriended a young man named Lucien Carr, and the two had moved to Chicago. These two would become very close with Burroughs, and the unstable Carr would later become the object of Burroughs's fantasies. The three then moved to New York in the spring of 1943. There, Carr introduced Burroughs to Allen Ginsberg, and Kammerer introduced Burroughs to Jack Kerouac. The seeds for the Beat generation were being sown.

In 1945, Burroughs moved in with Joan Vollmer, probably the only woman the Beat crew ever admired. Ginsberg and Kerouac were also living with Vollmer at that time. Soon after Burroughs moved in, he became Vollmer's lover (against his homosexual urges) and the others' mentor and psychoanalyst. Burroughs also became more involved in drugs, mainly morphine and heroin, while staying at Vollmer's apartment. In April 1946, Burroughs was arrested for forging Dilaudid prescriptions and sentenced to live with his parents in St. Louis for four months. While he was away, Vollmer's addiction to Benzedrine inhalers landed her a stay at Bellevue. In December, Burroughs came to her rescue. They left and took a room in a Times Square hotel, where they conceived William Burroughs III.

For many years, Burroughs lived the life of a nomad with Vollmer, travelling around the world and avoiding the law all along the way. Kerouac said of Burroughs's and Vollmer's close and profound relationship, "She loved that man madly, but in a delirious way of some kind."

In Mexico City, Burroughs appreciated the minimal role of the police, lenient gun rules, and cheap, easy-to-score morphine. Furthermore, his monthly allowance sustained a comfortable middle-class lifestyle, but his drug addictions were straining his relationship with Joan, who was driven into an alcoholic blur.

Burroughs felt little sexual desire for Joan and preferred the company of cheap, young Mexican men instead. Still, the couple held a strong mental connection, which Burroughs respected. In 1951, Burroughs felt an urgent need to leave Mexico City and left for Puyo, Ecuador, with Lewis Marker, a college student he had befriended, in search of a hallucinogen called "yage". The two did not succeed in finding the miracle drug, but Burroughs's search for the perfect fix would continue for many years. Burroughs would later recount this adventure in his novel Queer (1953).

In the meantime, Vollmer was quickly falling in love with Lucien Carr, who had been released from the Elmira Reformatory in 1958. The two went on a weeklong drunken spree around the Mexican mountains, but Carr backed off in consideration of his friend Burroughs.

When Burroughs returned, Burroughs and Vollmer drank themselves into oblivion. One drunken night, Burroughs insisted on playing a shooting game with Vollmer. Burroughs accidentally shot and killed her, the bullet landing in her upper left forehead. He was released from jail 13 days later after his lawyer bribed ballistics experts and coached the witnesses so that Burroughs would be cleared of charges. Burroughs left Mexico City with nobody at his side - no lover, no friends.

Once again, he went on a hunt for yage, and this time he succeeded. He described his experiences on the drug as an "insane overwhelming rape of the senses."

With no partner to talk to, Burroughs resorted to writing letters to Allen Ginsberg. Their relationship slowly transcended from one of teacher and student to one of selfish writer and willing receiver. In 1953 Burroughs returned to New York City with a suitcase full of yage and the intention of sparking a romantic and completely spiritual relationship with Ginsberg. Ginsberg never felt satisfied with their romance, though, and the two separated.

Burroughs sailed across the Atlantic with no destination in mind and ended up in Tangiers, a city he found to be perfectly hedonistic for his tastes. At first, he found the local marijuana harsh and the local men unappealing, so he considered returning to the States. However, he soon met a steady, loyal, cute, yet vapid boyfriend named Kiki. He stayed and quickly became addicted to other drugs, such as Eukodol, and experienced many paranoid hallucinations. Frequently alone in his room, Burroughs wrote voraciously, often laughing hysterically on the floor with his thoughts.

By 1955, Burroughs realized his life was going nowhere, and he checked himself into a clinic. Burroughs was clean of major drugs for the remainder of his life and returned to Tangiers to maintain a strict regimen of exercise, simple foods, and consistent writing. He enjoyed this new life of daily routine. As he wrote, Burroughs would toss the finished pages on the floor, where they were eventually ill-treated. Nonetheless, these pages were the workings for Burroughs's most famous novel Naked Lunch.

In 1957 Burroughs was beginning to crave his friends' company. Ginsberg and Kerouac met him in Tangiers to help with the manuscript for Naked Lunch, but they feared Burroughs's intense, erratic behavior. Kerouac ended up leaving early to settle down once and for all in the States, while Ginsberg stayed with his boyfriend only to satisfy Burroughs and edit what he thought was the beginning of a profound novel.

Ginsberg moved to Paris after the writing of Naked Lunch, and Burroughs followed a year later. They lived in Paris at the Beat Hotel, a dilapidated structure on the Left Bank, living sane, uncomplicated lives. Burroughs had stopped drinking and writing, opting instead to focus on contemplating the meaning of all the traumatic events of his life. When Ginsberg left for New York, Burroughs was deeply saddened. Nonetheless, Ginsberg continued to promote Naked Lunch, which was finally published in full for American audiences in 1962.

For the following 35 years, Burroughs continued to write, publishing novels such as Naked Free Lunch, The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express. For these novels, Burroughs used much of the writing that was edited out of Naked Lunch. After exhausting these manuscript pages, Burroughs recycled the same characters and phrases of his earlier works. However, he was not frustrated by this writer's block, as he viewed it more as a pleasant end.

With the growing success and publicity of Naked Lunch, Burroughs became a notorious literary celebrity, lovingly embraced by young New Wavers as the grandfather of counterculture in the 1970s. In the early 1980s, Burroughs finally settled down in Lawrence, Kansas, into a two-bedroom home furnished with secondhand furniture and a typewriter. Burroughs also became interested in painting at this time, using his shotgun as a brush, along with spray cans.

In 1992, Burroughs attempted to exorcise the Ugly Spirit, his notion of an evil, capitalist force, from his body. Burroughs drove to his childhood home with Ginsberg and five other friends, where they entered a hole with a fire pit in the middle. In this sweat lodge, the group prayed and put hot coals in their mouths in order to swallow the evil spirits. They believed the operation to be a success. Burroughs had reached a blessed level of beatitude. On August 3, 1997, Burroughs died of a sudden heart attack, signaling the end of this crazy and exhilarating generation.

Excerpted from The Birth of the Beat Generation

Copyright 2002-2008 by Steven Watson/

Beat Generation poets, history and work that inspired Jim Morrison
Beat Bios: William S. Burroughs