Twenty years after his death William S Burroughs still has the power to keep media writing about him. This week The News Hub recounted how Burroughs was arrested in France in 1959 for importing opiates into the country but he was released after trial. The reason? “Burroughs was excused and given a suspended sentence because his work ‘The Naked Lunch’ was considered to have too much artistic value to leave the man rotting in a Paris prison.” The French appreciated Burrough’s debauched writings, while his native America was “too caught up in (its) Protestant predispositions to appreciate a great artist.”
The story is true, but it underestimates Burroughs’ intrinsic American-ness. In his biography “The ‘Priest’ They Called Him” author Graham Caveny said Burroughs was “as American as the electric chair”. William Burroughs was the grandson of William Seward Burroughs I who founded the Burroughs Adding Machine company. In 1885 the elder Burroughs invented and patented the first workable adding and listing machine in St. Louis. His grandson William Seward Burroughs II was born in that city 29 years later in 1914 just as Europe was about to go to war. His father Mortimer Perry had no desire to join the family business and ran an antique shop. But the family wealth gave young William a good education.
He went to John Burroughs school in St Louis. There was no relation nor was there an affinity and Burroughs the boy left Burroughs the school without a graduation. He was sent to the private Los Alamos Ranch School for boys in New Mexico. In this rustic scout-like setting, Burroughs discovered sex and drugs. He was gay but was expelled for taking chloral hydrate, a sedative drug used for insomnia. Disgraced and back in St Louis he kept his head down long enough to finish high school and enrolled for Harvard.
He arrived there in 1932 at the bottom of the depression. There were 25 million unemployed and the US was deep in debt. He seemed to buckle down and got an arts degree in four years. In 1936 he did the Grand Tour of Europe. There he found homosexual freedom he could not find in the US. Nonetheless, he married Austrian Jew Ilse Klapper who needed an American visa to flee the Nazis. Klapper was living in London and her visa was about to expire when Burroughs saved her life. They married in Athens and then separated. She lived in New York until the end of the war and divorced Burroughs before settling in Zurich. They remained friends.
Burroughs returned alone to St Louis. His parents were distraught he had treated his wife so shabbily but did not stop his sizeable allowance. Burroughs mooched around following boyfriends until Pearl Harbor stepped in. He was drafted but his mother had him declared mentally unsuitable for military service. The punishment was a six month stint in a psychiatric evaluation unit. On the advice of someone he met there, he travelled to Chicago where men were scarce and jobs were easy to get.
He became a “bugman” for AJ Cohen Exterminators, an experience that informed his writing. The thrill of killing cockroaches quickly died and he followed a lover to New York. He settled in Greenwich Village and was introduced to a shy young Jewish boy from New Jersey named Allen Ginsberg. Through Ginsberg he met Jack Kerouac and their mutual friendship solidified. Kerouac and Burroughs were arrested when Lucien Carr, another friend, killed his male lover. Carr told Kerouac and Burroughs he had stabbed him after a row and dumped the body in the Hudson river. Burroughs advised him to find a lawyer. Carr turned himself in after two days and after plea bargaining down to manslaughter he served two years at a reformatory. Burroughs and Kerouac were charged for a failure to report a crime but released.
Burroughs had written on and off but the murder spurred him into action. Ginsberg and Kerouac helped on his manuscripts. Burroughs experimented heavily with drugs and persuaded doctors to write morphine prescriptions. As the war ended, he got involved with another woman. Joan Vollmer was one of the Beats, a smart lady and a match for Burroughs. She knew he was gay but said “he made love like a pimp”. She was addicted to benzedrine. Their house was raided and Burroughs was given a four month suspended sentence for forging prescriptions.
He returned to St Louis and Joan deteriorated. Burroughs came back to her when he found out how bad her condition was. In 1947 they moved to a ranch in Texas where they took their drugs unmolested. Joan gave birth to William Burroughs III that year. The Burroughs left Texas after he was arrested and lost his licence for sex with Joan in his car. They moved on from New Orleans after police there took an interest in his drug habits.
They went to Mexico where their mutual self-destruction took a sudden turn. When drunk in their apartment, they decided to play William Tell. He placed an apple on her head but missed the apple and shot a bullet through her head. Burroughs was released on bail after 13 days and was told the trial for her murder would be a year later. Burroughs did not take his chances with a Mexican court and fled to New York.
The incident was the catalyst for literary greatness. Later he said, “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would have never become a writer but for Joan’s death”. He quickly wrote his first two novels about his two main predilections: “Junky” and “Queer”. “Junky” was released in 1953 under the name of William Lee.
Burroughs travelled to Europe and settled in the Moroccan frontier city of Tangier where he could indulge his taste in drugs and men. With Ginsberg’s help he published The Naked Lunch in 1959. It was banned in Britain (the Lady Chatterley’s Lover court case had yet to decide if it one could read it to one’s wife and servants). Burroughs said in the introduction Jack Kerouac suggested the title. “The title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.”
The non-linear story of sex and drugs was published in the US in 1962. Boston Police arrested a bookseller for obscenity when he tried to sell the book. It took two years for the trial to come to court. Norman Mailer defended the Naked Lunch speaking of “artistry… more deliberate and profound than I thought before”. In 1966 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declared the work “not obscene” based on criteria developed largely to defend the book. The case against Burroughs’s novel still stands as the last US obscenity trial against a work of literature.
Burroughs moved to Paris, the home from home for American intellectuals. In this intense period he produced The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1963). By 1967 he was famous enough to merit a spot on the album cover of Sergeant Pepper. He returned to New York where he was the darling of a set mixing with Warhol, Basquiat and Ginsberg. Ginsberg also looked after Burroughs’ son. Father and son never got on and young Billy Burroughs turned his hostility into autobiographical published works. He was also drug dependent (probably since birth) and died of liver cancer in 1981. By now Burroughs was a giant of counter-culture. He released voice albums and starred in movies. In Gus Van Sant’s “Drugstore Cowboy”, he played himself in the role of Father Tom a defrocked priest and junkie.
In 1983 he moved to St Lawrence, Kansas, where aged almost 70, he bought his first and only home. David Cronenberg filmed the unfilmable Naked Lunch and Burroughs returned to New York occasionally to meet old friends. There weren’t many left, dying off due to their extravagant lifestyles but Burroughs seemed to outlast them all. Allen Ginsberg died in April 1997 and that was enough for Burroughs himself; he finally threw in his Russian roulette chips barely four months later. He was 83 and an opiate addict for the last 40 years of his life. All through his life he kept another addiction; that of guns, sleeping with one every night.
His reputation is mixed. Some like Mailer say he is one of the greatest and most influential writers of the twentieth century, but others found him over-rated. What is undeniable is his impact across literature, art, cinema and music is vast. At the end of the Naked Lunch, still his best known work, Burroughs wrote: “The Word is divided into units which be all in one piece and should be so taken, but the pieces can be had in any order being tied up back and forth, in and out fore and aft like an innaresting sex arrangement.” As the Telegraph wrote, this aberrant perspective is perhaps the reason why his words were widely adopted.