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Burroughs, William S. (1914-1997)  

In his novels as in his life, William S. Burroughs was an outlaw and a provocateur. Beginning with Naked Lunch (1959), his fiction was distinguished by violently hallucinatory images, rendered in prose that brilliantly mimics the speech of criminals, redneck sheriffs, bureaucrats, political extremists, and hipsters. A series of later writings applied collage techniques to the novel form.

Burroughs always incorporated transgressive sexual imagery and situations into his writing. In this, he went far beyond the acknowledgment, in the 1950s, of his own homosexuality. His novels contain representations of such practices as autoerotic asphyxiation and sadomasochism. Primarily a satirist, Burroughs treated both sexuality and language as manifestations of social power--and as sites of conflict.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, to a wealthy family, William Burroughs studied English, medicine, and anthropology at Harvard and the University of Vienna before becoming addicted to narcotics in the mid-1940s. Following an arrest for heroin and marijuana possession, he fled to Mexico. There, in 1951, he accidentally shot his wife, Joan Burroughs, during a drunken imitation of William Tell. He spent much of the 1950s recovering from heroin addiction and brooding over the act of violence that ended his companion's life.

Life in the underworld of addicts and petty criminals is the basis of his first published novel, Junkie (1953), written in a "hardboiled" style and published under the pseudonym of "Bill Lee" (his mother's maiden name). During this period, Burroughs started another novel, in the same stylistic vein, describing the gay demimonde; this unfinished manuscript was published, much later, as Queer (1985).

With Naked Lunch (1959), Burroughs abandoned the naturalistic depiction of "outsider" subcultures and began to write in a surrealistic and bitterly satirical mode. This novel incorporated characters and scenarios Burroughs had created while improvising skits to amuse his friends (including Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, fellow members of the Beat Generation literary group).

Often highly scatological, laced with the argot of various underworlds Burroughs had encountered in his travels, the paranoiac and hallucinatory scenes in Naked Lunch treated addiction as a complex metaphor for all varieties of domination and control. The novel was subject to a number of court cases for obscenity.

In a trilogy of novels--The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1964)--Burroughs developed an elaborate mythology of addiction, involving intergalactic conspiracies and secret agencies at war to control the drug trade. These books scrambled narrative and character, fracturing syntax and the arrangement of text on the printed page; they sought to break up the reader's habits of perception in order to permit a "return of the repressed" into the literary work.

Burroughs often drew on the paraliterature of "pulp" or genre fiction--such as detective novels, science fiction, spy thrillers, and westerns--but the conventions of these genres were violently distorted in his hands. Influenced by dissident psychoanalytic theorist Wilhelm Reich, Burroughs focused on sexual repression as the fundamental element of social control.

Works of genre literature usually conform to the stereotypes of the dominant culture, including, typically, . By incorporating the "deviant" perspectives of the drug addict or the sexual outlaw into novels with "pulp" qualities, Burroughs produced fiction that, if never "political" in any ordinary sense, is certainly subversive. For instance, The Wild Boys (1971) fuses pornographic scenes into its science-fiction treatment of a band of homosexual terrorists rampaging through the near future.

Combining pop-culture materials with avant garde experiments, Burroughs's writings were an early instance of post-modernism, especially in their fragmentary quality, which dispenses with linear narrative and realistic character portraiture. And with his conception of language itself as a force beyond conscious control, Burroughs likewise anticipated such post-structuralist thinkers as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.

To emphasize this sense of discourse as a power strangely alien to human will, Burroughs once wrote, "Language is a virus from outer space." This imagery was refigured in the uncannily prophetic novel Cities of the Red Night (1981), where a virally transmitted disease induces sexual delirium and violent death.

The best overview of Burroughs's cultural politics and rather eccentric cosmology may be found in a set of interviews, The Job (1970), whereas The Adding Machine (1986) gathers various essays on sex, addiction, and writing. The Burroughs File (1984) collects fictional texts and short autobiographical works originally published as pamphlets or in the underground press. With Place of Dead Roads (1983) and The Western Lands (1987), Burroughs approached the end of his career as novelist.

During the 1980s, Burroughs began performing with some regularity in films and on television, and several recordings have been made of the writer reading portions of his work. David Cronenberg's film adaptation of Naked Lunch (1992) treated the novel as a story of the author's literary and sexual self-discovery. Burroughs's work has been influential for several generations of novelists, poets, performance artists, and feminist and queer theorists.

Scott McLemee


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William Burroughs attending his seventieth birthday celebration in 1983.
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Goodman, Michael B. Contemporary Literary Censorship: The Case History of Burroughs' Naked Lunch. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1981.

_____. William S. Burroughs: A Reference Guide. New York: Garland, 1990.

Johnston, Allan. "The Burroughs Biopathy: William S. Burroughs's Junky and Naked Lunch and Reichian Theory." Review of Contemporary Fiction 4.1 (1984): 107-120.

Lydenberg, Robin. Word Cultures: Radical Theory and Practice in William S. Burroughs' Fiction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Morgan, Ted. Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs. New York: Henry Holt, 1988.

Skau, Michael. "The Central Verbal System: The Prose of William Burroughs." Style 15.4 (1981): 401-414.

Zarbrugg, Nicholas. "Burroughs, Barthes, and the Limits of Intertextuality." Review of Contemporary Fiction 4.1 (1984): 86-107.


    Citation Information
    Author: McLemee, Scott  
    Entry Title: Burroughs, William S.  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated November 8, 2007  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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