He was an American writer and visual artist of experimental novels and a primary figure in the Beat Generation movement. His influence affected literature and 1960s counter culture figures and he lived a wild ride of a life that included addiction and a fascination for guns. Forever cemented in history, his name remains synonymous to new, emerging writers hoping to make a literary career out of living dangerously.
William Seward Burroughs the 3rd was born February 5th, 1914 in St. Louis, Missouri, the youngest son to parents, Laura Hammond Lee, the daughter of a minister and Mortimer Perry Burroughs, who ran an antiques and gift store.
The Burroughs were a prominent family in St. Louis. William’s grandfather founded the Burroughs Adding Machine Company in 1886; a manufacturer of business equipment, producing mechanical adding machines and later moving into programmable ledgers and then computers. In the twentieth century, it was the biggest adding machine company in America and with its product evolution, it became one of the largest producers for mainframe computers in the world in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Growing up in comfortable circumstances, William attended a progressive elementary school and started writing at the age of eight, mostly stories about adventure and crime. Despite his interest in reading and writing he never learnt to spell properly and his eccentric spellings often remained in his future novels because editors assumed it was intentional. At this age, William already knew he wanted to be a writer.
At age fourteen, an incident would transform him profoundly creating a sudden self-awareness that would be also be evident in his later work. While playing one afternoon with his chemistry set, he had carefully packed a mixture of potassium chlorate and red phosphorus into a box. Just as he was putting the lid of the box on the friction of the chemicals caused it to explode, shredding his left hand. His father, who had been working in the next room rushed in and drove him straight to the hospital were wooden splinters were removed from his hand. Treatment for the pain required adult doses of morphine, alerting the young William to the charms of the drug and pre disposing him to varying addictions later in life.
He eventually made a full recovery and life went on with family vacations in France and William’s annual summer camp at Los Alamos Ranch School; a private rugged outdoor life school for boys in New Mexico. After three summers spent there, the director, Albert James Connell travelled the country, meeting parents hoping to persuade them the benefits of sending their boys to the school, which happened to be the most expensive school in America at the time. In the summer of 1930, William, his father and a guide took a fishing trip in Minnesota, crossing lakes back and forth across the Canadian border. It was this trip that William’s father announced to his son he would be enrolled in Los Alamos Ranch full time at the end of that summer. He was sixteen.
His two years at Los Alamos were mostly an unhappy time but also made an impression on him, memories of which influenced his late novel, 1971’s The Wild Boys, a utopian fantasy of an all-male society.
William had known he was homosexual since the age of thirteen, but it also unnerved him and contributed to his future secrecy of his sexual inclinations. Confiding in his mother he left the school two months early but was forced to see a psychiatrist where he was informed his homosexuality was a phase and he would “grow out of it”.
For two months he attended a tutoring school before enrolling at Harvard in 1932. He was a brilliant student and studied Anthropology as a post graduate and English, graduating with honours in 1936. After graduating he sojourned around Europe funded by his family trust landing in Vienna where he briefly attended medical school and was able to explore his sexuality freely. It was here he met a Jewish woman, Ilse Klapper who was fleeing the Nazi movement. Out of kindness and expecting nothing more, William married her so she could gain entry to America. Although they were never romantically involved and divorced upon their entry to America, they remained close friends years after she settled in New York.
Back in America he held a brief series of odd jobs and it was during this time his emotional health began to decline. In New York, he met and fell in love with his first boyfriend, Jack Anderson. When the relationship with Jack ended, a distraught William, in an attempt to impress and win him back, cut off the tip of his left pinky finger with poultry shears. This event would land him a stint at Bellevue Psychiatric Clinic and be later immortalised in his 1981 novella, The Finger, also prefiguring his later destructive behaviour.
With the bombing of Pearl Harbour during World War Two in 1941, he made the decision to enlist in the army in early 1942, but the strict discipline forced upon him drove bouts of depression and he gained discharge on the grounds of mental instability. Upon his release he briefly moved to Chicago where he became re acquainted with an old friend from his home town, Lucien Carr and his outsider acquaintance, David Kammerer. It was also where William would meet his second wife, Joan Vollmer and be introduced to and befriend Jack Kerouac and Allan Ginsberg. The three men would be heralded for starting the Beat movement; a literary outpouring of non-traditional, free expression in the 1950’s and would expand into the hippie counterculture of the 1960’s.
In 1944, he moved in with Joan Vollmer and her child from a previous marriage. He was open about his sexuality to Joan and the two married in 1946 and would have a son together.
He soon started using opiates and would descend into heroin addiction. The same year, a member of their social circle, Lucien Carr was arrested for the manslaughter of his acquaintance, David Kammerer, who had been obsessed with Lucian for years and followed him obsessively. On the night in question the two men bumped into one another and drank together until the early hours. When they left the bar they walked to Manhattan’s Riverside Park where David made unwanted sexual advances towards Lucian. The two began fighting with Lucian losing the struggle against his bigger opponent. Thinking fast, he pulled out his pocket knife and stabbed David, using his shoe laces to tie his hands to his feet and pushed his body into the Hudson river. Upon confessing to his friends, William and Jack, they implored him to turn himself in. When police found the body Lucian was charged with manslaughter and served two years at Elmira Reformatory. William and Jack were arrested as material witnesses but were released on bail.
Inspired by the incident, William and Jack would collaborate on a fictionalized retelling novel entitled, And the Hippos were Boiled in Their Tanks in 1945. Rejected by publishers at the time, it was published for the first time posthumously in 2008.
In 1949 he moved to Mexico with Joan where her own mental health deteriorated from her excessive addiction to amphetamines and alcohol. One night, in a drunken prank to show off his marksman ship with guns, he asked Joan to balance a glass on her head where he would shoot it off. He missed and hit Joan who died later that day from the wound to her skull. Her death was ruled a culpable homicide and William was convicted of manslaughter in absentia and received a two year suspended sentence. He continued his descent into drug addiction and encouraged by Allan Ginsberg (who became William’s editor and agent briefly) started writing his first novel, the cult classic, Junkie; Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict, published in 1953 under the pen name, William Lee and later reissued as Junky in 1977. Semiautobiographical of his life as a drug user and dealer the novel was considered unpublishable more than controversial.
His third novel, Naked Lunch published in 1959 was arguably his most controversial work based on his own life depicting his drug addiction, homosexuality and sadomasochism that became the subject of an obscenity court case, challenged as being in violation of U.S sodomy law. The novel wasn’t released in America until the 1960’s due to its publicized governmental ban of its content that pushed William into the spotlight becoming a figure both acclaimed and spurned. It was during this time he helped to popularize the literary concept, ‘the cut-up technique’ where written text is cut and re arranged to form new text and was used heavily in later works such as his Nova Trilogy (1961-1964).
In 1981 while still living in New York he was informed of his estranged son’s death. Billy Burroughs Jr, a successful writer like his father died from alcoholism, drug abuse and liver failure at 33 years old in Florida. Still battling his own addiction to heroin and needing to get away from New York and temptations William then moved to Lawrence, Kansas later that same year where he could fish and shoot guns at his leisure.
Between 1981 and the early 1990’s he would create and finish a mountain of visual art with many featured in more than fifty international galleries and museums. He also completed several novels and collaborated musically with a number of artists and bands reciting passages from his work for numerous projects.
In 1997 he died of a heart attack at his home and was interred in his family’s plot at Bellafontaine Cemetery in St. Louis with a small packet of heroin and his favourite gun; a .38 snub nose revolver.
He was eighty three years old.