William S. Burroughs Turns 101

For those of you who don’t know, today is William S. Burroughs’ 101st Birthday. Burroughs was a weird-tastic writer, weird even for the Beats who prided themselves on living at the edges and in the in-betweens of things. Burroughs, however–in addition to being a wealthy eccentric, addict, and artist–was also a murderer, having killed Joan Vollmer, poet and wife to Burroughs.

Here are a few basics about Burroughs:

  • “The author of books like Junky,Queer, and Naked Lunch, Burroughs forged the cornerstone of a modern American cultural movement with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and other visionary writers and artists. His buttoned-up, three-piece exterior cloaked a dark genius that hungered for hustlers and heroin — way back in the 1940s.” (Flavorwire)
  • William S. Burroughs was born on February 5, 1914 in St. Louis, MO, and died on August 2, 1997 in Lawrence, KS.
  • “He always wrote in tones of spooky authority—a comic effect, given that most of his characters are, in addition to being gaudily depraved, more or less conspicuously insane. Naked Lunch is less a novel than a grab bag of friskily obscene comedy routines—least forgettably, an operating-room Grand Guignol conducted by an insouciant quack, Dr. Benway. ‘Well, it’s all in a day’s work,’ Benway says, with a sigh, after a patient fails to survive heart massage with a toilet plunger.” (The New Yorker, “Outlaw: The Extraordinary Life of William S. Burroughs,”  Peter Schjeldahl)
  • “I started to write in about 1950; I was thirty-five at the time; there didn’t seem to be any strong motivation. I simply was endeavoring to put down in a more or less straightforward journalistic style something about my experiences with addiction and addicts.” — William S. Burroughs, interviewed by Conrad Knickerbocker, The Paris Review
  • “Burroughs hadn’t always intended to be a man of letters. An heir to the Burroughs Adding Machine Company, he initially studied medicine at Harvard before falling into the group of misfit writers who eventually evolved into “The Beats.” Though Burroughs said his work had little in common stylistically with fellow Beats Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, he credits their encouragement in helping him get started.” (NPR Books, “Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, Still Fresh at 50,” Tom Vitale)
  • “Burroughs, who died in 1997 at the age of 83, was living at the time in Lawrence, Kan., where he settled in the 1980s; Ginsberg had come to participate in a sweat lodge ceremony to exorcise ‘the ugly spirit,’ a possessing force Burroughs felt had influenced, among other tragedies, the accidental shooting death of his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer, in Mexico City in 1951.” (Poetry Foundation, David L. Ulin quoted in “Burroughs and Ginsberg at the sweat lodge,” Harriet Staff)
  • “Scholars [have] commented on Burroughs’ paranoid, futuristic voice, his connection with Beat generation writers … and his noted drug habits, all of which, along with his privileged background, make up his public face. They also [speak] matter-of-factly about his shooting and killing his wife Joan Vollmer, as though it was just one more eccentric, quirky footnote in the life of a ‘great writer.’ … Anyone concerned at all about domestic violence might find it chilling that this homicide, which Burroughs committed publicly in Mexico before returning to the US to escape legal repercussions, has been woven into his public legend in a way that enhances, rather than detracts from, his mystique.” (Bitch Magazine, “A Great Artist Kills His Wife–Now She’s Just a Quirky Footnote in His History,” Leela Ginelle)

If you’re interested in learning more about Burroughs and/or Vollmer, be sure to check out:

Related Videos:

Also, if you’re interested in learning more about the Beats, here’s a final shameless plug: check out my book, The Trickster in Ginsberg: A Critical Reading



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