William S. Burroughs Biography

William Seward Burroughs was born on February 5, 1914 in St. Louis, Missouri. Young William was a bookworm with homosexual tendencies and a fascination with guns and crime. When he was seven, his family moved to the suburbs to "get away from people." He went to a private suburban high school.

He later went to Harvard, where he majored in English and graduated without honors. It was during the Depression, and he had $150 a month in trust. There were no jobs available, and he couldn't thing of any that he wanted anyway. His family's upper-class lifestyle didn't suit him. His parents didn't seem to mind, as they continued to support him.

Burroughs soon moved to New York City and became part of the druggie/gangster underworld. In the process of befriending future Beatnik hero Herbert Huncke, he became addicted to heroin. Huncke was older, but admired Burroughs for his intelligence and cynical attitude. Burroughs also became friends with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who found his lifestyle interesting but wouldn't follow him very far into it.

In 1953 Burroughs published a book called Junkie under the pseudonym of William Lee. It was an autobiographical account of his introduction to morphine and heroin, and he had a very hard time finding a publisher. The first version had several disclaimers.

He later relocated to eastern Texas to farm. He grew cotton, oranges, and marijuana. He and his wife, Benzedrine-addicted Joan Vollmer, were raising two children there. One was Joan's from a former marriage, the other was Joan and William's. Jack Kerouac visited them with friend Neal Cassady, and later described the happenings in his book On the Road. The group was soon pursued by the police for their drug activities, so they fled to Mexico. While there, Burroughs attempted to show off his marksmanship by doing his "William Tell act." Joan balanced a glass on her head, and Burroughs, aiming too low, shot her through the forehead. She was killed instantly. Burroughs' son went to live with Burroughs' parents, who bailed him out of Mexican jail. He then began travelling around the world.

He was living in Tangiers when his friends back in NYC were becoming famous as The Beat Generation. Ginsberg and Kerouac came to visit Burroughs in Tangeirs, but didn't like it there. They did, however, like the new book he was working on. Kerouac suggested the title Naked Lunch, for what was to become the book widely considered to be Burroughs' best work. Naked Lunch soon made Burroughs an underground celebrity. A film based on the book, directed by David Cronenberg, got him much attention in recent years.

In 1959, Burroughs discovered the "cut-up" technique, through his friend, painter Brion Gysin. He saw a similarity between collage in art and collage in writing. He wrote a trilogy of cut-up novels, (The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express), before going back to his "normal" method of writing.

Burroughs felt that poetry was meant to be performed, not read on paper. Concerning prose, he believed that "a writer can profit from things that may be just unpleasant or boring to someone else because he uses these things subsequently as material for writing."

A very prolific and original author, he is cited as a major influence for many writers and musicians. In 1992 Kurt Cobain released and album on which Cobain played guitar as background to Burroughs' spoken work pieces. Burroughs is even thought by some to have coined the term "heavy metal." Although it was used by scientists before, the term for the music genre may have come from The Soft Machine.

Burroughs had a heart attack on the first day of August, 1997. He died at 6:50 p.m. the next day.