William S. Burroughs: Biography, Writings, and Style of a Beat

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  • 0:09 A Life in Art
  • 0:58 Early Life
  • 2:35 With the Beats
  • 5:49 Later Life
  • 7:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jeff Calareso

Jeff teaches high school English, math and other subjects. He has a master's degree in writing and literature.

Writer, traveler, collaborator, painter, addict, icon...the labels that describe William S. Burroughs never stop. In this lesson, we'll look at the life and writings of the member of the Beat generation who gave us 'Naked Lunch' and much more.

A Life in Art

William S. Burroughs did just about everything in life a person can do. He lived all over the world, wrote prolifically, did all kinds of drugs and maybe, possibly, even got away with murder.

You might be vaguely familiar with Burroughs. His stature grew and grew over his lifetime. In his later years, so many people wanted to work with him that just his list of musical collaborators is a who's who of pop. He worked with Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, U2, Nirvana and R.E.M. Steely Dan even got their band name from his work. Oh, and he's pictured on the cover of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album, next to Marilyn Monroe. That's not bad.

But Burroughs is much more than just a hero to musicians. He's a major literary figure of the 20th century. Let's start at the beginning.

Early Life

William S. Burroughs was born to a prominent St. Louis family in 1914. By 'prominent,' I mean rich. His grandfather invented an early calculator. Math students and accountants everywhere are in his debt.

As a young man, he showed an affinity for the things that would permeate his life: writing, drugs and guns. His parents shipped him off to a New Mexico boarding school that made boys into 'manly specimens.' While there, Burroughs wrote in his journals about erotic feelings for another boy. However, he'd hide his homosexuality until later in life.

He left the boarding school partway through his second year. He said it was voluntary, though some think he was expelled for experimenting with chloral hydrate, a sedative and hypnotic.

In 1932, he went to Harvard. It's reported that he kept a loaded gun and a ferret in his room. He graduated in 1936, and his parents gave him a monthly allowance of $200, which is like $3,000 today. He would live off that money for decades.

After Harvard, he traveled to Europe. In Croatia, he married Ilse Klapper, a Jewish woman fleeing the Nazis. The marriage was a way to get her into the U.S. Though the pair remained friends, they quickly divorced after getting Klapper safely into the States.

Burroughs struggled with mental instability and depression. In 1939, he used shears to lop off the end of his left pinky finger. He was reportedly depressed over an unreciprocated crush on another man. He got drafted into the military in 1941, but his family got him out based on his mental health.

With the Beats

And then we get to the Beats. In 1943, he went with his friends Lucien Carr and David Kammerer to New York. With them, he met Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac. Burroughs, Ginsburg and Kerouac were kindred artistic spirits, and they'd become major figures of the Beat Generation, the 1950s movement of writers that rejected materialism, capitalism and literary formalism.

One major factor that distinguished the Beats was the content of their work. They wrote about drugs, crime, homosexuality and other highly controversial topics for the 1950s. They also wrote with unusual styles, which we'll get to shortly.

In 1944, Carr murdered Kammerer with a Boy Scout knife. Carr was upset over Kammerer's advances on him. Burroughs and Kerouac were arrested for failing to report the murder. They also played a role in covering it up. Though they escaped severe punishment, it was a major event in their lives. The two would write a novel together based on the murder called And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, but no one would publish it until 2008.

Around this time, Burroughs' drug habit had escalated to morphine and heroin. He even sold heroin for awhile. As you might expect, he had a few troubles with the law.

He met Joan Vollmer, and she'd become his common-law wife. They moved to Texas, had a son, heavily used Benzedrine, and grew marijuana to sell. More problems with Johnny Law made them go to Mexico City.

In 1951, in Mexico City, while reportedly playing William Tell, Burroughs shot Joan in the head, killing her. Burroughs' family helped him escape serious prison time, and he claimed her death forced him into a writing life.

In fact, Burroughs completed significant work on his first two novels while in Mexico. His first published book, Junkie, was published in 1953 under the alias William Lee. It's a surprisingly open, semi-autobiographical story of a heroin addict and dealer. This is the kind of subject matter that fit the Beat style. Ginsburg played a critical role in getting it published.

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