In “The 'Priest' They Called Him” William Burroughs is described "as American as the electric chair”. The man who said that, the author Graham Caveney, is a student of the Beats. And no-one has so perfectly nailed Burroughs in one sentence.
William Burroughs was the grandson of William Seward Burroughs I who founded the Burroughs Adding Machine company. In 1885 the elder Burroughs invented and patented the first workable adding and listing machine in St. Louis, Missouri. His wasn’t the business brain and he was only vice president of the company that bore his name. But the family was wealthy enough when his grandson William Seward Burroughs II was born in that city 29 years later. It was 1914 and Europe was just about to resolve its differences. His father Mortimer Perry had no desire to join the family business and ran an antique shop. The wealth of the father gave young William a good education.
He went to his namesake John Burroughs school in St Louis. There was no relation nor was there an affinity and Burroughs the boy left Burroughs the school without a graduation. He was sent to the private Los Alamos Ranch School for boys in New Mexico. It was in this rustic Scout-like setting, Burroughs discovered his homosexuality. He was expelled for taking chloral hydrate, a sedative drug used for insomnia. Disgraced and back in St Louis he kept his head down long enough to finish high school and enrolled for Harvard. He arrived there in 1932 at the bottom of the depression. There were 25 million unemployed and the US was deep in debt. He seemed to buckle down and got himself an arts degree in four years. 1936 was the cue for the Grand Tour of Europe. In Europe he found sexual freedom he could not find in the US. Nonetheless, he married an Austrian Jew named Ilse Klapper who needed an American visa to flee the Nazis. Ilse was living in London and her visa was about to expire when Burroughs saved her life. They married in Athens and then separated. She lived in New York until the end of the war and divorced Burroughs before settling in Zurich. They always remained friends.
Burroughs returned alone to St Louis. His parents were distraught that he had treated marriage so shabbily. But he didn’t need to work either; his mother and father did not stop his sizeable allowance. Burroughs mooched around following boyfriends until Pearl Harbour stepped in. He was drafted but his mother stepped in to have him declared mentally unsuitable for military service. The punishment was a six month stint in a psychiatric evaluation unit. On the advice of someone he met there, he travelled to Chicago. Men were scarce and jobs were easy to get. He became a “bugman” for AJ Cohen Exterminators, an experience that informed his writing. But eventually the thrill of killing cockroaches died and he followed a lover to New York. He settled in Greenwich Village. Here he was introduced to a shy young Jewish boy from NJ named Allen Ginsberg. Through Ginsberg he met Jack Kerouac and their mutual friendship solidified. Kerouac and Burroughs were arrested when Lucien Carr, another friend of Burroughs, killed his male lover. Carr told Kerouac and Burroughs that he had stabbed him after a row and dumped the body in the Hudson river. Burroughs advised him to find a lawyer. Carr turned himself in after two days and after plea bargaining down to manslaughter he served two years at a reformatory. Burroughs and Kerouac were charged for a failure to report a crime but released.
Burroughs had always written on and off but the murder spurred him into life. Ginsberg and Kerouac helped him on his manuscripts. Burroughs experimented heavily with drugs in this period and he learned how to persuade doctors to write morphine prescriptions. As the war ended, he got involved with another woman. Joan Vollmer was one of the Beats, a smart lady and a match for Burroughs. She knew he was gay but said “he made love like a pimp”. Her downfall was that she too was addicted on benzedrine. Their house was raided and Burroughs was given a four month suspended sentence for forging prescriptions. He returned to his father in St Louis and Joan deteriorated. Burroughs returned to her when he found out how bad her condition was. In 1947 they moved to a ranch in Texas where they could take their drugs unmolested. Joan gave birth to William Burroughs III in that year. The Burroughs were forced to leave Texas after he was arrested and lost his licence having sex with Joan in his car. They moved on from New Orleans too after police there took an interest in his drug habits.
They went to Mexico where their mutual self-destruction took a sudden turn. When drunk in their apartment, they decided to play William Tell. He placed an apple on her head but missed the apple and shot a bullet through her head. Burroughs was released on bail after 13 days and was told the trial for her murder would be a year later. Burroughs did not take his chances with a Mexican court and fled to New York.
Joan’s death was the catalyst for literary greatness. Later he said “"I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would have never become a writer but for Joan's death”. He quickly wrote his first two novels about his two main predilections. They were called “Junky” and “Queer”. “Junky” was released in 1953 under the named of William Lee. Burroughs travel to Europe and eventually settled in the Moroccan frontier city of Tangiers where he find indulge his taste in drugs and men. With the help of Ginsberg he published the Naked Lunch in 1959. It was banned in Britain (the Lady Chatterley’s Lover court case had yet to decide if it could be allowed read to ones wife and servants). It was published in the US in 1962. Police in Boston arrested a bookseller for obscenity when he tried to sell the book. It took two years for the trial to come to court and the defence called in the heavies. Norman Mailer defended the Naked Lunch speaking of “artistry..more deliberate and profound than I thought before”. In 1966 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declared the work "not obscene" based on criteria developed largely to defend the book. The case against Burroughs's novel still stands as the last obscenity trial against a work of literature prosecuted in the United States.
Burroughs was now living in Paris, the home away from home for US intellectuals. In this intense period he produced The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1963). By 1967 he was famous enough to merit a spot on the album cover of Sergeant Pepper. He returned to New York where he was the darling of that set mixing with Warhol, Basquiat and his old friend Ginsberg. Ginsberg was now also looking after Burroughs’ son William Junior. Father and son never got on and young Billy Burroughs turned his hostility into autobiographical published works of his own. He was also drug dependent (probably since birth) and he died of liver cancer in 1981. By now Burroughs was becoming a giant of counter-culture. He released voice albums and starred in movies. In Gus Van Sant’s “Drugstore Cowboy”, he played himself in the role of Father Tom a defrocked priest and junkie.
In 1983 he moved to St Lawrence Kansas, where at almost 70 years old, he bought his first and only home. David Cronenberg filmed his unfilmable Naked Lunch and Burroughs returned to NY from time to time to meet old friends. There weren’t many left. They were dying off as a result of their extravagant lifestyles but Burroughs seemed to outlast them all. Allen Ginsberg died in April 1997 and that was enough for Burroughs himself; he finally threw in his Russian roulette chips barely four months later. He was 83 and an opiate addict for the last 40 years of his life. All through his life he kept another addiction; to that of guns.
His reputation is mixed. Some like Mailer say he is one of the greatest and most influential writers of the twentieth century, but others found him over-rated. What is undeniable is that his impact across literature, art, cinema and music is vast. Let’s leave the last words to Burroughs himself in the Naked Lunch:
“No good… no bueno … hustling himself…”
“No glot … C’mon Fliday”