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William Burroughs | Biography


Early Life and Education

William Seward Burroughs was born on February 5, 1914, in St. Louis, Missouri. His grandfather and namesake invented the Burroughs adding machine, allowing Burroughs a life of financial security, including an allowance that financed his travels in adulthood. Burroughs graduated from Harvard University in 1936 and completed a few years of postgraduate study before moving to New York City in 1943. In New York he met and befriended budding Beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who were then studying at Columbia University. In 1944 Burroughs and Kerouac were arrested as material witnesses after their acquaintance, Lucien Carr, killed a man who was romantically interested in him. Neither Burroughs nor Kerouac was charged with a crime, but Carr was convicted of manslaughter.

Addiction, Travels, and Crime

Burroughs first took morphine in 1944—shortly after his move to New York—and developed a heroin addiction soon thereafter. His experiences with drugs led him to write Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict, his first novel, published in 1953. Burroughs, his wife, Joan Vollmer Adams, and their young son moved to East Texas, where Burroughs engaged in a failed attempt at farming marijuana. Burroughs and Adams relocated to Mexico City in 1949. At a party in 1951, Burroughs attempted to shoot a glass Adams had balanced on her head for a game of "William Tell." The game refers to the Swiss folk hero who according to legend was coerced to shoot an apple sitting atop his son's head. Burroughs missed and accidentally killed Adams. A Mexican court convicted Burroughs of manslaughter and sentenced him to two years in prison. He had already fled for South America, however, where he continued his experiments with drugs. He went on to live in Tangier, Paris, London, and New York.

"The Word Horde"

Through much of his travels in the late 1950s, Burroughs carried with him a case filled with his writings, which he called "the word horde." From this, Burroughs, Kerouac, and Ginsberg assembled Naked Lunch for its 1959 publication by Olympia Press in Paris, under the title The Naked Lunch. By this time Burroughs had successfully undergone treatment for his heroin addiction. Burroughs's later novels would expand on the experimental style of Naked Lunch, using a "cut-up" technique. This involved taking passages from the "horde" and assembling them in seemingly random order.


Burroughs identified as homosexual throughout his adult life, conducting relationships with various men and holding a long-term attraction to his friend Allen Ginsberg. However, Burroughs married women twice. His first marriage was to Ilse Klapper during his postcollege travels in Europe so she could come to the United States. His partnership with Joan Vollmer Adams lasted about six years, until her death in 1951. Burroughs and Adams had a son, Billy, who went to live with Burroughs's parents after Adams's death. However, by all accounts, Burroughs was open about his homosexuality even while living with Adams. His second novel, Queer, was inspired by his involvement with a young man in Mexico City in the early 1950s. It would not see publication until 1985.

Late Life

In Burroughs's later work he became notable for employing the "cut-up" technique of writing. This involves literally cutting up words and phrases and placing them in an order that is not necessarily random, but one the author finds aesthetically satisfying. In the 1970s and 1980s, Burroughs became a prominent influence in Western popular culture, especially with rock and punk musicians. His musician fan base ranged from Patti Smith to David Bowie to Duran Duran. Famously, 1970s rock band Steely Dan takes its name from a sex device featured in Naked Lunch. He collaborated with several musicians, most notably Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, while continuing to write and publish his own works. After a lifetime of moving around, Burroughs settled in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1981. He died in Lawrence on August 2, 1997. Burroughs's work continues to fascinate readers with the singularity of his style and his unabashed, frank treatments of taboo subjects.

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