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Naked Lunch | Context


The Beat Generation

While living in New York from the mid-1940s to early 1950s, William S. Burroughs became friends with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg and Kerouac would become two of the most famous voices of the Beat Generation. This group of writers attained prominence in the late 1940s and early to mid-1950s. The Beats became almost synonymous with the San Francisco literary scene. Much of their activity and publication were associated with Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights bookstore in the bohemian North Beach neighborhood. Ginsberg and Kerouac edited the manuscripts of what would become Burroughs's seminal works, Junkie and Naked Lunch. However, Ferlinghetti passed on the opportunity to publish Naked Lunch in the United States.

The Beat writers drew inspiration from the free-form nature of jazz music and sought to bring the same improvisational ethos to literature. They rejected the conventional values of post-World War II (1939–45) America, with its conspicuous consumerism and strict morality—or the appearance of these things. The Beats embraced breaking rules, both literary and social. This idea was presented in a stream-of-consciousness style with lots of experimentation with language, which was often raw and uncensored. They eschewed traditional ideas about form, including plot and structure, seeking to convey more authentic and immediate experiences. Their works were edited with an eye to preserving this immediacy and authenticity. The structure of Naked Lunch, such that it is, reflects these values.


According to Chapter 24, "Atrophied Preface" in Naked Lunch, "You can cut into Naked Lunch at any intersection point." The novel is composed of a series of vignettes, loosely related to each other, designed to be read in more or less any sequence. Chapter 1 and Chapter 23 detail the narrator's experience with law enforcement in New York City. They also provide a kind of framing device for the intervening chapters, which move between different imagined countries, possibly different dimensions. Even these two chapters operate with a vague chronology. The narrator's paranoia and evasion of police could be read as a response to the (probably) imagined shooting of two narcotics officers in Chapter 23. This interpretation would create a circular narrative. If Chapter 23 takes place after Chapter 1, the intervening events could represent the disjointed and hallucinatory thoughts of a junkie under the influence. It's equally possible Chapter 1 and Chapter 23 have no other causal relationship other than the narrator's addiction and his presence in New York.

The remaining chapters follow no specific plot line or otherwise clearly discernible temporal relationship. Settings are equally nebulous, with the action moving from real-world locations, such as Mexico, to invented worlds, such as Freeland and Interzone. Even within individual chapters the narration often lacks a coherent plot, hopping between assorted characters who receive little clear development aside from their immediate story lines. The language is sometimes poetic, sometimes vulgar. All these characteristics are in keeping with the ideals of Beat writing, valuing creation of an impression or emotional response for the reader over traditional storytelling. The result is a disjointed and nightmarish quality that provides a look inside the mind of an addict.


Naked Lunch contains extremely graphic depictions of bodily functions, drug use, violence, and sexual behaviors. The descriptions of bodily functions and sexual activities—spanning a full range of orientations and identities—offer detailed and visceral depictions of fluids and decay. No societal taboo is too extreme to be off limits. The novel contains references to rape, underage sex, bestiality, and cannibalism. While this content is presented for satirical reasons, they have drawn controversy over the years since the book's publication. Naked Lunch has been accused of containing "pornographic" material, but the novel's content is far more likely to elicit revulsion than arousal. This is one point of the novel's social and personal criticism.

The text also uses a number of racial and cultural terms that are considered outdated. It uses terms such as Arab to describe Muslims and Negro to describe black people. Less savory racial slurs are also presented in contexts designed to reflect negatively on characters who use such language. Other terms such as queer or queen for homosexuals or gash for women appear in keeping with the Beat aesthetic which embraced street language and slang.

Publication History and Obscenity Trial

The content of Naked Lunch drew controversy even before its publication. In late 1957 and early 1958, Burroughs worked with Allen Ginsberg to prepare a complete manuscript of the novel. In April 1958 they sent the finished manuscript to Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights bookstore and press in San Francisco. Ferlinghetti published much of the Beat Generation's writings, but he was unenthused by this manuscript and passed.

After Ferlinghetti's rejection, Ginsberg launched a campaign to print excerpts from the Naked Lunch manuscript in a variety of literary magazines. In the spring of 1958, the University of Chicago's Chicago Review published "The Rube" (Chapter 3), prompting a faculty board to block the winter 1958 issue. In March 1959 the United States Postal Service impounded 10,000 copies of a journal called Big Table, which contained another excerpt from Naked Lunch. The Postal Service deemed these issues in violation of their regulations against distributing obscene content. The American Civil Liberties Union brought a suit and won in 1960.

The lawsuits and controversies in the United States caught the attention of Olympia Press in Paris. Olympia published The Naked Lunch—note the use of the definite article in the title—in 1959. Grove Press picked up Naked Lunch—no definite article—for U.S. publication in 1962. The novel was targeted in several censorship cases, the most notable of which involved the arrest of a Boston bookseller in 1963 for violating obscenity laws. Ginsberg, along with other literary luminaries such as Norman Mailer and Mary McCarthy, defended Naked Lunch in a Massachusetts courtroom to no avail. Ultimately, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts heard an appeal of the case and overturned the obscenity charges in 1966. This case is notable as the last literary-based obscenity trial in American legal history.

Original and Restored Text

The original text of Naked Lunch published in the United States in 1962 (1959 in Europe) comprises 25 stories or vignettes detailing the narrator's experiences in the real world and in alternate realities that may be drug-induced. Later editions included supplementary materials, including Burroughs's essay, "Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness." After 1966 editions of Naked Lunch also included material from the obscenity trial in Massachusetts. This version was the primary edition marketed and sold in the United States through January 2003, when the book's original U.S. publisher, Grove Press, introduced the "Restored Text," edited by James Grauerholz and Barry Miles. There are a few small changes scattered through the "Restored Text." In addition Grauerholz and Miles elected to remove information from the Boston obscenity trial considering it "no longer relevant to the book." The "Restored Text" edition includes Burroughs's "Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness," as well as three other essays, plus a letter to publisher Irving Rosenthal at Grove Press in which Burroughs expresses his preferences regarding the book's publication, in which he emphatically asserts "THIS IS NOT A NOVEL." The "Restored Text" also includes "Outtakes," deleted paragraphs and sections from 11 of the core stories included in the original version. This study guide uses the "Restored Text" as reference, as it is the most readily available edition of Naked Lunch as of post-2002.


Burroughs exaggerates grotesque presentations of 1950s life outside the American mainstream culture. As nightmarish as the narrator's observations and experiences are, he expresses no desire for a conventional existence. Instead he goes deeper into the alternate reality of Freeland and Interzone, becoming an Islam Inc. agent and abandoning a few fleeting attempts to get clean. He observes the "drag" of American life on his journey from New York to Mexico, meaning life drags on in America in a stifling way. It's boring to him. Time passes slowly, activities are routine. By contrast, events in Interzone and Freeland are often repellent, but never boring. The citizens of Interzone and Freeland may live under corrupt political systems, but the narrator's experiences in the United States also reveal corrupt authority figures.

The novel is critical of the stifling postwar American culture that makes people want to take drugs or otherwise pursue an alternate experience of reality. Burroughs presents those alternate experiences here. A supplementary essay was published with later editions of Naked Lunch: "Deposition: A Testimony Concerning a Sickness." There Burroughs speaks frankly about drug addiction as "public health problem #1 of the world today." This sentiment is echoed in newspaper headlines more than 50 years after the publication of Naked Lunch. Burroughs claims the solution to this health crisis lies in addressing "the addict in the streets." He goes on to say "when there are no more addicts to buy junk, there will be no junk traffic." The implication here is culture has a responsibility to address the reasons that drive people to use narcotics. Burroughs argued for removal of the aspects of culture creating the need to escape through addiction, while providing few viable solutions to escape that addiction.

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