William S. Burroughs

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William S. Burroughs
Tonnis - William S. Burroughs 3.jpg
Burroughs' signature

William Seward Burroughs (born February 5, 1914 in St. Louis , Missouri , † August 2, 1997 in Lawrence , Kansas ) was an American writer belonging to the Beat Generation .

Live and act


He wrote himself William S. Burroughs to distinguish it from his grandfather William Seward Burroughs I , the founder of the Burroughs Adding Machine Company , from which the Burroughs Corporation later emerged. His mother Laura Hammon Lee (1888-1970) was the daughter of a Methodist minister. His father, Mortimer Perry Burroughs, owned an antique and gift shop in St. Louis and later in Palm Beach, Florida .


Burroughs attended the John Burroughs School in St. Louis and the Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico . When he discovered his homosexuality , he described it in his diaries. However, he hid his sexual orientation from his surroundings into adulthood. After he was caught taking the sleeping pill chloral hydrate with some of his classmates , he had to leave Los Alamos. He finished high school at Taylor School in St. Louis.

Burroughs attended Harvard University from 1932 , where he studied general semantics and medicine with Alfred Korzybski, among others . He graduated in 1936. It was in New York that he first encountered the gay subculture. Together with a friend, Richard Stern, he explored the gay scene of the time in the bars of Harlem and Greenwich Village . He also developed a fascination for firearms and self-defense - he once almost accidentally shot his friend Stern.

Europe and Harvard again

After Harvard Burroughs traveled through Europe, where he got to know the homosexual subculture and artist scene, especially in Austria. There he also met Ilse Klapper, a Jew who had fled from the National Socialists . Although they did not have a love affair, they married in Croatia so that Klapper could get a visa for the USA . They later divorced in the US, but remained friends for many years.

At Harvard, Burroughs enrolled in postgraduate anthropology . For a short time he also studied at the medical faculty of the University of Vienna . The US Army wanted to draft him in 1941, but he was retired due to his psyche. He went back to New York and met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac , who later became friends and became known as authors of the Beat Generation .

In Junkie's prologue , Burroughs summed up his university experience: “I hated the University and I hated the town it was in. Everything about the place was dead. The University was a fake English setup taken over by the graduates of fake English public schools. "

First addiction to morphine

Burroughs lived from 1944 with Joan Vollmer Adams in a New York apartment, which they shared with Kerouac and his first wife Edie Parker. Vollmer Adams was married to a GI and had a young daughter, Julie Adams.

Kerouac and Burroughs came into conflict with the law for failing to report a murder. Burroughs became addicted to morphine and began dealing heroin in Greenwich to pay for his addiction. He processed these experiences in the autobiographical novel Junkie .

Vollmer also became addicted to drugs. She divorced in 1945 and married Burroughs a year later. After spending time with his parents for some time, he returned to New York, brought Vollmer out of the mental health department at Bellevue Hospital, and moved her and her daughter to a farm in Texas . Their son, William S. Burroughs, Jr., was born there in 1947. born. After that, the family lived in New Orleans for a short time .


Burroughs grew marijuana on his farm in Texas . The police found out when they intercepted a letter to Ginsberg in which Burroughs mentioned a delivery. To avoid jail time, the family fled to Mexico intending to stay there for five years until the offenses were statute barred.

On September 6, 1951, Burroughs shot his wife in Mexico City while he was reenacting the apple scene from Schiller's drama Wilhelm Tell while he was drunk . In the official investigation, the crime was ultimately judged to be an accident, Burroughs only spent 14 days in prison and left Mexico in 1952. Vollmer's daughter came to live with her grandmother and Burroughs' son with his grandparents in St. Louis. William S. Burroughs Jr. had been an eyewitness to the accident and when he later also became a writer, he processed these experiences in his works.

South America

After Vollmer's death, Burroughs traveled through South America in search of a drug called "yage," which was later identified as ayahuasca . He hoped that this would reduce his dependence on opiates , but also new spiritual experiences. During this time he wrote two novels: In Junkie he dealt with his heroin addiction and in Queer his homosexuality. Junkie was at that time first as unpublishable was on efforts by Allen Ginsberg , however, in 1953 in the format of a dime novel, the publisher Ace Books published. Due to the extremely offensive content, Burroughs published his first work under the pseudonym William Lee . He summarized his correspondence with Ginsberg during his search for Yage in the Yage Letters published in 1963 . Queer wasn't released until 1985.

Europe and "Naked Lunch"

From South America Burroughs traveled to Europe, a. a. to London and Paris, where he began collecting notes for naked lunch in the Beat Hotel . In 1954 he traveled to the Tangier International Zone . Here he was able to live comfortably on the $ 200 monthly scholarship his parents gave him. Heroin and hookers were readily available. In 1956 he took heroin withdrawal in Paris with the help of the doctor John Dent, which freed him from his twelve-year addiction. When he returned to Tangier, he only consumed alcohol and majoun, a local cannabis paste , in considerable quantities. Under the influence of these substances he wrote numerous texts. He initially referred to his collection of materials as The Word Hoard. Together with Ginsberg and Kerouac, he edited the individual episodes for the novel Naked Lunch . The rest of the writings later became the Nova trilogy : The Soft Machine , The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express .

Unlike the previous novels, the Nova Trilogy was written in a new technique called the " cut-up " technique (English to cut up - " cut into pieces"). Manuscript pages were cut into small pieces of paper and rearranged without a precise plan. This gave rise to an associative narrative structure that Burroughs developed further in later novels. The reader can enter any part of the book and the text will develop from there. Thanks to the cut-up technique and any entry into the work, each reader interprets the novel differently and has a different perspective on the narrative progression. With his cut-up style, he was a role model for German-speaking authors such as Carl Weissner and Jürgen Ploog , which they described in the German-language literary magazine Gasolin 23 z. T. published.

Burroughs' central theme in these years are the various techniques of exercising power and control , for example through drugs , through sex , through viruses , through conspiracies or through language itself, which is presented as something foreign to people, which penetrates into them and their whole Lets thinking and acting be controlled by others. For Burroughs, one means of escaping this (linear, rational) language was the cut-up method, which on top of that offered the opportunity to find new associations and uncover hidden levels of meaning through the random collage of text parts.

Naked Lunch was published in 1959. From the time it was published, the novel became part of the burgeoning counterculture in the 1960s. Publication has been banned in several US states. Massachusetts was the first state to ban the plant because of profanity such as the steel dildo described in the novel (which gave the 1970s rock band Steely Dan ). The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in 1966 that naked lunch was not obscene.

David Cronenberg created the film Naked Lunch in 1991 based on motifs from the novel and its genesis .

In the early 1960s Burroughs moved to London, where he wrote for small underground magazines. He was also working on a manuscript that later appeared in two parts as The Wild Boys and Port of Saints . He was in contact with like-minded writers ( Alexander Trocchi and Jeff Nuttall ).

New York and "Electronic Revolution"

With Ginsberg's help, Burroughs found a job as a creative writing teacher at New York City College. He came into contact with Andy Warhol , Patti Smith , Susan Sontag , Dennis Hopper , Terry Southern and Mick Jagger .

In 1971, Burroughs published Electronic Revolution , a mixture of fact, fiction, and predictions about the future impact of electronics development on society. Even if the text does not deal with digital technology, many literary critics regard it as an early prophetic, but also a warning, reference to the digital revolution that began a decade later .

In Electronic Revolution , Burroughs mentioned Scientology and later briefly became a member of the organization. His ongoing criticism of Scientology and a review of the book "Inside Scientology" by Robert Kaufman led to a correspondence between Burroughs and Scientologists, which was published in Rolling Stone magazine.

Late popularity

William S. Burroughs (1983)

Burroughs became a pop culture icon in the 1980s and 1990s . A number of popular artists, especially those from the New York scene, named Burroughs as an important source of inspiration. He worked u. a. with Laurie Anderson and has appeared in films such as Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993). In 1990, the theater play The Black Rider emerged from the collaboration with the director Robert Wilson and the musician Tom Waits , which premiered on March 31, 1990 at the Thalia Theater in Hamburg and was performed on many European and American stages in the following years.

Burroughs' grave in St. Louis

During these years Burroughs also appeared as a spoken word performer , who reached both his old and new audiences with his deep voice and slow, programmatic sentences. Many audio recordings of his works and conversations were made. He also worked with rock musician Kurt Cobain , who played guitar for his work 'The Priest' They Called Him . He has also worked with Bill Laswell and his group of material on studio and live productions.

In 1983 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters .

In old age William S. Burroughs lived in Lawrence, Kansas . He also took part in a methadone program there. On August 2, 1997, he died in his home at the age of 83 of complications from a heart attack .


Some critics call him the most important American writer of the second half of the 20th century. Others consider his works to be overrated from a literary point of view. Burroughs' place in the development of pop culture and postmodern literature , however, is undisputed in literary studies. With the LP “Call me Burroughs” he was included in The Wire's “100 Records That Set the World on Fire (While No One Was Listening)” .



Nova trilogy
  • 1 The Soft Machine (1961)
    • German: Soft machine. The translation from the American by Peter Behrens followed the 3rd, modified and expanded edition. Kiepenheuer and Witsch, Cologne 1971, ISBN 3-462-00798-X .
  • 2 Nova Express (1964)
    • German: Nova-Express. Translated by Peter Behrens. Limes-Verlag, Wiesbaden 1970, DNB 456242503 .
  • 3 The Ticket That Exploded (1962)
Cities of the Red Night / Cities of the Red Night (trilogy)
  • 1 Cities of the Red Night (1981)
    • English: The cities of the red night. Edited and translated by Carl Weissner . Two thousand and one, Frankfurt am Main 1982, DNB 830060278 .
  • 2 The Place of Dead Roads (1984)
    • German: Dead roads. Translated by Rose Aichele. Goldmann # 14013, Munich 1985, ISBN 3-442-14013-7 .
  • 3 The Western Lands (1987)
    • German: Western lands. Translated and with an afterword by Carl Weissner. Limes, Frankfurt a. M. and Berlin 1988, ISBN 3-8090-2261-6 .
  • Junk (1953, as William Lee; also: Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict , 1964; also: Junky , 2002)
    • German: Junkie: Confessions of an unconverted drug addict. Translated by Katharina Behrens. Limes Verlag, Wiesbaden 1963, DNB 450717712 . Also as: junkie. Edited and translated by Carl Weissner. Two thousand and one, Frankfurt am Main 1978, DNB 780632915 .
  • Naked Lunch (1959; also: The Naked Lunch )
    • German: The naked lunch. Afterword by Terry Southern. Translated by Katharina Behrens and Peter Behrens. Limes Verlag, Wiesbaden 1962, DNB 450717720 .
  • Exterminator! (1960)
    • German: Exterminator. Edited and translated by Carl Weissner. Two thousand and one, Frankfurt am Main 1987, DNB 880273089 .
  • Minutes To Go (1960; with Sinclair Beilles, Gregory Corso and Brion Gysin )
  • Dead Fingers Talk (1963)
  • The Last Words of Dutch Schultz (1970, also: Come in with the Dutchman: A Revised Screenplay Version of the Last Words of Dutch Schultz , 2016)
    • German: The last words from Dutch Schultz. Translated by Hans Herman. Kiepenheuer and Witsch (Pocket # 24), Cologne 1971, ISBN 3-462-00833-1 .
  • The Wild Boys (1971)
    • German: The Wild Boys. Edited and translated by Carl Weissner. Two thousand and one, Frankfurt am Main 1980, DNB 890619530 .
  • Port of Saints (1975)
  • The Book of Breeething (1976, with Robert F. Gale (Ill.))
  • Queer (1985)
  • My Education: A Book of Dreams (1996)
  • And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks (2008; with Jack Kerouac )
    • English: And the hippos were boiling in their basins. With an afterword by James Grauerholz. Translated by Michael Kellner . Rowohlt-Taschenbuch-Verlag (Rororo # 25655), Reinbek near Hamburg 2011, ISBN 978-3-499-25655-4 .
  • Rules of Duel (2010; with Graham Masterton )
  • The Exterminator (1960; with Brion Gysin)
  • Exterminator! (1973)
  • Ali's Smile / Naked Scientology (1978)
  • The Third Mind (1978; with Brion Gysin)
  • Three Novels: The Soft Machine / Nova Express / The Wild Boys (1980, collective edition)
  • A William Burroughs Reader (1982)
  • The Burroughs File (1984)
  • Word Virus (1984)
  • The Adding Machine (1985)
  • Interzone (1989)
    • German: Interzone. Edited by James Grauerholz. Limes, Frankfurt a. M. and Berlin 1991, ISBN 3-8090-2294-2 .

German compilations:

  • The old movies. Edited and translated by Carl Weissner. Maroverlag, Augsburg 1979, ISBN 3-87512-045-0 .
Short stories


  • They Do Not Always Remember (1968, in: Judith Merril (Ed.): SF 12 )


  • 23 Skiddoo (1969)
    • German: 23 Skiddoo. Translated by Hans Herrmann. In: Michael Kunath (Ed.): Cosmonaut 2. Privatdruck, 1981.
  • The Dead Star (1969)


  • Ali's Smile (1971)
    • German: Naked scientology. Translated by Carl Weissner. Pociao's Books (expanded media editions # 12), Bonn 2000, ISBN 3-88030-011-9 .


  • Exterminator (1972, in: Peter Haining (Ed.): The Lucifer Society: Macabre Tales by Great Modern Writers ; also: "Exterminator!" , 1973)


  • Astronaut's Return (1973, in: William S. Burroughs: Exterminator! )
  • The Coming of the Purple Better One (1973, in: William S. Burroughs: Exterminator! )
  • Davy Jones (1973, in: William S. Burroughs: Exterminator! )
  • The Discipline of DE (1973, in: William S. Burroughs: Exterminator! )
  • The Drums of Death (1973, in: William S. Burroughs: Exterminator! )
  • Electricals (1973, in: William S. Burroughs: Exterminator! )
  • The End (1973, in: William S. Burroughs: Exterminator! )
  • End of the Line (1973, in: William S. Burroughs: Exterminator! )
  • Friends (1973, in: William S. Burroughs: Exterminator! )
  • From Here to Eternity (1973, in: William S. Burroughs: Exterminator! )
  • "Johnny 23" (1973, in: William S. Burroughs: Exterminator! )
  • The Lemon Kid (1973, in: William S. Burroughs: Exterminator! )
  • My Face (1973, in: William S. Burroughs: Exterminator! )
  • "My Legs Señor" (1973, in: William S. Burroughs: Exterminator! )
  • Old Movie (1973, in: William S. Burroughs: Exterminator! )
  • The Perfect Servant (1973, in: William S. Burroughs: Exterminator! )
  • The "Priest" They Called Him (1973, in: William S. Burroughs: Exterminator! )
  • Reddies (1973, in: William S. Burroughs: Exterminator! )
  • Seeing Red (1973, in: William S. Burroughs: Exterminator! )
  • Short Trip Home (1973, in: William S. Burroughs: Exterminator! )
  • Sput (1973, in: William S. Burroughs: Exterminator! )
  • The Teacher (1973, in: William S. Burroughs: Exterminator! )
  • Twilight's Last Gleamings (1973, in: William S. Burroughs: Exterminator! )
  • “What Washington? What Orders? " (1973, in: William S. Burroughs: Exterminator! )
  • Wind Die. You Die. We Die. (1973, in: William S. Burroughs: Exterminator!; Also: Wind Die You Die We Die , 1995)


  • White Subway (1974)


  • Blade Runner: A Movie (1979)
    • English: Blade runner: Ein Film. Translated by Udo Breger. Eco-Verlag (Literatheke # 2), Zurich 1980, ISBN 3-85637-034-X .


  • The Cat Inside (1986)
    • German: The Cat Inside. Translated by Esther Breger and Udo Breger. Druckhaus Galrev, Berlin 1994, ISBN 3-910161-57-X .


  • The Ghost Lemurs of Madagascar (in: Omni, April 1987 )


  • Ruski (1988)
    • German: Ruski. Translated by Joachim Körber . In: Ellen Datlow (Ed.): The great reading book of fantastic cat stories. Goldmann Fantasy # 24963, 2001, ISBN 3-442-24963-5 .


  • An Advertising Short for Television (1989, in: William S. Burroughs: Interzone )
  • Antonio the Portuguese Mooch (1989, in: William S. Burroughs: Interzone )
  • The Conspiracy (1989, in: William S. Burroughs: Interzone )
  • Displaced Fuzz (1989, in: William S. Burroughs: Interzone )
  • The Dream Cops (1989, in: William S. Burroughs: Interzone )
  • Dream of the Penal Colony (1989, in: William S. Burroughs: Interzone )
  • Driving Lesson (1989, in: William S. Burroughs: Interzone )
  • The Finger (1989, in: William S. Burroughs: Interzone )
  • Ginsberg Notes (1989, in: William S. Burroughs: Interzone )
  • International Zone (1989, in: William S. Burroughs: Interzone )
  • In the Café Central (1989, in: William S. Burroughs: Interzone )
  • Iron Wrack Dream (1989, in: William S. Burroughs: Interzone )
  • The Junky's Christmas (1989, in: William S. Burroughs: Interzone )
  • Lee and the Boys (1989, in: William S. Burroughs: Interzone )
  • Lee's Journals (1989, in: William S. Burroughs: Interzone )
  • Spare Ass Annie (1989, in: William S. Burroughs: Interzone )
  • Word (1989, in: William S. Burroughs: Interzone )
  • The CIA Register (1989, in: Rudy Rucker , Peter Lamborn Wilson and Robert Anton Wilson (Eds.): Semiotext [e] SF )
  • The New Boy (1989, in: Rudy Rucker, Peter Lamborn Wilson and Robert Anton Wilson (Eds.): Semiotext [e] SF )


  • Ghost of Chance (1991)
    • German: Ghost of Chance. Translated by Manfred Gillig-Degrave. Hannibal, Höfen 2003, ISBN 3-85445-233-0 .
  • The Seven Deadly Sins (1991)


  • Death Fiend Guerillas (1993, in: Richard Gilliam, Martin H. Greenberg and Edward E. Kramer (Eds.): Confederacy of the Dead )


  • Crab Nebula (1997, in: Fred G. Leebron, Paula Geyh and Andrew Levy (Eds.): Postmodern American Fiction )


  • Naked Lunch (Outtakes) (2001, in: William S. Burroughs: Naked Lunch )


  • Chapter Twenty-Eight of the Original "Junk" Manuscript (2012, in: William S. Burroughs: Junky: The Definitive Text of "Junk" )


  • The Finger (2018)
Letters, interviews and autobiographies
  • The Yage Letters (1963; with Allen Ginsberg )
    • English: In Search of Yage: An Exchange of Letters. Translated by Katharina Behrens and Peter Behrens. Limes Verlag, Wiesbaden 1964, DNB 450717739 .
  • Electronic Revolution (Essays, 1971)
    • German: The electronic revolution. Burroughs. Translated by Carl Weissner . Expanded Media Editions, Göttingen 1972, DNB 750332816 .
  • Snack (1975; with Eric Mottram)
  • The Retreat Diaries (1976)
    • German: Between midnight and morning: A dream diary. Sphinx-Verlag (Sphinx pocket # 5), Basel 1980, DNB 801081319 .
  • Burroughs Live (1977)
  • Letters to Allen Ginsberg, 1953–1957 (1981)
    • German: Homo. Letters to Allen Ginsberg 1953-1957. Edited and translated by Carl Weissner. Two thousand and one, Frankfurt am Main 1989, DNB 891364226 .
  • The Job (1982; with Daniel Odier )
    • German: The job. Interview with William S. Burroughs by Daniel Odier. Translated by Hans Hermann. Kiepenheuer and Witsch, Cologne 1973, ISBN 3-462-00911-7 .
  • The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1984)
    • German: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Transcript of a lecture on the occasion of the "1984 Planet Earth Conference" organized by the Institute of Ecotechnics in Aix-en-Provence. Illustrations by Christof Kohlhöfer. Translated by Udo Breger. eme, ISBN 978-3-88030-027-9 .
  • Burroughs (1988)
  • My Education (1989)
  • Last Words (1990)
  • With William Burroughs (1991; with Victor Bockris )
    • German: Report from the bunker: interviews, discussions and thoughts. Translated by Udo Breger and Esther Breger. Ullstein # 31208, Berlin 1998, ISBN 3-548-31208-X .
  • Collected Interviews of William S. Burroughs (1993)
  • The Letters of William S. Burroughs (1993)
  • Conversations with William Burroughs (1995)
  • A Burroughs Compendium (1998)
  • Call Me Burroughs (1998)
  • Everything Lost (2007)
  • Evil River (2007)
  • Rub Out the Words (2012)
Sound carrier
  • Call Me Burroughs (1965)
  • Nothing Here Now But The Recordings (1981)
  • Break Through In Gray Room (1986)
  • Seven Souls together with the band Material (1989, Virgin Records)
  • Dead City Radio (1990, Island Records)
  • 'The Priest' They Called Him (1992; with Kurt Cobain )
  • Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales with The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (1993, Island Records)
  • Junky - Complete Reading by the Author (1997 [publ.], Penguin Audio Books)
  • Last words: qui vivre verra (1999, Sans Soleil) ( ISBN 3-88030-039-9 )
  • Burroughs discusses “dream” with Gerard Malanga in New York , NY 1974 (1999, Sub Rosa)




  • 1976: Underground and Emigrants , Rosa von Praunheim
  • 1983: Burroughs , Howard Brookner, 86 min.
  • 1984: Decoder , director: Muscha
  • 1999: William S. Burroughs , Jean-François Vallee, 52 min.
  • 2010: William S. Burroughs: A Man Within , directed and written by Yony ​​Leyser .

Web links

Commons : William S. Burroughs  - Collection of Images, Videos, and Audio Files

Individual evidence

  1. MILES, Barry: Call Me Burroughs. A Life, New York, Boston, 2015, pp. 12, 486
  2. HIBBARD, Allen [ed.]: Conversations with William S. Burroughs, pp. 120f. Google Books Link
  3. Barry Miles , William Burroughs. El Hombre Invisibile , Virgin Books, New York 1992, pp. 52f
  4. Michael Köhler (Ed.): Burroughs. A picture biography. Text by Carl Weissner . Nishen, Berlin 1994, p. 53 ff.
  5. ^ Toby Elias: Burroughs, William S. In: Peter Knight: (Ed.): Conspiracy Theories in American History. To Encyclopedia . ABC Clio, Santa Barbara, Denver and London 2003, Vol. 1, p. 148.
  6. ^ Peter Bürger, Theory Of The Avant-Garde . Minneapolis, 1984.
  7. Jameson, Fredric, Reification And Utopia In Mass Culture . Cambridge, 1979
  8. ^ Rolling Stone # 108, May 11, 1972
  9. Stern, 13/1987
  10. ^ Members: William S. Burroughs. American Academy of Arts and Letters, accessed February 19, 2019 .
  11. ^ Lodge, David, Modern Criticism And Theory . London, 1988. ISBN 0-582-01598-7
  12. ^ Charters, Ann, Introduction to the 1991 Penguin edition of Jack Kerouac's novel "On The Road" . London, 1991. ISBN 0-14-018521-6
  13. Lauter, Paul, American Literature . Lexington, 1994. ISBN 0-669-32972-X
  14. ^ William S. Burroughs ( Memento of August 26, 2007 in the Internet Archive ) - information on the documentation from 1999.
  15. ^ William S. Burroughs: A Man Within - Information about the film (English).
  16. ^ William S. Burroughs: A Man Within - information about the film on the German IMDb.