William S. Burroughs

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A novelist, autobiographer and commentator, Burroughs is frequently mentioned as a member of the Beat Generation, a group of friends and writers including Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, and Gary Snyder.

Born into a prominent family in St. Louis in 1914, Burroughs was a graduate of Harvard who dropped out of a doctoral program in anthropology to take up work as a bartender in New York city. It was in this period that he first became acquainted with Ginsburg and Kerouac, undergraduate students at Columbia University. He also became addicted to heroin, a problem that lasted on and off for the rest of his life.

From New York, Burroughs began a restless series of moves, some prompted by legal problems: to Texas, Mexico City, where in 1951, he accidentally shot and killed his wife Joan; Panama and South America, for longer periods in Morocco, Paris and London, returning to New York in the 1970's, and finally retiring to Lawrence, Kansas in the 1980's.

Burroughs' first book, Junkie, explored his own life as an addict with considerably more detail and honesty than 1950's America could absorb. His next book, Naked Lunch, began as a series of drug-induced hallucinations transcribed and organized by Ginsburg and Kerouac. It is a work of immense satirical power, but not one for the faint of heart. It was banned in Massachusetts as obscene in the late 1950's, a ruling not overturned until 1966. Burroughs' third book, Queer, drawn in part from materials cut from Naked Lunch, broke ground in its treatment of Burroughs' homosexuality.

After Queer, Burroughs began a series of formal experiments with language that yielded varying results. He was particularly interested in the method of "cut-up," in which passages of writing are clipped apart and rearranged in a kind of literary mosaic. Despite this departure into formalism, however--and despite Burroughs' admittedly reactionary-libertarian politics--he remained a sharp social commentator and mentor to two generations of avant-garde artists until his death in 1997.

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