He was the oldest of the major Beat Generation writers. That’s why William S. Burroughs is today the first Beat writer to celebrate a centennial.
Burroughs was born on February 5, 1914. He arrived on this planet the same year as the First World War.
Some people don’t call Burroughs a Beat writer, because they prefer to think of him as a postmodern experimentalist, or a psychic investigator, or a political activist. He was those things too, but of course he was a Beat writer.
Like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, William S. Burroughs was a wordsmith of torrential power. He was a great intellectual, and he inspired the other Beat writers to become more intellectual. He impressed young Allen Ginsberg by his deft ability to quote Shakespeare. His best writings sparkle with literary clarity, style and confidence, though many of his texts are also unreadable. Burroughs was erudition on drugs.
One of William’s greatest talents was literary mimicry. He was particularly good at hard-boiled detective noir-speak, which he dropped unpredictably into works like Junky and Naked Lunch. Like T. S. Eliot, his fellow cut-up artist from St. Louis, he do the police in different voices. One of my favorite examples of Burroughs’s private-eye parody is the “Bradley the Buyer” set piece from Naked Lunch, which you can read here.
The master had some highly questionable characteristics. I’m sorry that William S. Burroughs allowed himself to be defined as a happy gun nut. This would be less offensive if he hadn’t once shot his wife to death with a gun. The famous William Tell murder of Joan Vollmer Adams was most likely an accident, but I’ve really never been able to feel comfortable with the fact that Burroughs liked to show off with guns later in life. Well, he was a weird dude.
His essays were great, and when I was a young teenager I read the monthly columns he published in Crawdaddy magazine (Paul Krassner was also a columnist — quite a lineup in the mid-1970s). The first Crawdaddy essay I ever read was “The Great Glut”, which can be read in the superb collection The Adding Machine. The description of pigs fed on shit (the essay presented a horrifying dystopian vision of scatological nutrition) becoming so soft that you could puncture their skin with a fork made a big impression on me.
Burroughs was also part of a fabulous circle of freewheeling counterculture social critics who thrived in the 1960s/70s Summer of Love era, along with R. Buckminster Fuller, Ken Kesey, Hunter Thompson and Marshall McLuhan. His uncompromising libertarian but wistfully communitarian vision would have had great relevance if he were alive today, in the era of the NSA, the drone, Al Qaeda, the mall shooting of the week, Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. I wonder what he would have to say if he were around today.
Happy birthday William S. Burroughs, from all your friends at Literary Kicks!
Here’s The Burroughs Centennial Celebration, a Beat Museum event and one of several don’t-miss tribute articles at the website of one of William S. Burroughs’ best friends, the Allen Ginsberg Project (check out the great vintage Burroughs book covers here).
And finally, for old times’ sake, here’s our account of his 1997 funeral: Sliced Bardo.