Chaotic Facts About William S. Burroughs, Master Of The Obscene

Phillip Hamilton

If you’ve never read a book by William Burroughs, do yourself a favor and give one a try. Heralded as one of the most prolific, bizarre, and controversial writers of the 20th century, and the creator of the insane cut-up writing technique, Burroughs was a true one-of-a-kind artist with a vision unlike any other. Much like his works, he had a chaotic and exciting life, and he inspired countless artists of the past and present.

Intrigued? Here are 42 chaotic facts about William S. Burroughs you probably didn’t know.

1. Beat Legend

Burroughs was one of the most important members of the Beat Generation, which included many other classic authors such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Beat writers rejected standard storytelling practices and narrative, and often explored spiritualism, the human condition, and lots of drug use.

2. Mathematical

Burroughs’ grandfather, William Seward Burroughs, invented the first working adding machine!

3. Where’s my Allowance?

Burroughs received a monthly allowance from his grandfather until he was 50. His grandfather sold and made business equipment, and was quite wealthy from doing so. This left Burroughs very well off for his whole life.

4. A Quick Marriage

After graduating from Harvard, Burroughs met a girl named Ilse Klapper in Europe. He married her, but not because they were in love or anything. Once they got to the US, the two separated. It was all just to get Ilse into the country.

5. Epic Crossover

And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks is a collaborative novel written by both Jack Kerouac and Burroughs. They wrote alternating chapters. It’s a crime novel, and was finished in 1945 but not published until 2008. The novel has received mostly positive reviews since publication.

6. Life Well Lived

Despite his drug use and wild lifestyle, Burroughs lived until the age of 83. He passed of complications due to a heart attack and was buried in his private family plot. His headstone reads, “American Writer.”

7. Naked and Obscene

Naked Lunch is both Burroughs’ most popular and controversial work. The book was banned in LA and Boston and led to an obscenity trial, the last one ever held in the United States.

8. That’s What a Steely Dan is?

The famous jazz-rock band Steely Dan took their name from Naked Lunch. In the novel, the Steely Dan III is a revolutionary steam-powered, ahem, adult toy.

9. Baring it all

Burroughs’ first published book was a semi-autobiographical story named Junkie. The book was written under the pseudonym William Lee, and describes his different experiences as a heroin addict.

10. Multi-Talent

While best known for his writing, Burroughs frequently dipped into other artistic avenues. He sang with R.E.M. in a version of their song “Star Me Kitten,” and also worked with Tom Waits, Frank Zappa, and Ministry on various songs. He even appears on the cover of The Beatles album Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band!

11. Cruise Approved

For a brief time, Burroughs was a part of the Church of Scientology, an infamously controversial religious organization that boasts members such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Burroughs at first embraced the religion, but later publicly blasted it as “fascist.” He even wrote an essay titled I, William Burroughs, Challenge You, L. Ron Hubbard (the founder of the movement), forcing Hubbard to defend himself.

12. Mr. Lee

In many of his books, including Naked Lunch, Burroughs names the protagonist William Lee. When he did this, it was used as a sort of wink towards the character being Burroughs himself, at least partly. Burroughs also used William Lee as a pen name when publishing Junkie.

13. A Harvard man

Burroughs was a well-educated man. He studied at Harvard as an English major, then pursued an anthropology degree post-grad. He then even went to medical school in Vienna later in life!

14. The Magical Mr. Burroughs

For his entire life, Burroughs was not only fascinated with magic, but he even practiced it. He would routinely try to curse people and conjure up visions, and believed he lived in a “magical world.” He said of his interest in magic: “From the viewpoint of magic, no death, no illness, no misfortune, accident, war, or riot is accidental. There are no accidents in the world of magic.” Sounds like a good deal.

15. Tripping in the Jungle

The Yage Letters was Burroughs’ third published book. A collaboration with fellow beat writer Allen Ginsberg, it consists mostly of letters written by the two authors as they were traveling to the rainforest searching for yage, perhaps better known as ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic plant that many believe holds and grants mystical abilities.

16. I’d Rather a Pretty Spirit

Burroughs felt that after he killed Joan, her “ugly spirit,” as he described it, began to haunt him. This went on until 1992 when he got a Sioux medicine man to get rid of it for him. Allen Ginsberg was even there to support his friend. That’s true friendship.

17. Crazy Cat Man

One of Burroughs’ last works was called The Cat Inside. It was about–you guessed it–all the cats that had been in Burroughs’ life. He was an avid cat lover. Step your game up, cat people.

18. A Struggle with Identity

Although Burroughs was married twice to women, he frequently became involved in the LGBT culture wherever he traveled and had a crush on a male schoolmate in high school. His sexuality was well known by the time Naked Lunch came around.

19. Mom, Come Pick me up…

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Burroughs enlisted to fight in the army. It turned out this wasn’t a great idea, as he was assigned to be 1-A infantry, right in the thick of the battle. He became depressed, and his mother came to the rescue. Burroughs’ mother got him a disability discharge, claiming he was not mentally stable enough to fight.

It worked, and Burroughs didn’t fight a day because of it.

20. From Harvard to Exterminator

Burroughs worked as an exterminator for part of his life, which partly inspired him to write the book of short stories Exterminator! He may have been the most highly educated exterminator to ever poison a roach!

21. Chilling with Kurt

The “Priest” They Called Him is one of the more interesting Burroughs collaborations. Released when Burroughs was 79 years old, it is a noisy recording of a story from his book Exterminator! that features Nirvana’s own Kurt Cobain playing guitar in the background.

22. Jonesing

Shortly after he became involved with drugs, Burroughs was arrested for forging a prescription. This was his first arrest—but not his last.

23. Who Needs Teachers?

Burroughs taught Creative Writing at the City College of New York for one semester before deciding to quit. He felt there was a huge lack of talent among his students and just couldn’t put up with working the job. Sounds like Burroughs to me.

24. Money Solves

You would expect Burroughs’ career to be over after killing his wife, but that wasn’t the case at all. Burroughs only spent 13 days in jail for the act, after which his brother bribed the Mexican police to let him out. He fled before the trial.

25. Clack Clack Clack

Until his death in 1997, Burroughs still used a typewriter for all of his writing.

26. Life Imitates art

Written at the same time as Junkie, Queer is considered its companion piece. It was written after the death of his wife and is about a man pursuing another man. Like many of his works, it takes highly from Burroughs’ personal life.

27. Paint-Blast

Burroughs was a gun lover and brought that part of him into his visual art. He would shoot spray paint cans with his shotgun, and they would explode onto the canvas, covering it with paint in an abstract, chaotic way.

28. Snip, Snap, Snip, Snap

Burroughs had a very interesting writing process. He invented the cut-up process, where he would slice random sentences and paragraphs from his written works and attach them in other places like a collage. This gave his work an extremely chaotic and unique style.

29. What was That?

Naked Lunch was originally to be titled “Naked Lust.” However, when Ginsberg was reading an early manuscript, he read it as “Naked Lunch,” and loved it. It stuck.

30. Not Quite Jesus

Kurt Cobain originally asked Burroughs to play the role of Jesus in their music video for “Heart Shaped Box,” but the author refused. Cobain even offered Burroughs anonymity through makeup, but it never worked out.

31. That’s Heavy Metal, Man

Burroughs coined the term “heavy metal” in his book The Soft Machine.

32. Detective Burroughs

In the 40s, Burroughs began working for a private detective agency. Unfortunately, it wasn’t what he expected, and he was basically just made a “secret shopper,” following customers in stores to make sure they didn’t steal anything.

33. Hall of Famer

The American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters recognized Burroughs’ merit to the literature world and inducted him into their institute in the 1980s.

34. For the Collectors

Burroughs’ impact on the music world is clear, and he even contributed to a spoken word album called Smack my Crack. This album is considered rare today and features many top talents including Tom Waits, Swans, Nick Cave, and the Butthole Surfers.

35. Not in Tangiers Anymore

Burroughs spent his later years in Kansas, probably a nice change of pace from the chaos of New York, Paris, Tangiers, and the other frantic cities where he spent much of his life.

36. Beats Motel

During the height of the beat generation, Burroughs, along with many other beat writers like Ginsberg and Harold Norse, lived together in a hotel nicknamed the Beat Hotel in Paris’ Latin Quarter. It was a dingy class 13 establishment. That means the only thing the hotel owners needed to do was follow minimum health and safety practices. The hotel still stands to this day and features a photo of the beat writers inside.

37. A Great Mentor

Robert Barlow was an avant-garde poet and author who committed suicide at the age of 32. He was also Burroughs’ mentor and a great friend of H.P. Lovecraft. His influence can clearly be seen in Burroughs’ works.

38. Pulling a Van Gogh

In an effort to impress a man he had a crush on, Burroughs once cut the tip of his left pinky finger off. I’m not sure why some people think this is an impressive move, but hey, I’m not here to pass judgment. He wrote about the event in his story Dead Fingers Talk.

39. The GOAT

There are few authors who sit as high as Burroughs, considered one of the most influential writers of all time. He has inspired and amazed many, from Norman Mailer to Roger Waters to David Bowie. You could even go so far as to say that the cyberpunk and new wave genres wouldn’t exist without the man.

40. Big Mistake

The darkest moment of Burroughs’ life came in 1951 when his second wife Joan Vollmer was accidentally killed by his hand in Mexico. The first story he told was that he was trying to shoot something off of her head with his gun like William Tell, and it went horribly, horribly wrong. Later, he changed his story, saying he dropped the gun and that’s what killed her. He was given a two-year suspended sentence for manslaughter. Who knows what actually happened that night.

41. Like Father Like Son

Burroughs and Vollmer had one son, William S. Burroughs Jr., who was also a writer. He wrote three novels, and much like his father, ended up with a crippling drug addiction. With the father he had, perhaps he was doomed from the start. He passed away at the age of 33 due to liver issues brought on by his addiction. His father lived to be 83.

42. There’s Been a Murder

Burroughs was once involved in the cover-up of a murder. In a now-infamous crime tale, immortalized in the film Kill Your Darlings, beat figure Lucien Carr murdered his stalker, David Kammerer. His first stop for help was Burroughs, who flushed a bloody pack of cigarettes for him and told Carr to get a lawyer. Instead, he went to Kerouac for help, and both Burroughs and Kerouac ended up arrested as witnesses.

Sources1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20

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