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William S. Burroughs Would Have Been 100 Today
February 5, 2014
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(Photo: Evening Standard/Getty Images)

William Seward Burroughs, the pioneering Beat novelist, short story writer and spoken-word performer, was born 100 years ago today, in 1914. He's probably best-known for his experimental novel Naked Lunch, which was published in 1959 and made into a movie by David Cronenberg in 1991. 

Burroughs was born in St. Louis and died at 83 in Lawrence, Kansas; in between, he spent years on the road, living in New York, London, Paris, Tangier and Mexico City. In the latter, he was famously tried and convicted in absentia for shooting and killing his common-law wife in what he maintained was an accident. In the introduction to his novel Queer, which was written in 1953 and published in 1985, Burroughs wrote: "I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would have never become a writer but for Joan’s death... [S]o the death of Joan brought me into contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I had no choice except to write my way out."

Amongst other things, Burroughs was a heroin addict. He was able to kick the habit (for a time), albeit with the help of apomorphine, an experience he wrote about in the New Statesman in 1966. Drugs were a persistent theme in his writing — indeed, his first published work, Junky, is a frightening look at the life of an addict. You can listen to Burroughs reading from the book on Ubuweb.

Burroughs was a stalwart of the Beat scene in Greenwich Village, and was close with writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, with whom he had a brief sexual relationship. In the 2013 movie Kill Your Darlings, Burroughs was played by Ben Foster alongside Daniel Radcliffe as Ginsberg. Radcliffe spoke with George about that role earlier this season:

Later in life, Burroughs became known as "The Godfather of Punk Rock," influencing musicians like Sonic Youth and Patti Smith. He also became something of a myth in his own time — a mysterious figure in American literature with plenty of skeletons in his closet.

For more on Burroughs's legacy, see this recent essay by Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker.

In 1977, Burroughs spoke with CBC's Peter Gzowski about Junky and heroin:

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