William Seward Burroughs II (/ˈbʌroʊz/; February 5, 1914 – August 2, 1997) was an American writer. Burroughs was a primary figure of the Beat Generation and a major postmodernist author whose influence is considered to have affected a range of popular culture as well as literature. Burroughs wrote eighteen novels and novellas, six collections of short stories and four collections of essays. Five books have been published of his interviews and correspondences. He also collaborated on projects and recordings with numerous performers and musicians, and made many appearances in films. He was also briefly known by the pen name William Lee.
He was born into a wealthy family in St. Louis, Missouri, grandson of the inventor and founder of the Burroughs Corporation, William Seward Burroughs I, and nephew of public relations manager Ivy Lee. Burroughs began writing essays and journals in early adolescence, but did not begin publicizing his writing until his thirties. He left home in 1932 to attend Harvard University, studied English, and anthropology as a postgraduate, and later attended medical school in Vienna. In 1942 Burroughs enlisted in the U.S. Army to serve during World War II, but was turned down by the Office of Strategic Services and Navy, after which he picked up the drug addiction that affected him for the rest of his life, while working a variety of jobs. In 1943, while living in New York City, he befriended Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and out of their mutual influence grew the foundation of the Beat Generation, which was later a defining influence on the 1960s counterculture.
Much of Burroughs’s work is semi-autobiographical, primarily drawn from his experiences as a heroin addict, as he lived throughout Mexico City, London, Paris and Tangier in Morocco, as well as from his travels in the South American Amazon. Burroughs accidentally killed his second wife, Joan Vollmer, in 1951 in Mexico City with a pistol during a drunken “William Tell” game; he was consequently convicted of manslaughter. Burroughs found success with his confessional first novel, Junkie (1953), but he is perhaps best known for his third novel Naked Lunch (1959), a highly controversial work that was the subject of a court case after it was challenged as being in violation of the U.S. sodomy laws. With Brion Gysin, he also popularized the literary cut-up technique in works such as The Nova Trilogy (1961–1964).
Drug addict, homosexual, anti-government freedom fighter, William Seward Burroughs: