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Writer, Beat Icon Burroughs Dead at 83

Author of Naked Lunch Inspired Ginsberg, Kerouac; Created New Literary Forms


Beat Generation novelist and icon William S. Burroughs '36 died Saturday in Lawrence, Kansas of a heart attack. He was 83.

"The passing of William Burroughs leaves us with few great American writers," said Burroughs' long-time publicist Ira Silverberg. "His presence in the American literary landscape was unparalleled."

The 1959 publication of Burroughs' experimental novel Naked Lunch challenged conventional literary forms in depicting an underground world fighting a self-destructing technological society.

Written while he was living in Tangiers and first published in Paris, Naked Lunch was the subject of a precedent setting obscenity trial in the United States because of its violent and explicitly sexual content. Publishers won an appeal in Boston and the book was published in the U.S. in 1962.

His writing, which drew on such techniques as cut-ups--in which the author inserted random cutting and pasting into his own text--remained outside the mainstream, and later works never drew as much attention as Naked Lunch.

Burroughs' compulsion to write stemmed from a personal tragedy, he said in his 1982 biography. In Mexico in 1951, Burroughs--drunk and on drugs--accidentally shot and killed his wife of five years, Joan Vollmer, in an attempt to shoot a glass off her head. Burroughs served a short sentence for an involuntary manslaughter charge.

"I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing," he said in his biography:

Later in his life, Burroughs acknowledged that he was homosexual and said Vollmer was the only woman with whom he had ever had a serious relationship.

Burroughs ended 15 years of heroin addiction by taking apomorphine and went on to write his first book Junky, published in 1953, about his years as an addict.

Although critics have diverged greatly in their estimations of the literary merit of Burroughs' non-traditional work, the author was an important influence for fellow beats Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, who met Burroughs while he was living in New York in the 1940s.

In his later years, Burroughs moved to Kansas with secretary and companion James Grauerholz and began writing more conventional narratives. He also dabbled in the visual arts and appeared in several films including "Drugstore Cowboy" and "Twister" as well as a Nike commercial.

Burroughs, who was born Feb. 5, 1914 in St. Louis, Missouri, graduated the College with a degree in English. After graduation he began a period of what he would later call "aimless drifting and boredom." After being dismissed from the Army for physical reasons after only three months, he spent the early 1940s in Chicago and New York working as a private detective, bartender, exterminator and newspaper reporter.

Burroughs' and Vollmer's son, William Burroughs, died in 1981 of cirrhosis of the liver after years of drug and alcohol addiction.

--Material from the Associated Press was used in compiling this report.

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