Cover image for The letters of William S. Burroughs : 1945-1959
The letters of William S. Burroughs : 1945-1959
Burroughs, William S., 1914-1997.
Uniform Title:
Correspondence. Selections
Publication Information:
New York : Penguin Books, [1993]

Physical Description:
xl, 472 pages ; 24 cm
v. 1. 1945-1959.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PS3552.U75 Z48 1993 V.1 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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"These funny, filthy, and terrifically smart letters reveal him in a way that no biographer can." -- New York Newsday

Guru of the Beat generation, éminence grise of the international avant-garde, dark prophet, and blackest of satirists, William S. Burroughs has had a range of influence rivaled by few living writers. This volume of his correspondence from 1945 to 1959 vividly documents the personal and cultural history through which Burroughs developed, revealing clues to illuminate his life and keys to open up his texts. More than that, it shows how letter-writing was itself integral to his life and to his fiction.

Beginning as surprisingly formal notes from the road to his friends Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, the letters deepen in substance and style. Then, in Tangier, comes a dramatic shift in voice and vision and the explosive, distinctive letters that will become Naked Lunch . Letters were lifelines for Burroughs, the outcast; and works-in-progress for Burroughs, the writer; and, they track his turbulent journey across two decades and three continents. To read them as they were written is to experience a unique merging of life and letters, the extraordinary story of Williams S. Burroughs homme de lettres .

"Unrelenting impact." -- Los Angeles Reader

Author Notes

From hipster to so-called Godfather of Punk, William Burroughs has lived a controversial life as a leading member of the Beat Generation and a daring writer of psychedelic literary experiments, but, when he reached his seventieth birthday in 1984, it was almost as if he had been overtaken by respectability.

Burroughs was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1914 as the grandson of the man who invented the adding machine and a descendant of Robert E. Lee of Civil War fame. He attended Harvard University. Later while living a bohemian life in association with such Beat writers as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, Burroughs became addicted to morphine and under the pseudonym William Lee published his first novel, Junkie, in 1953 as half of an Ace Double Books paperback. The novel escaped critical notice but may be seen now as the forerunner of his later fiction with its introduction of many of the themes, settings, characters, and amoral postures that became prominent with Naked Lunch (1959) and its successors. Refused by the American publishers to whom Burroughs submitted the manuscript, Naked Lunch first appeared in Paris under the Olympia Press imprint in 1959, the same year that Burroughs was permanently cured of his addiction. Naked Lunch might have remained ignored had not Mary McCarthy and Norman Mailer called attention to the work at the International Writers Conference held in Edinburgh in 1962.

Burroughs's raw subject matter and seeming lack of discipline have alienated some of the more academic and genteel literary critics. Naked Lunch was followed by three additional novels about the Nova crime syndicate-The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1964), which make use of overlapping characters and motifs.

With The Wild Boys of 1971, Burroughs began to develop a new style more accessible to the general reader. Although Cities of the Red Night (1981) received mixed reviews, it was praised by such Burroughs experts as Jennie Skerl and Robert Burkholder as perhaps the best of his more recent novels. Of The Place of Dead Roads (1983) is true to Burroughs's various obsessions with guns, homosexuality, and the terror produced by people who are addicted to power and control.

Today much of the psychedelic effect of Burroughs's fiction appears to be an illusion that masks rather deliberate methods of composition. These include "cut-out" techniques, pastiche, and the deliberate trying-out of styles derived from popular fiction genres to create literary montages that owe as much to fantasy and science as to the surrealism of avant-garde literature.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

180 letters dispatched from his self-imposed exile in East Texas, Mexico City and Tangiers chronicle Burroughs's early development as a writer. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved