Cover image for Last words : the final journals of William S. Burroughs
Last words : the final journals of William S. Burroughs
Burroughs, William S., 1914-1997.
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Grove Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
xx, 273 pages : illustrations ; 20 cm
Added Author:
Format :


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PS3552.U75 Z468 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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The purest, most personal work ever presented by William S. Burroughs, and a poignant portrait of the man, his life, and his creative process--one that never quit, even in the shadow of death. Excerpted in "The New Yorker."

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 3

Booklist Review

With the 1997 deaths of Burroughs and Ginsberg, the beats are almost all gone. But, bearing in mind the posthumous prolificacy of Jack Kerouac, keep some shelves open for the other beats' leavings and variorums, beginning with these books. Before his death, Burroughs kept a more or less daily log of his obsessions more than his daily doings. Last Words repetitively rambles on about the war on drugs (Burroughs loathed it), the Big Lie (by the powerful to keep themselves in power), and death, especially the passings of Timothy Leary, Ginsberg, and the cats that became the great objects of Burroughs' affection during his last years. Those who can conjure Burroughs' dry Missouri-twanging speaking voice and who value the black slapstick comedy of the alternative world he continued to reveal in these jottings will most enjoy them. Readers less acquainted with Burroughs should first sample Allen Hibbard's collection of interviews with Burroughs, most of them gathered from journals both famous and obscure. Burroughs was always a cooperative subject, always himself--iconoclastic, anarchic, gentlemanly, erudite, and cranky all at once--and always laugh-aloud funny. Especially delightful and outreis a joint interview of Burroughs and macabre-film director David Cronenberg. Ginsberg had a retrospective of his prose under way but not complete when he died. Editor Morgan says Ginsberg would have added more reprinted and new work, but he presents only the text Ginsberg had prepared. Arranged in sections on politics, drugs, spirituality, censorship, autobiography, the beats generally, contemporary American writers Ginsberg admired, and other writers and artists, it is splendidly browseable. Although his stylistic peculiarities and constant self-reference (done not because he was egoistic but because he was careful to speak of what he personally experienced and felt) can become tiresome, Ginsberg was perspicacious, merciful, and just. Those qualities enlighten this book and make it more immediately approachable than much of his verse. --Ray Olson

Publisher's Weekly Review

Perhaps the last-ever fix for devoted fans of Junky, Interzone and Naked Lunch, these pages trace the meditations, amusements, memories and obsessions of the noted Beat author, wit, actor and substance abuser during his last year of life (1996-1997). Like many other writers' journals, this one mixes lengthy plot outlines, anecdotes and arguments with much briefer drifting thoughts and images. Burroughs considers his old age with a mix of wry humor, scattershot rancor and intimate rue: "Yes, where are the snows of yesterday. And the speedballs I useta know?" Clear throughout is Burroughs's real feeling for cats, several of which he kept; the very first page laments the death, by car, of Calico ("Cat was part of me"). Another oft-repeated theme is the "Evil of the Drug War, the War Against Drugs." Burroughs's brief, violent fantasies seem sad compensations for his increasing powerlessness. Elsewhere, his technique of associations continues to unearth memorably gloomy bizarrerie: January 31, 1997, brings "a hill of `snirt' in Dakota, where folks can quick-freeze and shatter like icicles when they go out for the mail. `Snirt' is a thing of the spring. If you make it through the cabin fever to the `snirt.' Winner take `snirt.'" A final entry resurrects "What I feel for my cats, present and past," then asks, "Love? What is It? Most natural painkiller what there is." The volume's fragmentary and personal nature will make it precious to all Burroughs devotees; its patches of wit and pathos, though real, may not be enough to endear it to other readers. Burroughs's friend Grauerholz, who edited the volume, supplies a compassionate introduction; an appendix glosses references and names. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

These two books reveal the breadth of Burroughs's preoccupations and literary appeal. His last journal contains 168 entries and spans from November 1996 to three days before his death in July 1997. In it, he returns to well-worn themes like the rise of the police state, the pernicious effects of U.S. narcotics laws, and the superiority of cats over humans. Although he was in fairly good health as he was writing, his thoughts also turned frequently to death--no surprise given the recent loss of old friends like Herbert Huncke, Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, and Calico, his favorite cat, who died four days before the journal opens. The book is sprinkled with allusions to literary figures ranging from Shakespeare to Walter de la Mare to Mario Puzzo. The Burroughs we encounter here may have lost some of his gleam, but he has not yet turned to rust. For all serious literary collections. In the latest installment of Mississippi's "Literary Conversation" series, Hibbard (English, Middle Tennessee State Univ.) collects 22 interviews spanning 35 years. They range from a playful piece by Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, first published in the Journal for the Protection of All Beings (1961), to "Grandpa from Hell," an interview that appeared in the L.A. Weekly in 1996. Sources for the interviews include Esquire, Penthouse, and Rolling Stone as well as scholarly journals like Modern Language Studies--a diversity that reflects Burroughs's status as both a serious literary figure and a popular icon. Like most collections of interviews, Hibbard's contains a good deal of repetition, but his chronological arrangement provides a clear window into Burroughs's changing consciousness over half a lifetime. For public and academic libraries.--William Gargan, Brooklyn Coll. Lib., CUNY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.