Sunday, August 3, 1997
William S. Burroughs, the stone-faced godfather of the "Beat generation" whose experimental novel "Naked Lunch" unleashed an underground world that defied narration, died Saturday in Lawrence. He was 83.
Burroughs died at 6:50 p.m. at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, about 24 hours after suffering a heart attack, said Ira Silverberg, his longtime New York publicist.
"The passing of William Burroughs leaves us with few great American writers. His presence in the American literary landscape was unparalleled," Silverberg said.
Burroughs was often seen around town buying books and shopping for household items, but he had a community of friends who looked after him, Silverberg said. Burroughs, who grew up in St. Louis, moved here in late 1981 at the prompting of longtime friend and manager James Grauerholz.
For Burroughs, the move was a chance to escape the clamor of New York. He often went target shooting in the area, even taking the late Beat poet Allen Ginsberg on the outings.
"William was not exactly a hermit," Silverberg said. "He had many wonderful and happy years there. He had a family of friends in Lawrence."
Although his address was not publicized, word got around where Burroughs resided, and people, many of them college-age would travel to Lawrence and show up on his door step.
"I think William accepted his celebrity in perhaps the most gracious way," Silverberg said. "William loved the adoration of the people who loved his work. He respected his readers as his friends. We worked very hard to protect his privacy, but obviously, people knew he was there.
"He had a community of friends who protected that privacy, but he certainly was gracious to the people who showed up."
There will be a private funeral with memorial services in New York at a later date. Although no plans had been made by late Saturday night, Silverberg said there will probably be a memorial in Lawrence also.
Published in 1959, "The Naked Lunch" used unconventional writing techniques to depict an underground world fighting a technological society that was self destructing.
"The Naked Lunch" was both praised as literary genius and dismissed as indecipherable garbage because Burroughs wrote it without standard narrative prose, used abrupt transitions, placed the chapters in random order and wrote in a stream-of-consciousness style.
"I think the most important thing to say about William's work with the publication of 'Naked Lunch' and the work that followed, William Burroughs changed American letters," Silverberg said. "He opened up literature to the postmodern age through a combination of brutal honesty and authentic experimentation. The impact of his work will be felt forever."
The book also was the subject of a precedent-setting obscenity trial because of its violence and explicit sex. Publishers eventually won an appeal in Boston, and the book was published in the United States in 1962.
"Naked Lunch," which prompted Norman Mailer to say Burroughs was possibly the most talented writer in America, made Burroughs famous as a spokesman for the Beat generation.
Burroughs continued his unconventional style by using a technique called cut-ups in subsequent books, including "The Soft Machine" (1961), "The Ticket that Exploded" (1962), and "Nova Express" (1964). Cut-ups involved random cutting and pasting and folding into his own writing quotations from other authors, newspapers and other media.
Burroughs was an important influence on other Beat writers such as Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, who were fledging writers when they met Burroughs in New York in the 1940s.
The three are now considered the core of the Beat movement, which flourished in the 1950s by condemning middle-class life and praising individualism. Kerouac's "On the Road," Ginsberg's "Howl" and Burroughs' "The Naked Lunch," are generally considered the most important works to come out of the movement.
Burroughs, reached at his Lawrence home the day of Ginsberg's death this April, expressed sorrow at the death of his friend.
"The death of Allen Ginsberg was a profound loss. Alan and William had been friends for so many decades and the loss was a deep one," said Silverberg, who last saw Burroughs in Lawrence on July 25.
"For an 83-year-old man who has lived a very well documented life, he was in very fine shape. The heart attack came suddenly," he said.
" 'Naked Lunch' was pretty much the essence of his work," said Morris Dickstein, a professor of English at City University of New York. "It came out when writers were trying to do something new to explore the irrational side of the mind, to try and get away from conventional techniques."
Born in 1914 in St. Louis, Burroughs was the grandson and namesake of the inventor of the adding machine, but he said that his parents were not wealthy and were rejected by the city's elite.