The Letters of William S. Burroughs: 1945-1959, Volume 1

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"Guru of the Beat generation, controversial eminence grise of the international avant-garde, dark prophet and blackest of black-humor satirists, William S. Burroughs has had a range of influence rivalled by few living writers. This meticulously assembled volume of his correspondence 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, they also show how in the period 1945-1959, letter-writing was itself integral to his life and to his fiction-making. These letters reveal the extraordinary route that took Burroughs from narrative to anti-narrative, from Junky to Naked Lunch and the discovery of cut-ups, a turbulent journey crossing two decades and three continents." "The letters track the great shifts in Burroughs' crucial relationship with Allen Ginsberg, from lecturing wise man ("Watch your semantics young man") to total dependence ("Your absence causes me, at times, acute pain.") to near-estrangement ("I sometimes feel you have mixed me up with someone else doesn't live here anymore."). They show Burroughs' initial despair at the obscenity of his own letters, some of which became parts of Naked Lunch, and his gradual recognition of the work's true nature ("It's beginning to look like a modern Inferno.") They reveal the harrowing lows and ecstatic highs of his emotions, and lay bare the pain of coming to terms with a childhood trauma ("Such horror in bringing it out I was afraid my heart would stop.")." "It is a story as revealing of his fellow Beats as it is of Burroughs: he writes of Kerouac and Cassady in the midst of the journey immortalized as On the Road ("Neal is, of course, the very soul of this voyage into pure, abstract, meaningless motion."), and to Ginsberg as he was writing Howl ("I sympathize with your feelings of depression, beatness: 'We have seen the best of our time.'")." "And throughout runs the unmistakable Burroughs voice, the unique drawl that mixes the humor of the hipster and the intellect of the mandarin, as unsparingly critical of contemporary politics - "The bastards might as well tear up the Constitution" - as of his own future biographers - "And some pansy shit is going to start talking about living his art."" "And yet it is Burroughs' "living his art" that makes these letters so remarkable. For unlike most collections, this one requires and rewards chronological reading, and tells its own compelling story: As Burroughs himself saw, writing Ginsberg, "Maybe the real novel is letters to you." These letters were lifelines for Burroughs the outcast, and works-in-progress for Burroughs the writer, and to read them as they were written is to experience a unique merging of life and letters, the extraordinary true story of William S. Burroughs, homme des lettres."--BOOK JACKET.Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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THE LETTERS OF WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS: 1945-1959

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The MTV generation's idea of an outlaw-writer, Burroughs finds himself a minor/grand old man of sorts—which is why, presumably, this book. These letters were mostly to Allen Ginsberg (whom for a ... Read full review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - revD - LibraryThing

Necessary reading for the completist & scholar, but a trifle too involved in the minutiae of Burroughs' life to be of interest to the passing reader. Provides insight into the works in progress of the ... Read full review

Contents

Section 1
12
Section 2
20
Section 3
26
Copyright

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About the author (1993)

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.

Oliver Harris has an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia, in addition to degrees in English and Shakespeare studies, and recently received his PhD. His first novel, The Hollow Man, launched the Detective Nick Belsey series. He also reviews for the Times Literary Supplement. He lives in London.

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