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The Art Legend Known as William Seward Burroughs

William Seward Burroughs, or William Lee, his pen name, was an American novelist, spoken word performer, satirist, short story writer, painter, and essayist.

A key figure of the Beat Generation and an outstanding postmodernist author-master of the paranoid fiction genre, he is deemed to be one of the most politically scathing, culturally significant, and ingenious artists of the 20th century. His influence is estimated to have create a large impact on a variety of popular culture and literature as well. Burroughs authored six sets of short stories, four sets of essays, and eighteen novels and novellas. There are five books that feature his interviews and correspondences. He also teamed up on various projects with a lot of performers and musicians, including recordings, and made an appearance in a slew of films.

He was born into a prominent St.Louis, Missouri family, and was grandson to Burroughs Corporation inventor and founder, William Seward Burroughs, and nephew to public relations manager, Ivy Lee. Burroughs explored into writing journals and essays as a young adolescent, but did not publish his works until his thirties. In 1932, he left home to study at Harvard University, where he majored in English, and then anthropology as a postgraduate; and later went to Vienna to enroll in medical school. Burroughs tried enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1942 to serve during World War II, but was not accepted by the Office of Strategic Services and Navy. At that point, he began using drugs, an addiction that became a fixture in his life while experimenting with a variety of jobs. In 1943, while residing in New York City, he met and became friends with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, with whom he planted the seeds of the Beat Generation, which eventually became a defining influence on the counterculture of the 1960s.

A good chunk of Burroughs’s work is partially autobiographical, significantly inspired by his adventures as a heroin addict, as he lived and journeyed around Tangier in Morocco, Mexico City, Paris and London, and also from his trips in the South American Amazon. By accident, Burroughs killed Joan Vollmer, his second wife, in Mexico City in 1951, which led to his conviction for manslaughter. With the success of his confessional first novel, Junkie (1953), Burroughs became best known for his third novel, Naked Lunch (1959), an amply controversial book which went through a sodomy court case in America. With Brion Gysin, he also made the literary cut-up method popular in such works as The Nova Trilogy (1961-1964).

A year after Burroughs’ 1983 election to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, France awarded him the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Jack Kerouac considered Burroughs as the best satirical writer since Jonathan Swift, a reputation made by his eternal subversion of modern America’s political, economic and moral systems, conveyed in usually darkly funny sardonicism.