St. Louis, Mo.
William S. Burroughs home
4664 Pershing Avenue
Author William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) was born on this quiet, tree-lined street, and the large, 3-story house belonging to his family is still standing. Burroughs’ family was wealthy: in 1885, Burroughs’ grandfather had invented the adding machine.
Young Burroughs began writing at age 8, and his first effort was a 10-page “novel” entitled “The Autobiography of a Wolf.” From then on, he wanted to be a writer, and penned everything from westerns to adventure stories to horror. As a teenager, he became obsessed with true crime and began writing detective and gangster fiction.
It was also in his teens that he first experimented with drugs (he later became addicted to heroin), and formed a romantic attachment with another boy at his boarding school. Drug addiction and homosexuality would become the primary themes of his adult fiction. Living off a monthly stipend from his family, he moved to New York City, where he and pals Jack Kerouac (above, right, with Burroughs) and Allen Ginsberg formed the core of the Beat Movement.
After Burroughs was arrested for possession of narcotics, he tried to start a new, drug-free life as a cotton farmer in Texas. But he was on and off junk and in and out of rehab, and when he was arrested a second time, he and his wife, Joan, decided to relocate to Mexico. There, in 1951, he accidentally shot and killed Joan during a drunken game of “William Tell.” He lived much of the rest of his life in self-imposed exile in Europe and Tangiers.
Burroughs later claimed that his wife’s tragic death “motivated and formulated” his writing, but Kerouac and Ginsberg – who considered him a genius – were instrumental in spurring him on. Ginsberg (Burroughs’ occasional fuck buddy) helped get his first novel, Junkie (1953) published. Burroughs’ most famous novel was Naked Lunch (1959), a title suggested by Kerouac. It was a surrealistic account of an addict’s life, which was banned in Boston and was at the center of a famous censorship trial.
In all of his work, Burroughs drew on the genres that had fascinated him as a child writer in St. Louis and transformed them, creating his own distinctive and subversive brand of literature.