February 5, 2014, marks the 100th birthday of William S. Burroughs (1914-1997), the godfather of the Beats, el hombre invisible, the gentleman junkie.
Burroughs was a founding member of the Beat Generation, which paved the way for counterculture movements in the 1960s. He addressed early themes of gay liberation, deconstructed the linearity of narrative fiction, and influenced cyberpunk and punk rock. Burroughs did not achieve the instant celebrity that came to Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, but his achievements and his legacy eclipsed them both.
William S. Burroughs believed that the 1951 death of his wife Joan Vollmer by his own stray bullet “maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle in which I had no choice but to write my way out.” His innovative and experimental writing style, his insistence on confronting systems of authority and control, and his explorations with drugs, sex, magic and dreams, perception and reception, utopias and dystopias, technology, art, and the written word radically shifted the landscape of American literature and culture in the twentieth century. His landmark 1959 novel The Naked Lunch exposed and probed topics too taboo for the 1950s American psyche. His work over the next forty years would test boundaries and transcend genres with the fundamental knowledge that if “nothing is true, everything is permitted.”
Special Collections’s current exhibition, “Nothing Is True, Everything Is Permitted”: William S. Burroughs at 100 pays tribute to this most famous junkie writer, the iconoclast, and the reluctant icon. An online version can be viewed here.
Morris Library has a great collection of Burroughs’s books, including Naked Lunch, Junky, the Nova Trilogy (The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express), the Red Night Trilogy (Cities of the Red Night, The Place of Dead Roads, and The Western Lands), as well as great biographies and published letters and journals.
The Film & Video Collection in the Lower Level has several films and documentaries related to Burroughs: David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991); William S. Burroughs: A Man Within (2011); William S. Burroughs: Commissioner of Sewers (1991); Towers Open Fire and Other Films (1989); Drugstore Cowboy (1989); and Burroughs: The Movie (1985).
Norman Mailer said of Burroughs, “I think that William Burroughs is the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius.” Celebrate Burroughs’s legacy and influence as a writer, a mad prophet-philospher, an artist, and a performer with a book, a film, or come by the exhibit in Morris Library.