Finding-Aid for the William S. Burroughs Collection (VMF234)

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Biographical Note

William Seward Burroughs II (February 5, 1914 – August 2, 1997) was an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, painter, and spoken word performer. A primary figure of the Beat Generation and a major postmodernist author, Burroughs wrote eighteen novels and novellas, six collections of short stories and four collections of essays. Five books have been published of his interviews and correspondences. He also collaborated on projects and recordings with numerous performers and musicians, and made many appearances in films.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Burroughs began writing essays and journals in early adolescence. He left home in 1932 to attend Harvard University, studied English, and anthropology as a postgraduate, and later attended medical school in Vienna. After being turned down by the Office of Strategic Services and U.S. Navy in 1942 to serve in World War II, he dropped out and became afflicted with the drug addiction that affected him for the rest of his life, while working a variety of jobs. In 1943 while living in New York City, he befriended Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, the mutually influential foundation of what became the countercultural movement of the Beat Generation.

Much of Burroughs's work is semi-autobiographical, primarily drawn from his experiences as a heroin addict, as he lived throughout Mexico City, London, Paris, Berlin, the South American Amazon and Tangier in Morocco. Finding success with his confessional first novel, Junkie (1953), Burroughs is perhaps best known for his third novel Naked Lunch (1959), a controversy-fraught work that underwent a court case under the U.S. sodomy laws. With Brion Gysin, he also popularized the literary cut-up technique in works such as The Nova Trilogy (1961–64). In 1983, Burroughs was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Scope and Contents Note

A pair of Burroughs' "automatic drawings" from the cycle of Surrealistic experiments he created in Paris while his 1959 novel Naked Lunch was being prepared for publication. Inspired to try his hand at visual pieces by the artist Brion Gysin—who was assisting Burroughs in the organization of the book, and would later become a long-time collaborator—the drawings arrange loose circular spirals and diagonal scrawls, respectively, in rows and columns over the entirety of each page, and echo much of the grid-like work Gysin had been producing in oil at the time.

"Automatic drawing," where the hand is freed of rational control and allowed to move randomly across the paper, was seen by the Surrealists as a means of expressing the subconscious, an area of particular interest to Burroughs. Pulling his sketches from the same dream imagery that fuelled his writing, Burroughs originally intended the drawings to illustrate Naked Lunch, as he explained in two consecutive 1959 letters to Alan Ginsberg:

"I am enclosing some of the illustrations I have done for Naked Lunch... This is completely unconscious drawing and I do not know what it is until I look at it later, but it is usually associated with what I am writing in very definite way."

"All this in the drawings which are completely automatic — When I describe in writing it is nowhere—And the drawings are giving out—It might be possible to put out selections from Naked Lunch—half text, half drawings."

However, Maurice Girodias, proprietor of the Olympia Press and the original publisher of Naked Lunch, was not interested in an illustrated volume, and while he did utilize one of the series for the dust-jacket, he declined to include any of Burroughs' other pieces within the book itself. Burroughs, aided by Ginsberg, later pursued publishing the drawings alongside corresponding texts in the United States, but was unsuccessful, and he subsequently filed the works away, where they remained unseen for the next forty years.

4to.; blue ballpoint and black ink; rectos only

Description by Glenn Horowitz Booksellers, Inc



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