Along with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs (1914––97) is an iconic figure of the Beat generation. In William S. Burroughs, Phil Baker investigates this cult writer’s life and work—from small-town Kansas to New York in the ’40s, Mexico and the South American jungle, to Tangier and the writing of Naked Lunch, to Paris and the Beat Hotel, and ’60s London—alongside Burrough’s self-portrayal as an explorer of inner space, reporting back from the frontiers of experience.
After accidentally shooting his wife in 1951, Burroughs felt his destiny as a writer was bound up with a struggle to come to terms with the “Ugly Spirit” that had possessed him. In this fascinating biography, Baker explores how Burroughs’s early absorption in psychoanalysis shifted through Scientology, demonology, and Native American mysticism, eventually leading Burroughs to believe that he lived in an increasingly magical universe, where he sent curses and operated a “wishing machine.” His lifelong preoccupation with freedom and its opposites—forms of control or addiction—coupled with the globally paranoid vision of his work can be seen to evolve into a larger ecological concern, exemplified in his idea of a divide between decent people or “Johnsons” and those who impose themselves upon others, wrecking the planet in the process.
Drawing on newly available material, and rooted in Burroughs’s vulnerable emotional life and seminal friendships, this insightful and revealing study provides a powerful and lucid account of his career and significance.