Godfather of Beat Generation was content to live last years in Kansas

04/05/2010 12:00 AM

04/05/2010 12:01 PM

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: “To the stars through difficulties.”

William S. Burroughs, the author of “Naked Lunch,” once told a Wichita Eagle reporter that although he had lived in places around the globe, he was content in Kansas.

“All those places — Tangier, Paris, New York — I wouldn’t want to live there any longer,” Burroughs said in a 1986 interview.

Long considered the godfather of the Beat movement in American literature, Burroughs had looked at property in Florida; Boulder, Colo.; and Santa Fe, N.M. — but decided to live out his remaining years in Lawrence.

The other places, Burroughs said, were too expensive. Boulder, he claimed had “cheesy mountains.”

And New York — where people recognized him and demanded attention — was out of the question.

“The thing I like about Kansas is that it’s not nearly as violent, and it’s a helluva lot cheaper. And I can get out in the country and fish and shoot and whatnot.”

“Naked Lunch” was published in 1959 and it was both immediately praised and reviled. It prompted an obscenity trial because of its violence and explicit sex.

Burroughs was praised for his innovative writing style, a technique that combined writing in a stream-of-consciousness style with random words. He called it cut-ups.

Taking a piece of paper he’d written on, he’d then take scissors to it, pasting and putting the pieces back together in random order, creating new words and meaning.

His friends and peers were Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

Burroughs was born in St. Louis in 1914. He was the grandson and namesake of the inventor of the adding machine.

He grew up in St. Louis and attended a prep school in Los Alamos, N.M. Burroughs then received his bachelor’s degree in English from Harvard University.

While in college, Burroughs spent his summers working as a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He also traveled frequently to New York City, where he became involved in gay subculture. In 1942, Burroughs enlisted in the U.S. Army but was later discharged on a civilian disability. In the next 15 years, Burroughs developed a heroin addiction. He moved frequently, living in Texas, New Orleans, Mexico, South America, Paris and London.

He had a common-law marriage with Joan Vollmer — the only woman, he later said, with whom he developed a serious relationship.

But in 1951, he killed her. It followed a spree of drinking and drugs. He was at a party and attempted to shoot a glass off his wife’s head but, instead, shot her in the head, killing her instantly.

He fled from Mexico, where the shooting occurred, living in London, then New York.

Burroughs later wrote that the accidental shooting caused him to become a serious writer.

In each of his works, drugs, homosexuality and death were common themes.

Norman Mailer wrote about Burroughs that he “may conceivably be possessed by genius.”

As he became more widely known, his work influenced artists and musicians such as David Bowie, Patti Smith, Kurt Cobain and U2.

He became an iconic symbol of the 20th century. His photo is among those on the cover of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” He’s on the second row from the top, next to Marilyn Monroe and Mahavatar Babaji.

In 1981, Burroughs moved to Lawrence. He died Aug. 2, 1997, in Lawrence.

At his funeral, a University of Kansas faculty member said of his friend:

“The world would not be what it is today had ‘Naked Lunch’ not been written, or had the censors succeeded in suppressing it. . . . He stood for freedom for everyone — not, for example, just for the polite homosexuals who could mix easily in elite academic company, but for the drag queens and the hard-core leather-and-chains crowd as well. He challenged our mores and our conditioning to the core.”

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