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Burroughs: No ordinary life: from petit bourgeois to Beat hipster

For a man who became the signifier of all that was terminally hip William Burroughs, born in February 1914, had an upbringing which was mundane, relatively affluent, remorselessly anonymous.

His paternal grandfather was the inventor of the adding machine, his father worked for the Burroughs Corporation, before starting his own plate glass company in St Louis. His mother ran a crafts shop and between them were able to give their son an allowance of $200 a month, until 1960 when he published Naked Lunch. St Louis was a deeply conservative society, his parents petit bourgeois, but there is little to suggest the kind of angst-ridden life which makes tortured souls and tortuous writing.

Nonetheless, aged eleven, he wrote of a school boy who "could not dance, play games, or make light conversation. He was painfully shy. His face was scarred with festering spiritual wounds, and there was no youth in it."

What emerges is a classic portrait of the artist as outsider, a consummate composite of anomic misreadings and wilful alienation.

Two events changed his life. One, a friendship with a contemporary Kells Elvins, which awoke his sexual feelings and the other a book. You Can't Win, by Jack Black, a memoir of a petty criminal offered the 13-year-old Burroughs a glimpse of a society on the margins. It was a moment when his inner world was articulated by someone else's vision.

It was at his next school, the Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico, that he had his first experiment in drugs an encounter with chloral hydrate which had him taken home by the school nurse with a stern letter from the headmaster saying he felt Burroughs would "not try anything like it again".

He managed to graduate to Harvard where he left no impression at all. He joined no fraternities, no clubs, played no sports and had few friends.

He embarked on his tour of Europe and the brief marriage of convenience and returned to Harvard where he started to write. His first piece, a satire on the sinking of the Titanic was rejected by Esquire magazine as being "Too screwy and not effectively so for us".


'There is an end of the world feeling in Tangier... Scotch and sex, opiates sold across the counter. Something sinister in complete laissez- faire'