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".

Tomorrow

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

News
Sir David Attenborough
people
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

    Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

    Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

    £120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

    Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

    £70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

    £24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
    10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

    From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

    While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
    Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel: