william s. burroughs was born february 5, 1914, and would have been 96 years old today. he died 13 years ago, at the age of 83, on august 2, 1997. allen ginsberg, his lifelong friend, died just four months earlier, on april 5, 1997. burroughs, ginsberg, and jack kerouac were the core trio of group of writers that eventually blossomed into the beat generation. interestingly, burroughs was the least inclined to write among the three.
while kerouac and ginsberg were fiercely driven to become writers, burroughs route was almost accidental. it wasn't until the early 1950's that he took up the "profession" of writing - and even then, reluctantly! in the mid-40's he had actually co-authored "and the hippos were boiled in their tanks" - a thinly disguised retelling of the murder of david kammerer by lucien carr. he and kerouac alternated writing a chapter of the story each.
notably, burroughs and kerouac were both participants, albeit on the periphery, in the grisly tale (kerouac even spending time in jail as a "material" witness). the short, early work, was never published during the lifetime of either kerouac or burroughs. eventually, more than a decade after burrough's death, the manuscript was finally published (in 2008). but that taste of murder was just a mild foreboding of what was to come.
while living in mexico city in 1951, burroughs shot and killed his common law wife, joan vollmer, during a drunken game of william tell! eventually, burroughs jumped bail, left mexico, and began his career as a "literary outlaw" - a term coined by ted morgan for his biography. in late 1954 burroughs eventually settled in tangiers where "naked lunch" came to be "written" - or just as accurately, "assembled," from the pages and pages of manuscript typed up by kerouac and ginsberg!
in the late 50's burroughs moved to paris and took up residence at the beat hotel. among the characters that populated the hotel (aside from ginsberg) was gregory corso, who - while younger than burroughs, ginsberg, and kerouac - became a core member of the beat generation. it was at the beat hotel that burroughs moved away from traditional narrative and adopted the "cut-up" technique (what some consider a primary cause for the criticism that his work during this period was "unreadable").
but, during the 1970's burrough's had become sufficiently "mainstream" that he was elected to the american academy and institute of arts and letters - no small accomplishment for a literary outlaw. his place in american culture was securely established by then (walter becker and donald fagan named "steely dan" from a "naked lunch" reference). eventually, burroughs moved back to middle america, where he spent the remainder of his life in lawrence, kansas!
take the time to rent "drugstore cowboy" - where he played an aged, junkie priest. it's a small part that he fully inhabited. the film, starring matt dillon, is a classic. better still, watch the film and then read morgan's "literary outlaw" :D