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UD Special Collections > Exhibitions > Burroughs at 100

The Beat Generation

Many young Americans post-World War II were left searching for purpose and identity. A subculture disillusioned with the great American mythos sought answers and new forms of expression. They were consumed by the present, with the senses, concerned with, as John Clellon Holmes said, how to live, and not with why. Influenced by jazz music, art, and Eastern thought, they looked to deconstruct the symbols and language of the new American suburban lifestyle with new images, community, forms of writing, mind-altering substances, and questioning of established authority.

Often called “the Beats Holy Trinity,” Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and William S. Burroughs’s The Naked Lunch were the defining works of Beat literature. The coverage of the Howl obscenity trial and the publication of On the Road garnered both praise and criticism from the literary elite and the media. Seen as representatives of the new generation or juvenile delinquents with dangerous ideas that threatened the status quo, the Beat writers paved the way for the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s.

Allen Ginsberg
Howl and other poems. San Francisco : City Lights Pocket Bookshop, 1956.
First edition.
From the Library of Robert A. Wilson

“Howl” debuted with Ginsberg’s dramatic reading at the Six Gallery on October 7, 1955, in San Francisco. Affirmative and rebellious, “Howl” became a Whitmanesque anthem for the Beats, capturing the generation’s song of protest, yearning, and change.

In 1957, copies of Howl were seized by United States Customs en route from its London printer. Both Lawrence Ferlinghetti and City Lights store manager Shig Murao were arrested. The resulting obscenity trial was widely publicized. Ferlinghetti attributed the popularity of Howl to its seizure by customs officials: “It would have taken years for critics to accomplish what the good collector [customs officer Chester MacPhee] did in a day, merely by calling the book obscene.”

Ginsberg was the self-appointed literary agent of the Beats, using his connections to promote the work of his friends. He was responsible for the publication of many of his friends’ work and believed wholeheartedly in their genius and talent. Ginsberg’s dedications in Howl list his yet-unpublished and unknown friends, including Burroughs, whose major publication and fame was still three years away: “William Seward Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch, an endless novel which will drive everybody mad.”

This copy of Howl is artist Robert LaVigne’s copy and bears his ownership signature. It is signed by Allen Ginsberg, with the October 24, 1966, inscription: “This copy was given to Bob LaVigne, [Peter] Orlovsky’s former lover, friend of mine, & faithful painter of passing phantoms—sometime back in the ‘50s.”

Jack Kerouac
On the Road On the Road. New York: Viking Press, 1957.
First edition.

On the Road became an icon of the Beat movement, required reading, and a how-to guide for the 1950s hipster. Though lauded in a New York Times review by Gilbert Milstein as a “historic occasion,” On the Road was also dismissed as self-indulgent and even dangerous. Kerouac’s writing style incorporates the sights, sounds, rhythms, and desires of post-World War II bohemia. Kerouac’s composition of his second novel is also the stuff of legend: supposedly typed during a frenzied Benzedrine-fueled three weeks in 1951 on a 120-foot roll of paper, the first draft of On the Road lacked much punctuation and used the actual names of Kerouac’s friends on whom many of his characters are based. The version that was published in 1957 was heavily edited. The restored “scroll edition” of On the Road was published in 2007 for the fiftieth anniversary of the novel’s publication. Burroughs emerges as “Old Bull Lee,” referencing his pseudonym William Lee:

“It would take all night to tell about Old Bull Lee; let’s just say now, he was a teacher, and had every right to teach because he learned all the time; and the things he learned were the facts of life, not out of necessity but because he wanted to.”

Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) became an almost instant celebrity with the publication of On the Road and through media appearances, including interviews on The Tonight Show with Steve Allen, emerged as the face of the Beat movement. But Kerouac’s self-destructive path after his major success led to attending readings and giving interviews intoxicated. His 1962 novel Big Sur depicts the downward trajectory his life had taken. He died of an abdominal hemorrhage in 1969, as a result of his alcoholism.

Naked Lunch William S. Burroughs
The Naked Lunch. Paris: Olympia Press, 1959.
First edition with dust jacket designed by the author.

Although more than a dozen excerpts from The Naked Lunch appeared in magazines as early as 1957, occasionally with controversy due to its subject matter, the first complete publication of the novel was this Olympia Press edition, published as part of the publisher Maurice Giorodias’s Traveler’s Companion Series, an eclectic mix of erotic, often pornographic texts and avant-garde literary fiction. Burroughs’s novel was the third key text of the “Beat Holy Trinity,” but although it is invariably associated with Howl and On the Road, The Naked Lunch represents a shift in Burroughs’s writing which became much less narrative and highly experimental, particularly with his experiments with “cut-ups” and his close collaborations with the artist Brion Gysin and others.

William S. Burroughs did not achieve the instant celebrity that came to Ginsberg and Kerouac, but his achievements and his legacy eclipsed both of them. Burroughs’s career as a writer was characterized by ongoing experimentation, and he produced a series of writings that expanded upon the techniques he discovered during the composition of The Naked Lunch. His innovative and experimental writing style, his insistence on confronting systems of authority and control, and his explorations with drugs, sex, magic and dreams, perception and reception, utopias and dystopias, technology, art, and the written word radically shifted the landscape of American literature and culture in the twentieth century. During the course of his career, Burroughs wrote eighteen novels, six collections of short stories, and four collections of essays; he published countless poems, stories, and articles in magazines and journals; and he was also an accomplished artist and performer.

William S. Burroughs died in Lawrence, Kansas, on August 2, 1997, at the age of 83.

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