US novelist associated with the Beat group of writers of the 1950s.
Born in St Louis, Missouri, Burroughs was the grandson of (and bears the same name as) the inventor of the adding machine. He studied at Harvard, served briefly in World War II, then worked at various jobs in New York. In the 1940s his apartment near Columbia University was the meeting place of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and others who became the leading spirits of the Beat Generation. In 1944 Burroughs became addicted to heroin. He moved eventually to Mexico, but left after accidentally shooting and killing his wife. He travelled in South America and lived for a time in Tangiers. After many failed attempts to cure his addiction, he submitted to an apomorphine treatment in London in 1957, which proved successful.
Burroughs's writings are highly controversial, with obsessive features that, for many readers, prevent his books from qualifying as strictly literary works. From the first, in Junkie (1964; written in Mexico and first published under a pseudonym, 1953), a relatively straightforward record, he was concerned with the experience of drug addiction. In The Naked Lunch (1959), which established his reputation, plot, character, and the usual requirements of fiction play no part. Instead, the condition of the addict is presented in nightmarish fragments of farcical black humour and sadomasochism (mass hangings, sodomy, etc.). Addiction in his later novels is portrayed as an external enemy imposing itself by force or as a virus seeking total control. The conflict plunges into the past or occurs as science-fiction wars in outer space in The Soft Machine (1961) and Nova Express (1964) and is further developed, with variations, in his other novels, including The Wild Boys (1971), The Place of Dead Roads (1984), and The Western Lands (1988). His collected essays were published in 1986 and a volume of his early correspondence in 1993.