HE WAS A LITERARY OUTLAW TO some, an apostle of drugs and obscenity to others, but few would deny that Beat Generation rhapsodist William Burroughs, who died of a heart attack on Aug. 2 at age 83 near his Lawrence, Kans., home, left his paradoxical mark on American culture. While his writings—especially the harrowing Naked Lunch (1959)—depict a chaotic, hallucinatory life of often nightmarish involvements with narcotics, guns and sexual adventure, friends describe a diffident, courteous man with a dry sense of humor. “He was one of the most gracious people I ever knew,” says Lawrence poet James McGrary.
Born in St. Louis, the Harvard-educated Burroughs was a grandson of the adding-machine inventor who founded the Burroughs office equipment empire. But the family fortune was largely wiped out in the 1929 stock market crash, and Burroughs embarked with only a small stipend on a life of travel and searching that led him to Mexico, South America, Tangier and Greenwich Village. Along the way he became addicted to morphine, accidentally shot and killed his second wife during a drunken game in Mexico City and, with fellow adventurers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, upended America’s literary conventions. Naked Lunch—”that wretched book,” his own mother called it—was banned by U.S. authorities until 1962.
The central event of his life, his wife’s death by his own hand, turned his countenance dark—”He looked like death eating a sandwich,” says novelist Ken Kesey—even as it turned a self-indulgent sensualist into a writer. “I have had no choice,” Burroughs once explained, “but to write my way out.” Says poet Gregory Corso, a fellow Beat and friend: “If we are writers, our words do not die. William Burroughs left behind a beautiful cargo.”