A little over ten years ago, I wrote a book called Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult.’ As I wrote it, I don’t think I was aware that Burroughs’ centennial was approaching. I knew of course that he’d been born in 1914 but somehow it didn’t click that this big milestone was around the corner. Or perhaps I just didn’t grasp the significance.
Back then, Burroughs had been dead for a little over fifteen years and had been infamous for more than a half-century. He was a sort of cult author with a modest number of very dedicated fans and he had a begrudging respect among the more open-minded of the wider literary field, but he was still very niche. You’d sometimes see TV quiz shows ask questions like “What American author wrote the 1959 novel, Naked Lunch?” but how many people could name even one of his other books? For many, he was a “controversial” author – a man who wrote an obscene book, did a lot of heroin, and killed his wife.
Burroughs received notably less critical attention than his Beat peers, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. By 2014, there were dozens of books about Kerouac’s life and work and a huge number about Ginsberg’s. Each had multiple biographies about them and countless studies not only of their most famous works but of comparatively minor ones. They were taught in universities and even high schools around the world. At my ultra-conservative university in rural China, “Howl” was taught – uncensored! – on the American literature course.
But not Burroughs. You could find his books for sale in certain shops and there were two enjoyable if flawed biographies. There were interesting inquiries like The Lost Years of William S. Burroughs, pioneering works by a handful of Beat scholars, as well as a handful of other gems, such as his collected letters. The website Reality Studio was a wonderful resource, too. But all of this paled in comparison to the attention given to Ginsberg and Kerouac. One got the feeling that Burroughs was not a major writer deserving of serious critical attention.
When my book came out in 2013, the most common response I got was, “I had no idea Burroughs was a Scientologist!” It seemed incredible to me given that Dianetics/Scientology was an indescribably important part of his life during his most creative years and something that guided the production of many of his most significant works. Yet it is a testament to the fact that Burroughs’ life and work had simply not drawn a huge amount of critical attention. Even in the life of such an important writer, there were huge sections that remained relatively unexplored. Thankfully, that was beginning to change.
In 2014, Burroughs’ centennial came around and there was much celebration in the various online Beat and Burroughs communities, an attitude that seemed to spill out into other circles, with tributes appearing even in mainstream media outlets. It all seemed to have the odd effect of conferring a sort of literary legitimacy. The fact that he had turned 100 and was still being talked about meant that he was after all a serious writer. This seemed to set in motion (at least from my perspective) a flurry of publications that have greatly elevated his literary standing. Some of these include:
- The Magical Universe of William S. Burroughs, Matthew Levi Stevens (2014)
- William S. Burroughs: A Life, Barry Miles (2014)
- Taking Shots: The Photography of William S. Burroughs, Patricia Allmer and John Sears (2014)
- The Green Ghost: William Burroughs and the Ecological Mind, Chad Weidner (2016)
- Don’t Hide the Madness: William S. Burroughs in Conversation with Allen Ginsberg (2018)
- “The Revised Boy Scout Manual”: An Electronic Revolution, William S. Burroughs (2018)
- William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Casey Rae (2019)
- William S. Burroughs: Cutting Up the Century, Joan Hawkins and Alex Wermer-Colan (2019)
- The Poetics of Minutes to Go, Oliver Harris and William S. Burroughs (2019)
- Amongst Nazis, Thomas Antonic (2020)
- BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS, William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin (edited by Oliver Harris) (2020)
- Burroughs and Scotland: Dethroning the Ancients: The Commitment of Exile, Chris Kelso (2021)
- Making Naked Lunch: Two Appetisers, Oliver Harris (2022)
- Burroughs Unbound: William S. Burroughs and the Performance of Writing, S.E. Gontarski (2022)
I don’t mean to suggest that the people who have participated in this were necessarily spurred on by the centenary. Matthew Levi Stevens had been working on his book long before that date and Oliver Harris had been a key figure in Beat/Burroughs Studies for many years before it, writing and editing many essential texts. However, it seems to me that the centenary signalled to publishers (perhaps to the academy) that Burroughs was now a legitimate candidate for critical attention.
The above list is just some of what has been written and published about Burroughs since the 2014 centenary. Omitted are countless articles and essays from websites, newspapers, magazines, and literary journals, as well as talks given at literary conferences. There have also been many events, including the European Beat Studies Network’s various conferences, the latest of which focused on Burroughs’ cut-up method. There have also been a great many new editions of old Burroughs books, sometimes with added materials.
Even as Burroughs’ life recedes into history, his legacy continues and indeed it appears as though interest in his work is growing. It is a cliché to say about him or his Beat peers that “they remain as relevant as ever,” but honestly they do. I have no idea what Gen Z or Gen A will make of Burroughs’ work but I suspect at least some of them will find it valuable and enjoyable, and thanks to the profusion of publications over this past decade, they will have much to read should they wish to dive into the fascinating – even ironically addictive – world of Burroughs Studies.