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Letters 1945-59 (Penguin Modern Classics) Paperback – 27 Aug 2009


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William Burroughs was born in St Louis, Missouri in 1914. Immensely influential among the Beat writers of the 1950s - notably Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg - he already had an underground reputation before the appearance of his first important book, 'Naked Lunch'. Originally published by the daring and influential Olympia Press (the original publishers of Henry Miller) in France in 1959, it aroused great controversy on publication and was not available in the US until 1962 and in the UK until 1964. The book was adapted for film by David Cronenberg in 1991.

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About the Author

William S. Burroughs was born on February 5, 1914 in St Louis. In work and in life Burroughs expressed a lifelong subversion of the morality, politics and economics of modern America. To escape those conditions, and in particular his treatment as a homosexual and a drug-user, Burroughs left his homeland in 1950, and soon after began writing. By the time of his death he was widely recognised as one of the most politically trenchant, culturally influential, and innovative artists of the twentieth century. His numerous books include Naked Lunch, Junky, Queer, Nova Express, Interzone, The Wild Boys, The Ticket That Exploded and The Soft Machine. After living in Mexico City, Tangier, Paris, and London, Burroughs finally returned to America in 1974. He died in 1997.

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Amazon.com: 9 reviews
26 of 30 people found the following review helpful
Burroughs as a man, not as a legend 25 Sep 1998
By Will Errickson - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
That Kirkus review is cheap, trite and obvious. "Godfather of Grunge"? "MTV generations' idea of a literay outlaw"? What's that mean? They were right when they said he didn't come off as a literary "fella"--why? because Literature is phony and an obstruction to truth--"All that is literature has fallen from me, thank God," wrote Henry Miller, and Burroughs exemplifies that. He was interested in Life, and escaping oppression. Little is made of him shooting his wife? Sorry. His heroin cures? Sorry. Save that for all the lame Hollywood hacks who succumb to addiction only because they know their "life story" will sell. I think this is a great book, one that shows the human, caring, funny, straightforward man Burroughs was in a time of even greater hypocrisy and corruption than today. I think he was dead on the mark in the fifties about America becoming a police state.... Burroughs still upsets conventional literary categories, and the only way the "establishment" can deal with him is to joke and condescend and offer him up as caricature, as Kirkus did. Did anyone read the pathetic obituaries of him? They had no clue what he really did. As he said: "We intend to destroy all dogmatic verbal systems." No glot....c'lom Fliday....
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Burroughs revealed 29 May 2000
By perival - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
I've read a fair amount of Burroughs, and this book is the best of all, the volume that lets you see into the soul of the man. Many of the letters are to Ginsberg, some to Kerouac and others. The stories he tells are funny and scary, sometimes heartbreaking. From these letters you can see where the more imposing material came from, the genesis of the work that came out in the sixties.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
A Piece in the Burroughs Puzzle 14 Jun 2006
By Steven W. Cooper - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Burroughs and his writings are complex and problematic. The various characters that express themselves in his personality evoke so many contradictory reactions that it's hard to get the author himself into focus. And reading his novels outside the context of the man himself is particularly unsatisfying. That's why this book of letters is so welcome. Along with recordings of his routines (that fascinating voice conveying such dry, ironic malice - "The Best of William Burroughs, from Giorno Poetry Systems" has some of the best I've heard), these letters give us a useful perspective on Burroughs to better appraise his work.

The Burroughs who emerges in these letters stands in sharp contrast to the persona he cultivated. The cool, world-wise narrator/character of his novels is shown here to have been self-deluded, weak-willed, prone to bouts of love-sickness, and particularly susceptible to being hoodwinked. But it's like the complementary hidden side of any real person. There is wit and humanity here in the titanic struggle he waged to integrate a powerful evil he felt deep in his soul. While the struggle often manifested as a battle with addiction, the evil wasn't junk: It was a pure bloody-mindedness that we all have inside. "Likely a survival mechanism inherited from our simian forebears," Burroughs might have opined.

How much of these letters is lies? The editor helps with some fact-checking footnotes, but many key facts can never be checked. A tantalizing psychological dimension is opened when Burroughs writes about his stunted heterosexual alter-ego, but Burroughs wasn't above subverting facts to manipulate people. Whatever the truth is we'll never know for sure, but these writings are entertaining and thought-provoking. They detail the inner workings of a special mind shaped by unique circumstances. Publication of these letters proves that for all his bloody-minded self-sabotage, Burroughs' output refuses to be marginalized.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
One Man's Resurrection 29 July 2008
By Keith Otis Edwards - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
This is an amazing, beautiful and troubling book, superbly edited and annotated by Oliver Harris. More than mere letters, it's a series of snapshots which record the transformation of a man.

In the early (1947) letters, we meet William Burroughs, living with his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer-Adams, as a gentleman farmer in South Texas, and he sounds like a loyal Republican -- denouncing the government, taxes, unions, labor and psychiatry. He signs one letter, "The Honest Hog Caller." By 1948 he has moved to New Orleans -- possibly in search of male lovers, possibly due to his attraction for the underworld and petty criminals, or possibly due to being convicted of drunk driving in Texas.

During the New Orleans period, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady stop by as part of their On the Road trip, and Burroughs spends pages voicing his stern disapproval. "Most inveterate moochers are convinced that while they have no obligations toward anyone else . . . others have a moral obligation to supply their needs." He yet holds the values of the right: "I tell you we are bogged down in this octopus of bureaucratic socialism."

Then something happens. He is busted with his low-life friends, and it looks like a stretch in the inferno of the dreaded Angola prison farm, so he and Joan take it on the lam to Mexico, where he does just fine. He boasts, "I couldn't get back on the junk if I wanted to." He lectures Allen Ginsberg about the benefits of going heterosexual.

Then something horrible happens. He shoots Joan in the head while playing William Tell. Nothing about this is mentioned in his letters, but afterward there is a gradual and inexorable slide downward. He has an unrequited love affair with a young man. His lawyer skips town, and Burroughs leaves Mexico on a quixotic trek to South America in search of a drug called Yage, which, once he finds it, poisons him.

What he really wants is young and handsome Allen Ginsberg, but Ginsberg rejects him, so he takes off to Tangiers and develops a heavy dope habit -- shooting-up every four hours. This part of the book is the most moving, because all he can do is recite his litany of rejection. Ginsberg doesn't want him and doesn't answer his letters. The expatriate colony of Tangiers (including Paul Bowles) understandably rejects such a pathetic wreck of a man, too, and the contrast between this lost, begging, lonely creature and the haughty fellow at the beginning could not be greater. I know of no work of fiction that portrays the destruction of a human being more vividly than these letters.

Then, another change. Ginsberg finally begins writing again, and Burroughs pours his heart out to him and then (happily assisted by weed) begins pouring out his imagination in the form of letters that became the basis for Naked Lunch. Once word about this extraordinary writing got around, Burroughs rejoined the human race. He became accepted by others and moved to Paris with artist Brion Gysin. There, a third William Burroughs emerges -- Burroughs the mystic.

He has visions. He discovers the "cut-up" method of writing which produces new and magical meanings from randomly juxtaposed words. He proselytizes Dr. Dent's apomorphine cure for addiction (when, all along, we see what the real cause of Burroughs's addiction was). He postulates a cure for cancer. I don't think that Burroughs was as attracted to Scientology for its restorative auditing practices or organization (which he later called "A fink outfit"), so much as he was fascinated by the religion's hagiography of the evil Emperor Xenu who, 75 million years ago, trapped millions of souls in volcanos and exterminated them with hydrogen bombs. (On The Best Of William Burroughs CD collection, you can hear him read about the "soul-killer H-bombs.")

What a metamorphosis! Within ten years, he transforms from a stern libertarian to a pathetic and hopeless bum, then to the modern-day Madame Blavatsky! No buncombe is too nonsensical for him, and there are pages and pages of letters rhapsodizing over the greatness of Jacques Stern, who seems to have been the world's champion of [horsefeathers]. It was also at this time that he conceived his theory that mankind's purpose was to go live in outer space. He went from being a Yankee skeptic to someone who was hungry to believe.

The book ends with some 1959 letters extolling Scientology, so we don't get to see the next incarnations of William Burroughs -- the New York Punk celebrity and the Old Sage of Lawrence, Kansas, in which persona wrote his best work. (Everyone should write James Grauerholz a letter of thanks making this last Burroughs possible.) But I have never read a more dramatic book, let alone a collection of letters, that demonstrates death and regeneration. Because he was so lonely and desperate, Burroughs put everything he had into these letters, and it's some of the best writing of the second half of the twentieth century.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Elucidating Revelation of WS Burroughs Mind and Character 25 July 2010
By Stephen C. Bird - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
This book, like "Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of Williams S. Burroughs" (by Ted Morgan)--which I read shortly after "The Letters"--was inspiring, enlightening, and often disturbing (as would be expected with Burroughs). These letters are often businesslike--IE Allen Ginsberg was Burroughs' agent in the 50's and was responsible for the publishing of "Junky" in 1953. I'd recommend reading "The Letters" after "Literary Outlaw", as "Literary Outlaw" provides a detailed context for these letters. In "The Letters" I felt a genuine shift once Burroughs started working on what would eventually become "Naked Lunch" in Tangier. During that period, the quality of the letters (the majority are written to Allen Ginsberg, some to Jack Kerouac, as well as sporadic communications with other members of Burroughs' international community) becomes more focused, forceful and driven. Nonetheless, in this body of work, the emotional state of Burroughs remains elusive and mysterious. I believe this collection of letters would be very helpful to anyone pursuing the path of avant-garde writer. Burroughs was not interested in creating compromised or "saleable" work, and while he was tormented by this aspect of his profession, in the end he did exactly what he wanted to do and became influential in the process.

Stephen C. Bird, Author of "Hideous Exuberance"
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