Controversial Burroughs has ties to Grantville area

by W. Winston Skinner

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David Bowie hand-colored this image of him and writer William Burroughs, who interviewed him in 1974. The photograph by Terry O’Neill is included in a Bowie retrospective in England. 


In his lifetime, William S. Burroughs generated considerable controversy.

His 1959 novel, “Naked Lunch,” was the subject of a court case, and his books and stories often drew criticism both for their form and content. Burroughs wrote frankly about homosexuality and his use of illicit drugs long before the social transformations that began in the late 1960s.

A theme in Burroughs’ work was the stymieing, restrictive role of society, and he turned to the “cut up” method of writing. This method involved taking segments of newspaper or magazine stories and matching them up in new ways. The result was considered genius by some and gibberish by others.

Before his death in 1997, Burroughs was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and awarded the French government’s Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Burroughs, who was born and grew up in St. Louis, was the grandson and namesake of the inventor of the adding machine. His mother, Laura Lee Burroughs, was from a Georgia family.

Laura Burrough’s relatives settled near Grantville in pioneer days, and her grandmother, Emily Wideman Lee, is buried at Allen-Lee Memorial United Methodist Church in Lone Oak.

William S. Burroughs is often associated with the Beat generation writers. He was a friend of Jack Kerouac and the inspiration for Old Bull Lee, one of the characters in Kerouac’s “On the Road.”

Decades after his most notorious writings, Burroughs continues to have an impact on popular culture. Items relating to a 1974 interview Burroughs did with singer David Bowie in Rolling Stone Magazine is part of an exhibit on Bowie currently at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The “David Bowie is...” exhibit “includes several references to William Burroughs,” said Dr. Kathryn Johnson, assistant curator of the V&A. “A photograph of him by Brian Duffy is in an overhead montage of writers, performers and artists that inspired Bowie.”

The exhibit also includes “a small photo of Bowie and Burroughs together, originally taken by Terry O’Neill after their interview for Rolling Stone and later hand coloured by Bowie,” Johnson said. “The same photo in black and white appears in the background of a recent photo of Bowie from 2012 which also features in the exhibition.”

The exhibition, which also includes a transcript of the Rolling Stone interview, has been hugely successful. More than 42,000 advance tickets were sold for the Bowie retrospective, making it the fastest-selling event in the museum’s history.

Burroughs remains a literary force. “Rub Out the Words,” a book of letters, was published last year. Also in 2012, an updated version of “Literary Outlaw,” Ted Morgan’s biography of Burroughs, was released.

Burroughs was also depicted on the screen in the film version of “On the Road.” Viggo Mortensen played Old Bull Lee, the character based on Burroughs.

Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund headed the cast as Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, characters based on Kerouac and Neal Cassady. Amy Adams played Jane, the character modeled on Joan Vollmer, who was Burroughs’ second wife.




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