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The Poet of Needle Park

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The Poet of Needle Park: He is surely the most famous Harvard-educated heroin addict, and one of the most famous addicts anywhere: William Seward Burroughs '36 (1914-97) was a kind of über-junkie, a writer whose heavy drug use was the foreground of his literary persona. His poetic evocations of opiated states and the nightmares of withdrawal--the desire for heroin coming on him "like a cold black wind through the bones," for example--brought a deeply William S. Burroughsforeign experience to readers worldwide.

His Harvard classmates, almost to a man, became businessmen, bankers, or lawyers; Burroughs instead mounted a frontal assault on every mainstream American value. The titles of the first two books he wrote, the autobiographical Junky and Queer, could hardly have flouted conventional proprieties more completely. Yet he went much further in his masterpiece, Naked Lunch, which brought him both renown and notoriety. Despite its vivid, farcical, terrifying portrayals of both drug addiction and sexual perversities--all dragged out for inspection in Boston in 1965-66 at what proved to be the last major censorship trials of printed matter in the United States--Burroughs asserted, "From the beginning I have been far more concerned, as a writer, with addiction itself (whether to drugs, or sex, or money, or power) as a model of control and with the ultimate decadence of humanity's biological potentials, perverted by stupidity and inhuman malice."

The grandson of the founder of the Burroughs Adding Machine company, he was born in St. Louis and attended private schools there and in Los Alamos, New Mexico, before matriculating at Harvard. Between 1938 and 1940 he pursued graduate work at Harvard in anthropology, living in "a small frame house on a quiet tree lined street beyond the Commodore Hotel." Then he moved to New York and, beginning around 1944, quite deliberately became a heroin addict. He befriended future Beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg; Kerouac described him as "Tall, 6 foot 1, strange, inscrutable because ordinary looking (scrutable), like a shy bank clerk with a patrician thinlipped cold bluelipped face." The only Beat writer not influenced by Buddhism, Burroughs was, as one of many websites now calls him, "the hard man of hip."

Later, in Mexico, he killed his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer Adams, in a drunken attempt to shoot a highball glass off her head with a pistol. He traveled to South America looking for a psychedelic drug, yage, and sent Ginsberg a hilarious epistolary travelogue later published as The Yage Letters. He reached Tangier, Morocco, in 1954 and stayed for years, experiencing "the depression and hopelessness of heavy addiction...the numb, despairing feeling of being buried alive." He said he could sit in his room in Tangier after shooting heroin and look at the tip of his boot for hours without moving.

But in 1957 Burroughs kicked his heroin habit, in London, with the help of a drug called apomorphine. "It was as though an inner dam had broken," he wrote, "I felt reborn and was content to spend long hours at the typewriter, transcribing the images and characters of the novel [Naked Lunch], which took shape as though of its own volition. It was assembled in two weeks from a mass of pages, the balance of which were to form the basis for [later novels] The Soft Machine. The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express." Burroughs dramatized the ways in which addiction enables the exercise of power, whether it be the drug dealer's power over the user or a political establishment's power over the citizens. "I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control," he wrote.

He continued to publish during his later years and became something of a pop-culture icon. Rock bands (The Soft Machine and Steely Dan) took their names from his works and director David Cronenberg made a feature film of Naked Lunch in 1991. Burroughs spent the last 17 years of his life in the quiet college town of Lawrence, Kansas. Having surprised everyone by living into his eighties, he sustained his heavy use of intoxicants to the end. A visitor in 1995 recalled the author's "jerky, relentless vigor...pulling revolvers out of his pocket and demonstrating the workings of the safety mechanisms, steadily chugging on a beaker of vodka and Coke that is regularly replenished."