The Beat Generation was a group of loosely-bound young poets and writers in US in the 1950s. They challenged all traditional values and became the most important force in questioning and denying traditional cultural values after World War II.
In the 1950s and 60s, the Beat poets became the voice of the counter culture movements. The youth became disillusioned after World War 2 because of the mass-scale destruction they had seen. Influenced by the French school of thought and writers such as Sartre they became the symbol of the cry of the youth. Hence, their writing hints at the influences of Existentialism. The beat writers were experimental with their form and the language they used. They talked about all the taboo topics such as sex and drugs in their writing be it poetry, short stories, or novels. Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac were the forerunners of this movement.
William Burroughs (1914-1997) was another writer who was part of the Beat Generation and friends with Ginsberg and Kerouac. He has extensively and explicitly written about his drug addiction. His first novel being 'Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict' which he wrote under the pen name William Lee. He does not advocate drug usage, but through his work tries to show what being a drug addict means and what the realities of it are. The novel is also autobiographical as he was living in Mexico at the time with his wife whom he killed under the influence of drugs, which changed him forever and set him on the path of writing. Having lived through the Great Depression, his writing has dark humour and sarcasm infused in it. He was openly a gay man and a drug addict living in America when both of those things were not socially acceptable. His most famous work is the 'Naked Lunch', a novel published in 1959. In this book, he talks about his long journey with addiction and the struggles to stop being an addict. Addiction is also a way of escapism and coping mechanism but he agrees that it destroys the mind and is hazardous, especially for a writer.
Burrough’s lesser-known works, a collection of short stories and one poem, 'Tornado Alley', which was published in 1989, that is towards the latter part of his life and career. The collection contains one poem and six stories, all featuring characters who are not “normal” and situations that are weird or problematic. His characters use crude language and say or do things that are inappropriate. It is safe to say that during its time, the book must have made a lot of people uncomfortable because of its dry, morbid humour. But the stories are not just about strange people, they also offer a social-political commentary on the times he was living in.
He also released an audio recording of the poem and excerpts from stories of this collection in an album called “Dead City Radio”. He also has other albums where he has read out excerpts from his novels to jazz music beats. This is a common practice of the beat poets. Ginsberg was famous for his poetry readings. The first story in the collection which is actually a poem is called “Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28, 1986”, which is just a one-page account, more than a story it reads like a rant in a confessional style of writing. In this piece of writing, he uses the theme of the celebrated Thanksgiving Day of America to highlight the problems of American Society as he thanks America for:
KKK, for nigger-killing lawmen… for kill a queer for Christ stickers…. Thanks for laboratory AIDS…. Thanks for a country where nobody is allowed to mind his own business.
He’s writing this after the Cold-War era, during the AIDS epidemic in America, and amidst other cultural changes which reflect in his writing. The poem reads in a stream-of-consciousness manner.
Another story in the collection is named 'Jerry and the stockbroker'. The story seems to be portraying “white” apprehension about things unknown or out of the ordinary. The story constantly refers to “the New Yorker” magazine as “Hew Yorker”, where hew means to cut or chop. Among the two protagonists of the story, only one is named and the other is simply referred to as WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), this may have been a constant choice to show that his actions in the story are not individualistic but demonstrates the attitude of a community.
In the story, the protagonist Jerry is a young teenage boy who has a condition where he gets fits, he meets the WASP in a restaurant and hands him a card with instructions of what can happen if he gets a fist as he is about to get one. The WASP gets scared and tries to run. As Jerry’s race is not mentioned the fits can also be seen as a literalization of the reaction other people or WASPs have on seeing people different from them. Also, it is mentioned that Jerry gets an erection during his fit. As per stereotypes African- Americans were connected with deviant sexuality and hence, with AIDS and disease. The story seems to be portraying those conditions to the readers in a matter-of-fact way to make one think about one’s actions and attitudes.
Burrough also presents a mirror through his writing and tells that more than the other the monster lies with one’s own self. In one of the stories, ‘to talk for Joe the Dead’, a psychiatrist is convinced that his patient “young guy worth” is a sociopath, and given his criminal history, he will try to kill him. During their session, as soon as Guy takes out his gun, the doctor’s gun is ready and shoots at him. The doctor became a local hero, but the story shows that the monster that we expect to lie in others also lies within us as we are also capable of doing horrendous things.
Being part of the counter-culture movement in America, Burrough was also against authority especially of police as he famously said “A functioning police state needs no police”. He was against injustice, as in his story ‘the FUs’ speaks about the issue. The FU here stands for “fuck-ups” or bad cops. The story goes where an angry drunk -Indian goes to perhaps a white man’s house who has “ruined” his daughter. The householder calls the cops and also shoots at the Indian man, when the police come to see the situation, they think that the Indian man is the victim and shoots the householder. It portrays how rashly and without any thinking the police can react. The story also depicts the police changing the story to fit their narrative and getting away scot-free for shooting at the wrong man. They also kill the Indian man to keep him from talking. In the end, the reader also sees how even the higher-ups in the police use their subordinates to do their dirty jobs.
This story can be seen as a commentary on America’s police system, especially during the 60s and the 70s when the police would act first and think second, especially if you are not a white person living in America. The sad part is the story is as revenant today as it was back then.
In all the stories we find a straightforward way of writing, the stories are not told in the traditional way. There are jumps in the story, sometimes characters are not named, there are time lapses without any indication, etc. The writing seems to be more on the lines of confessional style and stream of consciousness. Burroughs himself said he experimented to break the monotony of writing. This also makes it more engaging. All these are techniques commonly used by the Beat Writers.
Though part of the Beat Generation, Burrough was more than just a Beat Poet.
He was a transgressive novelist and poet with an unquestionable dedication to experimentation in narrative form and structure. His devout readers and fans followed the author in his courageous literary attempt to formulate sexual identity, creative expression and a literary evolution of the self in a rejection of the staid and conventional morality of 1950s America.
Throughout his life, he remained pessimistic about the future of humankind which comes out in his writing as stark commentary on human nature where he highlights the ugly side of it and speaks about things not supposed to be spoken about. He truly was a Beat Generation Writer in his writing form, language, and content.
Yonghong, Zhang. “ON the Beat Generation” International Journal of Humanities and Social Science Vol. 3, No. 17, September 2013.
Self, Will. “William Burroughs – the original Junkie” The Guardian 1 February 2014.
Burroughs, William. Tornado Alley, 1989. Poets.org. “A Brief Guide to the Beat Poets” Poets.org, 3 May 2004.
Parnell, Lindsay. “William S. Burroughs: Beyond the beats” The Culture Trip, 3 January 2017.
Knickerbocker, Conrad. “William S. Burroughs, The Art of Fiction No. 36” The Paris Review, Issue 35, 1965.
Severo, Richard. “William s. Burroughs, the Beat Writer Who Distilled His Raw Nightmare Life, Dies at 83” New York Times, 4 August 1997.