William S. Burroughs at the Front: Critical Reception, 1959-1989

William S. Burroughs at the Front: Critical Reception, 1959-1989

William S. Burroughs at the Front: Critical Reception, 1959-1989

William S. Burroughs at the Front: Critical Reception, 1959-1989

Synopsis

Jennie Skerl and Robin Lydenberg have selected twenty-five critical essays on Burroughs that reflect the historical reception of his work, both positive and negative, decade by decade, and that represent the best essays written about him. The essays cover Burroughs' major novels- including the cut-up and new trilogies- the censorship issue, and his work in film and painting. The chronological organization brings into critical focus the shift from moral questions raised by the novels' content, through examinations of Burroughs' relationship to humanism and modernism, and finally to more focused literary and linguistic issues. In their introduction, the editors survey the progress of Burroughs' critical reception and examine the reasons for the varied and intense responses to the work and the theoretical assumptions behind those responses. The reviewers include prominent figures such as Mary McCarthy and Marshall McLuhan as well as major academic critics such as Cary Nelson, Tony Tanner, and Ihab Hassan.

Excerpt

Robin Lydenberg and Jennie Skerl

The reception of William Burroughs' work has tended toward extremes-- from "UGH . . .," the title of the Times Literary Supplement review that provoked the longest exchange of letters in that publication's history, to Norman Mailer's oft-quoted statement that the author of Naked Lunch was "possessed by genius." Critics generally break down into two groups: those who reject Burroughs on the basis of traditional humanist moral and aesthetic values and those who, from a variety of critical perspectives, are receptive to his basically antihumanist art. in fact, Burroughs' work acts almost as a litmus test of a reader's response to the contemporary avant-garde, or what we now call postmodernism. Criticism of Burroughs has been further complicated by extraliterary factors: the censorship of Naked Lunch, the legend surrounding his life and personality, his involvement in popular culture, his early association with the Beats, his expatriation, and the fragmentation of his critical audience. These factors are also the source of extreme emotional responses that have often prevented critics from looking at the work itself.

1950s

In the 1950s, Burroughs published only Junky (1953), which went unnoticed, and produced several unpublished manuscripts: Queer; In Search of Yage, a manuscript of about one thousand pages that later became the basis of Naked Lunch and portions of the subsequent novels; and an extensive correspondence that contained fragments of his fiction. Throughout the 1950s he was acquiring an underground reputation, largely created by his friends Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac . . .

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