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

By Jennie Skerl; Robin Lydenberg | Go to book overview

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Points of Intersection An Overview of William S. Burroughs and His Critics

Robin Lydenberg and Jennie Skerl

T he 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In the 1950s, Burroughs published only Junky ( 1953), which went unnoticed, and produced several unpublished manuscripts: "Queer"; "In Search of Yage," a manuscript of about one thousand pages that later became the basis of Naked Lunch and portions of the subsequent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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