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The Letters of William S. Burroughs, Vol. 1: 1945-1959 Paperback – June 1, 1994

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

180 letters dispatched from his self-imposed exile in East Texas, Mexico City and Tangiers chronicle Burroughs's early development as a writer.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

The first of a projected two volumes, these letters cover the activities of Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac in the years that gave birth to the Beat Generation. Written mostly to Ginsberg or Kerouac, the letters provide a rare glimpse into Burroughs's psyche, revealing his struggle with drug addiction, his confusion over his sexual identity, and his search for a form fluid enough to mirror his mind and art. Although much of this correspondence first appeared in Letters to Allen Ginsberg 1953-1957 (1982) and in The Yage Letters (1963), this new collection is highly recommended both for the additional letters it contains and for its detailed explanatory notes.
- William Gargan, Brooklyn Coll. Lib., CUNY
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 472 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; First Paperback edition (June 1, 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140094520
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140094527
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,086,267 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Will Errickson on September 25, 1998
Format: Paperback
That Kirkus review is cheap, trite and obvious. "Godfather of Grunge"? "MTV generations' idea of a literay outlaw"? What's that mean? They were right when they said he didn't come off as a literary "fella"--why? because Literature is phony and an obstruction to truth--"All that is literature has fallen from me, thank God," wrote Henry Miller, and Burroughs exemplifies that. He was interested in Life, and escaping oppression. Little is made of him shooting his wife? Sorry. His heroin cures? Sorry. Save that for all the lame Hollywood hacks who succumb to addiction only because they know their "life story" will sell. I think this is a great book, one that shows the human, caring, funny, straightforward man Burroughs was in a time of even greater hypocrisy and corruption than today. I think he was dead on the mark in the fifties about America becoming a police state.... Burroughs still upsets conventional literary categories, and the only way the "establishment" can deal with him is to joke and condescend and offer him up as caricature, as Kirkus did. Did anyone read the pathetic obituaries of him? They had no clue what he really did. As he said: "We intend to destroy all dogmatic verbal systems." No glot....c'lom Fliday....
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By perival on May 28, 2000
Format: Paperback
I've read a fair amount of Burroughs, and this book is the best of all, the volume that lets you see into the soul of the man. Many of the letters are to Ginsberg, some to Kerouac and others. The stories he tells are funny and scary, sometimes heartbreaking. From these letters you can see where the more imposing material came from, the genesis of the work that came out in the sixties.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Steven W. Cooper on June 14, 2006
Format: Paperback
Burroughs and his writings are complex and problematic. The various characters that express themselves in his personality evoke so many contradictory reactions that it's hard to get the author himself into focus. And reading his novels outside the context of the man himself is particularly unsatisfying. That's why this book of letters is so welcome. Along with recordings of his routines (that fascinating voice conveying such dry, ironic malice - "The Best of William Burroughs, from Giorno Poetry Systems" has some of the best I've heard), these letters give us a useful perspective on Burroughs to better appraise his work.

The Burroughs who emerges in these letters stands in sharp contrast to the persona he cultivated. The cool, world-wise narrator/character of his novels is shown here to have been self-deluded, weak-willed, prone to bouts of love-sickness, and particularly susceptible to being hoodwinked. But it's like the complementary hidden side of any real person. There is wit and humanity here in the titanic struggle he waged to integrate a powerful evil he felt deep in his soul. While the struggle often manifested as a battle with addiction, the evil wasn't junk: It was a pure bloody-mindedness that we all have inside. "Likely a survival mechanism inherited from our simian forebears," Burroughs might have opined.

How much of these letters is lies? The editor helps with some fact-checking footnotes, but many key facts can never be checked. A tantalizing psychological dimension is opened when Burroughs writes about his stunted heterosexual alter-ego, but Burroughs wasn't above subverting facts to manipulate people. Whatever the truth is we'll never know for sure, but these writings are entertaining and thought-provoking. They detail the inner workings of a special mind shaped by unique circumstances. Publication of these letters proves that for all his bloody-minded self-sabotage, Burroughs' output refuses to be marginalized.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Keith Otis Edwards on July 28, 2008
Format: Paperback
This is an amazing, beautiful and troubling book, superbly edited and annotated by Oliver Harris. More than mere letters, it's a series of snapshots which record the transformation of a man.

In the early (1947) letters, we meet William Burroughs, living with his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer-Adams, as a gentleman farmer in South Texas, and he sounds like a loyal Republican -- denouncing the government, taxes, unions, labor and psychiatry. He signs one letter, "The Honest Hog Caller." By 1948 he has moved to New Orleans -- possibly in search of male lovers, possibly due to his attraction for the underworld and petty criminals, or possibly due to being convicted of drunk driving in Texas.

During the New Orleans period, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady stop by as part of their On the Road trip, and Burroughs spends pages voicing his stern disapproval. "Most inveterate moochers are convinced that while they have no obligations toward anyone else . . . others have a moral obligation to supply their needs." He yet holds the values of the right: "I tell you we are bogged down in this octopus of bureaucratic socialism."

Then something happens. He is busted with his low-life friends, and it looks like a stretch in the inferno of the dreaded Angola prison farm, so he and Joan take it on the lam to Mexico, where he does just fine. He boasts, "I couldn't get back on the junk if I wanted to." He lectures Allen Ginsberg about the benefits of going heterosexual.

Then something horrible happens. He shoots Joan in the head while playing William Tell. Nothing about this is mentioned in his letters, but afterward there is a gradual and inexorable slide downward.
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