“Giving Away the Basic American Rottenness”

William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch as an Historical Document

by A. D. Parkinson

This extended essay was written for my BA in History at Bristol University. I hope to remodel and extend it into a PhD thesis on Naked Lunch, and so any comments or criticisms would be very valuable, and can be emailed to me at A.D.Parkinson@gmail.com. Thank you for taking the time to read my work.

This study will show that William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, published in 1959, should be considered as an important historical document and a piece of critical documentation of postwar America. The novel will be shown to document the reality of the time: it will be demonstrated that much of the surreal literary hallucinations within the novel correspond to elements of postwar society. The way in which the novel acts as a powerful social critique, depicting what Burroughs calls the “basic American rottenness”, will also be demonstrated through looking at how Burroughs’ thoughts and ideas expressed in the text bear many parallels with those of a variety of political and social philosophers of the twentieth century. Essentially, the aim of this study is to establish Naked Lunch as a valuable historical source, the study of which can only increase our understanding of 1950s American politics and society.1


Burroughs wrote the bulk of Naked Lunch living as an exile in Tangier in the mid 1950s. He left America in late 1949, jumping bail in Texas on a drugs charge, and lived in Mexico for a short while, before his accidental shooting of his wife set him on his way again, and after a few South American excursions, he settled in Tangier. Interzone, the setting for much of Naked Lunch, was originally based on the international zone of Tangier, but quickly metamorphosed into a transcendental city where Burroughs could reveal his fears about Western society. His regular correspondences with fellow Beat Generation characters Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and his extensive reading, demonstrate that even when in exile, he was well aware the state of affairs in contemporary America. To an extent, his exile provided him with a heightened clarity for his social and political critiques, giving him the outsider’s perspective which highlighted the many absurdities and contradictions of American life.

The novel was written at a crucial point in American history. The nature of capitalist organisation was changing after the Second World War. Consumer culture became one of the dominant forces in American life, the post-war appetite for consumption was seemingly insatiable, and masses of new goods flooded the market. The methods used to try and sell these goods penetrated deeper into the home with the advent of the new mass media methods; TV ownership increased massively in the period. The Cold War precipitated an increasingly close relationship between foreign policy, science and business in the form of the “military industrial complex”. Contrived conceptions of what was socially and sexually “normal” dictated a moral code to the population. On the cusp of this we find William Burroughs. An intellectual, an outcast and an exile, he saw the emergent new order in terms of the rationality and control mechanisms underpinning it. Naked Lunch is an often surreal book, but it is constantly underpinned by an acute understanding of the way in which post-war society functions.


Critical reception to Burroughs has been varied. Herbert Gold, in an early assessment of Naked Lunch, wrote “many will be disgusted, snobs will says it’s a masterpiece, but they miss the relevance to our times.”2 This concisely sums up many of the problems associated with the critical reception and studies of Naked Lunch since — and even before — its publication, and also points towards the aims of this study: to establish the relevance of Naked Lunch. Early objections focused on the obscenities, and the graphic sexual descriptions within the book, and the publication of the book in America prompted an obscenity trial in 1965.3 One of the most famous hostile responses to Naked Lunch was the review which appeared in the Times Literary Supplement in 1983. Entitled “UGH…” it captured the disgust with which many greeted the work, and the reluctance to look beyond this initial first impression with impeded its reception. Some have attacked it because they find the character of William Burroughs himself difficult to come to terms with: being addicted to heroin for most of his life, never conforming to any normal codes of sexual conduct and the fact that he shot his common law wife perhaps make it difficult for many to consider him as a social philosopher. He is seen as representative of decadence, and therefore not an appropriate character to criticise Western society.

There has also been much positive response to Burroughs’ work. Naked Lunch was soon recognised as a work of literary value, and was defended by the likes of Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy and John Calder. William Burroughs was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1983. This study, however, is not concerned with the relative literary merits of the novel. As the critic Marshall McLuhan wrote, to approach Burroughs from an entirely literary perspective “is a little like trying to criticize the sartorial and verbal manifestations of a man who is knocking on the door to explain that flames are leaping from the roof of our home.”4 Much modern literary criticism adopts the models of sociology in its consideration of the meaning of texts, and this tendency has produced, amongst a myriad of journal articles, three notable critical studies, by Robin Lydenberg, Eric Mottram and Timothy S. Murphy.

Many studies of Burroughs categorise him as part of the Beat Generation. Although William Burroughs was closely affiliated with the Beat Generation, to absorb him into this context as another drug-using outsider, sexual deviant, essentially, a hedonist, overlooks the true significance of his work. He acted as a mentor to a young Kerouac and Ginsberg, as well as being something of a psychoanalyst, but he was never part of the Beat Community. Significantly, when Beat figures such as Kerouac and Gary Snyder immersed themselves in Buddhism, Burroughs was never involved with it. He claimed that he had studied Buddhism, but did not see it at as relevant to contemporary society in the same way that Kerouac did. Nor did Burroughs seek salvation in the myth of America like Kerouac, instead he demanded action and fundamental change. Although Kerouac may have been a social rebel, he was of a sort that was quite easily contained within the existing order of things: the same cannot be said of William Burroughs.

The legend of Burroughs as a Beat icon of counterculture rebellion often distracts from the actual content of his work. People have an opinion about Burroughs without even having read his work. His name, and references to his work, crops up constantly amongst much popular music and film since the 1960s, and this has served to reinforce an iconic image of the man. Before he is entombed forever as an eccentric, avant-garde celebrity figure (and therefore, fundamentally harmless), he should be recognised as an important social and political thinker who recorded the structures of control behind modern living in post-war America, before most had even realised their arrival. This study will assess Burroughs’ Naked Lunch in these terms, whilst grounding it firmly in the historical realities of post-war America.


Of the published primary sources, Naked Lunch will, of course, be the central text used in this thesis. Naked Lunch originated as a series of “Routines”, the seeds and early versions of which can often be found in Burroughs’ letters in the 1940s and 50s, written mainly to Allen Ginsberg from Tangier, and now published in Viking Penguin. This is an invaluable source in clarifying and contextualising many of the ideas put forward in Naked Lunch. Some of Burroughs’ previously unpublished “Routines” from the Naked Lunch period can be found in the Interzone collection, which is also of use. Excerpts from Burroughs’ body of work, some previously unpublished, are collected in Word Virus: the William Burroughs Reader, which contains perceptive essays by Ann Douglas and James Grauerholz.

Critical responses from various debates around Burroughs’ work are collected in William S. Burroughs at the Front, edited by Robin Lydenberg and Jennie Skerl. Although a large portion of the essays are not dealing with Naked Lunch, it still proves to be useful in assessing the shifting critical and analytical climate that has surrounded Burroughs and his work. There have been valuable studies which approach Burroughs from the perspective of literary criticism, but are not unaware of the wider implications of his work. The first of these was William Burroughs: The Algebra of Need by Eric Mottram, which contains an analysis of the socio-political content of Naked Lunch. Robin Lydenberg’s Word Cultures: Radical Theory and Practice in William S. Burroughs’ Fiction is a literary analysis of Burroughs’ work, which considers how he attempts to “reverse and explode the kind of assumptions about truth, empiricism, and moral norms which form the basis of literary humanism.”5

Wising up the Marks: the Amodern William Burroughs by Timothy Murphy is to date the most thorough analysis of William Burroughs’ work. Murphy approaches Burroughs from a mainly sociological perspective, and analyses the theories implicit and explicit within Burroughs’ work. Murphy presents a case for Burroughs being what he calls “amodern”, and he defines “amodernism” as an essentially politically variant to postmodernism. The fundamental pessimism of postmodernism is accepted by amodernists, but the “endless squabbling over terminology” is replaced with a sense of resistance.6 The postmodernist rejection of mass politics is seen as insufficient, for it is only complacent with capital. Murphy’s essay on Naked Lunch in Wising up the Marks seeks to clarify the sociological criticisms within the book, and place them in the context of social theorists.

Primary documents relating to the military industrial complex are collected in Merrit Roe Smith and Gregory Clancey, Major Problems in the History of American Technology: Documents and Essays. C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite is an insightful contemporary look at the relationship between government and business. Kathy Peiss’s Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality: Documents and Essays provides an introduction to the texts of Kinsey and Wertham. Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, published in 1954, is a psychological survey which considers the influence popular culture upon the sexuality of the young, and as such is an excellent insight into attitudes towards sexuality in postwar America. Donald Webster Cory’s The Homosexual in America: A Subjective Approach is another contemporary text of value which will be used, as will Alfred Kinsey’s seminal 1948 work, Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male. The one internet source that has been used in this study is George Painter’s history of laws relating to homosexuality in America, which is unique in its content and thorough in its analysis.

The sociological and philosophical works which will be considered for their relationship with Naked Lunch include Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison and Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. From the Frankfurt School of Social Research, I will be considering primarily Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason, his work with Adorno entitled Dialectic of Enlightenment, and Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man. Also of use is Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West and essays by Gilles Deleuze in the October periodical and his book Negotiations.

A variety of more general secondary works are also used. Biographical information about William Burroughs’ life up to and including the writing of Naked Lunch can be gleamed from his Letters and his first two novels, Junky and Queer. The best general introduction to Burroughs’ life in the period relevant to this study is Oliver Harris’s introduction to the Letters, but also of use are Barry Miles’ William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible and James Campbell’s This is the Beat Generation: New York – San Franciso – Paris. Richard Butsch’s The Making of American Audiences: From Stage to Television is an excellent study of the rise of television, and Victor Navasky’s Naming Names provides good coverage of the effects of McCarthyism. Leuchtenburg’s Troubled Feast, Carl Degler’s, Affluence and Anxiety: America Since 1945, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, and Chafe and Sitkoff’s A History of Our Time: Readings on Postwar America provide good general histories on the period.


The first chapter of this study, “Consumption and Control”, will examine the way in which Naked Lunch is a description of and critique of postwar consumer culture, and the control mechanisms which it employs. The way in which Burroughs portrays consumer culture as being inherently degrading to man, and depicts a Spenglerian divide between city and country is described. The second chapter of this study, “Science and Reason”, will seek to explicitly define the relationship between Naked Lunch and the work of the Frankfurt School of Social Research. The distinct language of reason underpinning capitalist society is criticised by Burroughs and the Frankfurt School, and both Burroughs and the thinkers Frankfurt School have a critical view of the manifestations of “progress” in the postwar period: both see science and technology as being an active part of the political and economic environment in which they exist, and this will be shown. The third chapter is entitled “Normality and Homosexuality”. William Burroughs is one of the most insightful and intelligent writers on sexuality, yet he is overlooked or rejected by many. This may be in part due to his overt hostility to “gay culture”. This chapter will therefore attempt to fill this void of research, and investigate the way in which Naked Lunch critically dissects the language of normality and homosexuality in postwar America. Before Foucault, Burroughs was using distinctly Foucauldian reasoning in this assessment of the status of homosexuals in America and so this chapter is an attempt to elaborate upon these important parallels.

1. In this study, the terms “postwar” and “1950s” will be used interchangeably to describe the period in American history from the end of the Second World War until the publication of Naked Lunch in 1959.
2. Skerl and Lydenberg (Eds.), William S. Burroughs at the Front: Critical Reception, 1959-1989, (Illinois, 1991), p. 6
3. Barry Miles, William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible, (London, 2002), p. 112
4. Marshall McLuhan, “Notes on Burroughs”, William S. Burroughs at the Front: Critical Reception, 1959-1989, Skerl and Lydenberg (Eds.), (Illinois, 1991), p. 73
5. Robin Lydenberg, Word Cultures: Radical Theory and Practice in William S. Burroughs’ Fiction, (Illinois, 1987), p. 8
6. Timothy S. Murphy, Wising up the Marks: The Amodern William Burroughs, (Berkeley, 1997), p. 2

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