William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination

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Southern Illinois University Press, 2003 - Literary Criticism - 287 pages

William Burroughs is both an object of widespread cultural fascination and one of America’s great original writers. The two mysteries that Oliver Harris explores are how Burroughs became that writer and what fascination itself means. His book is both a work of investigative scholarship that draws on rare access to manuscripts to unearth a secret history behind the received story of Burroughs the writer and an enquiry into the experience of being fascinated, its enigmatic psychology and seductive allure.

Harris examines the major works Burroughs produced in the 1950s—Junky, Queer, The Yage Letters, and Naked Lunch—analyzing them within their cultural history and in relation to the methods of their writing. Piecing together for the first time an accurate, material record of Burroughs’ creative history during his germinal decade as a writer, Harris shows the importance of getting this right. He refutes the “junk paradigm” of addiction and instead reveals how the dark power of Burroughs’s fiction, particularly its sexual and political dimensions, was shaped by the creative energy he invested in his letter writing. As Burroughs said to Allen Ginsberg about Naked Lunch, “the real novel is letters to you.”

Examining a history of epistolary practices from Kafka to Kerouac, Harris reveals the unique nature and economy of Burroughs’ letters. Readers are thus able to recognize the emergence of Burroughs’ true textual politics—not just his writing’s analysis of power, but its own relation to it—within his actual writing practices. Finally, it becomes clear that the discovery of such secrets does not demystify Burroughs, since this discovery is one more response to the enduring power of his fascination.

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About the author (2003)

Oliver Harris is a professor in the School of American Studies at Keele University in Staffordshire, England. He is the editor of The Selected Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1945-1959 and the editor of the fiftieth-anniversary edition of Burroughs’ Junky. Harris is also the author of numerous scholarly articles on Burroughs, the Beat Generation, film noir, and the epistolary form.

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