Burroughs' 'Naked Lunch,' Still Fresh At 50 Once the center of an obscenity trial, William S. Burroughs' novel is a dark, wild ride through the terror of heroin addiction and withdrawal, filled with paranoia, erotica and drug-fueled hallucinations.

Burroughs' 'Naked Lunch,' Still Fresh At 50

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/113610846/113627248" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


William Burroughs never won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but his novel "Naked Lunch" became a landmark in 20th-century American literature. It was also the subject of the last obscenity trial in the U.S. involving a novel. That was back in 1965.

For the next three days, three universities in New York will be celebrating the novel's 50th anniversary, as Tom Vitale reports.

TOM VITALE: "Naked Lunch" is a dark and wild ride filled with paranoia, elation, horror, erotic fantasies, opium dreams and hallucinations. Author William S. Burroughs extrapolates the terror of heroin withdrawal into a vivid scene of horrible creatures drinking in a dark cafe.

Mr. WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS (Author, "Naked Lunch"): (Reading) Thin, purple-blue lips cover razor-sharp beak of black bone with which they frequently tear each other to shreds in fights over clients.

VITALE: Burroughs read from the novel for a 1990 commercial recording. Five years earlier, sitting in the apartment he called the bunker, in the locker room of a closed YMCA on the Bowery, Burroughs said the novel was autobiographical.

Mr. BURROUGHS: It was just my character. I was always attracted to that sort of thing. Some people like neat suburbs. I always am attracted to the rundown and the old and the offbeat.

VITALE: Burroughs had the money to indulge his eccentricities. He was an heir to the Burroughs Adding Machine Company. He studied medicine at Harvard. He was also an original member of the Beat literary circle that included novelist Jack Kerouac and poet Allen Ginsberg. Burroughs said his work had little in common stylistically with those two, but their encouragement had everything to do with his becoming a writer.

Mr. BURROUGHS: Remember, none of us had ever published anything. We couldn't call ourselves writers. And I'd sort of resisted the idea of being a writer. But Jack definitely did encourage me. And he said that I would write a novel - the title would be "Naked Lunch." That's his title - Kerouac.

VITALE: Burroughs said the "Naked Lunch" is a frozen moment when everyone sees what's at the end of every fork. The novel offered a stark contrast to the prevailing vision of reality when it was published, says poet Anne Waldman.

Ms. ANNE WALDMAN (Poet): It's post-World War II and it's not the woman with Kelvinator refrigerator opening the door to show you how crisp the lettuce stays. It's, you know, a moment frozen on the end of that fork where you see reality clearly, so you see the lettuce decomposing.

VITALE: The shocking reality of "Naked Lunch" caused a furor when excerpts were published in the University of Chicago's literary magazine in 1958. A Paris pornographer took note and published "Naked Lunch" in France the following year. Then in 1962, Grove Press issued the first American edition. A year later, a Boston bookstore owner was arrested for selling it.

At the obscenity trial, the book was defended by writers Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg and John Ciardi. Finally, in 1966, a high court ruled that the book had redeeming social value and was therefore not obscene.

One of the themes of "Naked Lunch" is restrictions on freedom. A recurring character in the novel is the sinister and prescient Dr. Benway, an expert in interrogation, brainwashing and control.

Mr. BURROUGHS: (Reading) As regards the interrogation of suspects, Benway has this to say: While in general I avoid the use of torture - torture localizes the opponent and mobilizes resistance - the threat of torture is useful to induce in the subject the appropriate feeling of helplessness and gratitude to the interrogator for withholding it.

Ms. REGINA WEINREICH (New York School of Visual Arts): What "Naked Lunch" is is a vision of the truth.

VITALE: Regina Weinreich teaches Beat Generation literature at New York's School of Visual Arts.

Ms. WEINREICH: It cuts through the norms of society, the way that we all have to be polite, the way we all have to follow our institutions, our governments, our addictions, perhaps, even to power and to language and offers us an alternative, and the alternative is to be individual and to go to those places on our own.

VITALE: To date, "Naked Lunch" has sold more than one million copies. Author William S. Burroughs was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1975. He died in 1997 at the age of 83.

Mr. BURROUGHS: (Reading) The Dream Police disintegrate in globs of rotten ectoplasm, swept away by an old junkie, coughing and spitting in the sick morning.

VITALE: For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.