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Burroughs' 'Naked Lunch,' Still Fresh At 50

First published 50 years ago, William S. Burroughs' novel Naked Lunch is a dark, wild ride through the terror of heroin addiction and withdrawal, filled with paranoia, erotica and drug-fueled hallucinations.

In an introduction (of sorts) to the novel, Burroughs wrote that the book was a result of "detailed notes on sickness and delirium" that he took during his 15 years of heroin addiction. As he explained in a 1985 interview: "It was just my character. ... I always was attracted to the run-down, or the old or the offbeat."

Burroughs hadn't always intended to be a man of letters. An heir to the Burroughs Adding Machine Company, he initially studied medicine at Harvard before falling into the group of misfit writers who eventually evolved into "The Beats." Though Burroughs said his work had little in common stylistically with fellow Beats Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, he credits their encouragement in helping him get started.

"I sort of resisted the idea of being a writer," he said. "But Jack [Kerouac] definitely did encourage me. And he said that I would write a novel called ... Naked Lunch. That's his title, Kerouac."

Burroughs described the novel as "a frozen moment when everyone sees what is at the end of every fork." Poet Anne Waldman says that at the time it was published, Naked Lunch offered a stark contrast to the prevailing vision of reality during the Eisenhower years:

I sort of resisted the idea of being a writer. ... But Jack [Kerouac] definitely did encourage me. And he said that I would write a novel called ... 'Naked Lunch.' That's his title, Kerouac.

"It's not the woman with her Kelvinator refrigerator, opening the door to show you how crisp the lettuce stays," says Waldman. "It's the 'naked lunch' ... where you see reality clearly, you see the lettuce decomposing."

That shocking reality 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.

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

Regina Weinreich, who teaches Beat Generation literature at New York's School of Visual Arts, believes the novel represents an alternative way of life, one that focuses on the individual as opposed to the masses.

"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," Weinreich explains. "The alternative is to be [an] individual, and to go to those places on our own."

To date, Naked Lunch has sold more than 1 million copies; a 50th anniversary edition of the novel is due out next month from Grove Press.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Vitale

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