"Naked Lunch": the First Fifty Years

This exhibition celebrates the 50th anniversary of William S. Burroughs's novel Naked Lunch and Columbia University's extensive holdings of rare books and original manuscripts related to the novel's creation, composition, and editing. The exhibition includes Burroughs's original manuscript of Naked Lunch, and correspondence from Lucien Carr, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac.

Exhibit Curator

Gerald W. Cloud

William S. Burroughs »

William S. Burroughs was born February 5, 1914 in St. Louis, Missouri, the grandson of William Seward Burroughs, the inventor of the adding machine and the founder of a family fortune that supported the young Burroughs in his early days as a writer.  After graduating from Harvard in 1936, Burroughs traveled in Europe, attended graduate courses in psychology and anthropology at Columbia (1937-38) and Harvard.  In the early 1940s he worked as an exterminator in Chicago, then moved in summer 1943 to New York City.  He met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac through a mutual friend from St. Louis, Lucien Carr.  Burroughs traveled widely during the 1950s and early 1960s, as did Kerouac and Ginsberg, and they developed a close and significant friendship through sustained and intense correspondence as they moved from New York to Mexico City, Paris, Tangier, London, and beyond.  By the early 1960s their works would come to characterize the Beat Generation—indeed, Ginsberg’s Howl, and other poems (1956), Kerouac’s On the Road (1958), and Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959) stand today as the most significant and influential avant-garde works of the period.  Burroughs’s career as a writer was characterized by ongoing experimentation and he produced a series of writings that expanded upon the techniques he discovered during the composition of his most well known and critically admired work, Naked Lunch.

William S. Burroughs reads Naked Lunch »


William S. Burroughs reading from his novel Naked Lunch.

“Junk,” Junkie, Junky »

Included in this exhibition as a complementary counterpart to Naked Lunch, Burroughs’s first novel Junky is a kind of sibling, written in what the author referred to as a “straight narrative method.”  Burroughs’s began work on the book, which he called “Junk,” early in 1950.  Published by Ace Books in 1953, the firsthand account of addiction and illicit drug use in Junkie is unlike that of its fragmented successor Naked Lunch (1959).  Burroughs began “Junk” while living in Mexico City, writing to Kerouac on 10 March 1950, “I have been writing a novel about junk.”  Burroughs worked hard to eliminate any theoretical digressions that would distract from the first person narrative of Willie Lee.  The manuscript that he produced is now part of Columbia’s collection; two of its pages are exhibited here.  According to Burroughs scholar Oliver Harris (editor of Junky: the Definitive Text of “Junk”) this manuscript was never replaced or superseded, although various emendations were made to subsequent editions of the printed book. 

Naked Lunch in Manuscript »

According to James Grauerholz and Barry Miles, the editors of Naked Lunch: the Restored Text, Burroughs’s most well known book “evolved slowly and unpredictably over nine tumultuous years… not according to a premeditated outline or plan, but accumulated through a decade of travel and turmoil on four continents.”  The correspondence and manuscript material held by Columbia documents the evolution of Naked Lunch and many aspects of the book’s production are evident in the pieces exhibited here.  In the section of this exhibition dedicated to the Naked Lunch manuscripts held at Columbia—designated as the “Interzone” manuscript, as it was originally titled—it is evident that Burroughs’s novel circulated in fragments between the author’s friends and correspondents, publishers, and editors.  This exhibition displays various pieces of a complex literary work, one that Allen Ginsberg described as “as endless novel that will drive us all mad.” 

 After his travels in Central and South America (January-July 1953), Burroughs had settled in Tangiers in late 1953, where he continued writing and experimenting with his unconventional text.  He seems to have first referred to Naked Lunch by that title in a letter to Ginsberg dated 13 December 1954—but, as Oliver Harris has observed, at this time Burroughs considered “Naked Lunch as a tripartite work consisting of ‘Junk,’ ‘Queer,’ and ‘Yage’.”  Burroughs’s correspondence, particularly those letters written to Ginsberg, contains many excerpts, fragments, and the routines that would eventually be added to his manuscript and edited into book form.  Eventually, Ginsberg & Kerouac joined Burroughs in Tangier to work on Naked Lunch in early 1957, with the goal to type and edit the various fragments and sections until they had a “continuous and readable” manuscript—the latter survives as the “Interzone” manuscript, and is held in Columbia’s collections.  The “Interzone” manuscript was submitted to City Lights for consideration, but turned down by its publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  The manuscript itself was returned to Allen Ginsberg in New York, and it remained in his papers until it came to Columbia.  Meanwhile, Burroughs kept writing and editing his text and the version that was finally published by the Olympia Press in the summer of 1959 was an amalgam of the efforts of Burroughs as author and the Kerouac-Ginsberg editing team.

The Dream Machine »

The Dream Machine is a simple device: a slotted cardboard cylinder is mounted on an phonographic turntable, and sits like a lampshade over a lightbulb. Power it up and the spinning cylinder creates a flickering light that oscillates at a rhythm corresponding to alpha waves in the brain, thus creating a psychedelic effect for the observer.  Columbia’s Dream Machine has a Burroughs provenance, and was acquired from the estate of his former assistant and collaborator Steven Lowe (1949-2007).  To see the Dream Machine in action, have a look at the video monitor behind you. 

Brion Gysin (1916-1986) and Ian Sommerville (c.1940-1976), two of Burroughs’s artistic collaborators, are credited as the Dream Machine’s creators.  Although Burroughs’s experience with the Dream Machine postdates the composition of Naked Lunch, it represents his interest in altered perceptions, experimental art, and collaboration.  Ted Morgan, author of Literary Outlaw: Life and Times of William S Burroughs (1988), writes that Burroughs “thought the Dream Machine was terrific, and had strange visions peering at it.”

Naked Lunch in Periodicals »

Important to the history of Naked Lunch is its publication in periodical form.  Small literary magazines and journals have traditionally favored new and unknown writers, offering them a chance to publish their work in limited circulation for very little remuneration.  Excerpts from Naked Lunch appeared in several of the most significant literary journals of the 1950s, including the Black Mountain Review, the Evergreen Review, the Chicago Review, Big Table, Kulchur, and Yūgen.  The periodical appearance gave Burroughs an early audience for his work, and brought his name to the attention of his future publishers.

Naked Lunch: Published Book »

Naked Lunch, the endless novel that will drive us all mad…”

Since 1959 Naked Lunch has been printed in a number of editions.

Photographs »

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Rare Book & Manuscript Library / Butler Library, 6th Fl. East / 535 West 114th St. / New York, NY 10027 / (212) 854-5153 / rbml@libraries.cul.columia.edu