The Obscenity Trial Over the Publication of "Naked Lunch" by William S. Burroughs

Updated on February 22, 2018

"Burroughs has said that the death of his wife gave him a literary vocation. He felt that he had been possessed by an invader, "The Ugly Spirit," who controlled him at the time of the accident and maneuvered him into a lifelong struggle, "In which I have had no choice except to write my way out." Ann Charters From the William Burroughs Biographical Introduction in "The Portable Beat Reader."

Who Is William S. Burroughs?

William S. Burroughs was born in St. Louis Missouri on the 5th of February 1914. He was the grandson to the inventor of the Burroughs adding machine.

Burroughs was raised in the midwest except for his High School years where he attended Los Alamos High School in Los Alamos New Mexico. It is said that he started his "Nuclear Style" of writing during his High School years.

After graduating High School Burrough's attended the School of Medicine at Harvard and graduated around the beginning of the 1940s. He did not continue his education as a Doctor but travelled around to Chicago and other cities until he settled in New York in 1943.

Around this time he attended Columbia University, while he was at University he befriended Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Jack Kerouac was a great influence on the writing of Burroughs.

Due to Burroughs' age he was given a fatherly role in the Beat Movement. While he stayed in New York Burroughs took up a lifestyle of crime and became addicted to Morphine.

It was also during this time that he met his wife, Joan Vollmer, who was addicted to benzadrine. The two of them and their son William Burroughs Jr. left New York and lived in New Orleans for awhile, then Texas, and then Mexico City.

On September 6th 1951 Burroughs shot his wife in Mexico City while playing William Tell. After the accidental death of his wife his serious writing began. In 1953 he wrote "Junky" to some success. Cathleen Medwick states in Vogue : He..."wrote about homosexuality; he pushed drugs from New York to the Rio Grande and wrote about his life as a junkie."

Burroughs moved to Tangiers and began his work of "The Yage Letters" and "Interzone" which was to become "Naked Lunch."

In 1983 Burroughs won an induction into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Burroughs own "street" lifestyle left him with his own kind of writing that offered a new outlook on poetic prose.

Burrough stated that "his self is crumbling away to shreds and tatters, bits of old songs, stray quotations, fleeting spurts of purpose and direction sputtering out of nothing and nowhere, like the body of death deserted by one soul after the other."

"To me this is a simple portrayal of Hell. It is Hell precisely...Burroughs is...a religious writer. There is a sense in " Naked Lunch" of the destruction of the soul which is more intense than...any other modern novel. It is a vision of how man would act if man was totally divorced from eternity...Burroughs avoids it is the sort of humor which flourishes in prisons, in the Army, among junkies, race tracks, and pool halls...based on bodily functions and the frailties of the body, the slights, humiliations, and tortures the body can undergo. It is a wild and deadly humor...Bitter as alkali, it pickles every serious subject...of the harshest experiences; what is left untouched is as a bone. It is this sort of fine, dry residue which the emotional substance of Burroughs' work for me..." Norman Mailer during the Boston Trial of "Naked Lunch" January 12th 1965

About The Book "Naked Lunch"

"Naked Lunch" was published in 1959 and instantly became controversial around the world. London banned the book first and for a year after its publication the Times Literary Supplement printed an editorial series called UGH which directly addressed the book. These articles made Burroughs a sort of "sick sensationalist" as said by Oliver Harris in The New Statesman.

I consider the book Science Fiction Noir where the lead character William Lee or aka "Agent Lee" travels around a fictional world to outrun the law and find a fix. The story is non-linear and jumps between action throughout the book.

He travels to Annexia where he meets Dr. Benway who supplies him with the drugs he needs. Come to find out William Lee is part of an organization similar to our CIA and has secret orders to spy on Dr. Benway.

Then William Lee moves to Freeland and then through the local countryside of Interzone where he is on the run for crimes against the state. He manages to outrun Interzone agents for awhile and when they finally encounter one another there is a shoot out and William Lee is able to shoot and kill all of them.

This obviously is a very short summary of the action that occurs in the book.

Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg were two authors who considered the book a masterpiece of our time.

Mailer states that Burroughs had the talent to portray real life in all its beauty and all its viciousness and meanness. Burroughs was able to use what Mailer called "Gutter Talk" better than any author at the time or since. Mailer describes "Gutter Talk" as the talk of criminals, soldiers, athletes, and junkies.

Burroughs used abstract poetic imagery that is often disgusting, yet at the same time very sensual, to create a montage of images that encompasses a collision of the real and the fantastic. To a degree it is similar to the paintings of Heironymous Bosch.

Time magazine called "Naked Lunch" one of the "100 Best English Lanuage Novels From 1923-2005."

I have to admit that parts of the book are incredibly hard to stomach and beyond eye opening. I would like to point out that this book is not for everyone and should be read with an open mind.

"BY THE COURT...The supreme Court of the United States has held that, to justify a holding of obscenity, "three elements must coalesce: it must be established that (a) the dominant theme of the material as a whole appeals to a prurient interest in sex (b) the material is offensive because it offronts contemperary community standards.. and (c) the material is utterly without redeeming social value"..."Naked Lunch" may appeal to the prurient interest of deviants and those curious about deviants. To us, it is grossly offensive and is what the author himself says, "brutal, obscene, and disgusting." The Attorney General during the Boston Trial of "Naked Lunch."

The Trial at Boston

"Naked Lunch" is one the most recent banned books in America. In 1962 it was banned in Boston for obscenity and in 1966 the Massachusets Supreme court reversed the decision with the help of testimony by Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg.

One of the main obscenity bills past in the sixties was described by Robert Vosper, the president of the ALA in 1966, as stating that if the material is not "morally corrosive" and "pernicious" it will not be investigated. Vosper then goes on to say that there is little evidence that so-called "pernicious" material does any moral harm to individuals.

Fred M. Vinson Jr., Assistant US Attorner General in1966, stated that they have no scientific reports that "morally corrosive materal" can harm. He went on to say that to even prove that obscene material is harmful would take "painstaking" scientific research.

The Massachussets court hearings started on July 7th 1966 in the Supreme Court of Massachussets. The courts had declared the book obscene in Boston on January 12th 1965 and an appeal had been filed to the State Supreme Court.

The trial had as witnesses Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, john Ciardi, Paul Hollander, Gabriele B. Jackson, Norman Holland, Stanley E Eldred, John B Sturrock, and Thomas H. Jackson.

The attorney appearing on behalf of Grove Press Inc. was Edward de Grazia assisted by Daniel Klubock.

A text of the trial is available online at Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg explained to the judge the necessity of the writing and that even though it contained "pornographic" material it was used in a fashion resembling art and had merit in our society.

The court records state that the book showed signs of having some redeeming value based on the amount of literature dealing with drug addiction discussed in Journals of Literature. The book then could not be considered obscene since even if a fragment is considered of redeeming value the work could not be banned.

In Conclusion

"Naked Lunch" raises many questions that should be answered before a court of law has any say in the tightening of our First Amendment rights.

Who can determine what has no social value?

Who is considered the average person?

Doesn't everyone have sexual interests whether acted upon or only in the psyche?

Who can consider what is "prurient?"

What gives the court the power to decide what is in our best interest, when it clearly has not thought out the problem itself?

Everyone has the right to read what he/she wants.

Burroughs "Naked Lunch" offered a doorway into the conversation of banned art in our country and hopefully after the Massachussets Supreme Court decision our country will be less apt to ban in the future.

Excerpt from "Reality Sandwiches"

The method must be purest meat

and no symbolic dressing,

actual visions & actual prisons

as seen then and now.

Prisons and visions represented

with rare descriptions

corresponding exactly to those

of Alcatraz and Rose.

A naked lunch is natural to us,

we eat reality sandwiches.

But allegories are so much lettuce.

Don't hide the madness.

Allen Ginsberg

Questions & Answers


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      • jhamann profile imageAUTHOR

        Jamie Lee Hamann 

        2 years ago from Reno NV

        Thank you Vernon Nugent for your kind words. I appreciate the comment and hope you are well. Jamie

      • Vernon Nugent profile image

        Vernon Nugent 

        3 years ago

        I am a fan of Burroughs, Bukowski, Baudelaire, Ribaud etc.... they all had interesting language when they wrote , which I attribute much to whatever hallucinogen they were on, Opium, H, the green liquor, and with the exception of Bukowski - his mind was so pickled, it must have caused him hallucinations LOL Oh also, Baudelaire's essay, alternate realities was probably influential for Burroughs.

        Great Article. I haven't looked yet, but I bet you have something on the Howl (Ginsberg) !

      • jhamann profile imageAUTHOR

        Jamie Lee Hamann 

        6 years ago from Reno NV

        Thank you Mel Carriere and Writer Fox. Jamie

      • Writer Fox profile image

        Writer Fox 

        6 years ago from the wadi near the little river

        Wonderful research and presentation. Enjoyed and Voted Up!

      • Mel Carriere profile image

        Mel Carriere 

        6 years ago from San Diego California

        I am a big fan of literature, but I confess that I attempted "Naked Lunch" and found it unreadable. All the same I respect Burrough's free speech rights, and I respect his role in literary history. Furthermore, Burroughs was notable because he was an inspiration to deceased rock star Kurt Cobain. Kurt admired his work and actually went to meet him. Very interesting hub.


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