William S. Burroughs

William S. Burroughs in 1982. Photo by © Christopher Felver/CORBIS


Think of the “Beats,” and Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg may come most readily to mind. But arguably the most influential figure of the Beat Generation was writer and avant-garde artist William S. Burroughs, who would have turned 100 this year. To celebrate the still-controversial writer’s centennial birthday, two local Burroughs aficionados have created The Burroughs Century—a festival featuring an array of Burroughs-related films, documents, art, and presentations to be held February 5-9.

“Bloomington is a perfect place to hold the festival because Burroughs’ work is studied in universities but also appeals to so many different types of people beyond academia,” says festival co-founder James Paasche, a Ph.D. candidate at Indiana University in film and media studies.

Like his fellow Beats, Burroughs was an artistic and cultural pioneer. His most famous works, including the novels Junkie and Naked Lunch, attracted critical praise and generated controversy for their unapologetic explorations of drug addiction and homosexuality. In other works, such as The Nova Trilogy, Burroughs popularized the literary “cut-up” technique, which involves literally slicing up a text and rearranging words to form a new work.

Today Burroughs’ work and legacy are arguably even more relevant than in his own time. “He wrote about things like homosexuality, the war on drugs, about the government controlling people through the airwaves,” says festival co-founder and local writer Charles Cannon. “Legalizing marijuana and the government spying on American citizens, the things Burroughs was interested in, are still with us today. He was ahead of his time.”

The Burroughs Century events include an exhibit of Burroughs’ art, including his notorious “shotgun” paintings (created by firing a shotgun at cans of spray paint lined up against pieces of wood), an exhibition of Burroughs’ papers at The Lilly Library, a Burroughs film festival at the IU Cinema, and an academic symposium featuring Burroughs scholar Oliver Harris as the keynote speaker.

“I think the diversity of events we have planned will appeal to anyone from IU professors to townies—something Burroughs would have appreciated,” says Cannon. “Our festival is the first to celebrate the legacy of this great artist, and I’m sure it won’t be the only one.”