The Naked Lunch by William Burroughs (1959)

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The Naked Lunch by William Burroughs (1959)


Burroughs, William S. The Naked Lunch. Paris: Olympia Press, [1959]. Lilly Library: PS3503.U78 N16


In The Naked Lunch by William Seward Burroughs (1914-97), the narrator William Lee crosses the United States into Mexico, where he regularly meets his drug dealers, and then travels to Tangier. In the course of his journey, he explores his drug addiction, homosexuality, and various sexual deviances in lurid violent vignettes. The first excerpts of the novel were issued in a student magazine at the University of Chicago in 1958. In Paris, Maurice Girodias’ Olympia Press brought out the first complete edition of the novel in July 1959. The U.S. Customs seized several copies of the book that Girodias had tried to distribute in the United States, since the work was considered contraband material. The first U.S. edition of Naked Lunch was published by Grove Press in 1962. The book was brought to trial on obscenity charges after a Boston bookseller was arrested for selling copies of it. The case was handled by the Massachusetts Supreme Court, but the hearing was delayed until after the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Memoirs v. Massachussets in March 1966, which confirmed that a “book cannot be held to be obscene in view of substantial evidence showing that it has literary, historical, and social importance” (383 U.S. 413). Following this decision, the Massachusetts Supreme Court cleared Naked Lunch of obscenity charges (see Attorney General vs. A Book Named “Naked Lunch”, 351 Mass. 298). At a 1962 symposium in Edinburgh, Burroughs argued that “Censorship […] is the presumed right of governmental agencies to decide what words and images the citizen is permitted to see. That is precisely thought-control. […] If censorship were removed, perhaps books would be judged more on literary merit, and a dull, poorly written book on a sexual subject would find few readers. Fewer people would be stimulated by the sight of a four-letter word on the printed page. The anxiety and prurience of which censorship is the overt political phenomenon has so far prevented any serious scientific investigation of sexual phenomena.”

Text of Attorney General vs. A Book Named “Naked Lunch”:


“The Naked Lunch by William Burroughs (1959),” Banned Books, accessed July 13, 2024,

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