A prolific writer, John Anthony Burgess Wilson didn’t publish his first novel until he was almost forty. Born and raised in Manchester, England, Burgess spent most of his adult life abroad in the army before teaching in Malaya with the British Colonial Service. Diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1960, Burgess began writing at a frantic pace in the hope that the royalties from his books would support his wife after he died. He wrote five novels that year alone. When he later discovered that his condition had been misdiagnosed, Burgess continued to write and publish novels at a rapid rate. Though he wrote nearly forty novels, his most famous work is the dystopian novella A Clockwork Orange (1962), which owes much of its popularity to Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film adaptation. Burgess himself thought that A Clockwork Orange was far from his best work. In an interview, he dismissed the book as gimmicky and didactic, and rued the idea that this book would survive while others that he valued more were sure to pass into obscurity.
Burgess’s novels address fundamental issues of human nature and morality, such as the existence of good and evil and the importance of free will. Burgess was raised as a Catholic, and though he left the church as a young man, he retained his admiration for its tenets and doctrines. Although Burgess was interested in and influenced by numerous religions, Catholicism exerted the greatest influence on his moral views. His portrayal of human beings as inherently predisposed toward violence, for example, reflects his acceptance of the Catholic view that all human beings are tainted by original sin.
In his own estimation, Burgess had a tendency toward anarchy, and he felt that the socialistic British welfare state was too willing to sacrifice individual liberty in favor of social stability. He despised American popular culture for fostering homogeneity, passivity, and apathy. He regarded American law enforcement as hopelessly corrupt and violent, referring to it as “an alternative criminal body.” Each of these targets gets lampooned in A Clockwork Orange, but Burgess’s most pointed satire is reserved for the psychological movement known as behaviorism. Regarded as both an artistic luminary and an eccentric crank, Burgess made several television appearances and served as a visiting professor at universities throughout America and England. He continued writing and composing music until his death in 1993.