Naked Lunch is considered Burroughs' seminal work, and one of the landmark publications in the history of American literature. Extremely controversial in both its subject matter and its use of obscene language (something Burroughs recognized and intended), the book was banned in Boston and Los Angeles in the United States, and several European publishers were harassed. It was one of the more recent American books over which an obscenity trial was held. The book was banned in Boston in 1962 due to obscenity (notably child murder and acts of pedophilia), but that decision was reversed in 1966 by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The Appeals Court found the book did not violate obscenity statutes, as it was found to have some social value. The hearing included testimony in support of the work by Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer.
Sections of the manuscript were published in the Spring 1958 edition of Robert Creeley's Black Mountain Review and in the Spring 1958 edition of the University of Chicago student-run publication The Chicago Review. The student edition was not well received, and caused the university administration to discuss the future censorship of the Winter 1959 edition of the publication, resulting in the resignation of all but one of the editors. When the editor Paul Carroll published BIG TABLE Magazine (Issue No. 1, Spring 1959) alongside former Chicago Review editor Irving Rosenthal, he was found guilty of sending obscene material through the U.S. mail for including "Ten Episodes from Naked Lunch", a piece of writing the Judicial Officer for the United States Postal Service deemed "undisciplined prose, far more akin to the early work of experimental adolescents than to anything of literary merit" and initially judged it as non-mailable under the provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 1461.
On a more specific level, Naked Lunch also protests the death penalty. In Burroughs's "Deposition: A Testimony Concerning A Sickness", "The Blue Movies" (appearing in the vignette "A.J.'s Annual Party"), is deemed "a tract against capital punishment."