Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
Throughout my columns in the Bunker, particularly in the Floating Bear pieces, I have touched on the collectible and downright fun nature of association copies. In the world of rare books, association copies are “books once belonging to the author, signed or annotated by the author, or someone associated with the author of the book in some way. Book inscribed by author to a famous person, or owned by someone of interest, or someone connected to the book or author.” Books from a famous person’s library with their bookplate are included in this definition. How did this book get into this person’s library? Did the book have any influence or importance to the owner? Ralph Maud wrote a book on Charles Olson entitled Charles Olson’s Reading that explores just these questions. In fact, Olson made an early name for himself in academic circles when he reconstructed Herman Melville’s dispersed library. This project proved the foundation for Olson’s influential study of Moby Dick, Call Me Ishmael, published in 1947.
In collecting, the focus is on the second part of the definition stressing the inscription to a famous person or somebody of interest to the author. Some collectors seek only material of this nature. For me, items of this type have always been very seductive. The first collectible book I ever bought was an association copy. When I graduated college and started earning a steady paycheck, one of the first things I did was start ordering rare book catalogs. I also stepped up my tour of the local rare bookstores and book fairs. I did this for months getting progressively more obsessed with actually buying something. With no idea what to collect and no sense of what books were worth both for me personally and on the market, everything seemed so expensive. To pay $100 for a book seemed crazy. Finally I could take it no longer and on an impulse I called Antic Hay Books in New Jersey and bought Ed Sanders’ Peace Eye published by Frontier Press in 1965 inscribed by Sanders to Philip Whalen: “With Tender Squirts.” Years later the mimeo nature of this book fit into my collection but when I bought it I knew nothing about it except that for $65, I could get a book linking two famous Beat writers. The association was everything. The book brought together a second generation East Coast Beat with a primary West Coast Beat who read at the Six Gallery. How did Sanders and Whalen know each other? Did they meet in person? Did they have a correspondence? I have yet to answer these questions.
Now the pleasure of Peace Eye has little to do with the signature and lies in the series of associations that I make with the publisher. Harvey Brown founded Frontier Press when he was attending the University of Buffalo in the 1960s. Brown came from a family of considerable wealth and, like the Hitchcocks who associated with Leary at Millbrook, Brown gave freely to the counterculture. The biggest benefactor of Brown’s generosity was Charles Olson. Buffalo in the 1960s was the epicenter of Olsonmania. (For more on Olson in Buffalo, see “Olson’s Buffalo” and Albert Glover’s “Charles Olson: Recollections.”) Literally and figuratively a huge figure in the decade, Olson rocked the University of Buffalo upon his arrival there in 1963. An Olson circle developed that championed the poet in the seven years until his death. This promotion continued through works of scholarship by the likes of Ralph Maud or George Butterick. Few in this circle were more fascinated with Olson than Harvey Brown. Brown founded Frontier Press to publish work that related to modern poetics or that Olson thought should be in print. The press was prolific. From just 1967 to 1971, Frontier Press published 25 books and pamphlets. Brown used his press to publish pirated editions of out of print work forcing larger publishers to issue forgotten texts by important writers. The Frontier edition of William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All is a perfect example. This work proved to be one of the Ur-Texts in the emerging poetics of the 1970s, like LANGUAGE poetry.
Frontier Press published Sanders’ Peace Eye in 1965. Peace Eye was an early book initiated by the Vietnam War and an example of the political nature of Frontier’s efforts. The book links the Olson circle in Buffalo with the mimeo and freak scene in the Lower East Side. Both Frontier and Fuck You Presses would publish the late numbered Cantos of Ezra Pound. Sanders, like Brown, was deeply influenced by Olson’s poetry and considerable presence. By all accounts, Olson was a force of nature and his powers of conversation are legend from Black Mountain to Buffalo to the Poetry Conference in Berkeley to the University of Connecticut right before his death in 1970.
Peace Eye was reissued in an expanded edition by Frontier in 1967 out of Brown’s hometown of Cleveland. Again the presence of Frontier Press in Cleveland creates a web of associations. Cleveland in the 1960s was home to as vibrant and diverse an underground publishing scene as any in the world. Like Sanders in New York, D.A. Levy served as the figurehead of the mimeo scene in Cleveland. This scene deserves much closer study. Hopefully, I can get to it in the near future. The various incarnations of Peace Eye link several vital communities of 1960s alternative poetry and that is the magic of the book for me now, not the more obvious linkage of names and coasts through the wonderful inscription.
Yet from my earliest days as a Burroughs collector, I have sought first editions with a signature. Like many collectors, I preferred a book simply adorned with the author’s name over a book inscribed to a regular Joe. The initial focus of my book collection was all Burroughs first editions from 1953-1965 simply and plainly signed by the author. In line with that plan, the first Burroughs book I bought was a signed copy of the 1969 Nova Broadcast printing of The Dead Star published by Jan Herman. So much for well laid plans.
Ken Lopez changed my thinking on this issue. Lopez wrote a very well reasoned and informative article laying out the debate between signed and inscribed copies. Inscribed copies include anything from just the simple signature with a brief “To John Doe” to an unpublished, improvised poem handwritten on the title page by the author. Charles Bukowski was famous for the latter especially in his Loujon Press publications early in his publishing career. Before Lopez’s article, I would buy established association copies like Peace Eye, but I steered clear of simple inscribed copies to people I did not recognize. For years, the hierarchy of signed copies went dedication copy, association copy, presentation copy, and signed copy. In recent years, the simply signed copy superseded the simple inscribed or presentation copy (To John Doe, signed Y) in terms of desirability. Lopez convincingly argues for a return to traditional values. Inscribed or presentation copies can over time become something more important like an association copy as well as establishing provenance and authenticity. A simply signed copy will remain static, but even a dated signature can evolve into something more with added research and the passage of time.
As Lopez demonstrates, a signature is a signature but the inscribed copy carries the possibility of telling a story. Throughout literary history, certain individuals who started as mere book collectors have become intimately involved with the authors they collect. Louis Cohen with Hemingway and Carl Peterson with Faulkner are perfect examples. Cohen and Peterson’s collections formed the cornerstones of major bibliographies.
The same is true of William Burroughs. The first William Burroughs bibliography grew out of Joe Maynard’s book collection. In his introduction to the bibliography, Maynard writes, “From 1964 onward, I read and collected everything by WSB I could beg, borrow, steal, or buy, each new book, story, poem, or magazine article revealing some new technique, idea, experience, or facet of an author joyously, totally involved with being a writer and advancing the art of writing…” Sounds familiar. Maynard’s copy of any Burroughs book would be a major find and a true association copy.
The major Burroughs auction of the last twenty years was gathered together by Nelson Lyon. Auctioned by Pacific Book Galleries in 1999, I was lucky enough to buy several books inscribed to Lyon. A writer for Saturday Night Live and a producer, Lyon possesses some degree of notoriety in his own right. Lyon wrote with Terry Southern on SNL and started collecting Burroughs after his reading on the show in 1981. Lyon produced a few Burroughs spoken word CDs including Spare Ass Annie and Dead City Radio. The sheer breadth of material available at the Lyon sale would have made the collection special, but the fact that the items were owned and gathered by Lyon makes them even more unique and valuable. Given the relationship between Burroughs and Lyon, the inscriptions sometimes include a little extra something. As Lopez points out, each book related to Lyon tells an added story.
Several years ago I purchased a copy of Roosevelt After Inauguration signed by Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. Roosevelt was originally written as a letter to Ginsberg so the presence of both signatures is very important to me. Burroughs’ signature was addressed to William Gambell dated August 1, 1996. The late date in 1996 (just a year before Burroughs’s death) adds significance. I am unsure if Ginsberg and Burroughs were present together signing my copy but if so this was one of the last meetings between the old collaborators and Beat icons. Their last public appearance occurred in Lawrence on November 2, 1996. When I bought the item, I knew nothing about Gambell. Turns out Gambell is an old friend of Burroughs and an original Merry Prankster to boot. The link with the Pranksters ties into the literary history and drug culture of the 1960s in which Burroughs played such an important part. On one level, I bought the piece because of the connection between Ginsberg and Burroughs but the inscription to Gambell proved a nice bonus. Researching Gambell and the August 1st meeting keeps this piece fresh and alive for me.
I own a few other association copies that provide a glimpse into Burroughs’ history including a British Ticket That Exploded inscribed by Burroughs to his agent Michael Henshaw. Henshaw was one of the founding editors of the British Underground newspaper, International Times, along with Barry Miles and Jim Haynes. He served as the accountant to Swinging London and was the respectable face behind the UFO shows that launched Pink Floyd. This copy of Ticket highlights Burroughs’ stay in London from 1966-1973 and shows how plugged-in to the British Underground he was.
My copy of the Olympia Press Soft Machine has seen better days but it is inscribed by both Maurice Girodias and Burroughs to Bruce Bailey. The name sounds very familiar to me but I have not been able to place it although I try from time to time. While the signatures fill me with joy, Bailey’s name adds a bit of mystery making the book one of the favorites of my collection despite all its flaws. The search goes on. Any information on Bailey out there?