Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
Continued from Part 1, Introduction to Burroughs and Beats in Men’s Magazines.
From the 1950s to the late 1970s, William Burroughs supplied men’s magazines with fiction, essays, and interviews. The sheer number of pieces Burroughs provided to the skin trade is amazing. Burroughs first appeared in a men’s magazine in June 1959. I have written about Man’s Wildcat Adventures elsewhere and I do not want repeat myself. I do want to make clear that I consider this to be a very important publication for Burroughs and one that deserves much closer consideration. As the recent auction on eBay proves, other collectors agree. On one level, the magazine represents an early and rare Burroughs appearance in a fascinating setting. On another level, the magazine is collectible as a nice example of drug and sex exploitation. The illustrations accompanying the Junkie selection are highly prized by collectors of drug images. Like the Ace and Digit Junkies, Man’s Wildcat Adventures ranks with Reefer Madness in the 1930s or the various LSD exploitation movies, books, and posters of the 1960s. It should be noted that in June 1959, before the publication of Naked Lunch by Olympia Press, Burroughs is marketed by the publishing industry as a sensationalistic, pulp, exploitation writer. Despite the fact that Junkie was a serious, objective look at drug culture, the book and its author were not treated that way.
By 1961, Burroughs cut a much different figure in the publishing industry, including the men’s magazines. Burroughs’ breakout appearance occurred at the Edinburgh Writer’s Conference and the Grove Press Naked Lunch in 1962, but even before then, the little magazines and the small press had performed miracles. No longer perceived as a pulp writer, Burroughs was a member of the international avant garde. Burroughs’ appearance in Swank in July 1961 makes this clear. Like the little magazines, Swank ignores Junkie and publishes a piece from the Naked Lunch cycle of material. I do not own this issue of Swank, but I would guess that “The Word” represents a part of the just published Soft Machine. The myth surrounding Burroughs and Burroughs the experimental writer become the sensational and titillating commodity. Rumors abounded about Naked Lunch and Soft Machine then unavailable in the United States. The mere mention of his name suggested the forbidden, the criminal, the pornographic. Never mind that the fiction selected for publication in men’s mags rarely delivered the goods. Burroughs’ reputation as a drug addict, pornographer, murderer, trust-fund baby, avant garde writer provides the hook to the square reading public. The mystery surrounding Burroughs sold magazines even more than the writing. A 1966 interview in Jaguar entitled, “Prophet or Pornographer?,” underlines the hype that surrounded Burroughs.
Many people closely associated with Burroughs considered his cut-up experiments commercial suicide. Mainstream publishers did not know what to do with the writing and thought it unpublishable. Adult men’s magazines were no exception. When Burroughs returned to the United States in late 1964, Playboy commissioned him to write an article on his impressions of a return to his hometown. Burroughs wrote “St. Louis Return,” a piece full of nostalgia and the demented logic of cut-ups. Playboy rejected the piece. Paris Review published it in 1965 along with the first full-length interview with Burroughs in which he talks about the art of fiction. A selection of Burroughs’ manuscript was also printed. The publication in Paris Review testifies to the high literary quality of Burroughs’ work. Was it too much to consider Burroughs’ piece an early form of new journalism as practiced in the pages of Playboy by Norman Mailer, Terry Southern, Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson throughout the 1960s and 1970s? Playboy thought so. The content was tame and lacked sex appeal; not to mention that the form utilized the textual and visual cut-up. Burroughs’ reputation hurt him here: “St. Louis Return” presented neither prophet nor pornographer, merely a literary experimenter.
I did not mention homosexual in my rap sheet on Burroughs. I wonder how Burroughs could be marketed as a pornographic fictioneer to the straight public when so much of his sexually explicit writing is gay in nature. In addition, what was a misogynist like Burroughs who was disgusted by and wary of women as sexual beings and objects doing in men’s magazines? I suspect that Burroughs’ fiction in these magazines tended not to emphasize the pornographic nature of his writing. I can not comment on the content of “The Word” in Swank, but in the July 1966 issue of King, the short story “Exterminator!” presents Burroughs in his most accessible writing style (no cut-ups) concentrating on a bit of his mythologized past: his job as an exterminator in the late 1930s. Again this highlights the fact that Burroughs the mythic, pop culture figure (representative of vanguard literature in the newly emerging underground) was highlighted over actually presenting the pornographic and experimental nature of his fiction. Unlike Bukowski, Burroughs did not provide sex stories, and the underground little magazines, like My Own Mag, remained the outlet for the cut-up.
The sexual aspect of Burroughs’ fiction tended to appear outside of the heterosexual men’s mag market. From what I can tell, Suck (edited by Bill Levy who also edited Insect Trust Gazette which published Burroughs’ cut-up experiments in the mid 1960s) explored all aspects of the new sexual freedoms as well as taking advantage of Amsterdam’s freedom of the press. Selections from The Wild Boys, Burroughs fantastic smash-up of the sexual, gay and youth revolutions, appear in Suck‘s pages. Burroughs also reviews sex films in an issue. Only after Stonewall in 1969 would gay sex go glossy, like Playboy. Not surprisingly, Burroughs’ sex life became a topic for readers. Burroughs’ most misogynist statements from The Job appear in the 1978 issue of Playgirl. In addition, Burroughs’ love life is featured Blueboy (also in 1978) when the magazine published a selection of Burroughs’ letters to Allen Ginsberg revealing a more vulnerable and intimate side of his personality.
As demonstrated by the rejection by Playboy and the selection by King, men’s magazines presented a watered-down version of Burroughs’ fictional content and style. Like Kerouac, Burroughs was better represented in his monthly columns, occasional articles, and interviews that appeared side by side with nude pictorials. From 1967-1973, Mayfair featured more than twenty pieces by Burroughs, most of them in the form of the “Burroughs Academy Bulletin.” Mayfair was the British equivalent of Playboy. These appearances overlapped with Burroughs’ stay in London. The regular column provided Burroughs with some much needed money, since by 1966 Burroughs made his living only on his writing. He no longer received a stipend from his parents. Mayfair provided Burroughs with a sounding board for his various obsessions, of which Scientology was a major one. Several of Burroughs’ Mayfair pieces deal with his in-depth examination of L. Ron Hubbard’s religion. In Mayfair and other magazines, Burroughs wrote on the 1960s political scene, Moroccan music, and drug hysteria. In 1973, the Mayfair articles were bootlegged as the Mayfair Academy Series More or Less by Urgency Press Rip-Off in a run of 650. Burroughs also planned a book called Academy 23 which would have included The Wild Boys and Mayfair material.
The adult magazines’ changing attitude towards drugs as well as Burroughs’ thoughts on drugs are particularly interesting. In 1959, Burroughs’ drug narrative was treated as an Amazing Story and pulp fodder. By 1970, Burroughs sat on a panel discussion on drugs in the pages of Playboy. The magazine treated Burroughs as an authority on drugs and drug culture. In addition, drugs were treated as a serious topic for discussion and a part of the fabric of modern society, not a shadowy and sensationalistic underworld.
In fact the packaging of Burroughs in men’s magazines highlights the changing perception of Burroughs by the literary community and the public at large. In essays, articles, and interviews, Burroughs was presented as an authority on religion, politics, drugs, and sex. In Mayfair, Penthouse, and Playboy, Burroughs was interviewed in depth on all these topics. While he clearly presented an outsider’s view, his thoughts were not demonized or downplayed. Burroughs had something of value to say to the hip, intelligent reader and it was not just shock value. Cultural elements that were considered a deviant, degraded underworld in the 1950s were by the 1960s and 1970s elements of a flourishing counterculture that threatened to become mainstream. As Burroughs’ presence on a legendary album cover, as well as in men’s magazines, proves, he morphed from a sinister, mysterious figure into a counterculture icon and a revered talking head.
It sounds like a joke, but in the case of the Beats, men’s magazines are collectible for the articles. The magazines are desirable for a host of other reasons as well. Magazines, like Man’s Wildcat Adventures, are collectible for their exploitative images of sex and drugs. Like Reefer Madness of the 1930s, these depictions are important pieces of cultural history. The advertisements for liquor, cigarettes, cars, and the other accessories of the good life detail the consumer culture of the post World War II era. Many of these images are collectible. Men’s magazines provide a unique view of the world through the lens of sex. Again ads and even want ads demonstrate changing sexual images. The fiction, interviews, panels and articles of these magazines all document the changing popular culture of the Western world. For example, a review of the pictorials of Man’s Wildcat Adventures and Escapade provides a look into the sexualized and idealized image of women just before the Pill and the revolutions of the 1960s. These pictorials tap into what was considered beautiful, sexy, trashy, dangerous, or refined by the American male at a particular time. Body image, body shape, and body hair all change over time. In some cases, particular models, like Bettie Page or Marilyn Monroe, become icons. Photographers become associated with a particular look or style; and there develops a cult following around their images. A review of Escapade, Swank and Mayfair records the sweeping changes of the Sexual Revolution, but the effect of all the various revolutions of the post World War II era are in evidence.
The Beats helped create the atmosphere that made men’s magazines publishable and popular on a larger scale. It could be argued that the proliferation of pornography (gay and straight; good and bad), as well as the rise of profanity into everyday conversation or the changing definitions of obscenity, can all be traced back to the trailblazing candor of the Beats. As a recent book called Queer Beats makes clear, the Beats in large part turned America on to sex and pushed it out into the open. It makes perfect sense that the Beats appear in men’s magazines, since they were the leading figures in most of the major cultural changes after 1945. A comprehensive collection of men’s magazines with Beat appearances documents this influence in an unusual and rather inexpensive way.
William S. Burroughs in Men’s Magazines
- Burroughs and Beats in Men’s Magazines: Introduction
- Burroughs in Men’s Magazines
- William Burroughs Appearances in Adult Men’s Magazines
- William Burroughs’ Word in Swank