Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
The year 1981 was a watershed period for William Burroughs. In his personal life, he experienced much heartbreak and turmoil. In March, his long-suffering son (William Jr.) died of liver failure, after years of drug and alcohol abuse. Burroughs felt tremendous guilt about his son’s death similar in many ways to the feelings he experienced after Joan’s accidental shooting in 1951. New York City proved to have too many temptations for Burroughs as he became immersed in the music, art and socialite scene of the Big Apple and the accompanying drug culture. Burroughs once again picked up a habit. By 1981, Burroughs needed to escape city life and to find healthy, tranquil living arrangements. This situation was similar to Burroughs’ stagnation in London in the early 1970’s that led to his moving to New York City and taking up teaching at the college level. Through James Grauerholz, Burroughs found an oasis in the college town of Lawrence, Kansas.
Creatively, Burroughs experienced a whirlwind of activity in 1981. The mainstream publishing heavyweight Holt, Reinhart and Winston issued a major work: The Cities of the Red Night. The novel was years in the making and ended what seemed like creative drought for Burroughs. In fact, Burroughs remained active throughout the 1970s, but nothing had the weight of his new novel. The book received plenty of fanfare from critics and readers. Some critics announced the book a return to form for Burroughs and proclaimed Cities Burroughs’ most accomplished work since Naked Lunch. The publishing floodgates opened.
Burroughs bordered on overexposed in 1981. He toured in connection with his various projects giving readings and book signings. Burroughs appeared on Saturday Night Live in November of 1981. Lauren Hutton introduced him as America’s greatest living writer. Industrial Records issued Nothing Here Now But the Recordings. The Last Words of Dutch Schultz and Junky were reissued. The little press remained true to Burroughs, publishing several items as well. Full Court Press issued Letters to Ginsberg 1953-1957. Red Ozier Press published The Streets of Chance. Cadmus Editions printed Early Routines.
Not surprisingly, 1981 was a banner year for Burroughs collectors. All the attention lavished on Burroughs and his various projects created a flood of rare and valuable Burroughs material. It did not hurt that Burroughs needed money to finance his move to Lawrence, so he signed and toured to support his books and records. Although I cannot confirm this, I would not be surprised if Burroughs went into his remaining archives in 1981-1982, like he did in 1973, uncovering treasures for the collectible market. Clearly, early work from the 1950s, like the letters and the routines, were recycled into book projects. Burroughs collectors who saw the value of Burroughs before this media onslaught may have felt the time was right to sell, so Burroughs rarities reached the market. Business was brisk as new collectors attracted by the Burroughs renaissance clamored for Burroughs items. Nelson Lyon, the famous Burroughs collector, became interested in Burroughs around 1981 when he worked with Burroughs during the Saturday Night Live appearance. Simultaneous with all this activity, two of the most famous Burroughs rare book catalogs, the Am Here Books and Atticus Books catalogs, were issued in 1981. (See my previous column.)
Burroughs collecting reached a boiling point in 1981. Clearly, 1973 marks a pivotal year for the Burroughs bibliophile with the sale of Burroughs’ archives to private collector Roberto Altman. Yet in 1981, Burroughs collectibles were made available to all Burroughs collectors, not one collector. This signaled a coming out party of sorts for Burroughs as a collected author. Like with the publication of The Cities of the Red Night by Holt, Burroughs collecting in some ways went mainstream in 1981.
The late 1990s marked another period of considerable activity in the Beat market. The deaths of Burroughs and Ginsberg in 1997 revived interest in the Beats. Not surprisingly, material from their various estates reached the rare book market. In addition, a booming economy meant collectors had money to spend. In particular, high tech millionaires bought heavily meaning that many longtime collectors felt the time was right to sell. Roger Richards, George Fox, and Nelson Lyon all sold large Beat collections at this time. The Internet also greatly expanded the rare book market. It seemed that every day in the late 1990s a new and wonderful Burroughs item was up for grabs.
For me, 1981 serves as a turning point in Burroughs collecting. I consider any signature before 1981 an early signature. I desire my 1950s and 1960s material to have a contemporary signature, but I am more than happy to have one of those items signed before 1981. Do not get me wrong: I own early items with late signatures, but I prefer the early, contemporary signatures. Starting in 1981, the Burroughs signature became more commonplace and lost some of its magic. The readings and book signings increased in the 1980s and at them people brought books and records to be signed. By 1981, the path to Burroughs’ doorstep started to get worn. I do not picture many Burroughs fans knocking on the door in Paris, Tangiers, London or New York City seeking signatures, but the image of a collector arriving with a bag of books seems clear in Lawrence. In the 1990s, I envision the stream of visitors bearing books reaching flood proportions. I am reminded of all the Bukowski poems and letters about encounters with fans bringing beers and books.
The publications after The Cities of the Red Night with major houses, like Holt, are not collectible to me, signed or unsigned. Even the pieces published with the small press seem different in 1981. Red Ozier, Full Court Press, Cadmus are all vibrant examples of the small press tradition, but they leave me cold while the books from Auerhahn (The Exterminator) or Two Cities (Minutes to Go) in 1960 are treasured possessions. Part of the reason for this is that the little press books from 1981 seem made with the collectible or academic community, not a small literary community, in mind. In addition, the C Press Time was a limited edition collectible, but it feels homemade, do it yourself, and seat of the pants in an appealing way. Time, like publications from Fuck You Press and other mimeos, have a rough beauty that all the high-end art collaborations and limited editions after 1981 can never reproduce.
All this is a long way of saying that the changes in Burroughs’ personal and creative life in 1981 affected the collecting world. With exceptions like Burroughs vinyl, I collect anything by Burroughs before roughly 1966. There are a multitude of reasons for that which may be another column, but I generally stop collecting Burroughs when he moved to London. That said, I am intrigued by anything in Maynard and Miles with 1973 being another important date in collecting for me, especially with the periodicals. The move to Lawrence and the publication of The Cities of the Red Night represents another more definitive shift. 1981 marks a terminal point in my collection, the date after which my interest might not totally stop, but certainly declines into the fringes of indifference.
Clearly, I am not representative. The collectible market for Burroughs’ late period, particularly the artwork and collaborative editions, is robust to say the least. In addition, the critical reception for Burroughs’ novels after 1981 solidified his reputation as an author. Not surprisingly, Burroughs was admitted into the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1983 after the publication of The Cities of the Red Night. Collectors of Burroughs’ later novels possess a key part of Burroughs’ oeuvre. Burroughs’ high quality of work over a long period of time stirs up tremendous passions in readers, critics, and collectors. I think this fact will make continue to make Burroughs read, studied, and collected for the long haul.