Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
For those of you interested in exploring the history of men’s magazines further, let me recommend (if I have not already), Dian Hanson’s six volume set The History of Men’s Magazines published by Taschen. On the related topic of Men’s Adventure Magazines, check out Men’s Adventure Magazines: In Postwar America and It’s a Man’s World. I hear Sin-A-Rama: Sleaze Sex Paperbacks of the Sixties is worth checking out as well. Stephen J. Gertz, who wrote a great article on Joseph Zinnato’s Burroughs collection, provides an essay entitled West Coast Blue on porn publishers in California during the 1960s. I am sure there are other titles worth reading but these are the ones I am most familiar with.
Well, Gertz has done it again and added another must-have title for those interested in pulp fiction, men’s magazines, and sleaze paperbacks. Feral House just published Dope Menace: The Sensational World of Drug Paperbacks 1900-1975. Gertz’s book should be of interest to Burroughs fans, since he wrote, arguably, the most famous drug paperback of them all: Junkie. As Gertz states, the story of Junkie is well-documented and for the most part he directs his attentions elsewhere. Even so I gleaned some interesting tidbits about Burroughs’ first published novel from Gertz’s informative introduction. For example, I have always considered Junkie something of a best seller. It sold over 113,000 copies soon after publication by Ace in 1953. In fact as Gertz makes clear, the sales for Junkie were slightly below average. This gives you some idea of the massive popularity of drug paperbacks. Hundreds of millions of copies of paperbacks (not all drug-related) were in print on a yearly basis. This blew me away.
In addition I had always considered the Digit Junkie the holy grail of drug paperbacks. Not true. It is highly desirable and extremely rare. Gertz states that the last copy he was aware of sold in 2002 for $5000. I am personally aware of two copies since that date, but clearly the book is far from common. According to Gertz, however, the “black tulip” of drug literature is David “Bunny” Garnett’s Dope Darling: A Study of Cocaine. There are only five known copies in libraries around the world. Aside from its rarity, why is this copy so prized? Well, Garnett had ties to the Bloomsbury Group and British Modernism. He would go on to write some critically acclaimed novels. But Dope Darling was his first novel. The book also just happens to have some remarkable cover art. Sound familiar? Similar circumstances make Junkie highly collectible.
Dope Menace also has an interesting insight into Junkie‘s cover art. First of all, I had mistakenly believed that the cover art was drawn by Norman Saunders. Wrong!! Al Rossi did the covers for the Ace and Digit Junkies. Turns out that the image of a woman injecting into her thigh is iconic in drug paperbacks. Rossi’s rendering is one of the best known, but it is far from original. Paging though Dope Menace, you see this scene again and again. Who did it first? Gertz writes that this image “harkens back to French Le Belle Époque illustrator Eugene Grasset’s 1897 lithograph La Morphinomane.” Who knew? Dope Menace is full of information of this type.
Yet the interest of Dope Menace goes beyond a litany of interesting factoids. Gertz’s book makes clear just how important drug paperbacks are in providing “the richest, most direct record of American Pop Culture’s fascination, repulsion, fears, realities, perceptions, fantasies, paranoia, facts, hopes, follies and fallacies regarding psychoactive drugs during the beginning, rise and crest of what has been characterized as ‘America’s Second Drug Epidemic.'” These paperbacks were not just sources of sensationalism and misinformation. There was much factual reporting within all the hype. And some of this information was highly classified. For example, The Splintered Man, which has the first mention of LSD in a drug paperback, had in its storyline the broad outlines of the CIA’s Project MKULTRA (mind control experiments with LSD) down pat. Similarly, Burroughs’ Junkie is a valuable historical resource since it arguably provides the best, most accurate account of drug culture in the period during and after World War II that we have.
Given drug paperbacks’ pervasiveness and their admittedly lurid appeal to baser appetites, it is no wonder the U.S Government sought to control them through legislation and censorship. There was a House Select Committee on the topic in 1952, just one year before Junkie was published. This scrutiny on paperbacks makes clear why Junkie was published dos-à-dos with Maurice Helbrant’s Narcotic Agent. Yet moral guardians’ interest in drug paperbacks is not just about protecting children from and policing adults’ indulgence in drug pornography. Into the 1960s and beyond, authors of drug paperbacks increasingly had actual drug experience, so their accounts of drug use in some cases had a more factual, more authentic tone. Some drug literature of the 1960s ceased being cautionary tales about the danger of drugs and became celebratory manifestos of the wonders of drugs à la the philosophies of Timothy Leary. Such books questioned the company line on drugs and drug culture. Some writers, such as Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, spoke out on the hypocrisy and hysteria that surrounded the United States drug policy. As The Splintered Man and Junkie prove, drug paperbacks sometimes revealed truths that the powers that be wanted kept under wraps. This is another unspoken reason for the push for censorship and regulation of drug paperbacks as well as the governmental interference that surrounded Burroughs’ fiction from its drug paperback beginnings.
For some, Gertz’s essay will be like medicine with the reproduced cover art being the honey that makes it palatable. To mix metaphors, Gertz’s essay is the steak with the cover art providing the sizzle that sells copies. For fans of the Beat Generation, there is a whole section dedicated to the theme of drug crazed Beatniks and stoned jazzmen. Images of “Good Girl Art” and of plain old bad eggs, of raised skirts and bared breasts, of the down and dirty and the far out are the reason generations of readers bought drug paperbacks in the first place. They remain the major reason to buy Dope Menace. So enjoy the guilty pleasure of drug paperback cover art, but do not forget about the importance of the pages in between. As Gertz demonstrates, the text of drug paperbacks have, for good or bad, shaped and reflected the United States’ attitudes toward drugs for nearly century. So get a copy of Dope Menace. The cover art is amazing, and Gertz’s essay is essential reading and, besides, it is good for you.