Everything Lost, the Latin American Notebook of William S. Burroughs: The Inside StoryTags: Cut-Up, Everything Lost, Oliver Harris, Queer, William Burroughs
By Volume Editor, Oliver Harris
Background: The Crying of Lot 22
Where it had been since 1953 and how it got into the hands of a private collector remain a mystery, but it surfaced in October 1999 as Lot 22 of Sotheby’s “Allen Ginsberg and Friends” sale in New York. The small, black notebook with lined paper that had turned sepia over the past half-century, was bought, for an undisclosed sum, by Ohio State University’s Rare Books and Manuscript Library. At Columbus they have built up an impressive archive of Burroughs papers over the years, going back to 1965 when they acquired Naked Lunch-era material from the manuscript- and book-seller Henry Wenning, who had bought it directly from Burroughs in 1961. There followed two major purchases of materials in the 1980s and then two large donations from the Burroughs Estate in the late 1990s. So the acquisition of the Notebook was both a coup for Ohio and a logical development of their holdings.
I first heard about it from James Grauerholz in November 2002 and was immediately interested because the great bulk of the manuscript research I’ve done has been concentrated on Burroughs’ first decade as a writer — not only for The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1945-1959, but also the new edition of Junky: the definitive text of “Junk,” which I’d started in early 2001. But as well as being interested, I was worried. This may sound perverse, but it’s probably a paradox for any scholar who pieces together manuscript discoveries: you end up thinking in terms of a jigsaw, with missing pieces, which, you assume, it would be wonderful to find. But it all depends on the timing. At this point I was just completing William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination, and my immediate concern was how this notebook might change the manuscript histories of Junky, Queer and The Yage Letters that I had spent twenty years researching and trying to make sense of. My book was almost ready to go to press. Supposing the Notebook, this totally new piece of primary evidence, undermined everything?
It’s at times like this you recognise that manuscript research is not really like assembling a jigsaw puzzle at all; inevitably, you turn the available evidence into a narrative, one that you hope is at least credible, at best compelling — but it’s still a narrative, an interpretation of the evidence arranged into a certain pattern. As Burroughs himself famously said: “There is no accurate description of the creation of a book, or an event.” But knowing that a definitive account is impossible doesn’t make you less possessive about the version of events you’ve put together yourself. As it turned out, the Notebook both supported and added to the work I’d already done, but I wasn’t to know that for some time — not until there was a transcript. At this point, it didn’t even have a fixed name.
In November 2002, Grauerholz referred to it as “Mexico City Return,” because the most immediate significance of the Notebook is that it contains most of the first draft of the typescript used for the Epilogue given that title and added to Queer in his 1985 edit. In fact, the contract signed by the Burroughs Estate and OSUP in March 2003 was, a little inaccurately, for a work entitled “Mexico City Return: The Yage Notebook of William S. Burroughs, 1951.” But for a long time we mainly referred to it as “the Peru Notebook.” I didn’t come up with the title “Everything Lost” until much later.
My formal role began in March 2003 with an invitation to be Volume Editor for the Notebook, working with Geoff Smith and John Bennett — people I had met in Ohio and worked with since the mid-1980s — who would be Series Editors, overseeing first the editing of the Notebook and then other projects based on manuscript holdings at Ohio State. In Spring 2003 Everything Lost therefore evolved concurrently with Yage Letters Redux, the follow-up to my just-published edition of Junky. This was, of course, a very closely related text chronologically (the first entry in the Notebook is dated July 16 1953; the last letter in “In Search of Yage” is dated July 10 1953), although in key respects Everything Lost and Yage Redux were quite different editorial projects.
Transcribing the Notebook: Hat on a fisherman pole
The transcript started with a rough draft of about half of it made by James Grauerholz in December 2002. I became directly involved in August 2003, when I began working on the first full transcript. Looking back through my files to see how much longer the transcript became — from first to final drafts — I was a little surprised to find that it hadn’t changed that much (from 5,691 words to 5,886). This, however, is deceptive, since the first draft had many question marks and much very dubious early guesswork.
One of the great interests of Everything Lost as a contribution to Burroughs scholarship is the chance it gives to see inside, to get detailed insight into the processes of both writing and editing. That’s to say, you can see Burroughs the writer at work here — moving back and forth between travel diary reportage, intimate personal reflections, records of dreams, and dramatic routines, so that fact and fiction, waking and dream worlds segue into each another — and you can see something of how the process of editing happens too. The actual work of transcription isn’t so self-evident, however. The first few pages are written in a very steady, clear holograph, legible to most readers. But increasingly, there are passages of hurried writing, with numerous cancellations and erasures. With illegible words, I often went about the task of transcription by playing a kind of academic hangman: you look at illegible words and ask yourself, of each letter, could that be an “a”, a “b”, a “c”, and so on. Since the permutations in this mechanical method are enormous, you have to work intuitively at the same time. Naturally, the less context you have — where, say, a whole sentence is illegible — the harder it is and the more you rely on following hunches. Many times you stare at a word and it’s as if you have it on the tip of your tongue. That feeling can last a long time.
One aspect of the transcription process is therefore very close attention to the graphic element, and for this the pdf files were a very important technical development. In the early 1990s, when I was transcribing holograph manuscripts for Letters, 1945-1959, I needed to hold often poor-quality photocopies up against a light or use a magnifying glass. For a year, I had to do the same with the Notebook, working from a photocopy, until in late 2004 I received the facsimile as a series of pdf files. The advantages were obvious: I could blow the image up until a single word filled the computer screen, and play around with various effects, to lighten or darken the image, and so on. And I then extended that process by cross-referring to other images. For example, if I had an illegible word and it looked like it could be “night,” I’d do a word search in the transcript, and that would identify the page and then the right pdf file where that word occurred; so I would have maybe half a dozen screens open at any one time, comparing images to see what the word might be. And the process didn’t stop there. Over the years, I’ve built up extensive files of manuscripts from the early 1950s, including many letters that were in holograph. I would search the electronic version of Letters, 1945-1959 that I have, to locate letters where a specific word was used, then pull out the manuscript copy from my files, and make a comparative analysis. Sometimes the results were conclusive, but not always, and of course this process was not only very time-intensive but complicated. To borrow the phrase Burroughs used when dealing with his own chaos of manuscripts, I’d be thinking to myself: “What am I, an octopus already?” Finally, I’d usually copy and paste specific words and letter fragments into a document, in order to show — to myself as well as my colleagues — step by step, the process of how I had worked it out. My “maths” I call it.
That was one approach. The other main one was more contextual. That’s to say, I’d be looking for how material might echo or directly repeat its use elsewhere in other Burroughs manuscripts from around the same time, such as “Mexico City Return” (in both the typescript originally intended for “Yage” in 1953 and as published in 1985 in Queer). The intertextuality of Burroughs’ writing is one key feature displayed in the Notebook, both through internal repetition of scenes and phrases, as he reworked them, and through this overlapping of manuscripts — which is the most important revelation. For the Notebook shows how Burroughs’ “Queer” and “Yage” manuscripts overlapped, chiefly through the phantom presence of Allerton (based on Lewis Marker) — and as if the lacerating self-pity of Burroughs’ addiction to him isn’t enough, there’s the extraordinary way that he confuses the real-life lover he has lost with the fictional version of him he has invented. So, while “Mexico City Return” helped contextualise the Notebook and aid with some transcription, the Notebook sheds new light on this piece of writing that migrated from “Yage” to Queer.
Some of the practical difficulties are not readily apparent to a reader comparing the facsimile to the published transcript. For example, the initial transcription that I had to work with included a good deal of guesswork, some of it made by volunteers who were brought in by the Series Editors precisely because they had no Burroughsian expertise, just a fresh pair of eyes. However, when you have a wrongly transcribed word there in front of you, it can make it much harder to arrive at the correct transcription: the wrong word keeps getting in the way. As the transcription evolved, the only disagreements I had with the Series Editors at Ohio State were over our “best guesses,” where basically none of us had much confidence in our readings. I felt the frustration keenly, but there has to come a cut-off point where, even though you believe you could do more, the time and effort is disproportionate, since you can’t guarantee success and you have to work to a deadline set by the publishers. Once the Notebook is out there, I’m sure that fresh eyes are going to discover new, improved readings. Whether they will be significant in any way — and so justify maybe hours of time and attention — is another question. That’s one of the things you never know at the time: whether your labour is going to pay off. That doubt casts a long shadow.
Working on a transcript like this, improving it incrementally each time, is therefore both exciting and frustrating. You can spend hours working on a fragment, looking at it from every angle, comparing it to other manuscripts, and so on, and feel almost euphoric about deciphering it; and then you think, that’s one word. And there were others where the correct reading looks so obvious in retrospect that nobody would ever imagine the time that went into getting it. Equally, some days you get absolutely nowhere. Other days, you work out a complete sentence. There aren’t too many you can share that kind of triumph with. Most reasonable people would find this sort of scholarly rigour indistinguishable from a highly advanced pathological condition.
Some discoveries were quite spectacular. One of the most important to me started out in the transcript as “El Paso / This is yage party. Just as the wind movie and painting and poetry.” I knew that wasn’t right, and eventually cracked it: not a reference to a city in Texas, “El Paso” was actually “St Perse” — and this is in fact the very first reference anywhere in Burroughs to the French poet, as important to Burroughs as Rimbaud. St. Perse was a constant point of reference for him, especially throughout the 1950s and early ’60s; when Ginsberg commented on sections of the work-in-progress that became Naked Lunch, he always compared Burroughs’ “prose poetry” to that of St. Perse. Then, at the start of the cut-up project, Burroughs stated repeatedly that the methods worked best on image rich poetry, like that of St. Perse and Rimbaud. So, finding the first reference in the Notebook was highly significant, while working out the next lines made its significance even clearer: “This is yage poetry. Just as there is weed music and painting and poetry.” In other words, Burroughs was making a very interesting insight into different kinds of drug aesthetics.
Of course, I made scores of corrections and new readings that were less spectacular: an “awkward punch” in the first transcript became a “Delaware punch”; “Hat on a fisherman pole” became “Hot as a plutonium pile” and so on. Right up until the final deadline, I was still working on the most tantalising and intransigent illegible words, hoping to turn a “best guess” into a more confident transcription.
Everything Lost: on the inside
Along with making the transcript, there was the internal organisation of the book to determine. This was an issue I debated from the outset with the Series Editors, who made the decision to have both fair copy and literal transcript. We agreed early on that the priority was to keep the colour facsimile pages together as a unit, so that the book would present the reader with something that looked and felt as similar as possible to the original artefact. The downside to this was that the transcript would have to be separate, and so the reader would need to flip back and forth between manuscript and reading copy, but that seemed unavoidable.
Scholarship always has to keep in mind the readership for what it produces and the purposes to which its results will be put. However, not only can scholars disagree amongst themselves, they also have to deal with publishers who have a different point of view informed by other concerns. That’s why the potential is always there for mutual misunderstandings about roles — which are, in my experience, never clearly defined: if scholars feel entitled to extend the field of their expertise to include aspects of the production design, so too the in-house editors seem to want to be involved in shaping the scholarship.
For example, in December 2005, the editors at the Press came up with the idea of having just a fair reading text, interleaved with the facsimile, relegating erasures and revisions to endnotes. We argued the case for needing not just a fair copy but also a proper “diplomatic” transcript, so that the process of Burroughs’ textual revision was clear to the reader. This was important because the great interest and value of the Notebook is not in its literary quality as a finished text in its own right, and it would have been misleading to present it as a reader-oriented work of prose. People who read the Notebook in that way would find it confusing and, very probably, rather disappointing. The internal organisation of the text is therefore crucial in terms of shaping its proper reception and appropriate use.
This issue returned again, very late on, when in August 2007 the University Press production manager proposed another, entirely different format that the Press’s Senior Editor announced was the way to go. This would have modelled Everything Lost on the variorum edition of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. With more commercial houses like Penguin and City Lights, the in-house editor had essentially deferred on all scholarly issues and left decisions up to me until or unless they could see a practical problem with it. So for me this latest announcement begged questions about the whole decision-making process, as well as about the merits of this specific proposal.
To take the latter issue first, one of the problems with proposing the Valerie Eliot edition as a model was that it had worked very well for Barry Miles’ variorum edition of “Howl” precisely because the aim of that publication was to bid for the comparable status of Ginsberg’s poem. The facsimile pages and extensive scholarly apparatus gave “Howl” the same kind of attention as The Waste Land had received, and definitely changed how the poem was read and valued. But internal design has to be appropriate to the specific subject. Unlike the landmark poems of Eliot and Ginsberg, Burroughs’ Notebook is a slight text, never intended for publication, and without any public record in the first place. The mismatch seemed self-evident and, happily, the Senior Editor at the Press realised it wasn’t the way to go after all.
The other main ground for arguing against such a format was that it would have meant using black and white instead of colour facsimile. The loss of colour would have been a major problem — not in terms of its information value, perhaps, but in terms of the look and feel of the thing, its presence as a material object with a certain aura. That had always been important to me. In fact, when I received the pdf files, the first thing I did was to print them out to make a mock-up of the actual notebook, binding it in a black cover and faithfully observing the dimensions (eight inches by six). There is a significant subjective element to editing, every bit as essential as the mechanical processes of transcription, analysis, and documentation, and being able to hold the object in my hand was very necessary to me. Of course, this wasn’t the real thing — which I had only held for a few minutes back in Ohio — but it was the next best thing. Likewise, when I was in Mexico City for the Burroughs conference in September 2006, it meant a great deal to be in the very places where Burroughs had sat down and written in that notebook. Half a century had passed, but it still made for a special connection between writing and place, with me as a point of intersection. All scholars have to balance their professional reserve, which goes together with claims to authority and expertise, with this highly personal engagement.
Since the Press’s editor backtracked on the variorum format, the design stayed as originally intended, and then the proofs went out. These arrived just before I left for a ten-day research trip to New York at the end of August this year. I worked on the proofs every night at the Hotel Chelsea, and then put in many more hours when I came back to England, because I know from past experience just how often mistakes appear at the last stage — and almost always ones so large that, like Poe’s Purloined Letter, they are hidden by being in plain sight. All the diligence of years of work can be compromised at this last stage, when the pressure is on and the clock is running down. It suddenly throws into relief the hours, days, weeks spent working on one small detail that nobody will likely ever notice.
Publishing: The Cover Story
As I already noted, there were significant differences between the Notebook as an editorial project and The Yage Letters Redux or, before that, Junky. The interest in those projects wasn’t only in discovering and working on the manuscript — mostly typescript rather than holograph — but in establishing the textual and publication histories. In the case of Junky, the material evidence relating to publishing was limited, since there are no archives holding the business papers of Ace Books. Researching in the City Lights editorial and correspondence files at Berkeley was fascinating for that reason and, although I could only skim the cream off it, telling this story in my Introduction was useful for advancing a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of how The Yage Letters came to be published in the form it did. Since all interpretation is necessarily based on material assumptions about the origins of the text, I knew that it was important to establish an accurate factual record of what really happened, who made which decisions, and so on. It’s only when you see, in documented detail, how the publication evolved out of numerous alternatives that you truly realise how the identity of the book depends on elements such as design — not only for our experience of it as readers, but as a statement of authorial expression.
For example, in the case of The Yage Letters, Burroughs had strikingly little involvement in the assembly of the text — which was initiated and largely co-ordinated by Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti — but he became crucially involved in the cover design. Burroughs had been very impressed by the cover for Paul Bowles’ 100 Camels in the Courtyard, which Ferlinghetti had just published, and that’s how The Yage Letters ended up with the wonderfully evocative image of a shaman on its cover, as a counterpart to the Moroccan images on Bowles’ collection of stories. This degree of involvement goes back to the calligraphic design Burroughs made for the jacket of the Olympia Press Naked Lunch in 1959, which in turn marked a great shift from the Ace publication of Junkie in 1953. Then, as a debutant writer having to deal with a pulp publisher at long distance, he had absolutely no input whatsoever, not even getting to choose the book’s title, let alone its cover design: by default, the Ace cover, with its sensationalist artwork, is therefore as revealing about Burroughs’ status and power as a writer — or lack thereof — as it is about how drugs played in the culture of post-war America.
The awareness of a book’s material history — its long, often strange passage from manuscript to physical publication — has been an increasingly important factor in the work I do as an editor, not just in terms of the story I can tell about the past but in regard to what I want for my own editions in the present. In other words, my historical interest as a critic in the “social production” of Burroughs’ texts coincides with and informs my aims as a scholarly editor. On the whole, I’ve been lucky with the publishers I’ve worked with. For example, City Lights let me design (with help from my eldest daughter, Ella) the cover for Yage Redux. In the end, it wasn’t 100% as I wanted it; I didn’t like the banner they ran across the top for the names of Burroughs and Ginsberg, for example — but that was just a practical compromise. Indeed, this is one of the things you learn most forcefully: that almost everything about a book’s writing and publication is marked by collaborations, contingencies, conflicting decisions, the hand of chance, last minute interventions, good or bad. This is a tough lesson for a perfectionist like myself, but it makes visible the ironic position of scholarly editors these days, since many now embrace a form of “socialised” editing — seeing collaborative involvements as not the corruptions of a solitary author’s intention, but as a valid because necessary part of the book production process. Still, as a scholar, I expect to exercise rigorous control over the most minute textual details and to have a robust editing framework carefully worked out — see, for instance, my essay “Not Burroughs’ Final Fix,” which tells the protracted story of the comma and the colon as used in The Yage Letters Redux — but such details will quite reasonably pass by most readers. Nobody fails to notice the layout of the text on the page or the front cover, however — and yet these, the most visibly important elements of all, are typically seen by publishers as a separate job for their design team.
To some extent, this was my experience with Junky: the definitive text of “Junk,” which ended up with a title and a cover design I didn’t really like. However, I was checking back through the files recently and I realised I’d misremembered certain decisions, like the use of “definitive” in the title. I’ve written about that a couple of times, because the word is so contentious in editing circles, and yet in my files of correspondence I saw that Paul Slovak, my — excellent — editor at Penguin, had actually expressed his own doubts about it. And even with the cover design, I discovered an email I’d sent which effectively admitted it was my mistake: I had chosen the cover as the best out of the half-dozen that Penguin’s designers came up with, when I should really have suggested another approach altogether. Ironically, some readers who liked the grungy, pulpy associations of the rather coarse cover assumed it was my idea. In fact, I would have preferred something entirely different: a classic, high sheen, noir look, redolent of city nightscapes and the post-war underworld. At the last minute I did come up with an image that I still think would make the most brilliant cover — a stunning close-up of a metal and glass syringe, a burning cigarette, and Burroughs’ spectral face over a black background, supposedly taken from the film Chappaqua (although it must be an outtake, as it doesn’t seem to be in the film itself; the image is reproduced in Robert Sobieszek’s book, Ports of Entry). But the window of consultation time had closed by the time I changed my mind, and it would have been unreasonable to expect Penguin’s designers to tear up a cover I had initially approved, and accept my bright new idea.
As a book is readied for production all sorts of design decisions are taken very quickly, and there is a palpable sense that the manuscript is changing hands, passing from the scholarly editors to the editorial team of the publishers. Experience helps — Everything Lost is my fifth book — but it is impossible to predict how such key issues as cover design will be handled. For example, with Letters, 1945-1959, Viking asked for ideas and images, and quickly produced two fabulous cover designs, hard and paper, based loosely on them. Simultaneously, in the UK Picador chose a photograph of Burroughs as an old man, taken about thirty years after the letters — in effect, a different Burroughs (unfortunately, for the French translation, Christian Bourgois have recently followed suit with an even older photograph), but they responded to my queries with a rather tart note explaining they knew their business. Viking’s covers were so good, however, I remained sanguine: some you win, some you don’t.
Ohio State University Press had come up with an initial cover design in late 2006. It used the inside cover of the Notebook to form a mottled green background, and ran a black strip (or “belly wrap”) across the middle with the title in a simple font and Burroughs’ handwritten name below in white lettering. I liked the plainness of the design and it was especially good to see at last the evocative title there at the centre of it, which confirmed my sense of its importance — which needs some explaining here.
For a long while everyone had referred to it as the “Peru Notebook” because that’s where Burroughs had started writing it, in Talara, Peru. But that was only the first entry, and the rest of it is written in Mexico, mainly in Mexico City. So it had to be the “Latin American Notebook.” We didn’t discuss the title for very long; in November 2005 I realised what it had to be. I was working on the long (7,000 word) Introduction and all of a sudden the symbolic force of this particular phrase struck home like a revelation. I realised how extraordinary it was to see, written in his own hand, in this little notebook from fifty years ago, Burroughs weighing up his life as he looked back on his years of travelling and writing in Latin America, and summing it up with those two words in one of the very last entries: Everything Lost. The feeling of despair is all the more striking because this is not the story of those years narrated by Burroughs’ biographers, and made familiar through The Yage Letters. This is one of the major significances of the Notebook, that it forces us to accept a much darker picture of Burroughs at this point; not a writer on the verge of a breakthrough, but a man almost without hope.
So, although my colleagues suggested other titles — “A bus called Proletario” (which is the first line of the notebook), for example — this seemed perfect because it caught the raw emotional centre of the Notebook. The phrase also resonates with the status of the Notebook itself, as the one record that survived to tell this very tale of despair and loss. Naming can be surprisingly important in terms of giving a work its identity, and in this case it definitely seemed to confirm what the Notebook was all about.
In that context, the Press’s initial design was unproblematic; I knew there would be a period of consultation later on, and I was relaxed about it. In the summer of 2007 I suggested some ideas for the design of the back cover, since I had been asked to write the jacket blurb and, while the Press didn’t respond to these suggestions, I wasn’t especially concerned. It was in September 2007, just back in England after my research trip to New York, that the new cover design was posted on the author pages on the Press’s website. I was, to put it diplomatically, surprised by what I saw.
The design as a whole seemed to miss the mark: if it was meant to evoke the actual notebook, then the blue-black front cover was curious, since the notebook is just black, while the Press’s logo looked odd stuck in one corner, unbalancing the composition, and the Burroughs doodle they reproduce seems inexplicably to resemble fragments of barbed wire. But these were minor details; what took me by surprise was the lettering of the title phrase, which was so clearly wrong for the book.
Burroughs’ phrase has a simplicity and gravity about it, an understated quality that was captured quite well by the type font on the initial design. Then again, I knew that my colleagues would, like myself, have argued for reproducing Burroughs’ words as actually written in the notebook, since nothing could have bettered the original and authentic hand of the author; after all, with its wonderful facsimile reproduction, such authenticity was essential to the nature and purpose of the whole publication. Significantly, the final design does feature Burroughs’ own handwriting, in the form of his signature, running vertically down the right margin. Unfortunately, this just draws more attention to the inappropriate lettering of the title phrase, with its odd mix of highly stylized and embellished characters that looks gimmicky and makes the word “Lost” hard to even read. Quite simply, Burroughs’ stark, resonant phrase was no longer recognisable to me as the ideal symbolic statement of the book’s identity.
I had served on this project for a long time — over four years, in total — putting in many hundreds of hours without payment, not even expenses, let alone the promise of royalties. Then again, I have always preferred to work in the interests of professional rigour, not profit, because this, I felt, gave me the kind of leverage that money couldn’t buy. In this case, it meant that my sole interest was in protecting the publication, standing up for what, as the Burroughs expert, I thought was right. Given my scholarly and critical research into the history and symbolic importance of Burroughs’ cover designs, I felt well qualified to understand how a detail as specific as the lettering of the title on the cover represented the book as a whole.
Unfortunately, I lost the battle over the cover design. It is difficult to be both a perfectionist by profession and a stoic, but I have to contextualise this one large regret within my broader experience — as both scholarly researcher and scholarly editor — of the many contingencies and collaborations and outright errors that determine the transmission of a manuscript into a publication. Equally, had not Burroughs himself endured far greater compromises as an author dealing with publishers — most obviously in the transformation of his “Junk” into Ace Books’ Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict? Receiving a copy of Junkie in August 1953 — just as he was writing the last entries in his notebook — Burroughs knew that whatever losses he suffered in the name of literature, they were only small symbols of those he suffered in life. Everything Lost makes that painfully clear.