1962 International Writers’ Conference

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Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

The Third Mind images from Paris are not the only goodies we have received from our readers. Chris Hughes, a reader from Scotland, forwarded me some scans from a program for the Edinburgh Festival of 1962. 2007 marked the 45th anniversary of the 1962 Festival that in essence established Burroughs’ reputation as a writer on an international level. In that year, John Calder decided to add an International Writers’ Conference to the Festival’s many activities. Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw, the best of the Burroughs biographies, provides all the details. Barry Miles’ bio, which is strong on the cut-up and other multimedia aspects of Burroughs’ career, fails to mention the 1962 Conference. This might be because Morgan did such a thorough job of it. According to the Festival’s current website, “[t]he Festival began in 1947, with the aim of providing ‘a platform for the flowering of the human spirit.'” This platform continues to the present. In 2008, the Festival will run from August 8th to August 31.

I do not want to rehash the story of the 1962 Conference here, but I do want to provide readers of RealityStudio with some of the primary documents related to this event. According to the Maynard and Miles bibliography, a mimeograph transcript of the Conference exists. This publication documents the panel discussions that transpired over the five days of August 20th to 24th. The number of copies is unknown, and I have never seen one available for sale. Burroughs appears on pages 5-8, 18-19, 29, 32-33. These sections contain Burroughs’ statements at the panel on Censorship (Thursday August 23rd) and The Future of the Novel (Friday August 24th).

Given the rarity of this publication, I never considered the fact that other ephemera from the Festival and the Conference might exist. But as Chris Hughes’ scans show, such ephemera do in fact exist, and as I found out, they are available. These documents tell an interesting story. I think Hughes’ scans show the program for the entire Festival. He has been good enough to include John Calder’s essay on The Writer’s Conference as well as the schedule for Calder’s brainchild. Interestingly, in Calder’s essay, Burroughs is not listed as one of the delegates from the United States. This shows just how far off the radar screen Burroughs was before the Conference. In hindsight, Burroughs seems like the perfect choice for the panels on censorship and the future of the novel. The obscenity trials surrounding Big Table made Burroughs an expert on censorship. The development of the cut-up and the publication of Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded (not to mention Naked Lunch) made him an authority on the future of the novel. That said virtually nobody at the conference knew who he was. Not surprising really. For the most part, Burroughs was only published by Olympia Press. In all probability, nobody would have read Junkie to say nothing of the small press gems of Minutes to Go (Two Cities) and The Exterminator (Auerhahn Press). In August 1962, Barney Rosset of Grove Press stored copies of Naked Lunch in a warehouse. He was waiting to see how Grove Press’ other censorship battles played out. The book would not be available in the United States until November 1962. The publicity and discussion generated by the International Writer’s Conference in large part assured the book’s release. Naked Lunch would not be available in Great Britain until 1964.

In any case, Burroughs was something of an afterthought for inclusion at the Conference. Calder did not invite Burroughs until summer was already in full swing. Burroughs had to pay his own way, and he did not have a sponsor. In essence he tagged along with Maurice Girodias who attended the censorship panel. At the Conference, Burroughs spent most of his time with Alex Trocchi, the author of Cain’s Book. In fact, Burroughs stayed with Trocchi at Trocchi’s doctor, who no doubt filled scripts all week. This was the first meeting of the two partners in crime. Not surprisingly, Burroughs considered Cain’s Book a major work of drug literature. Calder was actively promoting Trocchi at the time. After the Conference, Calder would do the same for Burroughs.

The program for the Edinburgh Festival supplied by Chris Hughes got me thinking about what else is out there. I remembered John Calder’s autobiography that was sent to me by our correspondent Robert Bank. This book is an essential source on the Writers’ Conference. It includes a description of yet another bit of memorabilia, the Program and Notes for the International Writer’s Conference entitled “The Novel Today.” I never put two and two together. I failed to realize that this program might be available on the rare book market. I guess I got this publication confused with the impossible to find transcript. In addition the two programs available here on RealityStudio are not in the two main Burroughs bibliographies. Some quick searching located a copy of “The Novel Today” right in my backyard. Serendipity!!

About the program, Calder writes, “The conference program, which was really a lavishly produced literary magazine, partly produced on art paper, but with a central section on grey cartridge, gave two lists: a longer one with short biographies of participants and photographs of everyone who had accepted, which was prepared well in advance on white art and a last-minute list, very different, but still incomplete, on grey. The latter section apologized for the inconsistencies and changes, but also gave a longish description of each day’s topic and what was expected to happen, as well as listing the principal speakers for those days.” Burroughs appears in the “last-minute” list as befits his last-minute invitation by Calder. Burroughs is also listed as a participant in the censorship discussion. Not surprising given his publishing history up to that point. What is shocking is that Burroughs was not heavily promoted as a member of the future of the novel panel. Burroughs’ discussion of the cut-up at this panel would prove to be one of the highlights of the Conference and would cause a major stir.

So what did Burroughs say? Literary Outlaw provides some brief quotes, but the best source, besides the mimeographed transcript, is issue 11 of Transatlantic Review from the winter of 1962. Burroughs opens the magazine in its text and headlines on its cover. Clearly he was big news. Issue 11 prints the two statements Burroughs read at the Conference at the panels on censorship and the future of the novel. In addition, Burroughs wrote a cut-up based on the events that occurred at McEwan Hall (the location of the Conference). As is common with Burroughs’ cut-ups of this period, the piece included detailed notes regarding its composition. Parts of it have been collected in The Third Mind and Word Virus, but RealityStudio is putting it online as part of its collection of documents relating to the conference.

Unlike some of the anniversaries that have been celebrated surrounding the Beats in the last couple of years, the 45th Anniversary of the International Writer’s Conference in Edinburgh passed under the radar. This is somewhat ironic since it was after his appearance at McEwan Hall that Burroughs became headline fodder around the world. The Conference directly led to the release of Naked Lunch in the United States and to the publication of a Burroughs novel in Great Britain (Dead Fingers Talk in 1963). In addition, the discussion at the Conference helped legitimize Burroughs as a serious author and helped prove that Burroughs was more than a pornographer. It was in Edinburgh that Mary McCarthy and Norman Mailer stood firmly behind Naked Lunch and its author. This support would prove useful for the upcoming obscenity trial that engulfed Naked Lunch in Boston soon after its release in late 1962. For Burroughs lovers, this is certainly something to remember and to celebrate. Hopefully, the primary documents available here on RealityStudio provide a means to do just that.

1962 Edinburgh International Festival Program


1962 International Writers Conference Program (Excerpt)

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 21 January 2008. Thanks to Chris Hughes for the scans. See also the text of Burroughs’ statements at the conference.

3 thoughts on “1962 International Writers’ Conference

  1. Hi,

    I just wanted to let you know that Dutch writer Gerard Reve was invited at the festival, wrote about the congress in his book “Op weg naar het einde”, which is quite famous in Dutch literature after 1945.

    The letters in “On My Way to the End” shocked Dutch readers of 1963 with their complete lack of taboo and shameless frankness. In the opening “Letter from Edinburgh” – 49 pages in paperback – , Reve talks about attending a writers’ congress in the Scottish capital and describes his anger on discovering that certain topics there, particularly homosexuality and sodomy, were considered beyond the pale. “As a homosexual,” Reve wrote, “I will never let anyone forbid me from making homosexuality the subject of my work.’ He spent the rest of his creative life making this clear.

    Angus Wilson drove with Reve in his car to Edinburgh.
    Reve was very sceptically about Cut up by Burroughs. In the letter he describes encounters with Fried, McCarthy, Mailer.

    Reve died in 2006.

    please compare:

    all the best,

  2. Here you go. Just found this at a site called “Books and Visuals”. It’s a transcript of the conference, found in an online auction catalog:

    28. (BURROUGHS): International Writers Conference: Edinburgh 1962. No printing details. Transcript of the International Writers Conference that ran from the 20-24th August, 1962 and included such luminaries as Norman Mailer, Colin McInnes, Henry Miller, Alexander Trocchi, Mary Mccarthy and a host of others, (over 70 writers including William Burroughs). Burroughs career was effectively launched by his participation. The conference was held to address the question “How does the novel form stand today?” The conference didn’t get off to the greatest of starts when Hugh MacDiarmid famously denounced Trocchi and his work as “cosmopolitan scum.” Burroughs’ novel, Naked Lunch came under attack and was famously defended by Mary Mccarthy, and Norman Mailer declared Burroughs the “only American novelist living today
    who may conceivably be possessed by genius.” Following on from the conference, Naked Lunch stirred up the longest running correspondence in the Times Literary Supplement as critics and public ranted, raved and did everything but agree on the values and qualities of the work. The critical controversy, however, has established Naked Lunch as a seminal post-war work that must be continually read and re-evaluated regardless of the personal tastes of individual critics. A very good plus example of this important document. Approx. 140 pages printed on rectos only. Scarce we have only ever seen one other example and that was incomplete. £450

  3. Hello
    I am based in History at the University of Strathclyde (Glasgow, Scotland) and have worked on the Writers’ Conference of 1962 as part of a bigger research project on the Edinburgh Festivals in the post-war period. Eleanor Bell, my colleague in English Studies (who has also worked on the Writer’s Conference of 1962), and I are organising two events and a publication to mark the 50th anniversary of this conference, due to take place in Edinburgh in 2012.
    We are interested in hearing from anyone who has any more information about the Writers’ Conference from a US perspective, particularly Burrough’s participation in the conference.
    Many thanks in advance for your help.

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