Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
This may not be exactly true, but permit me to float it out there anyway. I have a firm belief that anybody who owned a copy of the Olympia Press Naked Lunch from 1959 to 1962 was interesting. A person to sit down in a bar and talk to for a couple hours. You know what I am talking about: the idea that the possession of certain objects bestows an aura on the owner. Got a copy of Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica then you must be wonderfully weird and eccentric. Is there a copy of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow on your shelf then you must be into some deep ass shit. I fall victim to this myself. When I was setting up my first house back in 1998, my hardcover copies of DeLillo’s Underworld, Pynchon’s Mason Dixon, and Gass’ The Tunnel were lined up like squat soldiers upon the middle shelf. They shouted to all who passed through the doors of my library that I was a serious motherfucker when it came to Modern Literature. Or so I hoped. Better not to mention that I got lost and could not find my way to the end of The Tunnel. Who was I fooling? Who was I trying to impress? I was definitely trying too hard. Man, did I break a sweat with all that mental heavy lifting.
Now mind you, this theory is on one level complete poseur bullshit, but I cannot shake the feeling that owning the Olympia Naked Lunch from 1959 to 1962 held real meaning. It made a strong statement of who you were. It spoke of one’s credentials. Reading Naked Lunch bought you to the table of a secret society, a bubbling underground. It was like breaking bread with the in-crowd. This is because getting a copy of Naked Lunch at the time was something like a back-alley drug deal. It was clandestine and seemingly dangerous. Brown paper and under-the-counter type shit. Or you took the time and effort to go to Paris and hit the bookstalls. Think of Paul Bowles in The Sheltering Sky. It is all about literary tourists vs. travellers. Owing Traveller’s Companion No. 76 was part and parcel of being a flâneur who explores bibliographic roads less travelled.
There is something definitively less hip about the Grove Press edition when compared to the Olympia Press edition. Maybe it is the dust jacket. The Grove is not dressed as sharply as the Olympia. The purple and white, the olive green. That reminds me of a zoot suit. The Grove gives off a little too much of grey flannel. Or maybe it is the old New York vs Paris debate. Paris is so exotic, erotic, and faraway. The Olympia copy just because it was published in Paris seems sleazy yet sexy. It is decadent and depraved. In the City of Lights, the Olympia edition reminds you of the red light district. It is a true dirty book. After all it could get you busted. It definitely put you in contact with undesirables like beatniks, junkies, and jazz musicians. The Grove with its paratexts, which explain away all mystery and depavity, is too clean cut. It is a dirty book sanitized like a rapist conservatively dressed and shaven in preparation for trial. Reading the Grove put you in contact with professors, lawyers, literary critics, and the public at large. So November 20, 1962, the publication date of the Grove edition, spells the beginning of the end of cool in some ways for Naked Lunch. Instead the book became a hot topic. No longer spoken about in whispers in dark, seedy cafes and cold-water flats, it was now proclaimed and promoted far and wide by loudmouth poseurs like Norman Mailer at literary conferences to any who would listen. Naked Lunch was no longer the work of a drug addicted murderer, but a work of genius.
Philip Larkin found the pivot point of the 1960s to be 1963. He states his case in “Annus Mirabilis”:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
Up to then there’d only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.
Then all at once the quarrel sank:
Everyone felt the same,
And every life became
A brilliant breaking of the bank,
A quite unlosable game.
So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
It just so happens that 1963 was likewise a crucial year for the reception of William Burroughs. In a sense that was Burroughs’ Annus Mirabilis, or if you are a curmudgeon like me, his Annus Miserablis. You may have noticed that we have been posting a few reviews and articles on Burroughs of late. They all happen to be from 1963. This is no surprise or accident. That was the year in which the mainstream press firmly got its hooks into Burroughs. It could be argued that Burroughs never escaped the clutches of the mainstream media. Remember Life took Burroughs’ mugshot just months after the publication of Naked Lunch. Hauser and O’Brien were always hot on Burroughs’ trial, but in 1963 the deluge. It was then that the definitive edition of Naked Lunch shifted from the Olympia edition to the Grove edition.
In book-collecting circles, the most highly prized collectible is that which is closest to the author’s hand. Manuscripts and letters trump proofs and galleys which have an edge over first editions and then there are the lowly reprints and reissues. There is something to this especially in terms of Naked Lunch. The rawest, funkiest Naked Lunch is in the letters to Ginsberg and can then be found in the pages tossed into a scattered pile in Burroughs’ dingy apartment in Tangier. Naked Lunch in this nascent state is something like performance art. The routine is a literary striptease strictly for Ginsberg, an act of provocation. The scene Kerouac describes of Burroughs writing Naked Lunch in Tangier is also a performance and something of a Happening or installation involving the Hunger Artist. Here’s Kerouac from Desolation Angels:
In fact I hung around his room several hours a day altho I now had a great room on the roof, but he wanted me to hang around about noon till two, then cocktails and dinner and most of the evening together (a very formal man) so I happened to be sitting on his bed reading when often, while typing out his story, he’d suddenly double up with laughter at what he done and sometime roll on the floor. A strange compressed laugh came out of his stomach as he typed. But so wont Truman Capote think he’s only a typewriter, sometimes he’d whip out his pen and start scribbling on the typewriter pages which he threw over his should when he was through with them, like Doctor Mabuse, till the floor was littered with the strange Etruscan script of his handwriting.
The preparation of the proofs for Olympia Press is a scene out of Rashômon. Nobody can agree on how the final version actually happened; in fact it seemed to appear spontaneously like a rabbit pulled out of a magician’s hat and it kind of did. (Burroughs’ next act, the cut-up, sprung from Tristan Tzara’s fedora.) The Olympia edition retains that sense of mystery and excitement. On to the Grove edition which is not a performance or happening, but instead Exhibit A in a courtroom drama over obscenity. Then we get to the various reprint paperbacks which package Naked Lunch for consumption by the mass market. Despite the claims of The Restored Edition of authorial intention and definitiveness, for me the progression of Naked Lunch over time has been a dilution of the book’s energy and vitality. The Olympia edition will always be the definitive published edition and I will always wish I could have watched Burroughs perform Naked Lunch in Tangier.
It might seem daring and transgressive for an article on Burroughs to appear in the men’s magazine Rogue in September 1963. Burroughs and porn. A potent combination. Yet by that time Naked Lunch‘s obscenity was being explained away as satire and magazines like Rogue (itself bastardization of Playboy, which mixed sex with science fiction, making one wonder why the publishers did not get a little more creative and print excerpts from Novia Express) presented sex as a consumable product and lifestyle packaged in a safe vehicle that company men could drive home to their recliners in Levittown. The piece titled “The Invisible Man” opens: “William Lee Burroughs, a man who for many years has been a mystery in the writing world, is becoming increasingly visible these days.” Make no mistake; the mystery still lingers to some extent. Even the author, Ann Morrissett, cannot get a firm grasp on the elusive Burroughs. William Lee Burroughs. The cover story of the secret agent, the pseudonym from Junkie, still protects Burroughs’ identity even as “[his] notorious book, ‘The Naked Lunch,’ after surreptitiously floating between continents beshrouded with rumor, has of late been clothed in so many reviewers’ words that the work itself may come as an anti-climax for those who finally get down to its bare reality.”
Morrissett’s article captures the pivot point I described earlier: the emergence of Burroughs into the bright light of the mass media. Another article by Morrissett makes this clear through metaphor. In Evergreen Review No 29 (March/April 1963), Morrissett opens “An Account of the Events Preceding the Death of William Burroughs” as follows: “Nine Lies-the-Heart: the door opens on a narrow cell with a bright window. A high figure is silhouetted against the light. Gradually I make out its features. Stretched over the skeleton and meat is a fine yellow parchment on which have been written many things now carefully erased. Dark-rimmed glasses are painted around the eyes.” From March/April 1963 to September, Burroughs has become “increasingly visible.” The death Morrissett describes is the demise of Burroughs’s anonymity and the birth of Burroughs as a celebrity in popular culture.
As for Morrissett, during her travels to Paris and the Beat Hotel in 1962, she undoubtedly picked up a copy of the Olympia Naked Lunch. Morrissett’s interaction with Burroughs may have been a pivot point in her life. Just as these articles were published, Morrissett married William Cooper Davidon, a professor of physics at Haverford. Was her trip to Paris and her interaction with Burroughs one last adventure before settling into comfortable married life on a college campus? Not exactly. Throughout her life she was an anti-war advocate, pacifist, and feminist. She and her husband practiced tax resistance against the Vietnam War and her husband was, in 1971, named an “unindicted co-conspirator” in a plot to kidnap Henry Kissinger, and Davidon organized the March 8, 1971 FBI office break-in, in Media, Pennsylvania, and informally lead the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI which led to the disclosure of COINTELPRO. Morrissett sounds like quite an interesting person, no? Maybe my theory is not so far-fetched.
1963 Burroughs Publicity
John Pearson, “The Burroughs Affair,” The Sunday Times Colour Section (3 February 1963)
Ann Morrissett, “An Account of the Events Preceding the Death of Bill Burroughs,” Evergreen Review (March/April 1963)
Ann Morrissett, “The Invisible Man,” Rogue (September 1963)
Ann Beat, “Junkie Culture,” excerpted from Books and Bookmen (November 1963)