Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
I must admit that I was a bit shocked to learn recently that there is no Big Table archive or essay on RealityStudio. There is a good reason for this: I find Big Table to be a pretty boring magazine. Now do not get me wrong I fully realize the monumental importance of Big Table. The first issue is probably the single most important Burroughs appearance there is. The hoopla surrounding Burroughs’ publication there led directly to the publication of Naked Lunch by Olympia Press. Maurice Girodias, ever the opportunist, reasoned that if Burroughs, Kerouac, and crew could attempt to move an astounding 10,000 copies, Big Table‘s initial print run, then Burroughs was worth the gamble on 5,000 copies of Naked Lunch — a huge run for an experimental novel, although an obscene, sensational one.
And there lies much of my dissatisfication with Big Table: those 10,000 copies. What category of magazine is Big Table really? It is considered a Mimeo Revolution publication, Clay and Phillips’ Secret Location regards it as such in their book and on the website (please check out Steve Clay’s online version of Secret Location, it is a tremendous resource), and the success of Big Table was instrumental in inspiring the explosion of Mimeo Revolution publications into the 1960s, but with a print run of that size it is really something else. It comes out of the Modernist tradition of little magazines like Little Review or transition. The publication of Naked Lunch being akin to the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses. Naked Lunch is the Beat Ulysses or Wake and Burroughs is the generation’s Joyce. In addition, Big Table, coming as it did after the controversy at the University of Chicago and the suppression of the University-sponsored Chicago Review, had its roots in the academic review, like Kenyon Review or Sewanee Review. So Big Table is, well, just too big for my tastes. I much prefer Yugen or Kulchur, Big Table‘s smaller peers on the scene, or true mimeos like C: A Journal of Poetry or Fuck You, a magazine of the arts, which have content as strong as Big Table, as well as being much more radical and compelling as material objects and in their distribution networks. Big Table because of its size just does not fit into my vision of the Mimeo Revolution. Bigger is not always better.
So over the years, Big Table has been wrongly neglected on RealityStudio. Time to rectify that a little bit by focusing on what is neglected in the magazine itself. Rightly, the big selling point of Big Table, we are talking 10,000 copies after all, is Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, Kerouac’s Old Angel Midnight (prime example of experimental Kerouac by the way, Kerouac doing his own version of Joyce, and neglected in its own right, give it a read if you have not already in order to place Kerouac as an avant garde writer with Burroughs as his peer), and a selection of some of Gregory Corso’s strongest poems including “Power,” “Army,” and “Police.” Corso was cooking at this time, which included his sojourn in Paris and the Beat Hotel, before drugs destroyed his talent. Yes, there is also Edward Dahlberg’s “The Garment of Ra” and “Further Sorrows of Priapus” but let’s be honest, Dahlberg is not the main draw here. Dalhberg does not fit; he is old news. Big Table No. 1 represents Burroughs, Kerouac, and Corso at their very best. And it is a strong issue that stands up contentwise with any little mag, but I find myself drawn away from this literary stuff and deep into the notes, editorials, and advertisements. All that stuff that seems extraneous but when you really dig into it is fun and interesting it its own right. Paratext rules.
Take the Notes on Contributors for Burroughs from Big Table No. 1. For many readers this would be some of the only information available about Burroughs’ biography. And what is the first thing presented: the Burroughs Myth, of course, and an unfortunate one at that. “WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS is an expert marksman and an authority on the Mayan Codices.” I have to say that this statement shocks me to the core everytime I read it. Forget about the Mayan Codices, which is interesting for sure. But “An expert marksman?” Is this a cruel joke? Did Burroughs sign off on this? Who wrote the note? Would readers of Big Table have known about the William Tell Incident? The editors of Big Table seem to be playing on the shooting of Joan Vollmer as a means to build up the hype around Burroughs. Then there is the description of Naked Lunch: “His novel-in-progress, Naked Lunch, is a ‘mosaic seen alternately through the ‘dead, undersea eyes of junk,’ and the ‘peeled nerves and sense’ of junk sickness” And there we have it: the full Monty of Burroughs as outlaw. Drugs and murder sell. Interestingly the notes in Chicago Review mention the mosaic structure of Naked Lunch but stays away from the more notorious elements of Burroughs’ biography and literary themes. Without a doubt, Big Table is more subtle and supportive, but this type of sensationalistic copy is in the same territory as the Luce Empire and the presentation of Burroughs in the pages of Life a few months later in November 1959. If Burroughs approved this note, it demonstrates a complete lack of shame on his part as well suggesting a willingness to play up his notorious past in order to promote his image as a writer. So in essence the seeds are planted for the “The Introduction to Queer” of 1985, which is the ultimate (and nadir) in the re-telling of the William Tell Incident into the genesis of Burroughs the author.
The note on Burroughs in Big Table No. 2, published in the Summer 1959, provides this tidbit to chew on: “He plans to return to the United States and then go to India.” This information probably came from Allen Ginsberg and may have been reported from a letter from Burroughs to Ginsberg from late July 1959, which mentions tenative plans for these excursions. The trip to India seems unlike Burroughs and yet he did have an interest in the culture of the East. Unlike Ginsberg, Burroughs was not looking for a guru and he was suspicious of the guru con, yet practiced yoga at times and was interested in Zen. It was Burroughs who put Kerouac in the direction eastward. India would also be of interest for Burroughs because of its drug culture. Yet the desire to go to India might also reflect on Burroughs’ desperation to get away from his present situation in Paris and Tangiers. There was the frenzy surrounding the publication of Naked Lunch, which was completed in a hectic ten days, but more troubling were Burroughs’ legal troubles stemming from drug smuggling charges in the late spring, which hung over his head. Burroughs needed to escape and there were seemingly minutes to go.
Big Table No. 4 from the Spring 1960, does not feature a note on Burroughs or any of the contributors for that matter. Instead there are a series of essays by Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Paul Blackburn, and Paul Carroll laying out background of the New American Poetry landscape as well as a bibliography of relevant poets at the back of the issue. There is also an advertisment for Donald Allen’s New American Poetry 1945-1960 Anthology at the front of the issue and Issue 4 is dedicated to The New American Poets. Interestingly, Burroughs opens the issue with a cut-up short story, a new technique at this point, “But Is All Back Seat of Dreaming.” The consideration of Burroughs as a poet was present at the very beginning of his literary career, remember the “Ten San Francisco Poets” issue of Chicago Review from 1958. It would have been a game changer for Burroughs’ literary reception if he had appeared in Allen’s initial Anthology. The cut-ups in Minutes to Go, published in 1960 in Paris, were probably too late for inclusion, but they fit within the 1945-1960 timeframe, and Burroughs’ cut-ups are solidly within the poetry scene and reception of the time. It is a shame that Donald Allen refused to push the envelope further on the concept of poetry, as being challenged by the New American Poets, and include selections from Naked Lunch. Even more of a shame is that Allen (and Creeley) were so conservative in their handling of Burroughs for their 1965 anthology The New American Story. “Ordinary Men and Women” from Naked Lunch was selected. A selection from Burroughs’ Soft Machine (the Olympia edition) or any number of Burroughs’ cut-up “stories” that appeared in little mags would have been a much more radical choice and much more NEW in terms of where Burroughs’ work was at the time. The reception of Burroughs as a poet, although an open secret and championed by Ginsberg, would have to wait decades for the work of Oliver Harris, and may only become fully realized with the 2020 anniversary of Minutes to Go, The Exterminator, and the cut-up technique. If Donald Allen had followed the lead of Chicago Review and Big Table, the course of Burroughs’ criticism could have been drasticly altered. For the better in my opinion.
Speaking of the advertisement for the New American Poetry anthology, it is the presence of fomal ads that makes Big Table out of step with the Mimeo Revolution. In my romantic view, mimeos are outside of the marketplace and more firmly within the gift ecomony, think Semina and Floating Bear. Ads if they appear are more along the lines of a community announcement of an event, such as a poetry reading or book launch. Looking over the ads in Big Table, you can get a great sense of the counterculture literary and art community of the time. The magazine does not feature lifestyle ads for items like clothing, alcohol, or cigarettes, which signal the development of full-scale Beatnik capitalism. New Directions, Grove Press, and City Lights all have advertisments in Big Table No. 1. City Lights would also be an important distribution point for the magazine. Bookshops also placed ads. The Gotham Book Mart on 41 West 47th Street, shills books by e.e. cummings (95 Poems), T.S. Eliot (A Symposium for his 70th Birthday), and James Joyce (Finnegan’s Wake) along with Jack Kerouac (The Dharma Bums) and Henry Miller (The Red Notebook). Gotham also offers the premier issues of Contact and Noonday magazines. Noonday has a standalone ad as well. Yugen and Kulchur signal the boom in little mags going into the next decade. Ads relating to Zen, jazz, Abstract Expressionism, and men’s magazines round out a comphrensive snapshot of late 1950s hip of which Big Table was a product and a send-off. A magazine like Kulchur would provide a bridge from the 1950s counterculture into representatives of the 1960s like Pop art and magazines such as Fuck You and C.
Also of note in Big Table, outside of the literary content, are the editorials on the events surrounding Big Table‘s creation and distribution. Big Table No. 1 lays out the Chicago Review controversy and Big Table No. 5 documents the battle with the post office. Cool contempory accounts of pivotal moments in larger little magazine story, which are presented here as scans. This brings us to the March 1961 Issue of Swank. Early on in the Bunker, I wrote on the July 1961 Issue of Swank, which featured Burroughs and a draft of Naked Lunch along with an essay on Burroughs by John Fles. Fles served on the editorial board of Chicago Review and later Kulchur as well as editing a one-shot called The Trembling Lamb, which featured Artaud (his Van Gogh essay), Carl Solomon, and Leroi Jones.
If possible I underplayed just how cool Swank was during this period and I really trumpeted the importance of that mag in the piece. The March issue again features Fles — this time on the Big Table benefit reading held in Chicago in 1959. Fascinating reading but wait there is more, as that account of the reading appears in a section of Swank, entitled The Modern Scene, and that section is what I underplayed earlier. Beginning in December 1960, and running almost a year, Swank, under the guidance of Seymour Krim, had a literary section that reads like a Mimeo Revolution mag of the period, such as Big Table, Yugen, or Kulchur. The section in March 1961 is roughly 20 pages and features selections from Kerouac’s Book of Dreams as well as writing by Joel Oppenheimer, Diane di Prima, Jack Micheline, and Marc Schleifer (of Kulchur). Outside of The Modern Scene section is a photo-essay on the influence of New Wave cinema on a more explicit American film scene, an article on stereo systems, and a piece on folk music. If Big Table documents late 1950s hip, the Modern Scene section of Swank marks the beginnings of the revolutions of the 1960s. Men’s magazines are a part of that revolution. For those familiar with Dave Moore’s photo index of Beat book covers, there is a similar index relating to men’s magazines BPH (before pubic hair). Take a look at the covers of Swank for 1961 and you will see a host of familiar Beat Generation names from Kerouac to Ferlinghetti to Leroi Jones to Ginsberg. If the March and July issues are any indication, this brief run of Swank should be treated as a wonderful mutation of men’ mag and little mag: a true monster mash to be sure. Highly recommended as an addition to your Beat book collection.
Big Table Archive
Interview with Paul Carroll
Brilliant Corners 6
John Fles and other Beats