Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
To be blunt, the New York Antiquarian Book Fair is the shit. Prior to the fair, I went to the Morgan Library to see their Gutenberg Bible and soak in the atmosphere of J.P. Morgan’s study. The display at the New York show was even more impressive to me, Gutenberg Bible aside. To be honest, I would not be surprised to see the most important human achievement of the second millennium sitting under glass at some rare book dealer’s booth at 66th and Park. This show is that big on the rare book scene. As one dealer told me when I expressed surprise on seeing him, he would not miss this event for the world. He referenced bankrobber Willie Sutton: New York is where the money is.
The Morgan did have one Beat jewel on display amongst the gem-encrusted bindings and the illuminated manuscripts. On the second floor of the Library there was an August 22, 1959 letter from Allen Ginsberg to John Ciardi defending Jack Kerouac against Ciardi’s attack on Maggie Cassidy. There was also a September 3, 1959 postcard follow-up to Ciardi’s reply. Ciardi, the editor for The Saturday Review, wrote a review of Maggie Cassidy in July 1959 entitled “In Loving Memory of Myself.” Critical attacks on Kerouac of this nature were common in the mainstream press. Ciardi follow that up with a larger swipe at the Beats titled “Epitaph for the Dead Beats.” Ciardi is an interesting figure in Beat and Burroughs history. More on him at a later date. The Ginsberg letter includes three paragraphs on William Burroughs. This makes sense since Naked Lunch was published just one month earlier in late July and critics were finally able to assess Naked Lunch as a whole. Ginsberg writes of the relationship between Burroughs and Kerouac as writers, “Burroughs working along similar lines different personal angle shorthand transcription of visual image archetypes encountered in total spiritual exploration.” Ginsberg continues, “Indivious comparisons between Burroughs and Keroauc is the sort of speculation which Jealousy will substitute for happy appreciations. They are old friends and fellow workers and learn from each other.” Ginsberg also quotes the line about Burroughs not imposing plot or story: “I am a recording instrument.” The letter concludes with a handwritten line: “New art should not arouse hostility among the learned, but does and alas always has.” it is a fitting epitaph for the Beats and the lively Beat spirit. All in all it is a remarkable document and an example of the type of treasures on hand at the Morgan.
The New York Book Fair had similar jaw-droppers. The one item that caught my eye was a poster announcing the March 9, 1959 reading with Frank O’Hara and Gregory Corso at the Living Theatre. This reading is legendary and shows the sometimes contentious relationship between the Beats and the New York School. David Lehman provides details of this reading in The Last Avant Garde. At the reading, Keroauc famously yelled to O’Hara, “You’re ruining poetry.” O’Hara quickly returned with “That’s more than you’ll ever do.” The poster documents this important moment in literary history in a material and ephemeral way. Such objects never fail to catch my attention.
Yet I was distracted to say the least. I am sure there were several other great items at the fair but the 2008 New York show was all about one thing and that was the Burroughs Archive of photographs and ur-collages on sale from Brian Cassidy and Ken Lopez. Sure there were other Burroughs items, but they were like the opening band than everybody in the audience struggles to sit through before the headliner. In a show crowded with incredible items, this collection held its own and cast a spell over an audience of jaded spectators who have seen it all. One hour before I got to Ken Lopez’s booth, the collection sold to a gallery owner who plans to exhibit them, but I did get to see the items briefly. Seeing them in person I could understand why the Berg would pass on the items. They were not visually spectacular in the way the scrapbooks from the 1960s are. Those items appeal as art objects and examples of avant experimentalism like mail or Fluxus art. The material in Lopez’s possession was small, unassuming, easy to overlook given that libraries, particularly the Berg, are awash in snapshots of and by Beat figures. That said, this collection exuded an aura. I see these items like I would a fragment of text on a scrap of papyrus from Mesopatamia. Or a glyph on a weathered stone. A portal into beginnings. Could these photographs function like a Rosetta Stone allowing interested parties to get uncoded the genesis of Naked Lunch? Scholar as archeologist. I was reminded of Charles Olson describing himself as an archeologist of morning. From what I could see they have the potential be incredibly useful in just such a project as it relates to Burroughs. The images reveal Burroughs in the process of contructing a composite city, a proto-version of Interzone. These pieces are primitive collage, cut-ups, mosaics, cut and paste from a very early date. Pre-Gysin. Nailing down the date of their creation is crucial. The potential implications are far-reaching. These images tie back to the Yage visions and the Composite City section that so fascinate scholars like Oliver Harris and provide a key to his recent scholarship with Yage Letters and the Latin American notebooks. Thankfully they sold as a collection. Once the Berg passed on the collection there were discussions of selling the collection piecemeal.
Ken Lopez and Brian Cassidy are no strangers to the Bibliographic Bunker. (See Burroughs Literary Archive and Brian Cassidy Bookseller and a Rare Burroughs Letter) So as soon as I heard about the collection I fired off some questions for Brian Cassidy to consider. Instead of writing on all the side acts at the fair (though bookseller Peter Stern’s copy for $6000 had one of the finest, brightest dust jackets that I have seen in a while, how many Olympia Press Naked Lunches can you see?), I present Brian Cassidy’s thoughts about the headline act along with a link to the collection.
The first thing I thought of when I saw this archive was where it came from. Who is Richard Lorenz and how did he get these items?
Lorenz was a noted photographer as well as a photo collector and scholar; he authored several books on the medium including one on Imogen Cunningham. He purchased the WSB items from a New York photography dealer named Sol Lowinsky, who we gather purchased them directly from WSB. They came to Ken Lopez and me through a photography dealer representing the Lorenz estate.
Given that so much of Burroughs’ archives are already in institutions, how rare is it that Burroughs material of this magnitude is still in private hands?
Material like this is certainly scarce. How much remains in private hands, however, can be tough to gauge. For example, Burroughs sold this material probably in the late 1980s to early 1990s. How often he partook of similar “extra-archival” sales to dealers and collectors is unclear. He was certainly not a rich man and it wouldn’t surprise me if he occasionally (if not regularly) raised money by divesting himself of stray pieces of his archive. Also unclear is what remains in the hands of friends, editors (particularly, to my mind, of small magazines), and other acquaintances who had contact with Burroughs.
I think there’s an image of WSB as sort of remote and distant — both intellectually and physically (Kansas, Tangier) — but in fact he maintained an extensive correspondence, had numerous warm and close friendships, hosted many visitors (even in his later years in Lawrence) and was — esp. during his him time in NYC — very much “of the scene,” hanging out with Warhol, Lou Reed, various punk rockers, etc. It seems likely that many of these people over the years retained Burroughs material — whether it be letters, art, etc. — that will find its way to market someday. So one must be careful to differentiate between absolute rarity and market rarity. My guess is in absolute terms there’s probably substantial WSB material yet to worm its way into the public eye (indeed just this past year I’ve purchased a small typescript and a pair of early letters). But from the perspective of the market right now, good primary material from Burroughs remains uncommon.
That said, early and substantive examples such as this archive are exceptional.
What were your first impressions going through the material?
My first impression came via images emailed to me. I was certainly excited about the material and recognized its importance, but the full impact of the work wasn’t clear until I saw them in person for the first time. The collages in particular are smaller than the online catalog probably suggests. As such, they have a strange and awkward delicacy that is difficult to convey in reproduction. Coupled with the wonderful materiality of the aging scotch tape and the aggressive and disjointed nature of collage, the overall effect is quite powerful. They’re extraordinarily effective at conveying both a sense of place and time while simultaneously suggesting the mindset of Burroughs. There’s an immediacy and significance about them that goes beyond their being — perhaps to some eyes — a simple Beat relic.
Are these items mere curiosities or do you see scholarly value in them? Do they provide a port of entry into Burroughs as a writer or person?
Building off what I said in the previous answer, I think the material is of supreme importance to WSB. As I say in my description, the work most obviously echoes his collage experiments (I’m thinking in particular of the C Press Time) and his career-long cut-up work. That said, what I think is far more fascinating (and again, I’m not saying anything my cataloging doesn’t) is how Burroughs seems to be doing in these collages what he was doing in his writing of Naked Lunch and the other Interzone books: remaking in visual form the melding of time, place, and person he was attempting via verbal methods in those novels. In other words, we see the beginnings of the conflict that would occupy the remainder of Burroughs’ career: the tension between word and image.
I am particularly struck by the image of Burroughs in the distance on the beach in Tangier. Was there an image that stuck with you from the collection?
I’m partial to the collage that incorporates Ginsberg’s portrait of Peter Orlovsky from their trip to Yosemite in 1950s. What I like about this is how Burroughs took his friend’s (Ginsberg’s) picture of his (again, Ginsberg) lover in an American landscape and married it to his own image of Tangier. For me at least, I think this reveals a lot about Burroughs’ feelings toward the country and his time there.
I also really care for the images of Billy Burroughs. These would have been his father’s pictures of him from his own scrapbook. And given what happened not only to Billy, but also obviously his mother, I find them quite poignant and a little sad. Doubly so when you consider WSB then subsequently sold them. I think Billy was a part of his life he was never able to fully incorporate or resolve. And I may be reading too much into them, but I think you can see something of their relationship in the rather stern faces Billy reveals in these images.
What are the comparables with an archive of this nature? Do you value these with Burroughs’ scrapbooks in mind or with original photographs by literary figures like Ginsberg or the recently passed Jonathan Williams?
Hmmm. Well, there aren’t any good ones. The most obvious though would be later Burroughs artwork, which in my mind at least created a floor for how these might be priced. Ginsberg’s photos were a useful benchmark in thinking about the loose photos. But when it came to the collages, it was less about finding similar material and much more about understanding their context and importance. For unique items such as these, determining value can be much more art than science. Which is not to say it’s not entirely rational, just difficult to describe. To prove the (science) point: When Ken Lopez and I were considering the purchase, we both came up with prices — both for the archive as a whole as well as the individual pieces — independently of each other and our numbers were nearly identical.
But to further prove the point (i.e. art): the buyer of the archive was another dealer, who — unless he has an immediate buyer — obviously wouldn’t have purchased it if he didn’t think he could market the items at a higher price.
I know the collection was offered to a few institutions. What is the state of affairs of the institutional market?
I’m not sure that the financial situation for institutions is substantially different now than it was a year or two ago. You will hear older dealers lamenting the fact that library budgets are not what they were twenty or thirty years ago. And that does seem to be the case. You don’t see much of the vacuum approach anymore that places like the Ransom took during the Texas oil boom, for example. But I never experienced that first-hand; my timeline is much shorter and from where I stand, special collections are still a strong, necessary and important market. In other words, there are absolutely libraries actively buying. In the last sixth months, I’ve placed everything from a small Henry Miller archive to a collection of papers from a prominent 19th century historian with various large institutions. Of particular interest to Bunker readers: for more than two years I’ve been working with a major library that actually has an endowed fund dedicated exclusively to the acquisitions of the magazines from the mimeo revolution. It’s shaping up to be a great collection.
In your opinion, what is the future role of the individual collector? For example, I see that in a New Yorker article philanthropists have taken over some aspects of journalistic research for the struggling newspaper industry. Are we going to see an increase in private individuals filling the role of archivists with the goal being preservation and not financial speculation?
In the same way that Burroughs — as the avant-garde of his day — prefigured much of the work that was to come after him, private, individual collectors are very much the avant-garde (read: advance guard) of special collections. The best collectors will almost always be way ahead of most libraries simply because they are accountable to no one else and so have no one to whom they need justify their acquisitions.
As for “private individuals filling the role of archivists with the goal being preservation and not financial speculation,” I guess I reject the premise of the question as I don’t see a dichotomy between preservation and long-term financial value. Though the age-old advice to book collectors — “Collect what you love; don’t do it for the money” — still remains very sound, at the levels you’re talking about (important / rare / unique primary material), there’s little reason to believe the rare book market should behave much differently than the art market. And indeed, some recent sales (I’m thinking of the Kerouac On the Road scroll, the WSB archive sale to the Berg, Don Delillo’s recent seven-figure sale of his archive to Texas) suggest that the we may see appreciations in the rare book world similar to those seen over the last fifteen years in the world of art, where prices for the very best and rarest of materials completely out-paces the rest of the market.
But even outside of those dizzying financial realms, a good collection is always worth more than the sum of its parts — which is and will continue to be good news for the small collector. Or to put it another way: history suggests that the pendulum is constantly swinging between the power of the individual and the institutional collector. Due to a number of factors, at the moment, I suspect the pendulum is swinging in favor of the individual — both well-healed and thrifty.
What do you see as the future of literary archives? Will an institution or collector ever pay big money for an electronic file of archived email, drafts, or images? How will electronic files be collected — or will they be collected at all?
To be honest, I have trouble imagining an entirely electronic archive. I suspect that authors will continue to interact with the physical draft for some time. This will, however, increasingly and obviously be in conjunction with more and more electronic media (word processors, email, etc.), and this poses several problems. First is the ease of infinite duplication (thereby eliminating the exclusivity of the physical object) which can make determining monetary value more difficult. Second is the danger of corruption (i.e. unintended changes) to the electronic data — something that is not an issue with information in a physical archive. And finally and perhaps most importantly, electronic documents are in many ways even more ephemeral than paper ones. (Can you still open the documents on that floppy disk from your college years?) My guess is that writers, dealers, and libraries will begin to work more closely with each other and at earlier points in authors’ careers to address these issues and ensure that important information is preserved. At least, that’s my hope.
Is the rare book industry prepared to deal with digital collecting or archiving of this nature? For example, Ralph Ellison’s last novel was cobbled together from drafts on computer disks (as well as other sources). Is the rare book field prepared to assess and market this type of material?
No. Generally speaking, I don’t think the rare book world is ready for digital collecting or archiving. But I think this has much more to do with the fact that there haven’t been any real test cases rather than any kind of professional blindness or bias. Indeed, I don’t think most institutions or authors are ready for these changes either.
The problem with an example like Ellison is that it calls into question the very idea of primacy and authenticity upon which the rare book market is built. What is a real draft or a real letter in the age of email and .doc files? What is a “first edition” of an e-book? Now, these questions have been around at least since the development of photography, and have been far better addressed by the likes of Walter Benjamin, but I think you’re right to sense that these questions will be coming to a head in the near future. How it all will shake out, I’m just not sure.
Can you name an author who will be collected electronically?
Perhaps Mark Z. Danielewski, whose House of Leaves was originally published and distributed on the internet.