Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
Like Skyline Books, Beat Books and a handful of others, Ken Lopez consistently offers show stopping material. I worked in a used and rare bookstore for a couple years, and few and far between were the days that high quality 20th century literature passed through the door. When I leaf through his catalog or scroll through his website, the question that pops into my head is: where does he get this stuff? Case in point is a recent Burroughs item that was available from Lopez Booksellers on Abebooks.
The Ticket That Exploded. Paris: Olympia (1962). First Edition. The correct first edition, published in paperback in Paris five years prior to the U.S. edition. Issued in Maurice Girodias’ “Traveller”s Companion” series — a line of paperbacks that was largely dominated by softcore and hardcore pornography that could not be sold at all in the U.S. at that time — few copies migrated to the U.S. until well after Burroughs’ popularity here was established and the landmark censorship cases of the early 1960s (including that of Naked Lunch) had been settled in favor of increased permissiveness in printed matter. This copy is inscribed by Burroughs to Ted Berrigan: “For Ted Berrigan / Pearl Harbor Bombed Dec 7, 1942 / come 11 / William S. Burroughs / Dec 11, 1964, S.D./ N.Y.” An excellent association copy: while Burroughs was generous with signing books, true association copies seldom show up on the market. In this case, not only is the association a good one, but the inscription, with its “7 come 11” reference to shooting craps, is also particularly good. A little musty; near fine in a near fine, lightly foxed dust jacket. In custom three quarter leather clamshell case made by Peter Geraty.
Clearly, this is a highly prized item. The piece fits right into my collection and in fact would have pride of place in a special collection or research facility specializing in modern literature. It is that important for reasons I will touch on later. Curious, I dug deeper and found that UCLA has the same or a similar book as part of the Allan Kurtzman Beat Collection. Kurtzman, former president at Neutrogena and Max Factor, was a well known book collector. Did more than one association copy of Ticket That Exploded exist? If not, how did the book find its way to Lopez? Was it stolen? Was it lost? Lost and stolen books are a tremendous problem at libraries of all levels. In my experience, the Library of Congress suffers from a near epidemic in this area. If I look for 10 books on a certain topic, I consider myself lucky to get half of them. The books are just misplaced, stolen, or in transit. Did the UCLA library secretly sell some of its special collection holdings, a practice not unheard of as reported by Nicholson Baker in The Double Fold? What’s the story? I emailed Ken Lopez about Burroughs / Berrigan copy at UCLA. He expressed his concern and immediately set about looking into the matter.
I quoted the description above in full because it gets to the heart of several topics that keep coming to the surface in the Bunker: association copies, signed vs. inscribed, the value of true bookmen and catalog descriptions. I was grateful for the little extras Lopez put in this entry such as the rarity of Burroughs association copies as well as the paucity of meaningful inscriptions. The inscription shows a playful side to Burroughs, but what caught my attention was the fact that he misdated the year of the Pearl Harbor bombing. In my experience, Burroughs wrote thoughtful inscriptions to those he knew personally as would be expected. The Nelson Lyon sale provided several great inscriptions. Burroughs also rewarded collectors presenting him with a hard to find item like a little known magazine appearance. Copies of Junkie in many cases were signed “William Burroughs for William Lee.” He also liked to call autograph seekers Johnsons, a reference to the Johnson family in Jack Black’s You Can’t Win. I have seen the inscription “From one Johnson to another” more than once. By and large, Burroughs signed willingly and often. One result of such generosity is a workman-like, assembly line attitude to getting the signatures out without frills.
This copy of Ticket That Exploded is an exception and deserves extra attention. The Ohio State Burroughs archive possesses correspondence involving Burroughs and Berrigan from 1964-1970, so the two men were in contact before the inscription. Once again, the second volume of Burroughs correspondence would be a godsend. It is not surprising that Berrigan and Burroughs started corresponding in 1964. Berrigan’s monumental The Sonnets was self-published in that year by C Press and on November 8, 1964 Grove issued Nova Express, Burroughs’ first straight-to-hardcover title. The literary techniques underpinning both books are similar. Berrigan’s 72 page bombshell utilized the cut-up technique to explode the sonnet form. The use of the cut-up probably had less to do with Burroughs and more to do with first-generation New Yorkers Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery. Yet the work of Burroughs was definitely recognized as simpatico. As I have mentioned, Burroughs appeared in the Collaboration Issue of Locus Solus in 1961. That magazine featured a brief selection from Minutes to Go. Ron Silliman’s blog from December 18th of last year talks about the history of the cut-up and its use by the New York School of Poets. The Sonnets followed Nova Express into the Grove canon in a second edition in 1967.
It should be noted that Burroughs traveled briefly to New York in 1963. As Daniel Kane details in All Poets Welcome, his book on the Lower East Side Poetry Scene, Burroughs’ arrival was a huge deal in underground circles, the return of a conquering hero. Briefly, Kane tells of the excitement and illegal activity that Burroughs’s presence at a Le Café Metro reading created. Possibly Berrigan and Burroughs met during this 1963 visit.
In addition, Berrigan’s C Press provided a potential outlet for Burroughs’ increasingly radical cut-up experiments. I have written about the publishing relationship between Burroughs and Ted Berrigan in my discussion of Time issued by Berrigan’s legendary C Press in 1965. During that year, Berrigan also published Burroughs in the mimeo pages of C Journal. Like 1981, 1965 is a monumental year for Burroughs. For roughly one year, Burroughs returned to the United States and set up shop in New York City. Thanks to the assistance and generosity of Robert Bank, I have been able to construct an incomplete but informative paper trail of Burroughs’ travels for some of this year. See the sister column for a chronology of Burroughs in New York City. Bank has an incredibly detailed and important collection of material relating to Jeff Nuttall. Included in this material are several envelopes and postcards from Burroughs to Nuttall from late 1964-1965. I have noted that postcards were a favored form of correspondence.
Burroughs writes Nuttall from Tangiers stating that his boat is leaving for New York on November 30, 1964. Burroughs arrived on December 8th. In literally a couple of days, Burroughs found himself in the thick of the Lower East Side underground networking with Berrigan. Based on their previous correspondence, Burroughs found it important to meet Berrigan and work on the publishing plan of action. Or possibly Berrigan rushed to greet Burroughs to New York City. I have been unable to find any details regarding this inscription such as whose book it was, where it was signed, did Burroughs and Berrigan meet on this day, etc.
This brings up another interesting aspect of this copy of Ticket That Exploded: how it documents Burroughs actively networking within the literary and art scene of New York City. Often one hears of Allen Ginsberg’s all encompassing rolodex of connections and his championing of the other less active Beats, but this inscription shows Burroughs punching his own ticket into the avant garde. Burroughs’ arrival in New York in 1963 and his stay in 1965 bring up some interesting questions regarding whether Burroughs served as the catalyst in forming a creative scene or whether he was an explorer searching for fully formed scenes to stimulate his creativity. Did Burroughs’ stay signal that New York had arrived as a center of counterculture activity or did Burroughs’ presence provide the creative flame that brought the pot to a boil? I think the answer is not a simple either / or.
Burroughs’ move to Tangier in 1954 is an interesting case study. By all accounts, Burroughs went to Tangier because of the fiction of Paul Bowles. Bowles and his circle of expatriates created a scene that appealed to Burroughs. As Ted Morgan’s biography shows, Burroughs very much wanted to be included in the creative and social life of Tangier. Yet as he grew acclimated to Tangiers and made it his own, Burroughs becomes the beacon that draws creative visitors and thrill-seeking tourists. In 1957, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Peter Orlovsky, and Alan Ansen all traveled to Tangiers drawn by the magnetism of the developing Naked Lunch and the scene described by Burroughs in his work and letters. This is even more noticeable during the psychedelic summer of 1961 when once again Ansen, Corso, Ginsberg, Orlovsky circled like satellites around Burroughs’ sun. In the famous group photo documenting this visit, Bowles, the original influence, sits at the Beats’ feet albeit center stage. By the late 1960s and onward, Tangier was associated with Burroughs as much if not more than Bowles.
I view Burroughs much like a shark. He needed constant movement and unlimited creative sustenance. He inspired awe, and as Oliver Harris writes, fascination in hip and squares alike. The popular conception portrays him as a loner, el hombre invisible lurking in the shadows or sitting alone strung out staring at his shoe. Although I am tempted to stretch the metaphor of the shark to paint him as a solitary creature, the facts prove otherwise. Burroughs needed to be a part of larger artistic communities and he was an active member of them. As Burroughs required an audience to create (see Harris again), he actively sought outlets for his work. Throughout his life Burroughs was on the move searching for stimulus to feed his addiction to writing as much as to feed or escape from his addiction to drugs.
New York City, South America, Mexico City, Tangier, Paris, London, Lawrence. In all these locations, something special existed to draw him there, but the pot boiled with his arrival. Soon after, the media arrived with reporters and photographers to document the scene and announce it to the mainstream. Tangiers 1957. Paris 1959. As Burroughs created his masterpiece and solidified his mythic stature, Paris and Tangier exploded into the post-WWII counterculture map. For example, Life and Mademoiselle chronicled the Beat Hotel. These cities became tourist attractions for those seeking the intellectually exotic, the culturally decadent, and the socially permissive. In these cases, Burroughs plays a more active role in creating a community. Tangier and Beat Hotel Paris existed before Burroughs but they assumed their full identity with his presence.
Freak New York of the Lower East Side. Swinging London. Punk New York. With the publication of Naked Lunch and the proliferation of his myth, Burroughs less actively helped create a community but instead validated and inspired it. Burroughs in turn fed off the energy and attention of younger artists. Burroughs’ presence in a brewing underground scene about to pop elevated it to the next level while bestowing it a history and legitimacy. Whether coincidence or not, Burroughs’ entrance into the scene was followed shortly after by reporters and cameras. News stories on Freak / Hippie New York flooded the media in the mid-1960s culminating in the Ed Sanders’ cover of Life in 1967. Burroughs passed through Gatwick in late 1965, and 1966 proved the height of hip London. Punk arose as a cultural force in the mid 1970s and its birth in New York (possibly with Patti Smith’s Piss Factory / Hey Joe LP) coincided with Burroughs’ move from London in late 1973. Cynically, it could be argued that Burroughs signaled a community’s death knell as overexposure, commercialization, and assimilation by the mainstream culture were sure to follow. By that time, Burroughs would be off to the next emerging hotspot.
Of course, Burroughs received as much as he gave. Naked Lunch and the cut-up trilogy would not have been possible without the physical and creative environment provided by Tangier and Paris. Tangier infuses Naked Lunch in sight, sound and smell. The Beat Hotel and its inhabitants provided the impetus for the cut-up. The publishers of the Lower East Side encouraged Burroughs to go as far out on the cut-up edge as he dared. Ed Sanders assured all that he would publish anything. In London, Burroughs encountered and eventually challenged the institutions of Scientology. Books like The Wild Boys drew on the youth cult of Swinging London. Michael Butterworth of Savoy Books captures the influence of Burroughs on experimental science fiction as well as showing Burroughs in networking mode.
The general ‘atmosphere’ of New Worlds was imbued with Burroughs. Burroughs was living in London in the 60s, of course. Not only did J.G. Ballard promote him in the magazine, Michael Moorcock also did. Michael was one of the main supporting contributors to the ‘Ugh!’ correspondence in the TLS (Times Literary Supplement), and on his travels made a habit of bringing Maurice Girodias titles into the UK before they were available here. He and Charles Platt promoted authors like myself (Michael wrote about me in an introduction that I “sprang full-grown from the head of William Burroughs”!). He even wrote an experimental science fiction novel called The Deep Fix, with a character called Seward and a dedication reading “To William Burroughs, for obvious reasons.” Then there were the New World parties, at least two of which were attended by Burroughs. These could be ‘star’-studded events. At a celebrated one William was introduced to Arthur C. Clarke. The influence was reciprocated. Burroughs wrote the introduction to the US edition of Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition, as you will know. There must have been other cross-overs. To me, one of the younger writers, thoroughly corrupted by cut-ups and unable to read linear prose, and used to having work rejected, the magazine seemed to be tailor-made to fit, and appeared just at the right moment. (From a personal communication to RealityStudio.)
Michael Moorcock, who along with Anthony Burgess defended Burroughs against the British literary establishment in the now famous “Ugh! Correspondence,” also recalls Burroughs in London. Moorcock notes that, though the writers centered around New Worlds may have been fascinated by Burroughs, the influence worked the other way too.
Bill wrote to me quite early on after I’d taken over New Worlds (my first editorial and Ballard’s first feature for New Worlds were about Burroughs as I think you can see from the cover of the first of my issues, which I believe is online) asking if Barry Bayley (the less well-known member of the triumvirate who essentially created ‘my’ New Worlds) would mind if he used the idea of “The Patch” — humanity as a virus — and Barry of course was delighted, later writing several brilliant stories in homage, including “The Four-Colour Problem,” which is still available in the US edition of New Worlds: An Anthology which also gives some of the details of our association with Bill. We were also instrumental in bringing Bill Butler and Bill Burroughs together. I think Bill published Burroughs, too.
I remember the first time I met Bill (maybe Ballard was there, too) and noticed how he was scanning a newspaper ACROSS the columns, rather than down. I remember being delighted that he actually read like that. (From a personal communication to RealityStudio.)
The science fiction elements of Wild Boys and shorter pieces of that period as well as his fascination with the work and thought of L. Ron Hubbard drew from the developing science fiction renaissance in the city. Burroughs’ earlier works like Nova Express inspired newly emerging talents and imaginations. In 1965, Burroughs was interviewed in SF Horizon. The science fiction community and Burroughs cross-fertilized.
In New York, Burroughs got a new start and fought the doldrums to begin on his late work: Cities of the Red Night. In Lawrence, Burroughs confronted the mythic Midwest and West, his childhood, nostalgia, and death away from the celebrity hustle and bustle surrounded by friends who looked past his reputation. The results were his late forays in art and the final trilogy.
Clearly, the inscribed Ticket That Exploded offered by Ken Lopez, no matter where it came from, tells an interesting story. Part bribe, part invitation, part correspondence, part contract, part gift. The exchange between Burroughs and Berrigan captures Burroughs’ relationship to the avant-garde community in New York in all its facets. Burroughs as myth, as hero, as father figure, as peer, as struggling experimentalist, as lightening rod, as catalyst, as voracious shark. Critics have commented on the nature of Berrigan’s literary ambition, but Burroughs proves just as aggressive in furthering his writing and seeing it distributed and consumed. In the mid 1950s, he may have seemed like a man howling in the wilderness, but by the 1960s he was a man about town, sought after and seeking in equal measure.