Commentary on Burroughs in Letters and Magazines

Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

In the Dark Ages, monks and other keepers of the flame furiously transcribed the learning of the ancients that threatened to be extinguished in a flood of ignorance. Some say that currently we are merely treading water, or, for the more pessimistic, flailing wildly in a fierce undertow of violence and general stupidity. At this present moment, there are suggestions that paper illuminated with print is in the process of smoldering into ashes. Libraries are crumbling into pixels. The newspaper industry is seriously in the red and ignored by a growing number of readers. Corporate publishers are seeing their bottom line being sparked by electronic books, fanning the fire that may consume their paper output.

Are we in heading full-on into another Dark Age? How are we going to preserve the knowledge of the past in a time obsessed with “real time?” Yet possibly the destroyer of aura is our savior? Today’s monks may be the scanners, the photocopiers, the typists of the Electronic Age and the hoarders of bits in the Digital Age. In days gone by, religious and philosophical texts were preserved in commentaries and glosses of the primary material. Is not the Word Hoard of Burroughs Scripture? Is it now time to transcribe, scan, and archive all the commentary on Burroughs in underground newspapers, little magazines, and the letters outside of the Beat luminaries? These scraps of information when combined and juxtaposed create a fuller mosaic of Interzone — the hive mind of all that is Burroughsian.

There have been fits and starts. On RealityStudio and elsewhere. Jennie Skerl and Robin Lydenberg’s At the Front: Critical Reception, 1959-1989 is prime example. True, Alan Ansen on Naked Lunch from Big Table has been preserved in its pages but At the Front anthologizes academic pieces. Are the academics really the front line? What about the New American Poets, Breakthrough Fictioneers, and experimental artists riffing on Burroughs and incorporating him into their practice? Truly, this is the front line of art and literature. Matt Theado’s The Beats: A Literary Reference is more avant garde in some respects, but not really. The Beats largely preserves Burroughs’ reception in the mainstream press: The New York Times, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Nation. Or the letters of Ginsberg and Kerouac. What of that in-between space of B-movies that Burroughs speaks of? What of Alan Ansen’s follow-up piece to the Big Table article, “After The Naked Lunch,” from City Lights Journal #2? Or Ted Berrigan on Nova Express in Kulchur 18? Or Douglas Blazek on APO-33 in Ole #7? What about the letters of Michael Rumaker, Gilbert Sorrentino, or Charles Olson? If we must hear from Ginsberg (and we must) let’s hear him speak to his comrades in the pages of Nomad. Yes, these are small, isolated pieces, seemingly insignificant, mere traces (the very definition of ephemeral), but if more are gathered, if more will assist in the gathering, we can reach a critical mass that will truly praise he who is invisible, yet lords over the imaginations of us all.

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 15 July 2013.

7 thoughts on “Commentary on Burroughs in Letters and Magazines

  1. Excellent project, Jed!

    Already I’ve begun to prowl my memory banks and book shelf in search of matching material.


  2. Interesting post, Jed. Do you think there is some relationship between the dominant media at a particular time (say, written manuscript vs. print vs. digital)and the kind of commentary produced? I mean,do you think our digital age encourages the gloss versus the canonical text?

    I guess people would say that postmodernism is characterized more by marginalia and commentary, by criticism, than by the master Work with a capital W, but I don’t know anymore. Lots of people are writing very big books.

  3. Mike,

    It is interesting how digitial media and postmodernism repeat and build on the technologies and practices of a period like the Middle Ages. If postmodernism is characterized by marginalia and commentary, this is a practice that also dominated the Middle Ages into the beginnings of print. Digital media like twitter and blogging parallel medieval compendiums and such. The database/archiving mentality seems to be an age old one that was strong in the Middle Ages.

    The Master Work or Canonical text would seem to be a by product of moveable type and Gutenberg print, and maybe not so much the technology but the changes in print culture and the approach to print that that technology brought about like copyright or originality or authorial intent etc.

    You mention big books. I remember the period from 1993-1996 or so as one of the encyclopedic novel. Pynchon, DeLillo, Gass and Wallace all had Master Works out and I have always felt that was a function of the threshold of wide spread digital culture through the Internet and the coming Death of Print (as well as the last gasps of Big Publishing) coupled with the end of the Cold War master narrative.

  4. Really interesting, Jed. I hadn’t thought about the archiving mentality, which is definitely a feature of our own time. Everyone seems to be collecting and curating these days, across different media and art forms.

    Also, good point about print and copyright/authorship. Digital media are more slippery, I guess–less conducive to asserting authorial control than the monumentality of print.

  5. Excellent finds, Jed. I was trying to find a Charles Raven review of NL the other day – I never did – but came across the Spectator Archive which has these two articles (amongst a whole bunch of others). The English Literary world 40-odd years ago was pretty staid and parochial so Bill’s appearance stopped quite a few people in their tracks/tracts/TRAKs …

  6. Very interesting about the decline in the newspaper industry. I have just come across a chapter from a novel on which William and I were collaborating just about 45 years ago and it predicts just that. Check out GOSSAMER JOHN in the Fiction Section of my website It is under my name but I think you will clearly see what William contributed!

  7. The future leaking out again…
    That Gossamer John is a great trailer for the novel … have any more chapters surfaced from your store?
    Your collaboration and the intersection technique deserve more attention.

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