Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
Just how high-minded Girodias’s attack on censorship and obscenity laws was is up for debate. Although he was far from the typical under-the-counter smut peddler, his battle for freedom of the press and speech was the complex and conflicted result of being a shrewd businessman and a natural born troublemaker. The United States equivalent was Barney Rosset, owner and publisher of Grove Press. In 1962, Grove Press issued a promotional booklet to accompany the November 20, 1962 American publication of Naked Lunch. This is another excellent and highly desirable piece of ephemera. Clearly, Rosset printed the prospectus with an obscenity trial in mind. The entire document reads like a legal argument to establish Naked Lunch‘s literary merit before a courtroom.
The pamphlet opens with a short essay by Terry Southern. Southern was uniquely qualified to comment on Burroughs and Naked Lunch. Legend has it that he and Mason Hoffenberg were instrumental in getting Naked Lunch published by Olympia Press. Southern and Hoffenberg under the name Maxwell Kenton wrote the enormously successful Candy that was published by Girodias in 1958. I was surprised that Candy did not receive more attention in the Olympia Press Catalog, but like the equally popular Ginger Man by JP Donleavy, Candy engendered a hornet’s nest of legal troubles. Candy appears in a listing of Olympia titles at the end of the catalog under the name Lollipop. To anybody interested in the fascinating stories of Candy and The Ginger Man read The Candy Men by Niles Southern as well as The History of the Ginger Man by Donleavy. These books provide in-depth accounts of the creation of the novels as well as an extremely readable history of Paris in the 1950s and Olympia Press.
In any case, Southern possessed a relationship with Naked Lunch‘s publication but more importantly he knew where it was coming from and how to spin it to an American critical audience. In 1958 and 1960, Southern wrote Flash and Filigree and The Magic Christian. He fathered new journalism in 1962 with the “Twirling at Ole Miss” piece for Esquire. The screenplay for Dr. Strangelove would follow soon in 1964. Like Kerouac, Southern played Naked Lunch as satire. Southern’s short essay played up Burroughs’s humor and his remarkable ear for voices and language (Southern’s strengths as well), thereby helping to establish these elements as a major weapons in defending Burroughs from obscenity. As we have seen, Joan Didion would utilize a similar argument in an attempt to explain the value and power of Soft Machine in 1966.
Southern and Burroughs continued to be friendly throughout the 1960s and 1970s. They both wrote for Esquire in 1968 reporting on the Democratic Convention, and they teamed up in a drug-fueled effort to create a screenplay for Naked Lunch with Dennis Hopper and Jacques Stern. Southern and Hopper’s success with Easy Rider revolutionized Hollywood (see Easy Riders, Raging Bulls), thus making even the thought of filming a movie version of Naked Lunch possible.
E.S. Seldon wrote the second critical piece in the pamphlet. Seldon’s piece on Naked Lunch first appeared in Evergreen Review No. 22 in January / February 1962 along with sizable cuts of Naked Lunch, Soft Machine and the then-titled Novia Express. Seldon wrote a similar article on Lolita and Justine for Evergreen No. 6. In that issue, he is described as follows: “completing his re-evaluation of Sade’s contribution to modern thought.” Unlike Ciardi, Alan Ansen, Southern, or Mary McCarthy (some other early commentators on Naked Lunch), I see Seldon as a professor or graduate student first, not primarily a writer of poetry or fiction. Any more information on Seldon would be appreciated. I am reminded of the early critical reception of Charles Bukowski by professors like John William Corrington of Louisiana State University who wrote the introduction to It Catches My Heart in Its Hands. Corrington also published “Charles Bukowski and the Savage Surfaces” in Northwest Review in the fall of 1963. The title of Seldon’s piece, “A Desperate Cry from the Madhouse,” sounds similar to Corrington’s assessment.
Seldon provides a reasoned, critical investigation of Naked Lunch stressing the sanity of its vision of an insane, out-of-control society. The article attempts to find literary ancestors, like Henry Miller, but Seldon relies most heavily on the French literary and philosophical tradition, such as Rimbaud, Artaud and Sade. Their ideas of the derangement of the senses, the dominant society’s use of the mental institution, the man suicided by society, and the philosophy of the obscene greatly informs Seldon’s reading. Other literary powerhouses providing comments to the Grove Press promotion were the aforementioned Ciardi, Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac, and Robert Lowell.
The promotional pamphlet includes an eight page selection of Naked Lunch. Not surprisingly, Rosset chose sections that support the critical readings of the novel. The “Meeting of International Conference of Technological Society” and “The County Clerk” section highlight the satirical nature of Naked Lunch to the fullest. Rosset also featured these pieces (along with a section entitled “Interzone”) in Evergreen Review No. 16 of January / February 1961. They present Burroughs’ humor, language and voice at their most obvious. The “County Clerk” section seems tailor-made for Terry Southern’s commentary, and Seldon’s reading is supported to the letter by the “International Conference” selection. Interestingly, Southern’s critique, as well as several others like Jack Kerouac’s and Burroughs’ own “Deposition,” drew upon the scenes of extreme sexual violence in the “A.J.’s Annual Party” routine, seeing this section as a satire on capital punishment. None of the early little magazines dared touch this section. The “Talking Asshole” episode was also too hot to handle.
In any case, the above-mentioned pieces of ephemera are essential to understanding the early publication history of Naked Lunch, the establishment of the book’s critical reception, and the novel’s many court battles over the years. These writings demonstrate how completely the legal battles informed the early literary criticism of Naked Lunch. I am unaware that the Olympia Press blurbs, as well as the Southern and Seldon essays, are available in any other format. Jennie Skerl and Robin Lydenberg do not include these early essays in William Burroughs At the Front: Critical Reception, 1959-1989. A gathering of reviews and essays on Naked Lunch would make for an interesting collecting enterprise as such work appeared in the entire range of printed material from books to magazines to newspapers to ephemera.
In closing, another cool thing about ephemera is that it can be relatively cheap provided you create your own niche. In addition, the market is not as competitive. Yet as with vinyl, there are always exceptions as you search deep into Burroughs’ literary history. The 1960 Olympia Catalog and the Grove Press Naked Lunch Prospectus both fetch over $100. The program from the 1965 St. Valentine’s Reading recently sold at the Edwin Blair Auction and immediately found itself on the rare book market. As mentioned before, broadsides are often tailored to the collectible market thus making them instantly desirable to collectors and thus expensive. The key Burroughs posters can be very expensive. Yet there are countless other items just waiting for a motivated Burroughs collector to make use of them. For example, a collection of ephemera built around Burroughs’ readings and signings (programs, posters, advertisements, tickets, not to mention the accompanying collection of vinyl and cassettes relating to various readings) would tell a valuable story about Burroughs and his entire career as a writer. Another possibility would be a collection of the material connected to Burroughs’s art openings and exhibitions. I am sure these collections already exist. Maybe we have the makings of few another columns.
Naked Lunch Prospectus Archive
Naked Lunch Prospectus