Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
I have to be honest it is tough for me to get excited about the Evergreen Review. Sure, Evergreen Review 2, the San Francisco Scene issue, is one of the most important little mags of the post-WWII era, but does it really pack the same charge as any issue of C, My Own Mag, Fuck You, or Floating Bear? I just cannot shake the feeling that the Evergreen Review is, in the issues up to Number 32, the Reader’s Digest of the Mimeo Revolution and then from Issue 32 onward the Playboy of little mags. As in Reader’s Digest and Playboy, print runs were large, exceeding 100,000, and there were over 40,000 subscribers at some point in the 1960s. The broad reach of the Review cannot be denied. This is where Middle America first came into contact with not just New American poets and fictioneers but new international writing as well. Yet as in Reader’s Digest there is a strong element of sanitizing, condensing, and processing involved. And like Playboy, everything is soft focus, soft-core (on the other hand, check out Hubert Selby, Jr.’s “Prowl Car” for the nasty, misogynist side of Evergreen Review that was widely discussed at the time), sensationalized, and eroticized.
Nowhere is the Reader’s Digest mentality clearer than in the publication of Burroughs’ “Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness” in the January / February 1960 issue (#11). When Ginsberg read this piece in manuscript he questioned Burroughs’ sincerity. Is this for real? Burroughs stated that it was and was written on his own volition, but surely the Deposition was written on request to help Grove Press defend Naked Lunch in legal courts and in the court of public opinion. In the Deposition, Burroughs shows his hand (or plays a con as I like to think) presenting Naked Lunch to a larger audience. This type of mass marketing of the underground was the role played by Evergreen Review throughout its first 96 issues from 1957-1973.
Also of interest is Issue 32, the Playboy mentality, which also featured Burroughs. Evergreen 32 is a scarce issue that was seized by police in Hicksville, Long Island (as Burroughs wrote, “Boy, are we ever in Hicksville”) for obscenity. The problem was not Burroughs (“They Just Fade Away”) but an article by Wayland Young (a history of the word fuck) and a portfolio of nudes by Emil J. Cadoo. The issue was banned from distribution to England so copies are rare there. They are tough to find stateside as well. Not a single copy is currently available online. Hence the $110 price tag from BeatBooks in Catalog 48. My copy has a revised price sticker that raised the cost of the issue to $1.50. This testifies to the issue’s rarity and desirability in 1964 to say nothing of the present.
Issue 32 is important because Evergreen changed its format and content with that issue. The small octavo journal format was replaced with a quarto glossy magazine format. The nude pictorial was introduced in Issue 32 as well. The photographs testify not to just the popularity of men’s mags, but also the literary nature of them. From Playboy to Swank, men’s magazines provided readers with selections from the outlaw writers of the day. Like Evergreen, men’s magazines introduced a wide audience to the writing and lifestyle of the underground. Issue 32 makes clear that Evergreen competed with mainstream glossies, not mimeos, for an audience. The decision to print nude photos represents a shift in focus to the more sensationalistic aspects of the underground, sex and revolutionary politics, (usually Black Panther or radical feminist), as voyeuristically covered by the mass media, rather than literary experimentation.
Yet Evergreen Review changed course long before Issue 32. It is taken for granted by many that Evergreen experienced a decline and shift in focus once Donald Allen stepped down as editor after the sixth issue. Allen edited the San Francisco Scene issue, and it is readily apparent that that issue planted the seeds that grew into the New American Poetry anthology. Richard Seaver stepped in as editor with Issue 9. See my discussion on Burroughs and Seaver for more on Seaver’s editorial style.
In 1957, the San Francisco Scene issue was simultaneously straight from the mass media headlines and from the frontlines of poetic experimentation (this could be debated). With poems like Howl, the form and content of poetry was being challenged. As time wore on, Evergreen Review would push the envelope with content in a sexual or racial direction that seems less about showing Middle America what was new territory in art and literature than about rubbing Mr. and Mrs. Jones’ noses in all that they feared and despised. The result seemed on the surface to be cutting edge, but was instead merely just another version of the mass media’s sensationalized interpretation of the Underground and avant-garde, which played up sex, drugs, and rock and roll rather than any exploring any new creative ground. A study of the advertising in Evergreen Review would make this even clearer. The ads are all about sex and fashion and on some levels so is Evergreen Review.
Throughout Evergreen‘s first 96 issues, Burroughs was a regular contributor, and the list of Burroughs’ appearances provides a snapshot of Burroughs’ writing in the 1960s. But that picture is photoshopped and airbrushed in a way, and, therefore, indicative of Evergreen‘s interests. The more extreme of Burroughs’ cut-up experiments were not published in Evergreen Review. Instead his radical visual / textual work appeared in mimeos and other fringe little mags. Comparing Burroughs’ work in My Own Mag to Evergreen is instructive as it proves my point that Evergreen was in some ways a mainstream publication. The experimental work in My Own Mag and other mimeos held little, if any, appeal to an audience of general readers flirting with the writings of the underground. Burroughs cut-ups like Time or APO-33 appealed to working poets and artists. To be honest, this material has yet to find an audience outside of this small circle. Yet Burroughs was a pop culture figure in the 1960s and many were curious about his work. As a result, Evergreen published the more accessible Burroughs, such as Burroughs’ essays (Deposition, “Points of Distinction Between Sedative and Consciousness-Expanding Drugs,” and “Comments on a Night Before Thinking”), interviews with and other commentary on Burroughs, and his more narrative based writing (Exterminator! and Wild Boys material). In addition much of the other cut-up material Evergreen did publish was from Nova Express, in a way the most mainstream of the cut-up novels. The book as published by Grove in 1964 made a bid for a larger audience with a 10,000 copy print run. To this day, Nova Express is many people’s introduction to the cut-up technique. Printing excerpts from Nova Express was part of Grove’s publicity campaign for the novel. I have stated elsewhere how the form and format of the novel, as represented by Nova Express, stunts the experimental nature of the cut-up in several ways, such as enforcing a left to right, up to down, forward to backwards reading experience (not to say that Burroughs himself was not conflicted about making the cut-up more accessible and less illegible to the everyday reader). Here is a cut and paste bibliography of Burroughs’ Evergreen appearances for reference.
Evergreen started as a quarterly, grew to a bi-monthly and eventually became a monthly. The final issue of the initial run came out in 1973. In 1984, Grove Press put out an Issue 98 (which features Beckett prominently as did Issue #1), and in 1998 Evergreen Review became an online magazine with Issue 100. What about Issue 97 or 99? I can find no mention of them online or at Abebooks. They are not mentioned in Ken Jordan’s brief history that introduced the Evergreen Reader in 1993. The Magazine Data Index lists 98 issues from 1957-1984. Apparently there is an Index to Evergreen Review by David A. Power and Carol Strempak published by Scarecrow Press in 1972. Obviously this book does not help me regarding Issue 97. I am not sure if numbers were skipped or if there were de facto publications by Grove or Evergreen that serve as those numbers. Any help on this would be appreciated.
In my research on Evergreen Review, I came across a YouTube video featuring Evergreen Review #12. Somebody flipped through each page of the book and filmed it. Although maybe unintended, it struck me as an interesting commentary on reading in the electronic age. There must be more video and conceptual art that address this issue. I am particularly interested in artists’ books which examine book production and consumption, but I am unaware of video/computer art that does the same thing. I am dimly aware of hypertext experiments in this area (like internet based novels), but know very little. If anybody has any suggestions for me to check out please post them.
- Bibliography of Burroughs Texts in Evergreen Review
- Issues 1 – 31 (octavo journal format)
- Issues 32 – 99 (quarto glossy magazine format)