Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
Given my book collection I will never be able to move. I find that books keep me grounded on many levels. Burroughs was always in transit, so I find it curious that he kept such a meticulous archive over the years. When I think about Burroughs’ attitude to his archive, I flash to an interview that Moby gave on Kurt Cobain, and Moby was struck by Cobain’s insouciance regarding his talent — “casual lack of concern.” Burroughs strikes me both obsessed and indifferent to his personal and literary papers. For every story about Burroughs hauling his papers in steamer trunks around the world, there is a parallel story about the Hardiment suitcase or the tape experiments left behind that were rescued for Nothing Here Now But the Recordings. As a Burroughs collector, I wonder what else Burroughs left behind. What has been lost due to his wanderlust? What was abandoned in the drawers of those countless hotel rooms and apartments?
Well, the Bonham’s Fine Literature Auction for June 13, 2019 gives you some idea and it may leave you depressed for what was lost. Up for sale were four lots of Burroughs’ personal items and correspondence that were in the possession of David Prentice for decades. The name might be familiar to you. In 2018, Bonhams cherry picked the items in Prentice’s possession including Burroughs manuscripts and letters and Gysin artwork. For example a collection of material relating to The Third Mind sold for over $20,000. Prentice was a painter and carpenter from Connecticut who Burroughs befriended in 1965 while they both lived at 210 Centre Street. In 1974 when Burroughs returned to New York, Prentice built Burroughs a deluxe orgone accumulator. The drawing Prentice made for its construction has made the rounds at Bonhams for the last two years. When Burroughs left New York in 1965, Prentice like a good neighbor took in a trunk of material relating to The Third Mind project as well as other items Burroughs left behind. Prentice returned The Third Mind trunk and some personal items like a typewriter to Burroughs in 1974, but Burroughs just gave Prentice six inches of material as a thank you for storing the trunk. Pretty generous. Or is that insouciance?
Most of the lots in this most recent sale, which admittedly is not as interesting as the material in the 2018 sale, I could care less about although other Burroughs fans might feel differently. For example, one of Burroughs’ typewriters was up for grabs in Lot 249 and sold for $1147 including premium. A 1930s Underwood that is in working order provided you could find a ribbon for it. Now I get the fascination with an item like this. Burroughs fucking wrote on it for christsakes!! And in 1965, arguably my favorite year for Burroughs. I own a Burroughs adding machine. And I have another adding machine I still have to pick up. I own a mimeograph machine. Recently Mike Stevens and I tracked down a vintage typewriter that had the precise Lira symbol on it that Burroughs used for one of his manuscripts. Typewriters are obsolete technology; they should be right up my alley. I can’t explain it. Seeing that Underwood on the Bonhams site just did not get my blood pumping. What is wrong with me? I must be losing my passion for Burroughs. The same goes for a collection of personal items at Lot 249. I do not care about Burroughs’ luggage; I have enough baggage of my own. But somebody did. It sold for $1147 as well.
Now Lot 248, a collection of correspondence to Prentice from Burroughs, caught my eye. Some of this stuff might presumably have found its way into the trash can, but dumpster diving can be profitable (see what is going on in San Francisco right now) and this lot sold for a little over $1500. Pretty cheap if you ask me as anything with a Burroughs signature is collectible, particularly if it is as early as the mid-1960s. The photographs seem worth the price alone. Whoever got this lot got a nice haul for the price.
But it is Lot 250 that is the Pick of the Week and the lot that makes me shudder as a Burroughs collector and amateur historian. These items were recovered by Prentice from Burroughs’ desk at 210 Centre Street. Yes, the manuscripts and publications are nice, but I am more interested in the 45 letters left for dead. As a collector of Burroughs little mags in the 1960s, particularly in that 1964-1965 range, this is the stuff. To think Burroughs left these letters behind is incredible to me. Just looking at the image on the Bonhams page there are letters associated with Brown Paper, Notes from Underground, Insect Trust Gazette, and C Press. Such material would be right at home on the archive pages of RealityStudio and might provide some useful information in writing the history of Burroughs’ magazine activities of the period. At $5700 somebody else agreed. It would be wonderful if the buyer was agreeable to providing us scans. Help a brother out!!!