Kulchur 3

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Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

I have not read all twenty issues of Kulchur cover to cover, but of the issues I have sampled, I enjoy Kulchur 3 the most. Issue 3 presents Kulchur at its most Beat. William Burroughs (“In Search of Yage”), Jack Kerouac (“Dave”), Gary Snyder (“The Ship in Yokohama”), Herbert Huncke (“Elsie,” possibly his first published work), Gregory Corso (reviewing Kerouac’s Doctor Sax), Allen Ginsberg (“Breughal — Triumph of Death”). The issue is heavy on fiction and poetry. The focus on criticism is less apparent here. Yet John Fles’s review of the first seven issues of Yugen provides a bit of cold water on the Beat party with its ambivalent look at Leroi and Hettie Jones’s magazine.

Kulchur 3 also functions as a drug issue. Paul Bowles writes on Kif. Burroughs’ “In Search of Yage” is one of the foundations of the psychedelic era. Kerouac’s piece “transcribes” the monologue of a junkie in Mexico City. Writing of this nature supports the theory that the spirit of the 1960s began in the supposedly silent 1950s. Arthur Marwick in his book The Sixties presents the idea of a long decade from 1958-1974. These pieces, like Burroughs’ “Letter from a Master Addict,” provide a multifaceted view of the drug culture depicting a cornucopia of drugs from opiates to hallucinogens in a variety of exotic settings. By the 1960s, these locales would be swarmed by drug tourists.

Oliver Harris’ writing on The Yage Letters makes this issue even more interesting to me. I have written on how his introductions and critical essays forced me to return and re-read the literary magazines I associated with Naked Lunch. As Harris shows, Kulchur 3 and “In Search of Yage” play a crucial role in the development of the final form and publication of that work by City Lights in 1963 and beyond.

Returning yet again to this favorite issue, I was struck by what was missing from its pages. Harris makes brief mention of a footnote in Kulchur regarding “In Search of Yage.” The Kulchur footnote reads, “‘The Routine’ appears in Floating Bear (#9) distributed solely by mailing list. 25c to The Floating Bear, 309 E. Houston St., New York 2, NY.” Not mentioned by Harris, the publication by Floating Bear came about after a rejection by Kulchur. The story of the publication of “Roosevelt After Inauguration” in the Floating Bear and its subsequent seizure for obscenity has been written about at the Bibliographic Bunker and elsewhere. Fuck You Press published “The Routine” as well, and the piece finally appeared in the third edition of the City Lights edition of The Yage Letters.

This is only part of the story as I found out reading Lita Hornick’s memoir The Green Fuse. Hornick became associated with Kulchur after reading Issue 1. She became president of Kulchur Press, Inc after Issue 2. She had no input in the magazine until that point. It was Marc Schleifer and the contributing editors’ project. Schleifer gathered the material for issue 3. Given the new arrangement, this material needed approval from Hornick. Hornick writes, “Little did I know that [Schleifer] only wanted backing for #3, which was to be an inflammatory issue, before disappearing into the Cuban Revolution.”

What was so controversial about this issue? I quote Hornick in full:

When I finally saw the galleys of Kulchur 3, I was worried about going to jail, because it was on me, as publisher, that the legal responsibility rested. One would not raise an eyebrow at this material today, but it was a different story in 1961. I told my husband about it, and he was not worried at all. He could not believe that little wifey could get into trouble with the law. He didn’t bother to read the galleys himself, but he told me if I was really worried I should take them down to our lawyers. And so I took the galleys to Eugene Klein…. As Eugene leafed through them, he turned pale. He said, “I’ll show them to our pornography expert. Come back tomorrow.” The next day he told me, “Our pornography expert says, if you publish these galleys, you will definitely be arrested by the New York Vice Squad. You will have to spend at least one night in the Women’s House of Detention until we can bail you out. You will lose in the lower court, but we will win in the Supreme Court!” I was agaga; but I took the galleys from Eugene and, after eliminating the two items that were really dangerous for that time, I went ahead with publication. Eugene notwithstanding, nothing ever happened to me. The two things I eliminated were Burroughs’ now famous routine about Roosevelt, for which Leroi Jones was arrested at gun point when he published it in The Floating Bear, and a story by Paul Goodman drooling over a sailor.

Kulchur 3 with its depiction of homosexuality, drug use, and pornographic political satire was to be a bombshell statement on obscenity, pornography and censorship. Donald Phelps’ essay, “A Second Look at Pornography,” that appeared in the issue provides the critical thrust for an enlightened look at these issues. Phelps’ essay does not address the work included in Kulchur 3 directly. In addition, his treatment of pornography tends more to the high art traditions of erotica like Asian art and the art film, but in a footnote, he mentions an essay of Goodman’s on pornography in a favorable light. Clearly, Kulchur 3 was an issue with a purpose and a message.

The issue was meant to deal a blow in the fight against censorship. The legal battles surrounding Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Tropic of Cancer and Lenny Bruce are all in the mix. Of course, so are Naked Lunch and William Burroughs. Burroughs’ work is not mentioned directly in Phelps’ essay, but some of Phelps’ comments on an expanded role and definition for pornography are relevant. Phelps writes,

The best medium of pornography is probably the hard, metallic daylight of satire, allegory, the lyric poem or the critical essay. Before American criticism began to take on the aspect of an extended slumber party, writers… availed themselves of pornography’s intensity, raffishness and occasionally, sexuality… Like the pyrotechnic blasts of these critics, the pornography of Balzac’s Contes Drolatiques, or the Decameron, specializes in flare-lighting the incongruities of any and all pretensions, or relationships. The methods of such pornography are the methods of comedy: undercutting relationships with the common denominator of sexual desire, and deploying the chief weapons of comedy, action and time, to show absurdity in motion.

These comments could apply specifically to “Roosevelt After Inauguration,” a brilliant mix of the obscene, comic and satiric. The Talking Asshole Routine and many of the extended pieces in Naked Lunch provide other “pyrotechnic blasts.” The criticism surrounding Naked Lunch and Burroughs in the late 1950s and 1960s draws from the same pool of thought expressed here by Phelps.

Hornick mentioned in her memoir that issue 3 was not to her taste. The selections in the next issue and thereafter were more to her liking. Without a doubt, the editorial vision expressed in the first three issues differed from all that follow. Schleifer possessed a political bent as evidenced by his decision to go to Cuba shortly after Issue 3. The material gathered by Schleifer in Issue 3 was “inflammatory” ammunition for his revolutionary ideals. Censorship and obscenity laws were on one level about protecting children from sexual images or four-letter words. In addition, they calmed adults’ base sexual desires. Yet as Phelps’ essay makes clear such laws protect the capitalist system and mass consumerism by discouraging masturbation, symbolic of self-sufficient and wasteful activity. Therefore, a blow against censorship of pornogrpahy was a blow against an oppressive capitalist, materialist system. These obscenity laws also condemn alternative lifestyles and political opposition. It could be argued that Hornick’s editing of Goodman and Burroughs’ pieces from the pages of Kulchur played into the hands of the dominant culture that sought to excise these oppositional elements from view.

Yet Hornick was not against fighting these battles. Hornick embraced gay culture and Kulchur provides an insight into the gay New York avant garde. So I would bet she was not shocked by the homosexual content of Burroughs and Goodman’s pieces. Possibly, her fear was more about class and social standing. In issue 8, she published an essay by Michael McClure originally titled “Fuck.” In the Green Fuse, she writes,

It wasn’t really about fucking but about the importance of bringing the Anglo Saxon words back into the language. I was anxious to publish it but wrote to Michael that the postal inspectors would never read it but, when they saw the word FUCK in bold type, would simply impound the magazine. I expected him to write back, “Bourgeois dog! Censorship! Censorship! Censorship!” However, Michael, quite reasonably, suggested that we spell the title in Greek..

Schleifer was not so reasonable and objected to Hornick’s editing of issue three poisoning the relationship between them. It is interesting how the threat of jail, even a single night in Women’s Detention, deterred Hornick from pursuing publication of Burroughs and Goodman’s work. Hornick fears a sense of shock and embarrassment in the court of public opinion. At the same time, the “shock of the new” in the arts appeals very strongly to her. She is very aware and ambivalent about her class status as evidenced by the quote above. Hornick wrestles with these contradictory feelings in her memoir. Diane Di Prima possessed fewer qualms about jail when Floating Bear later published “The Routine.” Di Prima depicts her experience with the authorities in her memoir. Di Prima was pregnant at the time, a fact she used to her advantage.

A more detailed examination of the role of upper class (either by birth or wealth) women in the challenging of obscenity and censorship laws would be interesting reading. In Hornick’s case, her desire to provide a forum for the latest in the avant garde assisted and yet conflicted with her desire for social standing. As The Green Fuse makes clear, she, from an early age, sought to marry up the social ladder. On one level, acquiring a great contemporary art collection assists in that process. It is also a good investment. Yet championing “sick” and “obscene” literature of disputed value is not only socially embarrassing, but also extremely expensive. While Kulchur ran in the red, Hornick refused to let things run out of control financially. She was not about to jeopardize her lifestyle in the fight against censorship. Barney Rosset and Grove Press faced a similar dilemma in financing the legal battles for Lawrence, Miller, and Burroughs. All these conflicts must have faced women (and men) such as Margret Anderson, Jean Heap, and Harriet Monroe, in publishing Joyce and other Modernists. If anybody knows a book or article on the subject of the upper class role in the revolt against established manners as expressed in publishing (and the inner conflicts that created) I would be interested.

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 9 February 2007. Also see the companion piece Kulchur Archive and Kulchur and “The Conspiracy.”

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