Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
When I started collecting William Burroughs in 1993, I had little idea of what I was getting into and absolutely no clue as to the shape that my collection would take fifteen years later. As it turned out, the first collectible I bought, a signed copy of The Dead Star, epitomized all my interests in Burroughs more than a decade later. That was pure luck. This fact is proven by my second purchase, a signed copy of Exterminator! At the time, I was so excited to see a signed Burroughs book that I bought it immediately for $250, thinking I had found a treasure of unparalleled rarity.
Looking back, I would not buy that book for a variety of reasons. While the signature is great (tight and, I would suspect, contemporary with the book’s publishing), the dust jacket is price clipped — a collecting blemish I was unaware of at the time. In addition, I confused Exterminator! with The Exterminator, which was published by Auerhahn Press in 1960. This is a common mistake, but the books could not be more different. The Exterminator, like The Dead Star, embodies all my current interests: small press publishing, book arts, typography, the 1960s, and cut-ups. On the other hand, Exterminator! can be considered The Exterminator‘s bizarro double.
Today, Exterminator! represents for me Burroughs’ induction into the mainstream and the world of corporate publishing. The book was published by Viking in 1973 in an edition of 7500 copies. Described as a novel on the front cover, I have always felt that Exterminator! reads like a short story collection. The figure of the exterminator threads through the book and tenuously holds it together, but each piece can be read and enjoyed individually. In fact, many of them were read in just that way in slightly different forms years before. For example, “Wind Die. You Die. We Die” appeared in Esquire in August 1968 and again in Mayfair in October 1968. “Exterminator” appeared in the July 1966 issue of King and the April 1967 issue of Evergreen Review. “The Coming of the Purple Better One” was printed in the November 1968 issue of Esquire. The list goes on.
So the book retains an element of the slapdash and recycled for me. I am much more interested in reading the material in Exterminator! in the original magazines. Take “The Coming of the Purple Better One.” It is much more satisfying and interesting to read this piece in Esquire knowing that it was written for an assignment to cover the 1968 Chicago Convention along with Terry Southern, John Sack, and Jean Genet. The essay has an added power in this charged atmosphere. In addition, all four writers made the front cover during a period in which Esquire churned out iconic cover images with startling regularity. Seeing Burroughs on the cover of Esquire acquires added significance considering that Burroughs desperately wanted to grace its pages in the seemingly hopeless years of the mid-1950s. In my opinion, “Purple Better One” gets buried in Exterminator! and as a result loses much of its radical chic as well as some associations that I hold dear.
I am focusing on Exterminator! because of the recent passing of Richard Seaver. As several obituaries (e.g. New York Times) have pointed out, Seaver was a revered and important figure in post-WWII vanguard publishing. Seaver helped publish Burroughs at Grove Press throughout the 1960s. In 1971, when Seaver left Grove Press to establish his own imprint at Viking, he brought Burroughs along for the ride. Exterminator! is listed as a Richard Seaver Book on the title page. Later when Seaver left Viking to become president and publisher of Holt Rinehart & Winston’s trade division, Burroughs (along with Samuel Beckett) were signed up. As a result, Seaver proved instrumental in getting Burroughs printed in the United States from Naked Lunch to The Cities of the Red Night.
Clearly, Seaver’s importance to Burroughs’ written output and publishing history is considerable. Seaver also provided Burroughs with much-needed money. In 1973 when Exterminator! was published, Burroughs needed cash desperately to leave a stultifying scene in London. At the time, Burroughs sold his considerable archives to help finance the move. A later book deal with Holt was also much needed and helped finance the move to Lawrence, which stabilized Burroughs’ chaotic living situation.
In addition, Seaver greatly expanded Burroughs’ profile and reading audience. The Viking and Holt books got major publicity and were widely distributed. The explosion in Burroughs’ popularity during this period can be directly attributed to Seaver. Many readers consider these works a return to glory for Burroughs and some of his best work since Naked Lunch. I do not agree, but I cannot deny that the Viking and Holt book deals greatly increased Burroughs’ readership and popularity. They also helped nudge Burroughs into the canon. For example it seems obvious to me that Burroughs’ induction into the America Academy of Arts and Letters in 1983 was in no small part to the work of Richard Seaver at Viking and Holt. Personally I feel that Burroughs deserved induction solely as the result of his work during the Grove years. Yet it cannot be denied that being published by Viking and Holt means much more than being published by Grove, to say nothing of appearing in publications like Fuck You or Floating Bear.
But what was the cost of these incredibly important benefits? Seaver made no bones that he disapproved of much of Burroughs’ work of the 1960s. He thought the cut-up was a waste of time and a dead end, and he encouraged Burroughs to abandon it. Not surprisingly, Burroughs’ work with Viking and Holt was much more conventional in style than the cut-up trilogy published by Grove. I should not exaggerate Burroughs’ accessibility or mainstream appeal during Seaver’s editorship in the 1970s and 1980s, as several reviewers found Burroughs’ Viking and Holt books as repulsive and inexplicable as ever, but many reviews expressed relief that Burroughs had returned to his senses after the excesses of the previous decade.
To me, this represents a loss. I’ll demonstrate with two examples. The first is the Viking publication of The Third Mind in 1978. Richard Seaver got this book into print after years of failure at Grove. As published, the book is a valuable example of the cut-up technique and an informative (if eccentric) accounting of the philosophy behind it. Yet it is a mere shadow of Burroughs and Gysin’s original conception of the book. I have written elsewhere of what The Third Mind was conceived to be in a perfect world of endless resources. In addition, the interview with and work of Malcolm Mc Neill sheds light on what directions Burroughs hoped to take his writing into the 1970s. Publishing may be a world of compromise, but I think it is important to keep in mind Burroughs’ dreams of The Third Mind as much as Seaver’s realization at Viking. The proposed book and its attempt to explore the concept of the book as a form are crucial to understanding Burroughs’ work of the 1960s and for fully appreciating him as a literary and visual artist. I view the publication of Exterminator! with some regret. It represents a turning of the page on what I see as a very exciting and fruitful relationship with the experimentalism of the 1960s.
My second example suggests what could have been. In 1973, Burroughs’ work appeared in another collected effort: Brion Gysin Let the Mice In. This book was published by Dick Higgins’ Something Else Press and was edited by Jan Herman. Something Else Press was on its last legs in 1973, and I view this book as the last gasp of Burroughs’ experimentation of the 1960s. Like Exterminator!, Brion Gysin Let the Mice In collected work from the 1960s, but where Exterminator! selected the more conventional work and placed the strained order of the exterminator upon it, Brion Gysin Let the Mice In came out of and embraced the theoretical, performative, and conceptual aspects of the cut-up. Interestingly the pieces in Exterminator! previously appeared in more conventional publications like Esquire, Mayfair, Atlantic Monthly, The Daily Telegraph, and Evergreen Review, not the more experimental little magazines, like Klactoveedsedsteen and San Francisco Earthquake, from which Herman drew much of his Burroughs material. Higgins operated in an atmosphere of critical theory, Fluxus, conceptual art, artists books, and performance art. This is as far from Viking as you can get. And that appeals to me.
It is interesting to me to think “what if” concerning the direction Burroughs’ work might have taken if he had continued along the path of Brion Gysin Let the Mice In instead of Exterminator! For the most part, Burroughs and the publications of the mimeo revolution parted ways in the 1970s. Burroughs was not a major presence in the cutting edge small press and little magazine scenes of later generation New York Schoolers, Language Poets, conceptualists and minimalists, or experimental printers of the 1970s and early 1980s. Burroughs’ work of the 1960s proved very influential on some of these writers, but for whatever reason they did not link up creatively. Instead, Burroughs gravitated to the corporate publishers and the more conventional of the fine presses. Unfortunately, neither of these venues challenged the concept of the book or of language in an experimental manner. It was precisely these explorations that were so exciting in the previous decade and proved so vital to future generations of writers and artists. I like to think of this decision not as t an example of a path not taken, but as one valiantly attempted and reluctantly abandoned as a project ahead of its time.
I read six or seven obituaries about Richard Seaver in the days following his death. As the obituaries make clear, Seaver was a part of the Merlin circle that re-discovered Samuel Beckett in the early 1950s in Paris. One omission concerning this period caught my eye. Not one article mentioned the role of Olympia Press in Seaver’s early career and, in turn, on his later publishing success. For example, Maurice Girodias and Olympia Press financed the later issues of Merlin magazine. More importantly, Olympia Press published Beckett’s Watt in 1953 as the first title in the Collection Merlin series (along with Molloy and Genet’s The Thief’s Journal). Grove Press published Watt in the first American edition in 1959, the year Seaver arrived at Grove. Yet Seaver’s relationship with editing and printing Beckett’s work began with Olympia Press, not Grove. To a lesser extent, the same holds true for Burroughs. Olympia Press issued Naked Lunch, Soft Machine, and The Ticket That Exploded before Grove Press. Therefore Seaver’s experience with Olympia Press no doubt put him in a unique position to publish Burroughs in the United States. The same holds true for The Story of O. Seaver translated and published it for Grove in 1965, but fellow Merlin members Baird Bryant and Austryn Wainhouse each translated the work for Olympia Press a decade earlier.
Many obituaries cite Seaver as a key figure in conquering literary censorship of sexual material in the United States with the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer, and Naked Lunch. Clearly, Grove Press was instrumental in this, but Seaver (and Barney Rosset) got his inspiration from Maurice Girodias and Olympia Press. Olympia Press was there first and paved the way for all these works to be published both inside and outside of France. This oversight might be due to lack of space or to the fact that it was not considered important, but clearly Olympia Press is a crucial entity in the fight against censorship in the West, including the United States. I cannot shake the feeling that Olympia Press was purposely omitted, as was Alexander Trocchi. Burroughs (remarkably so) and Grove Press are considered by many to be legitimate crusaders for various freedoms, but Trocchi and Olympia Press reveal the dark, disreputable, and downright dangerous side to the freeing of attitudes and laws regarding sex and drugs. Behind these freedoms lurk exploitation and depravity. The stories of Trocchi and Olympia Press suggest these elements.
This comes back to Naked Lunch. The version of the book that Seaver helped steer through Grove Press and the courts is quite a bit different from the version published by Olympia Press. The decision to include the “Deposition Concerning a Sickness” as well as the “Letter from a Master Addict” resides in part with Seaver. Seaver served as editor for Evergreen Review starting with issue 9 so he had a hand in preparing the Deposition piece for Evergreen Review 16. These are major additions that completely change the context of the book. They disguise the dark, disreputable, and downright dangerous side of Naked Lunch. I understand that this was necessary to get Naked Lunch into print, but to go back to “The Coming of the Purple Better One,” what a different reading experience it was (and is) to read the Olympia Press version of Naked Lunch. As with Exterminator!, Seaver provided a framework and a context for Naked Lunch that originally was not there. He made Naked Lunch a safer, more acceptable book. He also made it possible for a larger audience to experience Naked Lunch, but we should remember it came with a cost.
So the passing of Richard Seaver brought to my mind many conflicting thoughts about the work and publishing history of Burroughs. One the one hand, I rejoice that Seaver was able to obtain a level of respectability, security, and popularity for Burroughs, but on the other I wonder what direction Burroughs’ work might have taken if publishers like Grove or the experimental press had corporate-level resources. What did Burroughs sacrifice to be published by the mainstream? Was it offset by what he gained? These are age-old questions in the realms of art and commerce, and they will remain long after the actors that set them in motion have gone.