Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
Whenever I see a notice for an auction of an individual’s collection, my first thoughts are not so much about the books in the collection, but about the motivation for the sale. Why is he/she selling their books? I must admit the scenarios that run through my head are bleak. If “Condition, Condition, Condition” is a primary law of book collecting, another maxim is “the rare book business revolves around death, divorce and debt.” Not a rosy picture, but when you think of it, selling a collection is often an act of desperation. Why else would someone separate himself from a source of great joy and passion? For the most part, I acquire rare books. I generally do not trade. I probably should as there are books in my collection that I could trade for more desired Burroughs items. My copy of Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa or a signed copy of Bukowski’s It Catches My Heart In Its Hands come to mind. Yet I can never get myself to do it. The Hemingway has associations with my grandparents and the Bukowski actually fills out my collection as it is a prime example of the beautiful work of Loujon Press. In the paranoia of book collecting, everything is tied together and everything fits in.
Yet at some point desperation might set in. In the 1990s, I sold books in my collection for a brief point in time. It was a particularly difficult time for me. For example, I got rid of an Olympia Press first of Beckett’s Watt. I wish I had it now as it would be a nice link to Olympia Press, Alexander Trocchi, Baird Bryant and the Merlin Group to say nothing of its importance as a Beckett publication. Rock bottom must have been when I put my complete set of Fuck You Magazines on eBay. I really did not want to sell them which was reflected in the high initial bid I placed on them. Luckily nobody bid on them, but to this day I get very upset when I think how close I came to losing those mimeos.
Let me add to “Death, Divorce and Debt”: depression. After years of book collecting, for some people, there comes a time when the collection no longer excites or moves. In fact, the presence of all those books becomes oppressive. You feel overwhelmed, buried. Maybe bored. The passion is gone and replaced with a sense of ennui. What am I going to do with all these books? Why do I keep all this stuff? What was once a prized possession becomes clutter. An auction provides cash but it also provides a quiet, peaceful mind. You no longer have to worry about all those books. The book auction as Zoloft for book collectors.
Closely related to the depression and, maybe a more positive spin on it, is the urge to disseminate, the act of dispersal. For a collector who has spent years and years assembling a collection, the time comes when there is a feeling of satisfaction and contentment. Although it is impossible, there is the sense that the collection is complete and there is a need for closure. The auction provides that. For many collectors, the auction catalog and its bibliography is the summation of a life’s work. A eulogy, a retrospective, a tombstone. Despite the positive feelings surrounding a sense of closure, I can only think of death.
When the time for dispersal comes around for noted collectors like Robert Jackson, Nelson Lyon, Edwin Blair, or Joseph Zinnato (just to name Beat or Burroughs collectors), the decision has to be made about how to disperse your books. Should the books go to an institution or be sold at auction? Financial considerations aside, those who choose the auction feel a sense of connection to the book-collecting community that supported and sustained their efforts to build a meaningful collection. If everybody with a collection of any note placed their collection in an institution, the rare book market would slowly die. (Has anybody written about the ecology of the rare book market? There is definitely a relation. Conservation, extinction of bookstores, sustainable communities, limited resources.) I always applaud those who choose the auction route. Without the Nelson Lyon sale, my collection would never have gotten the push it needed to make little magazines its focus. Should my collection ever be worthy of institutionalization will I decide to share my books with a community of scholars or will I disperse them to the rare book community? It is a tough decision.
David Oakey chose the latter route and collectors of Gary Snyder are rejoicing. Since the 1970s Oakey gathered together a formidable collection of the works of Japhy Ryder as Kerouac immortalized Snyder in Dharma Bums. Oakey’s collection has won awards and been the subject of exhibitions over the years. He has close ties to the Arizona State University so the collection could easily have gone there, but Oakey decided to go with the auction. Oakey writes, “Finally, rather than institutionalize this collection, Sale 364 represents my wishes to replicate those thousands of moments of joy that I experienced.” Through an auction, Oakey gives back to the book collecting community. Let’s hope the decision to sell was from a sense of completion and an expression of joy as well.
Sale 364 at Pacific Book Auctions was entitled “Fine Literature of the 19th & 20th Centuries with the David Oakey Collection of Gary Snyder.” It was held on September 27, 2007. There was an entire Beat section that included the Snyder material. I suspect this is overflow, additions and remainders generated by or resulting from the various Beat auctions that have taken place over the past year. The Loujon Press and Bukowski material definitely fall in that category. For example, The “Mistah Leary He Dead” piece by Hunter S. Thompson published by X-Ray Press was also available at the Blair Sale.
There were only four Burroughs lots in the sale: Lots 319-322. The usual suspects were present. A copy of Cities of the Red Night inscribed by Burroughs to Larry Lee sold for $173 ($300 low reserve). This is about par for the course. Signed copies at rare bookstores can get over $250. Larry Lee was a friend of Jimi Hendrix and played rhythm guitar with the Gypsies. A copy of Yage Letters, The Dead Star and The Retreat Diaries sold for $460 (low estimate $500). At a rare bookstore a signed Yage Letters is about $200. The Dead Star can be had for $125-175. The Retreat Diaries sells for about $75. So no deals here. Another lot had a signed UK edition of Ticket That Exploded (around $200), a signed Last Words of Dutch Schultz (around $300) and a copy of Tornado Alley (around $30). The Dutch Schultz included a clipped article from the 1935 New York Times detailing Schultz’ deathbed transcript and confession. A wonderful piece of ephemera. They sold for $460 as well. The estimates were in line with rare bookstore prices but book collectors usually hope to gather these more common titles at a lower price at an auction. With lots 319 and 322, buyers just barely succeeded.
Lot 320 was the lot to watch for Burroughs collectors. It was a signed copy of the Grove edition of Naked Lunch (1962). The book was signed in 1988 at City Lights and has a penciled note to that effect. I don’t think the note is in Burroughs’ hand. The book is in less than stellar condition. There are small tears, some rubbing, and even slight staining. Calling it very good or better seems a stretch to me. In addition there is a bookplate from the library of Alvin M. Scher. I am unaware if this is considered an association in some way, and Google did not help me out. Clearly this is not a top-shelf example of this book, and PBA doesn’t want top-shelf rare bookstore money for it. The estimate was $1200-1800. Fine signed copies are now topping $3000 at high-end dealers. Lot 320 went unsold.
There is no doubt that signed copies of the Grove titles of the 1960s are becoming harder to come by but even at $600 (half the low estimate) collectors stayed away from this copy. As I have mentioned before with the Grove and Olympia titles, signatures, associations, and condition are extremely important. This edition of Naked Lunch had only the signature although the link to City Lights is nice and can establish provenance. At $600, there are unsigned copies available on the internet, but given the issues with this book I think buyers made the wise choice on passing and saving that money to invest in a better quality unsigned Naked Lunch as signed copies are getting priced out of reach of most collectors.
At Sale 364, there was a small selection of Ginsberg and Kerouac material including an unsigned first edition, first issue (with Lucien Carr in the dedication) copy of Howl that performed very well. It sold for $4025. PBA described it as “[r]arely seen in such clean and crisp condition; the finest copy PBA has ever offered.” Unlike the Grove Naked Lunch, buyers responded to this fine copy of Howl. Possibly more than other rare books, condition is huge with the Beats, particularly since so many copies of Naked Lunch, On the Road, and Howl survived in such horrible condition. Despite the feelings of those on the forum of RealityStudio, Howl looks like it has legs as a collectible over fifty years after its publication. Unsigned copies of Howl approach the $5000 range on the internet. It is in the same league as Naked Lunch and On the Road and deserves to be considered with any blue chip first edition of the post WWII era, like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, To Kill A Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye or Catch-22.
It can be argued that of Beat collectibles, Howl is the book that will appreciate the most in the future. I say this solely based on print runs. The Olympia Naked Lunch first edition was 5000 copies. In fact, the Grove edition (1962) has a smaller run of 3500 copies. Could the Grove Press Naked Lunch become more desirable than the Olympia Press title? I never thought it could be possible but prices are rising. But that is another column. The first edition of On the Road by Viking came out in 7500 copies. There were only 1000 copies comprising the first run of Howl. This is quite a difference and it is reflected in the availability of these titles on the internet. Over 40 copies of On the Road (not all in collectible condition mind you) are currently available on Abebooks. Around twenty copies of the Olympia Press Naked Lunch (again some are missing dust jackets) are out there awaiting a bookshelf. Yet only six copies of Howl (signed or unsigned and in any type of condition) are now available. Provided that the reputation of and fascination with Ginsberg and Howl hold over time (and according to the forum that is a big if), Howl should greatly appreciate compared to On the Road and Naked Lunch in the long run if you are able to find a copy at all, to say nothing of one in collectible condition.
Given the token presence of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs at Sale 364, this auction was really about the lesser known, lesser read, and lesser collected Beats, represented in this case by Gary Snyder. Why do people collect the “second-tier” Beats like Snyder, Lew Welch, Philip Whalen, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, or Gregory Corso. Let’s take David Oakey as an example. On one level, Gary Snyder’s work spoke to Oakey, particularly the environmental and political concerns. Oakey writes, “Another handwritten poem, ‘Strategic Air Command’ best reflected my political leanings: ‘these rocks and these stars belong to the same Universe; the air in between belongs to the Twentieth Century and its wars.'”
Yet there is more that appeals to Oakey about “Strategic Air Command” than the text. The breadth and beauty of the design of Snyder’s books also speak to the collector. Take the description of “Strategic Air Command”: “12 X 10, manuscript broadside, unique. Hand-Calligraphed poem on grey hand-made BFK Rives paper, red line under title is water proof calligraphy ink drawn with quill pen carved by author from vulture flight feather. Orange seal at end, Han, is medium-age Chinese characters saying Chofu — ‘listen to the wind,’ the author’s Zen name.” What a personal item that symbolizes many of Snyder’s central concerns as man and poet in one piece of ephemera! The handmade is foregrounded as is a sense of poetic creation coming from and coexisting with Nature. Throughout Snyder’s bibliography, you’ll find the words: hand-crafted, hand-painted, hand-engraved, hand-stitched, hand-bound. Many works are reprinted from Snyder’s own distinctive calligraphy on hand-made paper. From Snyder’s first book of poems, Riprap in 1959 to the present day, the merging of poetic form, book format, and content is a major concern for Snyder. I find this to be true of almost all of the Beats. In addition, the Beats expressed these concerns through the small and fine press not the mainstream publishing machine.
“Strategic Air Command” sold for $345, safely above the high estimate but well within many collectors’ budgets considering the personal, unique nature of the item. This is another reason to collect beyond the Burroughs / Kerouac / Ginsberg troika. What would a similar item by the Beat trio fetch at auction? Surely in the four figures. Not only does a collector of Whalen, Welch or Snyder get the opportunity to get a hold of incredible examples of post-WWII fine and small press publishing at lower prices, they also can obtain a more diverse universe of material beyond the A, B or C items of the bibliography. Correspondence, paintings, elaborately inscribed books, manuscripts, books or poems with holograph edits. Sale 364 had such items available for Snyder, Jack Micheline and Kenneth Patchen at a fraction of the cost of Burroughs / Kerouac / Ginsberg. An archive of Jack Micheline letters (lot 345) sold under the low estimate at $173. A letter from Snyder to David Meltzer (lot 366) sold for $138. As I wrote recently, a Burroughs letter to Ginsberg from 1969 is currently selling for $25,000. The slightest of Burroughs postcards from the 1980s sells in the hundreds, particularly if it has a full signature. I do not want to argue the relative importance of all these letters just show the vast disparities in price.
And this is not to say that items from those on the fringes of the Beat core cannot get expensive. Kenneth Patchen’s Fables and Other Little Tales published by Jargon in 1953 (lot 358) as 50 hand-painted covers and colophons by Patchen is an example. It sold for $1955, just shy of the low estimate. Pricey, yet look at what you are getting: “The rare Author’s Edition; no copies located for this edition in ABPC auction records for the past twenty-five years.” Compare this to a Bukowski title (another author who hand painted his books in limited editions) of a limited edition from Black Sparrow. The Patchen is far rarer and less expensive. As I will argue later, the fact the Fables is from a legendary alternative press like Jargon is nice as well.
But the desirability of the lesser Beat goes beyond affordability. Even decades since they first burst on the scene, their work is largely unexplored by scholars and relatively uncollected. Great material is still available on the market. As I mentioned in another column, substantial Burroughs letters from the 1950s and 1960s just do not exist outside institutions. The same is true of Kerouac and Ginsberg. That goes for manuscripts, paintings, and other items with a personal touch as well.
There were about 125 lots in the Beat section of Sale 364. Sixty-one items sold below the low estimate, roughly 50%. Only twenty items beat the high estimate and twenty-two lots were within the estimated range. An equal number (22) did not sell at all. With the Snyder items, several lots sold for half the low estimate. Why not take a glass half full attitude on this. The lesser Beats are undervalued and have tremendous opportunity for growth especially given the fact that a diverse range of items can be obtained beyond a simple first edition hard cover.
In lots 370-379, there were several beautifully constructed broadsides (usually signed) available for $115-200. Like with the expensive Patchen, some Snyder items fetched high prices. Take the first edition, first issue Riprap. Although PBA is incorrect in listing Snyder as a Nobel Prize winner (he won the Pulitzer in 1975 for Turtle Island), they are correct in describing Riprap as “one of the most important books of poetry published in America post-WWII.” This “exceptional” copy sold for $2070, just over the low reserve. When a Holy Grail item in fine condition is available for just over $2000, I would say that there is some degree of financial wiggle room to build a substantial collection. Yet a hand-bound copy of High Sierra of California proves that Snyder can command big money as a small group of material associated with that title blew by the $1500 and sold for $4025. The highlight of the sale may have been lot 416, an incredible copy of True Night, painstakingly produced by Bob Giorgio in 1980. The book was made in “the ancient oriental tradition. I carved each word and each image in wood and linoleum. Furthermore, I printed the entire edition with a press, using only a bamboo spoon baren. Lastly I bound each copy by hand. This slow, patient process has taken one year to complete…” This work, like “Strategic Air Command,” captures the spirit of Snyder’s life and work. It sold just over the high estimate at $1610.
Collectors of the lesser Beats can build a collection that really means something beyond the financial bottom line of making a profit. Gathering a large archive of material dealing with Herbert Huncke for example has value to scholars and institutions because not many people have done it before with any thoroughness. In addition collecting these authors also allows the collector to build a solid archive of post-WWII little magazine, small press, and fine printing material. Look over Gary Snyder’s bibliography or the Sale 364 catalog to get a sense of what I mean. As electronic publishing grows and the print industry slowly changes or dies, these examples of the book as art object and the alternative publishing industry are only going to grow in desirability and historical importance. Collecting blue chip authors, like John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Ernest Hemingway does not present similar opportunities at any price. To get more current, Thomas Pynchon, Ken Kesey, Hunter S. Thompson, Harper Lee, J.D. Salinger, Ian Fleming, Anthony Burgess, Joseph Heller or Truman Capote (to list only those authors with an extremely collectible title) also fail in the same way.
I guess that the bottom line is that with the lesser Beats much more interesting and intimate material is available at a fraction of the cost. A copy of the Olympia Press Naked Lunch is wonderful and very desirable. It is an absolute cornerstone of my collection and I look at it almost every day, but there is something incredibly attractive about Snyder’s “Strategic Air Command” that goes beyond the text. It is a printed object that gets to the core of Snyder as a person and poet. Is there something comparable for Burroughs? I would argue that there are: My Own Mag, Time, APO-33. It is in the little magazines and alternative press material that I most powerfully feel a merging of Burroughs’ creative philosophy with the published object. This goes beyond whether or not these texts speak to me personally since I think they speak for Burroughs on a multitude of levels as nothing else in his entire bibliography. And that makes them priceless for me.