Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
The Western Lands. New York: Viking Press, 1987.
Norman Mailer’s copy. Inscribed by Burroughs “with gratitude” and dated in the year of publication. Mailer’s annotations in ink. The condition of the book is good. The jacket worn in places with slight tears. Corners bumped. This suggests that the book was handled carelessly, maybe with disrespect, yet the extent of the annotation reveals the fact that the book was read closely and carefully nonetheless. Location: The Ransom Library at the University of Texas in Austin.
The epitaph. An annotation to the Book of Life. “The only American writer who may be conceivably possessed by genius.” Norman Mailer wrote Burroughs’ epitaph the same instant he wrote Burroughs into existence as an author. In some respects, the critical assessment on Burroughs has not taken one step forward from Mailer’s initial take. Mailer’s conception of Burroughs was stillborn.
With the publication of Naked Lunch, Burroughs struck Mailer as the most vital of writers. Burroughs was a writer of experience. He had lived a life that Mailer only talked about. Naked Lunch was Mailer’s book of dreams. Mailer could only write about it; he could never have written it himself.
By the publication of The Western Lands, a new day had dawned. With its pages Burroughs acknowledged that he was inspired by Mailer’s Ancient Evenings. Mailer spent years in the shadow of the Dead Star of Burroughs’ writing. His critiques of Burroughs attempt to illuminate and dispel those shadows, so Mailer himself could shine as a dark sun. Given Mailer’s anxiety about and envy of Burroughs’ literary genius, it must have pleased Mailer immensely that Burroughs drew on his account of Egyptian culture and religion. With Western Lands, Mailer becomes not just an authority on but an authority for Burroughs’ writing. Not surprisingly, Mailer’s annotations to Western Lands attempt to add up the literary debt. They are definitely a summing up, a reckoning. In underlines and marks made in the margin, Mailer documents passages relating in some manner to Ancient Evenings. The mention of Mailer on page 5 is an obvious example. By 1987, Burroughs wondered if he was in his twilight creatively. Critics declared him bankrupt. The Western Lands expresses and seeks to quiet these doubts.
Interestingly Mailer has gone through the text and placed an asterisk beside Burroughs moments of crisis. All the sections dealing with The Old Writer are heavily marked by Mailer, e.g. “A writer must be very punctilious and scrupulous about his debts.” The crisis might be Mailer’s own. Burroughs acknowledges his debt; does Mailer “pay the piper.” Burroughs writes, “He applied his talents to publicity, where no one is ever expected to pay.” Mailer also heavily marks the last passage of the book. “The old writer couldn’t write anymore because he had reached the end of words, the end of what can be done with words.” Burroughs as Prospero. Mailer must have found solace in the fact that Burroughs was out of the ring. The Western Lands is Burroughs’ Book of the Dead, and Mailer’s annotations seek to put the haunting Burroughs to rest. Possibly, Mailer could rest in peace. Mailer’s next novel, Harlot’s Ghost (1991), was received as both his death rattle and his swan’s song.
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