Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
# 1 – A Descriptive Catalogue of the William S. Burroughs Archive (1973). The final Installment in Jed Birmingham’s series of the The Top 23 Most Interesting Burroughs Collectibles.
Do not bore me with the facts, as fascinating as they are and as much as I enjoy immersing myself in them. Sometimes the myths mean and say more. Yes, truth is stranger than fiction, but on occasion you just want to curl up with a good story. With Burroughs, his biography and his bibliography, nothing is true; everything is permitted. Case in point, years ago, I made a pilgrimage up to Columbia University for a bibliographic rock festival of sorts. Brian Schottlaender, Oliver Harris, Issac Gewirtz, Barry Miles, Regina Weinreich, Ann Douglas, Bradford Morrow and Barney Rosset performed. Harris opened with “From Dr Mabuse to Doc Benway: The Myths and Manuscripts of Naked Lunch“, now available on RealityStudio.org. Schottlaender kept up the groove with “Manifestations, Multiple Versions, and Showstoppers: Collecting the Various Guises of Naked Lunch.” The short papers ended with Weinreich’s “Honing the Word Hoard: Kerouac, Tangier and Naked Lunch.” The closing act was a jam session between Miles, Morrow, and Rosset. The star was literary giant, king of shock rock, Barney Rosset, spinning tales about publishing Naked Lunch for Grove Press. For me it was as good as Woodstock or should I say the Isle of Write.
The real surprise, the Bob Dylan of the show, was Gewirtz, who gave a talk on the Burroughs Archive, “William S. Burroughs: The Writer as Avant-Garde Archivist,” which had recently been purchased by the New York Public Library. His talk was the equivalent of a live performance of the Basement Tapes. At the time, the archive was still largely a mystery. Few beyond select book dealers and biographers had ever seen it in any detail. Gewirtz proposed that the construction of the archive and the accompanying catalogue was a major work of experimental art on the part of Burroughs. Rehashing the talk afterwards, there was some concern that Gewirtz’s interpretation was, well, something of a fiction, since the extent of Burroughs’ actual involvement in the archive’s organization was rather limited. As I understand it, the archive’s organization was largely, if not entirely, the work of Miles. To be honest I like the fiction as much as the facts in this case. Sometimes facts can get in the way of a central truth and Gewirtz touched on one that is dear to my heart and close to my obsessions: the importance of archiving to Burroughs’ creative process.
Flash forward a few years. Oliver Harris offered up his revised cut-up trilogy and one of his major revelations was that the myth of the Burroughsian Word Horde, the core mass of materials that Burroughs mined for the creation of Naked Lunch and the cut-up trilogy, such as may have been in Hardiment’s suitcase, was largely that, a myth. In my opinion this is still open for debate. Just because something does not reside in the archives does not mean that it did not exist. The thought of what the peripatetic Burroughs lost or threw away would make any archivist cringe. But again do not bore me with the facts. Whether “the” Word Horde actually physically existed does not matter to me in the least. Do not bore me with the nouns. I am concerned with the verbs here. Let’s not focus on the Hoard per se. Burroughs collected, Burroughs archived, Burroughs hoarded. These are the real facts and in terms of Burroughs’ creative life they cannot be overestimated or denied. They are central to the conception of if not the “real” Burroughs, then my Burroughs. And one’s own personal Burroughs is the only Burroughs who truly matters.
But let’s get back to myths for a moment because they are incredibly important in understanding Burroughs as a writer. For example, Burroughs spins his own yarn in the introduction to the Viking edition of Queer in 1985: The Death of Joan. The beginning of Burroughs the writer begins with a creation myth. Fall, murder, and knowledge. This is biblical stuff. Adam and Eve, Genesis, Cain and Abel, Abraham and Issac. The genesis myth of Burroughs is well known but the decline and fall of Burroughs is open for debate. Sure, there are those who argue that there was no betrayal or fall. Those who see no fault in Burroughs or his work. Burroughs as God. These people are fools. They worship a false idol. No, Burroughs is a man and the son of Man. All are fallen; all have sinned. Even Burroughs. Most of all Burroughs. True love is about acceptance and forgiveness of flaws, and even loving those flaws. It is what makes us and Burroughs human. I forgive Burroughs for the shift to narrative starting with The Wild Boys. For the corporate book deals. For the Nike commercials. Some might even consider pardoning him for attempting to absolve himself of the death of Joan with his birth as a writer. Mind you, I have not done so yet. But there is another lesser known event that truly tries the depths of my forgiveness. And this time it is personal; it is a betrayal that affects my very heart, mind and soul.
Bibliographies are organized listings of books; they document and celebrate a writer’s creative life. In a sense they are obituaries. The Mausoleum: William S. Burroughs: A Bibliography, 1953-1973, compiled by Joe Maynard and Barry Miles. Eric Shoaf and Shottlaender are appreciated but Maynard & Miles is the bibliography that matters; these are the works that merit memorialization and preservation. In addition, Burroughs’ foreword to M&M is more important and insightful to me in understanding Burroughs as a writer than the introduction to Queer. It is in the works listed here that Burroughs lives and will live on. Here we have Burroughs from poet to philosopher to pundit to professor. Burroughs would eventually die a private citizen surrounded by shooting buddies and cats. But who cares about that? I am well acquainted with his work, not friendly with the man. No doubt, this could be my loss; by many accounts Burroughs was a great guy. Maynard & Miles ends in 1973. There is something right about that. My relationship with him for all intents and purposes ends here.
One of my key myths about Burroughs is that he died as a creative artist when he sold his archive to Roberto Altmann in 1973. The archive was sold to serve as the foundation for an alternative university that never actually happened and would remain mythic. Burroughs was motivated to sell it so he could leave dreary London and step away from the typewriter to the front of a classroom in New York City. Those who can no longer write teach.
(Let’s have a pull-out from this lecture. This is again another myth. I am married to a teacher; I understand it is a challenging gig. One of Burroughs’ most powerful lessons is that of the evils of bureaucracy. What I object to is that in becoming a professor Burroughs became something of a bureaucrat. Education, like the government, the military or the corporate world, is increasingly being depersonalized and deindividualized, replaced by a world of filling out paperwork and providing processed lesson plans. Black Mountain College, particularly in is “dying” days, is a model for a true experimental college. By all accounts this experience was harrowing but this time and space became hallowed ground, from which grew Black Mountain Review, arguably the most important little magazine of the post-WWII era; Jargon Society, arguably its most important small press; and a school of writers and artists who would leave Black Mountain to make their names in New York City. Not bad for a college that provided no accreditation, facilities or even food. Yet it provided intellectual freedom and the unique instruction of free thinkers, like Charles Olson. Olson proposed a curriculum that was as far from the common core as possible yet was still foundational and fundamental. The revived interest in Black Mountain College, as expressed by an art exhibition at Boston, demonstrates the frustration with and failure of today’s education system. Why would Burroughs want a part of that? True, Burroughs taught at City College and Naropa, institutions with an experimental bent, but even they fall all over themselves in the pursuit of federal and state funds and in establishing legitimacy, i.e, abiding by governmental standards and benchmarks in education. No experimental institution, be it a college or a small press, can accept government cash. Once you take the cash the education is no longer free. This is the true meaning of selling out.
And no benchmark can measure great teaching. To me Burroughs was not a great teacher in the classroom; his heart was not in it. I have listened to the lectures. He was far from the dynamic presence that Olson was. Outside of the classroom, Burroughs and Olson were pedagogues through their persona and personality. In that sense they were gurus. They were also philosophers through their writings. For Burroughs this did not translate to the ivory tower. Olson on the other hand changed people’s lives in front of the blackboard through his lectures and instruction. The legacy of Black Mountain after its demise, such as that the establishment of Black Mountain North in Buffalo or in the success of Black Mountain artists in New York City, is proof of this. Nothing similar exists for Burroughs.)
To get back to the library and the snake in that library, which was Brion Gysin. Gysin came up with the idea of the archive and Gysin betrayed the initial plans for its sale. But Burroughs fell to Gysin’s temptations, and I am firm in my belief that with the sale of the archive Burroughs mortgaged his creative capital. He sold his mind and soul, the source of his knowledge and power. An archive serves as a repository of memory, which is crucial to Burroughs’ complex handling of nostalgia. Separated from this Word Hoard, Burroughs suffered from creative amnesia.
The sale was not just fatal for Burroughs as a creative artist. It set back Burroughs scholarship forty years. The critical reception of Burroughs has yet to recover or really to even fully develop. Again this can be blamed on Gysin. The original plan was to sell the archive to Columbia University. Gysin fucked that up by helping orchestrate the sale to Altmann. The Vaduz material remained in its original packaging decades after Altmann’s original purchase on through to its sale to Robert Jackson until its eventual “liberation” by the NYPL in 2010. Even at the NYPL it is far from free; it is currently under the lock and key of academic protocol, which is totally understandable.
Likewise Burroughs studies are imprisoned in abstractions and theory, with the notable exception of Oliver Harris and select others, who attempt to break themselves and Burroughs free by locking themselves in the archive. Bibliography is crucial to Burroughs studies. The work of scholars of the book, like Robert Darnton, D.F. McKenzie, and Jerome McGann, and theorists, like Pierre Bourdieu, Michel de Certeau and Henri Lefebvre, suggest that a sociology of Burroughs needs to be fully developed. Let’s have an exploration of the history of Burroughs’ books; of the Burroughs communication network involving author, publishers, booksellers, printers, and readers; and of enumerative, descriptive, textual and analytic bibliography.
The study of Charles Olson provides one of many potential models. Take for example the publication of selections of his archive in Olson: A Journal of the Olson Archives, issued by the University of Connecticut Library. Why should the Burroughs archive in various libraries, but especially in the NYPL, not get the same treatment? Why not appoint a scholar/editor to run a blog at the NYPL in order to write on the archive’s contents? I am sure a graduate student in NYC would jump at the chance. It would be a valuable learning experience in archival research for the student and for Burroughs fans. Alex Wermer-Colan, you busy? Possibly this is in development. I would not be surprised if it is. If you have not heard there is a revolution going on in our libraries and archives, a revolution that could learn a few things from the Mimeo Revolution. The encouragement of the DIY spirit, for example.
In addition, we have Michael Stevens‘ The Road to Interzone that documents Burroughs’ reading and his library, but let’s go further. The work of Ralph Maud, Olson’s Boswell, is something to aspire to. He wrote Charles Olson’s Reading: A Biography, which analyzed the meaning of Olson’s library not just listed it, and then went further by reconstructing the library physically, going so far as to reproduce Olson’s annotations in various books. Until Burroughs’ archive, his library, and his bibliography are more fully accessed, Burroughs studies are a fraud. It is criminal. If Burroughs’ writing career began with tragedy, it ended with a betrayal, which put Burroughs’ archive into the hands of the Ugly Spirits.
To this day, the Descriptive Catalogue of the William S. Burroughs Archive, published by Covent Gardens and Am Here Books in a lavish edition, which you might expect from Richard Aaron, given his later rare book catalogues, provides a tantalizing glimpse into the extent of the Burroughs collection and into Burroughs’ creative achievement generally. Of course, like the NYPL collection, the Catalogue is largely unattainable by the general public. This is due to the difficulty of the rabble to break into institutional holdings as well as due to the economics of the rare book market. The lettered edition of the Catalogue is a $4000 book and the trade edition, which is only slightly less ornate, is over $1000. Burroughs was truly right to sell out; there is money to be made in them there bookshelves. Mine the archive.
Let’s be clear and let’s be completely honest. Could you possibly blame Burroughs? A man has got to eat. British food fucking sucks. Burroughs ain’t a toad-in-the-hole type of guy. Although he did love Senior Service cigarettes. Unfiltered, of course. I understand I am being unfair to Burroughs and am perhaps holding him to a standard that I will be unable to measure up to myself. Where is my book collection going to go and at what price? And that gets to the heart of what fascinates me about Burroughs selling his archive. I have little in common with him and he is a distant figure in some respects. I never think of knowing him personally, but I think I can relate intimately to his archive and understand just how important and meaningful it must have been for him. He must have been really, really desperate to sell it. Even more than with my collection, Burroughs was selling a piece of himself. It must have been devastating. Death, divorce and debt. The dreaded D’s. For the true collector these are the only reasons you would ever part with what you have accumulated. So I really feel for Burroughs. There but for the grace of God goes I. And I have been in his shoes for a few brief periods in my life. I was in a position where I was selling pieces of my collection to pay daily expenses. It was a low point to be sure.
If Burroughs’ archive served as the source of his creativity, my Burroughs collection serves a similar and even more expansive function. It is not so much a database as an interface. It is the window through which I view the world. I access everything around me through my collection and through Burroughs. I approach all politics, popular culture and even people by means of Burroughs. Any ideas or ideals that I have are filtered through my book collection. The thought of having to sell this collection is akin to suicide. It might not be the end of me physically but it would be psychically. In a sense I would cease to exist, or more accurately I would not know how to exist.
I like to think of Burroughs as a DIY archivist. He surely created his own RealityStudio. As Oliver Harris has demonstrated in his introductions to the restored cut-up novels, Burroughs’ writing is a detourning of the Time/Life image and data banks and he created banks of his own to draw from. When he made his triumphant return to the United States in late 1964, he brought with him seven suitcases of books and papers. He travelled with an extensive archive. After dropping out of graduate school I realized that I would never again have access to similar resources, unless I built an archive of my own. Burroughs did not just show me what was possible (or impossible) in the world of literature; he led the way to what could be done in building an archive. If you appreciate the work of Burroughs, nothing is more in the spirit of his work and its revolutionary message than collecting it. Any fan of Burroughs should also become a Burroughs collector and seek to become a complete man in the industry.
In Burroughs studies, access to information is narrow as is our understanding of his work. Corporations and institutions seek to build and control the RealityStudio. Few individuals have the time, resources or inclination to construct their own archives. My top 23 is filled with What Ifs but maybe the ultimate in wishful thinking in Interzone has to be: What if the NYPL Burroughs archive and the others scattered across the world were publically available and networked together on the internet? What if these archives were presented as an accessible database that could be commented upon, sampled, re-mixed and recycled to form new critical interpretations and creative works? This virtual archive should be dynamic not dormant. This is how Burroughs manipulated his own archive. Its purpose was not as storage but as a means to generate stories. All institutions should attempt to return to something akin to Burroughs’ mythical Word Horde, the ultimate source of Burroughs’ creative energies, which would power and expand the reach of Burroughs for generations to come for professionals and amateurs alike. I outlined my vision of the future in Operation Total Exposure. This is a total assault on the culture. And as I mentioned above, this is happening now. This is a bibliographic Happening. An event, a moment, an action, a call to arms. The oppressors are cracking open the door to the ivory tower. They are peeking out to see what the Vandals are doing. “Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” The legacy of Burroughs has yet to be viewed clearly. Access, not excess, is the means to cleansing the doors of perception and critical reception. Forget tune in, turn on and drop out. Follow not Albert, heed Abbie. Steal this book. Archive and survive. Bootleggers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your copyrights.
Let’s end this Top 23 list with a link that hopefully suggests that the chains placed on our Burroughs archives by various institutions are in the process of being loosened or broken entirely. (But always remember, do not look upon the digital as our savior because no doubt the link will someday be broken) Storm the RealityStudio!!!