Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
The first edition of Yage Letters published by City Lights in 1963 is a slim and seemingly unassuming book. The cover has become famous and the book sells well, but it remains largely undiscovered territory to scholars. Only 18,000 words long and struggling to reach 68 pages, it was originally issued without an introduction or notes. In college, Yage Letters was presented as something of a curiosity; a playground upon which a few isolated professors interested in queer, racial, or political theory could tinker with ideas on tourism, colonialism, imperialism and the Other. The Sheltering Sky and The Heart of Darkness share similar themes. Later, I viewed the book as an ur-text in the psychedelic revolution published around the time of Stranger in a Strange Land, The Island, and the Psychedelic Review. (For an archive of the Review, see maps.org.) As a collectible, this collaboration between Burroughs and Ginsberg stood out as an essential Burroughs text, but not a prized possession that I often looked at or sought to learn more about.
Yage Redux and Oliver Harris’ upcoming essay for Postmodern Culture, “Not Burroughs’ Final Fix: Materializing the Yage Letters,” revolutionize my views on nearly every level. Redux roughly triples the size of the first edition, and I spent much of my time in the new introduction, notes, and appendices. As the review on RealityStudio makes clear, Harris researches and clarifies the scientific, cultural, and political history surrounding Burroughs and Ginsberg’s explorations into South America. Harris also demonstrates that a tremendous amount of editing and drafting went into creating the epistolary novel. The immediacy was carefully constructed. On that score, particularly interesting was Burroughs’ drafts for a Yage article that he hoped to publish in a mainstream magazine.
Yet for me, the highpoint of Harris’ work is his exploration into the role of the little magazine in the publication of Yage Letters. His research completely alters the manner in which I view the early Burroughs magazine appearances. As my columns to RealityStudio attest, I saw the magazine appearances of the late 1950s and early 1960s as divided into two camps: Naked Lunch related and cut-ups. The brilliance of Naked Lunch tends to blind readers and scholars to other aspects of Burroughs’ work, particularly in the early period. Harris makes this perfectly clear when he discusses “From Naked Lunch, Book III: In Search of Yage” that appeared in Black Mountain Review 7. I always focused on the Naked Lunch part of that title and neglected the fact that the piece was part of the earlier written (but later published) Yage Letters. The July 10, 1953 letter which describes the Composite City is the twelfth letter of the “In Search of Yage” section in the second and third editions of Yage Letters. This letter is missing from the first edition. Burroughs cannibalized Yage Letters for use in Naked Lunch. Harris provides much information on the textual relationship between Naked Lunch and Yage Letters.
From the Naked Lunch related material, I tended to jump to Burroughs’ cut-up experiments culminating in the cut-up art books of Time and APO-33 of 1965/1966. As Harris points out in detail in his Postmodern Culture article and more briefly in Redux, I jumped over the important bridge between the Naked Lunch magazines and the cut-up appearances. That bridge in more ways than one was Yage Letters. Much of my time was spent studying Big Table 1, the Chicago Review, Kulchur 1, Semina 4 and Yugen 3. As stated previously, I considered Black Mountain Review as only a part of Naked Lunch. I viewed these magazines as keys to getting Naked Lunch into print and proof of the magazines’ importance in Burroughs’ publication history. This was a gross oversight causing me to minimize their importance. My focus on Naked Lunch ignored Big Table 2 and Kulchur 3 entirely, which printed eleven of the twelve letters comprising the “In Search of Yage” section in all editions of Yage Letters. In addition, I never concentrated on what was actually in Floating Bear issues 5 and 9 (the letter dated June 21, 1960 and “Roosevelt after Inauguration,” respectively) narrowing in on the cut-up aspects of issue 5 and the obscenity trial surrounding issue 9. City Lights Journal 1 (“Am I Dying, Meester?”) represented yet another cut-up. In essence, I overlooked the entire contents of Yage Letters that was published in little magazines before the first City Lights edition. If anything demonstrates the importance of the little magazine in the publication history of William Burroughs, it is Yage Letters.
Harris’ research takes this fact much further. By 1963, no manuscript of Yage Letters existed. Ferlinghetti relied on the little magazines in order to create the City Lights edition. In his Postmodern Culture article, Harris shows how each little magazine left its imprint on the Yage Letters text. Especially interesting is a close reading of the use of colons and commas in the opening addresses of the letters and their implications for a postmodern concept of editing and the text. Harris also shows how the format and editing process of Floating Bear resulted in a remarkably accurate presentation of the June 21, 1960 letter in Issue 5.
Just as Yage Letters bridges the gap between Naked Lunch and cut-up appearances in little magazines, the book demonstrates a shift in Burroughs’ writing technique. The “In Search of Yage” section shows Burroughs developing the routine style that would culminate in Naked Lunch. Letter writing is key to this process. “Roosevelt after Inauguration” leads to the Talking Asshole. The later sections of Yage Letters (the letter from June 21, 1960 and “Am I Dying, Meester?”) utilize and develop the theory of the cut-up. Gysin replaced Ginsberg as mentor and collaborator.
In between the routine and the cut-up lies the Composite City letter of July 10, 1953. In this letter that appeared in Black Mountain Review 7, Burroughs predicted the cut-up before Gysin sliced into the newspapers at the Beat Hotel. While not a true cut-up, the Composite City section reveals an interest in surrealist/Dadaist collage and montage techniques that along with the routine would shape Naked Lunch.
Harris’ work left me wanting more information on a couple of other early periodical appearances: the “Letter from a Master Addict to Dangerous Drugs” in the British Journal of Addiction and the excerpt from Junkie in Man’s Wildcat Adventures. A discussion on Man’s Wildcat Adventures is not really relevant here, but Harris’ research into the mainstream aspirations of Burroughs in the 1950s leaves me puzzled as to how Junkie appeared in a fringe men’s magazine in June 1959. Possibly, Burroughs was so desperate for publication after the rejection of Naked Lunch by Olympia Press that he considered publishing anywhere, including starting his own (eventually aborted) magazine. Perhaps he needed money or maybe Ace sold the rights and it was out of his control. What are the implications of Junkie being published in a men’s magazine? For example, how did this marginalized appearance coupled with the pulping of the Digit edition of Junkie in 1957 affect Burroughs’ view of himself as an author and Junkie in particular? In any case, this forgotten magazine appearance demands further study.
The “Letter from a Master Addict to Dangerous Drugs” (“Master Letter”) is more on point. A section of the “Master Letter” deals with Yage. Harris has painstakingly annotated this section showing where the material came from (the aborted Yage article in many cases) and where it went (Naked Lunch in some cases). This work and all mention of the British Journal of Addiction (except for a brief note to the appendices) fell to the editor’s pen. I think this is unfortunate. Given Burroughs’ desperation to see publication (as demonstrated by Harris), the Journal appearance (Burroughs’ second appearance in print) proves of major importance. The “Master Letter” addresses pertinent issues of Burroughs’ authorship (he signed his own name not William Lee or Willy Lee) and scholarship (Burroughs’s views on Yage and other drugs did in fact find publication in scholarly circles as early as 1957). Burroughs’ thoughts and feelings on the British Journal appearance as well as the “Master Letter”‘s reception by the medical community would be interesting. How does the “Master Letter” fit in with Burroughs’ reliance on letter writing in his creative process? How is the “Master Letter” related to Yage Letters and Naked Lunch? How does the “Master Letter”‘s eventual appearance in later editions of Naked Lunch as an appendix change critical and public perception of the Naked Lunch and the “Master Letter?” Many might be unaware of the circumstances and format of its original appearance. This inclusion in later editions dovetails with the editing and textual issues Harris explores in Yage Letters Redux and his article. Clearly, the “Master Letter” deserves further study.
Yage Redux and the Postmodern Culture article answer a multitude of questions, but like any great scholarship they generate a host of new ones. This work provides a ton of information on little magazines and changed my view of my collection. The introductions, appendices and notes give Yage Letters an added weight not merely in terms of size, but also in terms of significance to Burroughs and literature at large. But that significance, like the drug Yage, was always out there; somebody just had to search for it.
RealityStudio notes: Jed mentions Oliver Harris’ annotated version of the “Master Letter.” Professor Harris was kind enough to share one of his working manuscripts, a complex Microsoft Word document that he used to prepare the “In Search of Yage” section of Yage Redux. Copyrights prevent RealityStudio from publishing the entire document here. However, if you want some real insight into the sort of rigor and analysis that Professor Harris put into his work, here are a few images: 1, 2, 3.