A Conversation with the Author of Contemporary Literary Censorship: The Case History of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch
I tend not to read academic work on William S. Burroughs, though there are exceptions. Oliver Harris never fails to be as insightful as he is eloquent. Recently I also enjoyed Véronique Lane’s book on the relationship between French writers and the Beats. But most academic writing about Burroughs is as exciting as mud pie. It lacks the documentary research that James Grauerholz put into his fantastic essays on Burroughs in Chicago and the death of Joan Vollmer. It lacks the friendly intimacy of Barry Miles’ work. It lacks the daring of RealityStudio’s own Jed Birmingham. Maybe I’m caricaturing the situation but so much academic writing simply tries too hard, like a student using big words to impress. It too often results in books that sag under the weight of their own pomposity. They read Burroughs through the lens of this or that theorist and mistake this exercise for profundity.
As a result of this prejudice, though, it took me years to get around to reading a truly great critical work on Burroughs: Michael B. Goodman’s Contemporary Literary Censorship: The Case History of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. I happened to stumble on an ex-library copy right at the time I was mulling over some thoughts about censorship. I knew Goodman’s name from his bibliographies, which I respected, so I thought I’d give the book a try — and I’m glad I did. Goodman’s history of the censorship of Naked Lunch is a model of scholarship. It is so rigorously researched that I spent as much time in the footnotes as I did in the main text. It is written in clear prose. It tells an important story not just about literature but about free speech. I am not giving in to hyperbole when I say that this book is essential reading for any Burroughs enthusiast. I was so impressed by it that I googled around to see what had become of its author.
Goodman is currently a professor in Communications Studies at Baruch College in New York. We met in his office one crisp winter night to get acquainted. He generously shared recollections of his time researching Burroughs, as well as many insights gleaned from his later studies in communications. We exchanged a few emails afterward then convened a proper interview via telephone.
How did you first become interested in William Burroughs?
I was in a doctoral seminar in contemporary American literature at SUNY at Stony Book. At that time — the late 1970s — that included Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, people writing at the time who were still alive. We had to do a research project for the doctoral seminar. Our professor, Jack Thompson, said to bring in writers and others that nobody knows about because “I want you guys to publish something.” At that time people hadn’t written much about William Burroughs so I started doing research on his books and his life. I also started collecting what he’d written and published. I went to special collections at Stony Brook, Columbia University, and Syracuse. What came out of that was the annotated bibliography that I published in 1975.
That’s an interesting pathway into Burroughs. Most people start with Naked Lunch or Junky then move deeper into his other works but you were actually a scholar first.
Thank you for calling me a scholar. I was a doctoral student at the time, a pre-scholar. I had known about his books through others so it wasn’t unfamiliar. But there wasn’t a lot of work about him except people saying he’s a scourge or he’s not a literary guy. The literary establishment was pushing back on Burroughs and the Beats in general.
You did an incredibly thorough job researching your book on the censorship of Naked Lunch. Can you talk about the approach you took and the methods you used?
On the back flap of the Grove Press edition of Naked Lunch was a bit about the censorship trial. What drew me to researching it was that the trial was a free speech issue as well as literary landmark. I interviewed pretty much anyone who was involved with the book. I looked at archives that were at Syracuse University and Columbia University. It was a literary detective story trying to find out what reallly happened and what was behind the story on the back flap.
You interviewed not just literary figures but also lawyers, judges, and detectives. Were they surprised to learn that there was still so much interest in Naked Lunch?
They were incredibly forthcoming. It was out of the ordinary because it was such a high profile case. The lawyers and judges and everyone involved knew this was important because it had become part of American culture and literary history. It wasn’t your run-of-the-mill trial that went through the court system.
When I interviewed Ginsberg, he wrote me a letter giving me access to his collection. It was on deposit at Columbia at the time but now it’s part of their collection. He called my house and at the time my mother-in-law, who was in her late 80s, was still alive. She picked up the phone then turned to my wife and me. “You know this fellow named Ginsberg?” When I picked up the phone, Allen asked for the copy of the letter that he had written to me. This was an important income stream for him — selling his papers. He was giving lectures and readings all over the world. Everyone knew he was a major literary figure. He saw anything that had his signature on it as something that he could put in an archive. I said, “No, that letter is mine now because you sent it to me.” He was a little taken aback and I said “Well, that’s fine, I’ll send you a copy.”
At what point did you decide to reach out to Burroughs and interview him?
James Grauerholz reached out to me. James was Burroughs’ agent at the time. He must have been in his 20s. James was always very professional and represented Burroughs in a strong, positive way. He was also protective because at that point Burroughs was getting older.
Most of my interaction with Burroughs was when Bill was living in a loft on the Bowery across from a fire station [familiarly known as The Bunker — ed.]. When he and James moved to Kansas, they asked me if I wanted to buy the loft but at that point my wife and I didn’t have the funds to buy anything. In hindsight it would have been great. It was a huge empty space with the only drawback being that, whenever fire engines left, the sirens would wake up anybody within a five block radius.
Was Burroughs helpful? Amused?
He was really hard to read. The affect that he had in public was the affect that he had in private. I couldn’t tell whether he was amazed or amused or intrigued or just the opposite. He would answer questions matter of factly. At that point in his life he was pleased that people were still interested in what he was doing. Coming back to the US was a renaissance in attention to what he was doing and the works he had done years before. My fellow graduate student Lem Coley, who was a coauthor on William S. Burroughs: A Reference Guide, and I arranged a reading at Stony Brook. People who may have heard of him but didn’t realize he was still alive were intrigued and wanted to see who this man was, this hombre invisible.
Did you interview Barney Rosset, Maurice Girodias, or any of the other publishers?
Both of them were very helpful. I had to get Rosset’s approval for the Grove Press collection that’s at Syracuse. He was pleased somebody was looking at it. Girodias was in Paris so the distance made it a little harder. I never had a face-to-face interview with him because I was in New York. We corresponded instead.
How did Burroughs react to the work you published about him?
Burroughs seemed bemused by it, as he was by those sorts of things. Mostly it was Allen Ginsberg who was there advocating at the trial. Norman Mailer. I have a complete copy of the transcript, which you can buy from the court. It’s two volumes because the trial was two days. From a legal standpoint it wasn’t a precedent-setting trial but from a cultural point of view it was certanly a milestone in literary freedom and artistic expression.
You invited Burroughs to read at Stony Brook while you were working on your dissertation there. Any memories of the reading?
Lem Coley and I introduced William. When he started reading, we went to the back of the room. The reading was typical or classic Burroughs, with the monotone that you hear in recordings of him. It was one of the biggest crowds for an artistic reading that we ever had. The crowd for Burroughs was as big or bigger than the one we had for Ginsberg reading his poetry a few months later. The crowd was fascinated and silent because they were straining to hear him read.
Do you happen to remember what he read that night?
He was reading from published works but also things he was working on, so possibly some sections of Cities of the Red Night. I’m not sure whether we recorded the reading. It might be at the Stony Brook library.
Did you get any special one-on-one time with Burroughs that night?
We took him out to dinner in Port Jefferson, which is a port town next to Stony Brook. We went to the Port Jefferson Hotel, which at that time was probably the only place you could go with a group of 15 or so. There were a lot of people, fellow graduate students, talking to him. I didn’t personally talk to him much that night because this was their opportunity. My wife went along as well. She made a comment to me about him not connecting with women. He was cordial but not social. The persona that he had in movies was the persona that we saw. There wasn’t a difference between the private and public Burroughs, though I’m sure James Grauerholz would give you a different picture. His relationship with Burroughs was much wider and deeper.
Did you attend any of the classes Burroughs gave at CUNY?
I went to a Columbia class that Burroughs was speaking at. There was a series of lectures that he gave there. The room was packed to the gills. It was late spring, the doors were open, there were people out in a garden area where Burroughs was speaking and reading and answering questions.
You were among the first scholars to work on Burroughs. Was the academic community supportive of your efforts?
Stony Brook was known for putting out folks who were against the literary establishment. Most of the faculty members were literary pariahs at some point. I’m thinking specifically of David V. Erdman, who did incredible work on William Blake. I had taken David’s seminars. Back then he was backlisted because of the McCarthy hearings. Stony Brook took in people like him. Jack Thompson was my dissertation director. He had been outed for his work with the Farfield Foundation. Back in the 1950s that was a CIA operation to cultivate artists and scholars and writers and novelists. Jack was head of that for a long time. When somebody blew the whistle on it during the Johnson administration Stony Brook brought him in as a senior professor. So Burroughs fit in with the sensibility of shaking up the establishment. There was no pushback about his personal life — the drugs, the homosexuality, the death of his wife Joan Vollmer. The focus was on his writing.
Little mags and mimeos played an important role for Burroughs. Did you pay much attention to those in your research?
Yes. As we speak I’m sitting in front of a bookshelf that has Big Table and all of the magazines and underground pamphlets Burroughs published in. They played an important part in his literary life because the establishment houses like Random House just weren’t interested.
You must have developed quite a collection of Burroughs’ work while doing your research. In those pre-internet days, how did you learn about Burroughs publications and how did you go about obtaining the obscurer ones?
Wasn’t there life before the internet? Because I was doing a bibliography, every time I would get a reference to a publication I would try to find it. Some of them were in the collections at Columbia and Syracuse. Most of them were in bookshops or in catalogues of little known works. Another way that Ginsberg and others paid the rent was by selling copies of obscurer publications at readings or through booksellers. When my wife and I were starting off we didn’t have much money but it was a lot of fun to track things down. I didn’t get a first Grove Press edition of Naked Lunch until way late. I found it at some bookshop downtown, probably The Strand.
Did bookstores play an important role in showing what was out there or in forming a community for you?
If I went to The Strand, I would always look for Burroughs. If they got something in, they’d give me a call or send a letter. Or when I bumped into Grauerholz, he would say, “If you’re looking for this or that, I have it.” I do miss having so many good bookstores around. Whenever I would travel, I would go into bookstores around the country to see if they had any Burroughs material. There was also a secondhand bookstore in Port Jefferson when we were at Stony Brook. I’m blanking on their name. I don’t think they still have a physical presence but maybe they have a website.
Although literature has been largely free of censorship in America since the courtroom battles over Naked Lunch, censorship has still been an issue for other art forms — for example, rap music or the photographs of Andres Serrano. Do you have any thoughts about the way censorship has evolved since writing your book?
Next to the trial books I have an entire shelf on literary censorship with works by Edward de Grazia, Charles Rembar’s The End of Obscenity: The Trials of Lady Chatterley, Anne Haight’s Banned Books. There will always be censors because there will always be people who don’t want others’ voices to be heard. But right now the challenge is not so much being censored but cutting through the noise. There are so many opportunities for people to make their statements — you can have a website or a blog and maybe a thousand people will hear it. But does it have any impact? When Burroughs’ book was censored, media outlets were more limited and the issues were more central to the culture.
Have you maintained an interest in Burroughs after all this time?
I am still interested in Burroughs but I’m not focused on everything that comes out. When I see a major book, I buy it and put it with my collection.
After your books on Burroughs, your university career took a turn toward corporate communications. How do you think your Burroughs research influenced your later work?
I still use the same process — asking questions, probing into things. I’m pretty relentless in finding the answer to the questions I pose. I’m on my fifteenth book now and I never want to settle for things. I want to have an original look. That was the major life lesson of my graduate work — be relentless in the work you do because it pays off in the end. In looking at any topic, I go not just for breadth but for depth as well. They’re both important. When you do any research, you want to leave to the next generation a picture of what happened with as much clarity and correctness as possible.
You did a sterling job of that in your Naked Lunch book.
Thank you so much for that. When the Times Literary Supplement did a two-page review of the book back in 1981, it blew me away. I didn’t realize it was going to garner that much attention. My mentor Jack Thompson made a wry comment when he saw it. “Well, you know, Michael, they pretty much gave away the whole book. Nobody’s going to buy it now because they read it all in the review.” I laughed but there might have been a grain of truth to that.