Cutting up the Archive: William Burroughs and the Composite Text

Tags: , , , , , , ,

by Oliver Harris

This is an edited version of a paper delivered to the 4th Annual Symposium on Textual Studies at the Centre for Textual Scholarship, De Montfort University, Leicester, 25 May 2007.

I’d like to start by saying how delighted I am to have been invited here today by Peter Shillingsburg and how honoured I am to be in present company. However, at the immediate risk of testing your hospitality, I want to read you a review of my latest publication — this new edition of The Yage Letters by William Burroughs — that begs the question as to whether it’s an honour I deserve.

“It is a sign of the times, I suppose, that Oliver Harris, a professor at a respectable British university, can devote his scholarly endeavour to the study of the life and works of William Burroughs, not as a case history of psychopathology, or as an example of how bad writing can sustain a large reputation among weak-minded intellectuals, but as if his literary output were worthy of serious consideration. A third of this volume is devoted to the professor’s minute and scholarly reconstruction of how The Yage Letters came to be published in its present form (we learn, for example, that one part of it was first published by the no doubt aptly named Fuck You Press), which is as if all the resources of biblical scholarship were utilized to explicate the provenance and deeper meaning of The Wind in the Willows. In an age of academic hyper-inflation, there is, it seems, no subject that does not find its scholar.”

(Antony Daniels, “All Bark, No Bite,” The New Criterion, November 2006, p. 77)

If this is funny, what exactly is the joke? Is it the reviewer’s blindness to the unarguable truth that William Burroughs is “worthy of serious consideration”? Or is it the assumption that textual scholarship is self-evidently the highest measure of taking a writer seriously, and so must be reserved for only those truly worthy of a place in the academy?

The question of status is a paradox. On the one hand, at this Symposium, William Burroughs is allowed to rub shoulders with the likes of Shakespeare, Malory, Jonson, and Jane Austen. On the other hand, within the Burroughs community, there is in fact a definite residue of ambivalence about bringing into such a respectable and venerable fold as textual studies a writer valued precisely for his status as an iconoclastic outsider, a black sheep in the literary flock. So, paradoxically, it’s some of his friends, as well as Burroughs’ enemies, who worry about the institutional respectability conferred by scholarly editing.

Image of Burroughs archive at NYPLThis paradox brings me to another, which is to do with that other key imprimatur of literary value — a place in the archive. Here, I’m thinking specifically of the acquisition, just over a year ago by the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, of what is by far the largest and most important collection of Burroughs’ manuscripts, papers, and assorted material. The Berg’s acquisition would seem to contradict quite flatly the derisory tone of my reviewing nemesis, and of course, given the choice, I’m inclined to defer to the authority of the former. But the custodians of the archive exercise an interesting kind of authority, since it is necessarily driven by professional and economic self-interest. That’s to say, prestige in this context is always a conveniently two-way street.

For the housing of Burroughs’ archive in the Berg confers value on his literary worth, but at the same time the Berg claims an increase in its own value as a consequence. This at least is the opinion of Dr. Paul LeClerc, President and Chief Executive Officer of the New York Public Library, who claimed that: “Burroughs’ archive is a fantastic addition to the Berg Collection and solidifies the New York Public Library’s position as the world’s leading center for the study of Beat literature”. And yet, in the very same press release, the Curator of the Berg, Isaac Gewirtz, hails the acquisition of Burroughs as a “fiercely sinister and corrosive” figure. Now, since he presumably doesn’t anticipate that Burroughs’ papers will corrode the other manuscripts he curates, there is an inescapable contradiction here in one of the guardians of the academy’s holy relics championing a toxic heretic — notorious not only for being a homosexual heroin addict who shot his wife playing a drunken game of William Tell, but also for making his books by cutting up his writing with a pair of scissors.

Unsurprisingly, my interest in the Berg’s acquisition of Burroughs’ papers is directly related to my past and, I hope, future, as a Burroughs scholar — and in the second half of this talk I am going to focus on the relationship between Burroughs’ manuscript history and the papers now held in the Berg. But before that I want to do two things: firstly, to sketch the outlines of a forthcoming project which is to explore what I call “the politics of the archive” — and, secondly, to return to the specifics of the Berg Collection by discussing the catalogue of Burroughs literary archive produced by the agent for its sale.

The politics of the archive sounds, and is meant to be, a very broad umbrella term, and it came to me when my thoughts began to shift from producing the next new edition to thinking about the very processes by which such editions become — or indeed do not become — possible in the first place.

So naturally, one of the key issues is ownership — the ways in which manuscript collections pass between various hands, from the author’s to agents to private collectors to those of university or public body curators.

Ownership in turn has clear implications for access — what constraints and limits are placed, whether by private collectors or institutions, under what conditions materials can be viewed, when and by whom. So access also includes the construction of collections, their housing, their cataloguing, and policies for managing the archive, whether local ones peculiar to a specific institution or those laid down by professional bodies.

Then there’s the issue of use — of what materials can be cited or published, and so on.

And finally, there are a whole series of issues related to how the constraints placed on access to and use of archival material impact on scholarship and, thereby, on a writer’s reception. This concerns not only the production of specific scholarly editions, but the interpretation of a writer’s entire literary history, which is necessarily determined by what texts are actually available at any given time. So the stakes are potentially very high for both those who house archives and those who want access to them.

And in this context, there arises what might be called a “diplomatics of the archive” — by which I mean the extreme tact with which we have to work — and speak about our work — in order to keep the archival doors open to us. Being even more necessary in print than in speech, this diplomacy entails, for example, the editing of the present paper for publication…

My sense — and here I am genuinely interested to hear from others — is that any scholar engaged in textual studies must be familiar with these issues, but that there’s been no broad study of the ways in which the archive operates. In the absence of such a study, it’s hard to contextualise one’s own experience, and I for one have no clear idea if the problems I’ve encountered are particular to me, or if the relationship between Burroughs’ archives and textual scholarship is not a special case but a commonplace.

Literary Status and Archival Ownership

Well, before turning to Burroughs’ textual history, I want to highlight two related issues arising from this — the sale catalogue of the Burroughs literary archive — a beautiful production put together and written by Ken Lopez, a noted rare book and manuscript dealer.

The two issues concern the relationship of literary status to archival ownership. As Lopez observes, up until twenty to thirty years ago the Beat writers — loosely including Burroughs — were “viewed with disdain by the literary and academic establishment”: “They were outsiders, and deliberately so, and the literary establishment returned the favor by treating them as such. As so often happens, private collectors became the repository for these works.” (Ken Lopez, William S. Burroughs Literary Archive, 2005, p. 6)

In recent years, all that has changed, however, and the archives of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and now William Burroughs are, as Lopez notes, “among the most highly valued (in both dollar figures and sheer prestige)” by the very same academy that once shunned their work (19).

Book coverThe other half of the story, which Lopez goes on to discuss, is the access — or rather, denial of access — during the time the Burroughs archive remained in private hands. In this case, since the archive was assembled in 1973, sold first to the Swiss-based dealer, Richard Aaron, and then in the early 1980s to an American owner, that means a thirty-three year period up until the sale last March. So that has been the situation for the whole of my professional life.

As Lopez puts it, “because the Burroughs archive has been in private hands all these years and not in a research institution, that access has been extremely limited. Various scholars have vilified Aaron and the others in print, labelling them as ‘uncooperative’. In reality, a private home is not a good place for conducting scholarly research […] and these complaints have been essentially misguided, confusing an awareness of an archive with an innate right of access to it.” (6)

I’ve quoted Lopez at length to show two things going on at once. Most obviously, there’s this claim that us scholars, just because we want to put the materials to use, delude ourselves if we think we have any rights to access — the other side of which is that millionaire collectors have a perfect right to prevent access solely by virtue of their bank accounts. Reading between the lines, you might realize that what’s going on here is actually a coded defence of the then-owner of the Burroughs archive, whose sale Lopez was negotiating. Now, if this cat could talk, what tales he could tell — but, for reasons of professional self-interest, I simply can’t. This is what I mean by the diplomatics of the archive…

The second issue raised by Lopez is, in a material sense, the most intriguing and, quite possibly, unique to William Burroughs as a writer. He says:

“As rich as Burroughs’ novels are […] they pale beside the archive, which is his actual work. As spinoffs or byproducts of that work, the books themselves seem almost desiccated in comparison to the main body of his work — this archive — like tree branches broken off of the main living, growing trunk.” (4)

Lopez could hardly up the ante any further: the archive not only as a vital secondary resource, a mother lode of raw materials that can be picked over to underpin the production of new texts and new understandings, but itself, as a totality, the Real Thing, the true creative product and therefore the true object of study and interpretation.

This is by no means snake oil or just sales talk, since Lopez bases his claim on a statement made by Burroughs that has been often quoted by his critics:

“In a sense,” Burroughs once said, “all my books are one book. It’s just a continuous book” (cited in Lopez, 3).

In claiming that the literary archive is this “one book,” Lopez builds on a central understanding about Burroughs’ working methods — namely, the constant overlap and interrelation of his manuscripts — that in turn accounts for the extraordinarily dense intertextuality of his writing. And equally important is the remarkable way in which, as a product of his working methods, the material history of Burroughs’ texts provides precise analogues for his central thematics.

Since this is the point I’m going to end on, I’ll briefly clarify what I mean. The most visible formal feature of Burroughs’ writing from Naked Lunch onwards is his version of a collage aesthetic, in which all the text’s units — whether narrative episodes or brief verbal fragments — coexist in dynamic and mobile juxtaposition. The result is a kind of haphazard montage that replaces the linear unities of realist, narrative temporality with a kaleidoscopic geography in which past and future, identities and places, dissolve and run together. To Burroughs, his texts were literally experiments in a kind of time travel and exploration of unmapped realities generated through textual recombinations.

If this striking formal feature embodies the central thematic of Burroughs’ writing — disrupting fixed and stable notions of reality — then both are determined by the way in which he embraced random factors to assemble his texts from manuscript fragments. Lopez’s claim for the archive plausibly identifies individual books as partial materializations of this larger ongoing project. As I say, I’ll come back to this idea in my conclusion.

“Definitive” Editions

Now, as a way into a brief account of my exploration of Burroughs’ early literary history, I want to pick up on another, related claim made by Lopez, concerning textual scholarship. Discussing Burroughs’ most famous novel, he writes:

“No one has seen the ‘definitive’ Naked Lunch — despite the recent publication of something called Naked Lunch: The Restored Text — because no one has had access to the complete Burroughs papers that were sealed over 30 years ago.” (3)

Putting these two claims together forms a natural bridge to my own work as a textual scholar, in which I have focused on the three novels that Burroughs wrote before Naked Lunch — a title that, for several years, he actually applied to this early trilogy. In what follows, I want to go into the broad outlines of the textual and publishing history of these three novels in order to think about both the “definitive” edition and its relation to the archive.

Book CoverI begin with the term “definitive” in order to make a very simple point concerning the first and third of these early novels. The first of my re-edited editions had “definitive” in its subtitle — Junky: the Definitive Text of ‘Junk’ — while the second — The Yage Letters Redux — is trumpeted as such on the publisher’s web site. Since I was unhappy about Viking Penguin’s use of the term first time around, for the second book, I directly requested that it be avoided — especially since my introduction explicitly denied that “the re-edited text is now final and definitive”: “This is because the paradox true of all texts — that they are both fixed and flexible, defined in one form and context only to be redefined in another — is exactly what the historical record reveals so powerfully. Redux is part of that historical process, not its perfect conclusion” (xliv).

Needless to say, if you visit the web site of City Lights Books, you will find the “D” word is still up there today. And that’s because commercial publishers aren’t interested in editing theory; they’re interested in selling books. (Likewise, for their edition of Naked Lunch, Grauerholz and Miles were careful to avoid the term — although you might say that “restored” begs other questions — while the jacket blurb insisted on identifying the text as “the definitive version”.) The active agency of publishers is an important issue so far as William Burroughs is concerned, especially early on in his career — and is a story written in miniature in the very title of his first novel.

In 1950, he titled his manuscript “Junk”; in 1953 it was published as Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict; in 1977 the “unexpurgated and complete” edition was published under the title Junky. Although the only title Burroughs ever wanted was the first — “Junk” — I lost the argument with Penguin’s marketing department, and the best I could do was to smuggle this into its subtitle. Unhappily, the “D” word rather undercut the point I wanted to make, which is why for The Yage Letters Redux, a text whose history is even more chequered and contingent, I laboured the point in the Editor’s Introduction.

My larger case is twofold. Firstly, that while Lopez’s claim about Burroughs’ “one book” oeuvre has some truth to it, on the one hand, it risks dehistoricizing his work, and on the other, the opposite is equally true — namely that each of Burroughs’ texts is radically plural, a cut-up of manuscripts, a composite of several distinct material histories, in which contingent factors, including the decisions of publishers, played a decisive role in determining content as well as title. And secondly, I want to argue for the importance of recognising this history because, as I’ve already suggested, it had a direct impact on both the thematics and methods of Burroughs’ writing.

The Textual History of Burroughs’ Early Novels

Now to clarify all this, I want to run through the manuscript and publishing history of this trilogy of short novels — whose re-editing I’m hoping to complete next year, now with the benefit of access to the Berg Collection.

To begin at the beginning, whereas the fact of Naked Lunch‘s complex genetic history is well known — albeit most often in the form of inaccurate myths — the first three novels Burroughs wrote have long been seen as straightforward, conventional autobiographical narratives.

Certainly, the compositional history seems to suggest a simple, linear sequence, as each text fictionalised a period of Burroughs’ recent experience one after another, during a four year period in which he lived in Mexico City:

Jan-Dec 1950 Summer 1951 Spring 1952
Writes “Junk” Travels to S.A. Begins “Queer”
Summer 1952 Jan-July 1953 Summer 1953
Completes “Junk” Travels to S.A. Writes “Yage”

The apparent tight linearity of this trilogy is, however, destabilized by the publication history, which scrambled the chronological order of its writing across four decades:

Written 1950-52 Written 1952 Written 1953
Junkie Queer Yage Letters
Published 1953 Published 1985 Published 1963

But there’s more to it than that, as we’ll see if we go through the manuscripts individually.

When it was published in 1953, Junkie looked, crudely, like this —

America Mexico

— where I’ve used dark blue to represent the narrative set in America, and purple for the narrative set in Mexico.

But the manuscript of “Junk” he finished in 1950 had almost none of this second narrative:


Since Burroughs scholars believed his original manuscript was lost, what happened wasn’t clear. My research established that this manuscript was in fact held at Columbia, while the missing material turned up among the Ginsberg papers at Stanford. Why it was added and where it came from tell us a good deal about the decisive part played by Burroughs’ publishers in determining the integrity of his texts.

For the reason Burroughs added a new final quarter to “Junk” — about 14,000 words, all set in Mexico — was because, in summer 1952, his publishers, Ace Books, told him to make it longer. And most of this material he cannibalized from the opening chapters of the new novel he had started writing, but which Ace did not want to publish, namely, Queer. Since this was written in the 3rd person, whereas “Junk” used the 1st, this required a good deal of rewriting but, since he was working to order and in haste, all sorts of small but significant contradictions crept in.

Although I was quite confident I had all I needed, to complete the editing of Junky: The Definitive Text of “Junk” properly required access to the only complete manuscript of “Queer” — but in 2003 that remained in private hands, so the new edition was published without it.

Now, if we turn to “Queer”: with its first two chapters removed to make up the last sections of Junkie, when a manuscript surfaced in 1984 — having been presumed lost for 30 years — its publishers, Viking, were faced with an even worse problem than Ace Books, since Burroughs never finished the manuscript and all that was left was a fragment too short to even call a novella. What to do? Well, same problem, same solution. So they raided an unused manuscript to make a new ending, which was duly added on for the publication of Queer in 1985 as an Epilogue. This, combined with a long Introduction Burroughs was required to write, added up to a full quarter of the whole book:

“Queer” (1952)

Mexico South America

Queer (1985)

Intro Mexico South America Mex. Return

Even though this material is in the 1st person, not the 3rd, the new ending, entitled “Mexico City Return,” seemed to follow on perfectly from the end of “Queer”. Where that had Burroughs’ fictional alter-ego travelling from Mexico to South America, this has him travelling back from South America to Mexico. Since both are set in late summer, the gap in time between them seems a few weeks at most.

However, if we go back to the chronology of composition, there’s a striking parallel between summer 1951 and summer 1953. Sure enough, it turns out that the actual time gap was not two weeks but two years, because this material was written in 1953 to describe not Burroughs’ first trip to South America and back, but his second.

Which brings us to the next issue: where this epilogue came from. It turns out that it came from the third manuscript in Burroughs’ trilogy, “Yage,” which narrated his 1953 trip to South America. In fact, this was the ending of that original manuscript, but seems to have become separated from it when the rest of the manuscript was lost in the mid-’50s.

This in turn meant that, when “Yage” was published in 1963, the 1953 material was now so short it had to be combined with miscellaneous other letters and texts written in the 1960s.

“Yage” Ms. (1953)

Mex South America Mexico

The Yage Letters (1963)

In Search of Yagé (1953) Seven Years Later (1960)
WSB & AG Letters
Epilogue (1963)
AG Note
WSB Cut-Up

Needless to say, as I was working on the new edition of The Yage Letters, I was aware that the Burroughs archive contained a manuscript that might possibly have been this long lost original from 1953. But, since access was not forthcoming — and couldn’t have been anticipated in the near future — the edition went ahead without it.

Now, to end with two final points. Firstly, back in late 1953, with Junkie published but no prospects for either “Queer” or “Yage,” Burroughs sketched in his notebook — due to be published later this year — a completely different arrangement of all the material he had written over the past two years. He thought of making a composite text out of six sections of material (including two short pieces which would have been written from scratch) that overlapped the end of Junky, all of “Queer,” and all of “Yage.”

Mexican Composite Manuscript

“Queer” New     “Yage” “Mex City Return”
Start of “Queer”
End of Junkie
1st S.A. Trip Mex Return 2nd S.A. Trip Mex Return

The result would have been to make one book based on Burroughs’ two journeys from Mexico to South America and back. If this had been published as the sequel to Junkie, then neither Queer nor The Yage Letters would have ever appeared.

But if this one book had come about, the result would have been a single, entirely coherent, linear narrative. It would therefore have contradicted the evolving thematic focus of these manuscripts and so undone Burroughs’ early steps towards his trademark collage aesthetic in which times, places, and identities escape their fixed location. The thematic direction of Burroughs’ writing at this point is summed up by his visionary, yagé-fuelled account of the “Composite City” that concluded “Yage” as published — a topographic fantasy space where “the unknown past and the emergent future meet” (Yage, 53) — and by the description of Mexico City that concluded Queer as published, in which the city is envisioned as “a terminal of space-time travel” (Queer, 131).

Image of BurroughsAnd this is why I think it’s hard to see Burroughs’ books as broken branches fallen from the tree of his archive.

For as actually published, Queer and The Yage Letters are radically composite works, each a mix of manuscripts put together only by a series of contingent histories: the end of Burroughs’ first novel had been lifted from the beginning of his second, while the ending of his second novel was taken from the end of his third, and of course since these cannibalizations took place over four decades and the novels were published out of sequence, the chronology of Burroughs’ potentially straightforward autobiographical narrative was, in effect, cut up.

The material contingencies of publication therefore modelled the very disruption of temporality that would inspire Burroughs to methodically cut up his manuscripts to make composite texts, and to speak of moving out of Time and into Space. He came to recognise this only in retrospect, at the time of assembling Naked Lunch — another haphazard, piecemeal composite production — but it confirmed the direction of his work, and his attitude towards publication, from then onwards.

Therefore, the one thing that the archive, as a work in itself, necessarily lacks, is the determining effect on Burroughs’ writing of the simple but material fact of publication. Hence the importance of representing, rather than repressing, the contingent manuscript histories of Burroughs’ novels through scholarly editions — always assuming that his literary output is indeed worthy of serious consideration…

Oliver Harris is the author of William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination, editor of Burroughs’ letters, Junky: The Definitive Text of “Junk”, and most recently Yage Redux. Published by RealityStudio on 11 June 2007. Reproduced with the very kind permission of Oliver Harris. Text © Oliver Harris, 2007.

3 thoughts on “Cutting up the Archive: William Burroughs and the Composite Text

  1. i’ve aaid it before, this essay makes me say it again – i will read anything this man has to say about Burroughs.

    TOP HOLE! :)

  2. The Burroughs/Gysin archive now in NYPL was not originally sold to Richard Aaron. Richard was a rare book collector and dealer who sold the original archive, which I described, to Roberto Altman, a collector living in Vaduz, on behalf or Burroughs and Gysin. He never owned it. Altman had originally intended to create a study centre in Vaduz for this and other contemporary archives but unfortunately the financing fell through and the collection remained in storage until the early eighties when it was sold by Altman to Robert Jackson in Cleveland, Ohio. It was Jackson who finally sold it to NYPL.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *