Thoughts on the Burroughs Archive


A Trip to the New York Public Library

by Thom Robinson

In October 2010 I travelled from the UK to spend a week among the contents of the Burroughs Archive in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library. The privilege of gaining access to this material was enabled by the receipt of academic funding in support of my PhD thesis in process, “‘Bound to the Past’: Nostalgia in the Work of William S. Burroughs.” Compiled in 1973, the archive’s holdings are vast, suggesting the County Clerk’s offices in Naked Lunch with a more efficient document retrieval system. Alongside unpublished drafts and variant manuscripts, the intrepid Burroughs scholar can explore photographs, dream diaries, scrapbooks and a wealth of correspondence. Though ostensibly I was conducting research into the theme of nostalgia in Burroughs’ work, the archive’s range of contents ensured that diversions into other areas proved irresistible. This meant that, with five days in which to view as much of the archive as possible, I struggled to compromise between material of use for my thesis and that most tempting to a fan’s curiosity. The latter impulse led me towards files of photographs, no doubt enticed by the hope of snatching glimpses of Burroughs’ private life, unguarded and candid shots taken without the weight of literary legacy weighing heavily on the lens. Yet, el hombre invisible to the end, Burroughs’ “private life” seemed so comprehensively absent within the archive that personal documents such as photographs or letters acted not as reflections of a life outside Burroughs’ work but as additional components of the work itself. 

Thom Robinson, Berg Reading Room at the New York Public Library, 2010As a case in point, many of the archive’s photographs comprised Burroughs’ obsessive documentation of street scenes, shots presumably taken in order to later be recycled into prose. A series of photographs taken in late 1960s London brought to mind the hundreds of images of London doorways which Stanley Kubrick reportedly compiled in search of the ideal “hooker doorway” to film for Eyes Wide Shut, suggesting Burroughs’ photographic process to be akin to location shooting for a movie. Burroughs’ images of London offered an array of disparate sights distinguished at first by their shared anonymity: a motorcycle parked by a telephone box, the premises of a funeral director, a red London bus. Attempting to place these everyday images within the context of the author’s work, I floundered before finding another shot which provided the unifying thread running throughout the series, a close-up of a doorway with the street number 23. Returning to the previous images, I saw that all were marked by combinations of the digits in which Burroughs found recurring magical significance, the motorcycle’s model number being 223, the funeral director residing at number 239, and the London bus travelling on route 253. Individually, these sights seemed singularly uninspiring, and it was jarring to find Burroughs discerning magical significance in the mundane detritus of the Rolling Stones’ “sleepy London town.” Yet Burroughs’ creative experiments throughout the 1960s seem to have invested the everyday with the quality of the fantastical, as though encouraging the world around him to correspond as closely as possible to the landscapes of his texts. The ensuing process of literary alchemy ensures that the London period, invariably characterized by Burroughs’ biographers as isolated and unhappy, emerges in the archive suffused with black and white magic. 

A similar mix of the mystical and banal came with a newspaper clipping which Burroughs had pasted into one of his typescripts, the horoscope section from the June 21 1972 edition of The Sun. Given The Sun‘s longstanding reputation as Britain’s most scurrilous tabloid, it’s hard to imagine how Burroughs came across the horoscope in the first place (though one assumes that “cutting word and image lines” would somehow be involved). The horoscope spotlights Burroughs’ own star sign, Aquarius, with the lower corner of the feature taken up by the gurning face of DJ Tony Blackburn, inane fixture of BBC broadcasting and The Sun‘s celebrity Aquarius of choice. The unlikely presence of the perennially bland Blackburn in the midst of the Burroughs Archive provided a peak of incongruity but, once I’d overcome this distracting detail, the significance which Burroughs found in the horoscope was abundantly clear. The Aquarius’ “Lucky Colour” was identified as blue (presumably the blue of Wilhelm Reich’s orgones which drips throughout Burroughs’ work), and the Aquarius’ “Lucky Number” (wait for it…), 23. Reading the rest of the horoscope through what I imagined to be Burroughs’ eyes, it was easy to find further significance reflected among the supposedly typical characteristics of the Aquarius:

IRRITATING HABITS: Talks too much and inclined to jump the gun.

LOVE: Finds it difficult to have a casual relationship; always gets so involved. Has a persuasive way with words and often gets committed without really intending to be.

DANGER DATES: September. Very embarrassing position during the early part of this month causes amusement to those around.

In reading the above, I couldn’t help but imagine my instinctive conclusions were the same as Burroughs’ when he chose to keep the clipping in question. The horoscope set off a chain of mental associations, encompassing the fatal consequences of Burroughs’ “jumping” of the gun in 1951, the “persuasive way with words” by which Lee attempts to seduce Allerton in Queer, and the fact that the death of Joan Vollmer occurred during “the early part” of September. 

Making such presumptuous assumptions regarding Burroughs’ motives became a mainstay of my time in the archive, the handling of Burroughs’ materials bringing delusions of grandeur in which I imagined myself as a receptacle for the unfiltered channelling of the author’s ideas. At times I thought of the bathetic words regarding the writing of Naked Lunch in “The Name is Burroughs” (“The more far-out sex pieces I was just writing for my own amusement. I would put them away in an old attic trunk and leave them for a distant boy to find . . .”). Taking on the mantle of Burroughs’ “distant boy,” I fondly imagined that connections could be forged across a 40-year distance through the shared handling of sheets of A4 paper. Hence, I found uncanny significance in the slightest of details, such as an unconscious slip of my fingers whilst typing up a phrase from a letter regarding The Wild Boys, substituting the word “whom” for my own name and transforming Burroughs’ observation “I do not know whom my ideal reader is” into an acknowledgement of “Thom my ideal reader” (my subconscious flattering itself on this occasion). 

But suffice to say, once immersed in the archive, every item I viewed seemed charged with mystical significance, no minutia too minor to be undeserving of hurried notes typed frantically onto my laptop. Though the Sun horoscope was a lesser entry in the labyrinth of the archive (and not actually a Burroughs text at all), once pasted into a Burroughs typescript the clipping was transformed into part of the Burroughs oeuvre in its own right. It certainly seemed at home among other items which hinted at Burroughs’ fascination with the magical, such as photographs of Burroughs’ photo collages arranged alongside books of Rimbaud and other talismanic objects, giving the impression of a ritualistic offering to the camera lens. Conversely, some series of photographs seemed more comical than cosmic, such as a night in St. Louis in December 1964 (during the writing of “St. Louis Return”) documented by the photographs Burroughs had taken of his hotel room television screen. Even here, a connection to Burroughs’ writing was apparent, the bulk of images being of a Western TV show, suggesting the desire to base a work on Western source material preoccupying Burroughs decades before the publication of The Place of Dead Roads. (Indeed, Burroughs’ Paris Review interview, conducted during this same stay in St. Louis, acknowledges Burroughs’ desire to base his “next book” on “the American West.”) One would assume that these TV screen photographs were intended as a character-finding exercise, similar to the role played by the images of adolescent boys which Burroughs pasted into his scrapbooks. In which case it’s too bad that, so far as I can tell, the television image captured in St. Louis of Batwoman‘s Catwoman sadly failed to manifest itself in Burroughs’ literary imagination (incongruity again).

Other items in the photo folders seemed an archivist’s nightmare, specifically “#1 Collage in #24 Parts,” the parts in question consisting of tiny strips cut from photographs, with each strip placed in an individual section in an A4 plastic wallet divided into 24 separate pouches. Following these strips of photographs were thin rectangles of wood around which sequences of these tiny fragments of images had been pasted, leaving no details discernible other than varying shades of grey. Another working method verging on the bizarre was represented by images of Burroughs with Ian Somerville and Mikey Portman in Tangier in 1964. Pictured at a desk with one of his own photo collages laid before him, Burroughs stares intently into a dream machine with a transistor radio held firmly to his ear. The practise of listening to radio static is one of many new enthusiasms recommended by Burroughs in his contemporaneous letters to Brion Gysin, all communicated with characteristic urgency. Amidst such purposeful solemnity, I was reassured to see Portman posing a mock stage whisper against Burroughs’ ear, as though attempting to distract the oblivious shaman from his serious task (a relief to know there was room for light relief amidst such intense conditions).

The frequent bursts of enthusiasm which sustained Burroughs’ 1960s experiments through these most arcane of avenues provided the salutary lesson that, what may seem earth-shattering in the close-up of present time, can seem less overwhelming from a distance. During my evenings in New York, I would read through the notes I had made in the library that day and find that passages which had seemed vital within the confines of the Berg reading room now seemed arid and detached, their mystical powers diluted. I began to wonder whether the most suitable means of exploring Burroughs’ unpublished materials was to remain within the reading room itself, willingly submitting to the contingencies of coincidence and chance which are inescapable in the attempt to gain a sense of the archive’s holdings in a short space of time. In retrospect, the irritating mistakes I made within the library, such as incorrect file requests or poor time management, seem wholly in keeping with this inevitable embrace of a chaotic and subjective process (or at least that’s my justification after arriving back in the UK realizing I’d completely forgotten to look at Burroughs’ letters to Ian Somerville).

Assessing the archive’s abundant evidence of Burroughs’ profligate productivity throughout the 1960s, present across a range of media, it’s easy to speculate that in the modern era Burroughs would be a doyen of the blogosphere, posting photo collages on Tumblr and issuing urgent missives on Twitter (the form of which seems ready-made for the brevity and insistence of the telegraphic phrases most familiar from the cut-ups: “Break through in grey room,” “Dead fingers in smoke”). Yet despite Burroughs’ egalitarian desire to share his techniques with others (The Third Mind‘s instruction, “Cut-ups are for everyone”), and his eagerness to see his ideas disseminated throughout the wider culture, a prevailing concern omnipresent throughout the archive’s letters signals more a practical consideration: money. Frequently Burroughs’ letters indicate the degree of resourcefulness required to ensure that as much of his work made it into print as possible, and this pragmatism and fiscal caution suggest Burroughs would have been unwilling or unable to risk handing his work away for free. Yet how else to commercially house the unwieldiness of the archive’s holdings and do justice to the sheer wealth of creative obsessions Burroughs had from the initial development of the cut-ups through to the early 1970s? At different points in the Berg’s correspondence, Burroughs can be found extolling the virtues of cut-ups, photo collages, the dream machine, listening to radio static, orienteering oneself around the streets of a city by walking on “color association lines,” arranging textual layouts in grids, in columns, in different coloured ink. By the points at which Burroughs focuses his attentions on devising a color alphabet or creating a calendar with ten months in a year, it is clear that the attempt to write “straight” narrative of the kind with which Burroughs struggled in the mid-1950s has long since been abandoned.

As a result, the most lasting effect of a week spent in the archive has been to appreciate how little the comparative orderliness of Burroughs’ published works bears in relation to the reams of fragments, notes, and typo-ridden transcripts which went into their construction. Sustained exposure to the author’s raw materials has encouraged me to view Burroughs’ published works as a compromised dilution of a true aesthetic, only housed tenuously as “novels” to best meet the demands of the marketplace. In this respect, perhaps the vastness of the archive provides the most “authentic” representation of a decidedly unwieldy oeuvre. A fitting description of this strange state of affairs can be found within the archive itself in a Burroughs letter of 1966 where the author notes, “Most of what I have found out cannot be put in words and has derived from actual handling of the material . . hours of work on the recorders, scrap books, etcetera.” As increasing numbers of researchers access the archive, no doubt each will enter with different priorities and (after “actual handling of the material”) return with different conclusions. It will be fascinating to see the results. Rather than a monument set in stone, the Burroughs Archive seems a “work in progress,” “stir[ring] with a writhing furtive life” and subject to expanding richness in collaboration with future generations.

Written by Thom Robinson and published by RealityStudio on 7 February 2011.

8 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Burroughs Archive

  1. well done. muy interesting. i envy your time with the artifacts and appreciate
    your observations, especially the correlation to magic, possession. but now you have me wondering about that correspondence with ian somerville, who along with brion were his sorcerer collaborators. radio static…fade out mambo music…

  2. With respect to William S. Burroughs and ‘nostalgia,’ Thom’s excellent report takes me back to 1973-74, after I had received a copy of “A Descriptive Catalog of the William S. Burroughs Archive” – London: Covent Garden Press.

    I spent months of study with this catalog, enchanted with many of the photographs reproduced and intrigued with all of the texts.

    Thom’s notes on the horoscope from THE SUN, June 21 1972, pasted into a typescript are charming, and serve as a fine example of the rather high caliber of the uncanny which inhabits the archive.

    All the best with the thesis, Thom.

  3. Nice piece. I wonder if there’s maybe a “not” missing from the following?

    “Given The Sun‘s longstanding reputation as Britain’s most scurrilous tabloid, it’s hard to imagine how Burroughs came across the horoscope in the first place…”

    The wikipedia entry for Murdoch’s rag includes this:

    “The tabloid Sun first published on 17 November 1969, with a front page headlined “HORSE DOPE SENSATION”…”

  4. Excellent article. Your concise points made me rethink Burroughs’ work too. It also made me want to see this archive; I presume you have to have a letter from a university to get in? Is there anyway a guy like me who is merely an enthusiast could spend a couple of days looking through some of it?

    Also inspiring to learn more about the different methods Mr B used to generate his material; I am reinspired to try some similar approaches in my own humble efforts to write stories…

  5. The copy of The Sun was most probably left my Bill’s live in boyfriend Johnny Brady. Johnny read the Sun.

  6. surprised recognition … secret of fascination … I envy you your visit, Thom. Nothing superstitious about Burroughs..only interstitious.

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