Burroughs: The U.S. Drag and the Publication of Naked Lunch

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A couple of weekends ago, I listened to a recent episode of This American Life on the writer William Burroughs. For this episode, Ira Glass briefly expressed his ambivalent feeling towards Burroughs’ work, before handing over to a recording which first aired last February on BBC Radio 4. Produced by Colin McNulty, and presented by Iggy Pop, the radio story charted the course of Burroughs’ life according to a narrative structure with which Burroughs would have approved: with frequent asides, moving back and forth in the chronology, and making use of a form of the cut-up technique, which saw snatches of Burroughs’ own readings of his work layered atop one another; words from some of his friends and lovers, including James Grauerholz, his late-career manager and subsequently literary executor of the Burroughs estate; and interviews with artists who continue to engage with his legacy, including the author Will Self and the filmmaker John Waters.

The broadcast of the story on the BBC last year and its recent reemergence, for the sake of a wider audience, on This American Life served to bookend Burroughs’ centenary year: he was born 5 February, 1914, dying at the age of eighty-three in 1997. Ira Glass and This American Life, Iggy Pop, Burroughs: these are a few of my favourite things, and the radio story was as insightful as it was informative and engaging. But all things cannot be accomplished in an hour, and beyond the fragmented readings of text, the focus was on Burroughs’ biography – with time spent in particular dwelling on his shooting of his wife, Joan Vollmer, in Mexico City in 1951. The shooting to death of Vollmer – which some regard as murder, but for which Burroughs, though convicted of manslaughter, escaped a prison sentence – was pivotal for Burroughs life and art, and it inevitably shapes many of the judgements made about him.

Yet Burroughs’ personal biography – his drug use, his shooting of Vollmer, his friendship with the Beats, his homosexual relationships, his acquaintance with Scientology – is of such vivid interest that his creative output is routinely masked or relegated to the shadows. More, owing to their defining relationship with the counterculture of the 1960s, and with the punk movement that followed, Burroughs and the Beats are often discovered in adolescence, and cast indefinitely as juvenile in a way which proscribes serious engagement with their innovative uses of language.

I thought it was worth looking in more detail at the creation and publication of Burroughs’ seminal work, Naked Lunch; and at one of my favourite passages from that novel. My interest in Burroughs was one of my earliest entwinements with literature. I first embraced music around 1999, when I was thirteen. Tupac was the first artist I loved; and as I moved beyond rap, I began listening first to The Smashing Pumpkins, then to artists including Björk and Van Morrison. Via this latter connection, I began reading the music criticism of Lester Bangs, and this opened up various avenues: to the Velvet Underground, The Stooges, Patti Smith and beyond; but also to two branches of literature: the Russian classics, and the Beats.

I remain a big fan of Tupac, and Björk and Van Morrison remain my favourite music artists; but while these and Russian literature have been foundational to my adulthood, my interest in the Beats waned with age. Burroughs was, however, loosely affiliated, always my preferred member of the group. Beyond the language of his texts I was interested in his experimental methods of composition, in his artworks, and I read voraciously his collected interviews.

I have quoted below my favourite passage from Naked Lunch. It is, rather, a sequence of connected passages, from early in Burroughs’ novel. The explicit gesture from the specific, from the local and the locale, to the universal is typical of Burroughs. There is the repetition of three paragraphs beginning ‘And’, climaxing in the rich flow of ‘And the U.S. drag closes around us like no other drag in the world, worse than the Andes, high mountain towns, cold wind down from postcard mountains, thin air like death in the throat’. Burroughs can evoke the atmosphere and the physical presence of a place in the pattern of language of a few words; but more than this he has the power of conjuring more than place: beyond the mundane, the commonplace, and the repetition of suggestive details pertaining to a life on drugs, phrases in Burroughs open up sites of exploration.

The invocation of the ‘U.S. drag’ and its development possesses a curious mixture of movement and stasis. It is reminiscent of the unpublished fragment from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, ‘And so I lived in old Odessa…’; and shares too with the line from the Beat poet Gregory Corso, cited by Allen Ginsberg in his introduction to Corso’s collection Gasoline, ‘You, Mexico, you have no Chicago, no white-blonde moll’.

Corso was one of the artists who stayed at the ‘Beat Hotel’ – a sobriquet he provided – in Paris in the late 1950s. The place, at 9 rue Gît-le-Cœur in Paris’s Latin Quarter, scarcely warranted the appellation ‘hotel’, with occasional hot water and the bedding changed once a month at most. But it was here that Corso wrote his poem ‘Bomb’, with its text shaped in the form of a mushroom cloud; that Ginsberg began ‘Kaddish’; and that Burroughs finalised Naked Lunch. The material which went into the novel had been compiled over the course of nine years, in discontinuous sections and fragments under the working title ‘Interzone’. To passages of prose, Burroughs would add excerpts drawn from his correspondence.

In the spring of 1958, sections of the ‘Interzone’ manuscript were published in the Black Mountain Review and the Chicago Review. Burroughs was little known at this time. He had published only one novel, Junkie in 1953, and that under the pseudonym ‘William Lee’. Junkie had appeared bundled with another work, published by Ace Books – recognised solely for their cheap western and mystery paperbacks – in the ‘Ace Double’, ‘Two Books in One’, tête-bêche format, which saw two texts printed head-to-tail.

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The first edition of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, published by the Olympia Press in Paris in July 1959 as part of the Traveller’s Companion series, featured a purple and white dust cover over the familiar green of other Traveller’s Companion volumes.

Owing to his lack of renown, Burroughs had struggled to find a publisher for his prospective novel, which despite the best efforts of Ginsberg had been turned down by Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights. The publication of the excerpts in the Black Mountain Review and Chicago Review had led to allegations of obscenity in the United States; but this served to bring Burroughs a small degree of publicity, and in Paris, he eventually agreed terms on a deal with Maurice Girodias and the Olympia Press.

To bring together parts of his manuscript into a continuous whole, Burroughs received the help of Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Typing, editing and arranging as a team first in Tangiers and then in Paris, this process would continue even once Ginsberg returned to New York. Meanwhile Burroughs continued to write up and insert new passages. When Girodias set a tight deadline for the submission of the manuscript and the turnaround of proofs, Burroughs began sending his work to the printer removed from the order which he had orchestrated with the aid of his companions. Thus an element of chance was added to the already convoluted process of arriving at a ‘finished’ text.

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Underneath the dust cover. William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, published by the Olympia Press, Paris, July 1959.

Naked Lunch was published in Paris by the Olympia Press in July 1959, as part of the Traveller’s Companion series. Burroughs would credit Kerouac with the name, stating ‘The title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork’; although for his part, Kerouac confided that the name had come from a misreading of one of his actual suggestions, ‘Naked Lust’. Burroughs soon signed a deal for publication in the United States with Barney Rosset of Grove Press – purportedly for an advance of $3,000. However, the novel would not appear in America until 1962.

In the aftermath of its U.S. publication, it was freed from a charge of obscenity in Los Angeles, but banned in Boston. At issue was the legal definition of obscenity following the landmark 1957 case, Roth v. United States. As a result of Roth v. United States – which pitted Samuel Roth, a publisher of forgeries and dirty books alongside serious literature, against the Supreme Court – obscene material was redefined so that it no longer had to simply deprave and corrupt: instead, ‘the dominant theme’ of a work had to appeal to the ‘prurient interest’, and depravity and corruption had to be its chief endeavour. Immediately following Roth v. United States, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg’s Howl won an obscenity charge in San Francisco; and in 1964 – thirty years after the novel was first published in France – Barney Rosset and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer achieved the same result in the Supreme Court.

In Los Angeles, the presiding judge had ruled that with regard to Naked Lunch, while ‘abundantly clear that the book, in almost every page, goes substantially beyond the customary limits of candor in its description and representation of nudity, sex, and excretion’, still ‘I cannot say that its predominant appeal is such or that it is matter which is utterly without redeeming social importance’. Thus he found Naked Lunch was ‘not obscene within the meaning of statute’.

The Grove Press edition of 1962, with prospectus.

In Boston there was a different outcome. ‘A Book Named Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs’ found itself the defendant in Boston Superior Court before Judge Eugene A. Hudson. The trial lasted from late 1964 through the first months of 1965, and despite prominent witnesses – including Norman Mailer, Ginsberg, and John Ciardi – testifying on behalf of the novel, it lost the case. Judge Hudson’s verdict declared that Burroughs, ‘under the guise of portraying the hallucinations of a drug addict, had ingeniously satisfied his personal whims and fantasies, and inserted in this book hard-core pornography’. However on 7 July, 1966, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court overturned Hudson’s decision, ruling – according to Roth v. United States – that Naked Lunch could not be considered obscene. The occasion marked the last major obscenity trial in American literature.

It was at the Beat Hotel in 1958, during the composition of Naked Lunch, that Burroughs met Brion Gysin. The artist introduced Burroughs to the cut-up technique which would define his output for the remainder of his life. From pasting together texts and images from differing contexts, cutting out and rearranging individual words, incorporating journalese with original literature, and splicing together audio, Burroughs saw the cut-up as a means of exposing the ideologies implicit in ordered narratives, while offering insights into the unknown. Burroughs stated, ‘I don’t think I had ever seen painting until I saw the painting of Brion Gysin’, and called Gysin ‘the only man that I’ve ever respected in my life’.

In the 1980s, living in Lawrence, Kansas, as Burroughs’ literature came to utilise his ‘fold-in’ variation upon the cut-up technique, he devised an artistic practise – reminiscent of the work of Niki de Saint Phalle – which at once probed the margins of painting while uneasily echoing the shooting of Vollmer. Burroughs would place cans of paint in front of surfaces – initially wood, but also sometimes canvas – and shoot at them, the marks left by the bullets introducing a sculptural element to this arbitrary, abstract art.

Into the Interior: a vast subdivision, antennae of television to the meaningless sky. In lifeproof houses they hover over the young, sop up a little of what they shut out. Only the young bring anything in, and they are not young very long. (Through the bars of East St. Louis lies the dead frontier, riverboat days.) Illinois and Missouri, miasma of mound-building peoples, groveling worship of the Food Source, cruel and ugly festivals, dead-end horror of the Centipede God reaches from Moundville to the lunar deserts of coastal Peru.

America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting.

And always cops: smooth college-trained state cops, practiced, apologetic patter, electronic eyes weigh your car and luggage, clothes and face; snarling big city dicks, soft-spoken country sheriffs with something black and menacing in old eyes color of a faded grey flannel shirt …

And always car trouble: in St. Louis traded the 1942 Studebaker in (it has a built-in engineering flaw like the Rube) on an old Packard limousine heated up and barely made Kansas City, and bought a Ford turned out to be an oil burner, packed it in on a Jeep we push too hard (they are no good for highway driving) – and burn something out inside, rattling around, went back to the old Ford V-8. Can’t beat that engine for getting there, oil burner or no.

And the U.S. drag closes around us like no other drag in the world, worse than the Andes, high mountain towns, cold wind down from postcard mountains, thin air like death in the throat, river towns of Ecuador, malaria grey as junk under black Stetson, muzzle loading shotguns, vultures pecking through the mud streets – and what hits you when you get off the Malmö Ferry (no juice tax on the ferry) in Sweden knocks all that cheap, tax free juice right out of you and brings you all the way down: averted eyes and the cemetery in the middle of town (every town in Sweden seems to be built around a cemetery), and nothing to do in the afternoon, not a bar not a movie and I blasted my last stick of Tangier tea and I said, “K.E. let’s get right back on that ferry.”

But there is no drag like U.S. drag. You can’t see it, you don’t know where it comes from. Take one of those cocktail lounges at the end of subdivision street – every block of houses has its own bar and drugstore and market and liquor store. You walk in and it hits you. But where does it come from? Not the bartender, not the customers, nor the cream-colored plastic rounding the bar stools, nor the dim neon. Not even the TV.

And our habits build up with the drag, like cocaine will build you up staying ahead of the C bring-down. And the junk was running low. So there we are in this no-horse town strictly from cough syrup. And vomited up the syrup and drove on and on, cold spring wind whistling through that old heap around our shivering, sick sweating bodies and the cold you always come down with when the junk runs out of you … On through the peeled landscape, dead armadillos in the road and vultures over the swamp and cypress stumps. Motels with beaverboard walls, gas heater, thin blankets.