- In the last decade of the twentieth century it seemed to some that a breakthrough was taking place in the
longstanding isolation of interpretive criticism and textual scholarship. It may be premature to speak "in
retrospect," but it doesn't appear that the theoretical turn taken by textual scholars, combined with the trumpeted
technological fix of hypertext editions, has really achieved disciplinary togetherness. Of the major
players who are synonymous with the effort to postmodernize the field of editing theory--D.C. Greetham, Peter L.
Shillingsburg, and Jerome J. McGann--only McGann has achieved genuine name-recognition outside the field itself, while
the jury remains out on the creation of satisfactory "postmodern" editions, electronic or otherwise.
- Within this general picture, the critical fate of William Burroughs--a figure paradoxically long central to
postmodern culture and yet only lately brought in from the outer limits of the literary canon--may be especially
illuminating. This is because Burroughs criticism has itself been highly paradoxical with respect to his literary
history, in the sense that critics have not significantly researched the historical processes of textual production or
reception, even though the production histories of Burroughs' books--or rather, certain potent genetic myths--have
decisively shaped his books' popular and critical reception. That Burroughs was himself responsible for peddling these
half-fictions about his fiction-making has not gone unnoticed, especially concerning Naked
but has itself been textualized as part of the writer's mystique. The upshot is that, as the Burroughs critical field
expanded, more and more interpretive work--often very impressive on its own terms--has come to rest on the same small
and unreliable scholarly base.
- This kind of research has been central to my own work (in William Burroughs and the Secret of
Fascination ), but the credit for bringing Burroughs' writing within the framework of
materialist criticism and textual theory must go to Carol Loranger, for a landmark essay that appeared in
Postmodern Culture in 1999. Focused on Naked Lunch, Loranger's essay makes two powerful
calls: one for "consistent textual, as opposed to interpretive, scrutiny" of Burroughs' work; the other for a
"postmodern edition" of his seminal novel, which would "necessarily be a hypertext edition" (24).
- Loranger's second call raises important theoretical and practical issues without actually attempting to resolve
them; as she puts it, her essay "should be taken as a series of first steps toward a postmodern edition of Naked
Lunch" (2). The conclusion of this essay returns to these issues briefly in the context of both the new
edition of Naked Lunch that actually did appear not long after ("The Restored Text" of 2003 by James
Grauerholz and Barry Miles) and the "final steps" I have myself taken towards an edition of another work by Burroughs.
The bulk of this essay details the materialist underpinnings to that edition, explored within a social text
theory framework that "denies the automatic priority traditionally given to authors' intentions, preferring
instead to regard textual creation and transmission as a collaborative, social act" (Greetham 9). In order to set up
these explorations and to establish both their necessity and importance, I want first to subject to scrutiny
Loranger's call for, and own practice of, textual scrutiny.
- Focusing on the relation between the text of Naked Lunch in its various editions and its
part-publication in the little magazine, Big Table, Loranger's case depends on two distinct claims. The
first is by Burroughs himself, about "having no precise memory of writing" the text, a claim that underwrites
Loranger's insistence that "authorial intent is antithetical to the very spirit of Naked Lunch" (2). She
doesn't hold the author's claims to non-authorship up to any material scrutiny, however, because her stated
aim is "not to contest" the "truth-value" of the text's genetic "mythology" (including "Burroughs' fabled passivity
during the production of the novel" ), only to "specify its function" (7). She can therefore sidestep not just
research into manuscript history but even use of the available biographical evidence (chiefly Burroughs' letters),
either of which might have rescued at least some of the facts behind the fable. Loranger's second claim is to be
making comparative analysis of the actual texts, but, despite its interpretive strength, her account turns out to be
inaccurate and incomplete even on its own terms. These failings bear down upon not only the practical rigor of her
observations--and therefore the factual record on which interpretation is based--but, more broadly, on the descriptive
opportunities opened up by social text theory.
- In terms of descriptive rigor, both Loranger's observations about how little the "narrative portion" of
Naked Lunch changed after the first edition--"the addition of two words" ("See Appendix") (5)--and her
comparative analysis of this text with the "Ten Episodes" published in Big Table, are marred by material
errors. In the most significant instances, she fails to observe that the Olympia
edition lacks not "two words" but over two-and-a-half thousand words, while in
"the market" section there are a series of footnotes, the longest of which (over
800 words) runs across nine consecutive pages. Only about a quarter of this latter material, so visibly prominent in
the first edition, ever became part of the narrative portion of Naked Lunch in later editions, the rest
appearing in the "Appendix." This last section is not, therefore, as Loranger claims, "an unrelated text, drawn into
the orbit of Naked Lunch by the threat of obscenity charges" (in 1962, for the Grove edition). The
significance of this point rests on the widely recognized effects of censorship in determining the appearance of
Burroughs' work throughout the 1950s and '60s, and on the need for an accurate record of where, and by what agency,
these effects occurred.
- Finally, while Loranger cites approvingly Shillingsburg's "post-electronic affirmation of the radical
non-equivalence of 'the work of art' with 'the linguistic text of it'" (1), her analysis all but passes over one of
the most valuable aspects of social text theory--namely, attention not only to the
text's words, its linguistic code, but to the materiality of bibliographic codes (physical features, from typeface to
layout) and what George Bornstein calls "contextual coding" (the text's location within a larger whole; see Frankel). In this light, we might
consider both the possibility that such codes carried over
from magazine to book publication, so affecting the production of Naked Lunch, and the hermeneutic
significance of those codes for an analysis of the magazine versions as texts in their own right--texts whose social
and cultural histories affected, indeed should be considered legitimate parts of, the reception of Burroughs'
- Recovering the original circumstances of publication is essential if Burroughs criticism is to undo what
amounts to the repression of his oeuvre's richly complex textual history.
Textual scholarship of this kind must become more rigorous because interpretive criticism inescapably depends
upon it. Even in the most determinedly interpretive criticism, there is no "degree zero" of materiality, and the
consequences of a false base can be dramatic. One of the reasons for
remaining suspicious of the solutions promised by hypertext editions, therefore, is that editing also depends upon
critical interpretation--is indeed itself an act of interpretation--so that what is most needed for both
criticism and for practical editing is an expanded material base informed by the rigorous scholarly application of the
full descriptive potentials opened up by social text theory. The theoretical model opens up
descriptive potentials by bringing new material objects within the frame of analysis (physical features of the text,
multiple states, etc.), as the basis for further critical interpretation.
- In what follows, I take up these potentials for materialist criticism and editing in relation to The Yage
Letters (1963), a text published four years after Naked Lunch (and to which Loranger makes passing
reference in her final paragraph). The fact that her comparison, in effect, inverts the genetic
relation between texts affirms once again that the value of this approach goes beyond analysis of individual works
to embrace the intertextual relations between them. In the case of Burroughs, whose texts are a manifest bricolage of
materials recycled across the oeuvre, such relations add up to a virtual limit-case, a nightmare of infinitely
open-ended intertextuality. A complete analysis, in other words, lies far beyond the horizon of this essay.
- For forty years The Yage Letters has been one of the most popular texts in the Burroughs oeuvre, a
short (18,000 word) and accessible introduction to his work. In the form of an epistolary narrative, the bulk of it
documents Burroughs' seven-month journey through the Amazonian jungles of Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru in 1953. This is
the exotic backdrop for satirical bulletins and ethnobotanical observations in the course of his quest to find the
fabled hallucinogen that gives the book its title (more correctly, written yagé and pronounced
"ya-hey"). Among other short pieces, the last quarter of the text features Ginsberg's "reply" to Burroughs, reporting
his own dramatic experiences with the same drug in the same region seven years later.
- Despite its popularity, The Yage Letters' critical reception is almost as thin and short as the
book itself. Jennie Skerl's thousand words in her 1985 study were the most detailed analysis until, in the last few
years, two critics working outside the Burroughs field (Mullins in 2002, Martinez in 2003) advanced strong thematic
readings that focus on sexuality and race. There are several reasons Burroughs critics have
generally ignored The Yage Letters. Firstly, there's the peculiar hybridity of its overall contents,
since it combines completely different types of writing composed by two authors across two decades: the long
first section, "In Search of Yage," ambiguously presented as authentic letters from Burroughs to Allen Ginsberg in
1953; "Seven Years Later," a shorter exchange of letters between Ginsberg and Burroughs in 1960; and "Epilogue," a third section comprising a brief
letter by Ginsberg from 1963 and a cut-up text by Burroughs, "I Am Dying, Meester?"
- Secondly, its place in Burroughs' literary history is paradoxically fluid: Mullins calls it his "third book"
(64), presumably because "In Search of Yage" was written after Junkie and Queer. But in the
chronology of publication, The Yage Letters (1963) follows Junkie (1953), Naked
Lunch (1959), Minutes to Go (1960), The Exterminator (1960), The Soft Machine
(1961), and The
Ticket that Exploded (1962), and so becomes his seventh book. The Yage Letters thereby actually
precedes the second book in Mullins's chronology, Queer (written in 1952 but not published until 1985), by over
twenty years, by which time Burroughs' long-abandoned manuscript had been re-edited to include as an epilogue
material originally written to complete "In Search of Yage"; this material ("Epilogue: Mexico City Return") was in fact added specifically in
order to satisfy the publishers' requirements for a longer text. The most visible of the
resulting confusions between manuscript and publishing chronology concerns the phrase that is always quoted in discussions of The Yage
Letters: "Yage may be the final fix." These were the last words of Junkie (128), published in summer 1953 as Burroughs traveled through South America in search of
yagé, and the inference seems obvious. However, the line dates
from July 1952, long before Burroughs thought of writing "Yage," and actually referred to Queer (which
describes his unsuccessful 1951 quest for the drug), although the line was not in that manuscript, as Campbell assumes
(132). In fact, the line was only added to Junkie at the last minute because Ace Books, which were then
considering publishing Queer as its sequel, wanted it there to link the two books. Whether or not the
drug proved to be Burroughs' "final fix," the impact of such contingent publishing circumstances suggests the urgent need to
un-fix critical assumptions about the "final" text.
- And thirdly, there's the indeterminate literary status of "In Search of Yage," three of whose "letters" are
actually signed by Burroughs' fictional persona, William Lee. The book's appearance therefore begs all
sorts of textual issues, only complicated by the fact that the text has been twice revised (editions in 1975 and 1988
adding important new material to the first section, among other smaller changes). Features that seem to have deterred
or confused interpretive criticism are, however, precisely those that make The Yage Letters ideally
suited to a social text approach.
- In 1985, Skerl claimed that the "mode of composition (actual letters), the collaborative editing and
publication, and the inclusion of later material" all make The Yage Letters "typical of Burroughs'
practice as a writer": "He refuses to conform to the convention of the final text produced by the individual artist"
(31). In broad terms, Skerl's incisive analysis still stands, and suggests the value of analyzing The Yage
Letters in the first place. A "socialized" approach, which views the text "as a collaborative, cultural force"
and recognizes "the work as having a career independent of the author" (Greetham 3, 55) is certainly consistent with
Burroughs' authorship of (and in) The Yage Letters. On the other hand, the static notion of the
"typical" text threatens to undo Skerl's own analysis by fixing and dehistoricizing the Burroughsian text. The
specificity of its multiple identities and engagements is, to borrow Nicholas Frankel's terms, a sign of the text's "continual and ongoing
subjection to the forces of historical change" (353)--including the
production of new editorial transformations. In the case of The Yage Letters, these forces of change
manifest a remarkably dynamic process of collaborative and contingent textual activity. This is not to say that the
kind of specific textual-historical research undertaken here can or should be the basis for larger claims about
materiality or agency. Rather, my aim is more local and limited because, as the shortcomings in this area of Burroughs
criticism make clear, the necessity and importance of such research have primarily to do with the factual record and
material base on which interpretation depends.
- In common with earlier criticism, the recent approaches to "In Search of Yage" are based on material
assumptions and on overlooking basic distinctions between the letter and literature. This is actually quite
surprising, since both Mullins and Martinez make comparative use of Burroughs' published
correspondence precisely to highlight differences between the texts of letters as they appear in "In Search of Yage"
and in The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1945-1959. In other words, their interest in local textual
differences ignores the generic distinction between the texts they are citing--enabling Martinez, in one place, to
refer to The Yage Letters while in fact quoting from The Letters (43). Biographers tend to
assume the documentary value of literary works--and "In Search of Yage" has been readily used in this way--but in
interpretive criticism of evident sophistication, it is odd to see such "transparent" readings of letters, however
they are presented.
- Although Skerl gives no detail to back it up, her implied skepticism--"the form of the narrative pretends to be
strictly factual--a seemingly unrevised series of letters" (32)--ought to have suggested the need for interpretations
either to build on manuscript research, or to avoid making the kind of specific claims that required it. This isn't
the place to document the complex manuscript history of "In Search of Yage"--it's given in detail in the new edition
itself--but suffice to say it reveals that the 1953 "letters" were, in almost all cases, fabricated in ways unimagined
by Burroughs' critics. The most striking feature of the work by Mullins and Martinez, however, is that they make
direct and detailed claims not about the text's manuscript genealogy but about its editorial history. These
claims are made without any supporting material context, and yet they are presented confidently as evidence to ground
and support (in Mullins' case, otherwise illuminating and compelling) interpretation.
- Interestingly, each critic is concerned to demonstrate that "In Search of Yage" was subject to deliberate acts
of self-censorship that removed the same racially sensitive material from Burroughs' original letters, Mullins
assuming that Burroughs "edited out" (77) this section because of its "offensiveness" (65), Martinez claiming that it
was "edited for publication by Lawrence Ferlinghetti" (64), adding in a footnote, "the letters edited by Ferlinghetti
were 'cleaned-up' for publication, omitting several passages which the publisher must have felt were racist or
offensive. For example, Ferlinghetti strikes the frequent use of the word 'nigger,' substituting 'Nigra' or omitting
the references altogether" (323). Whether aimed at author or editor, these are serious charges, and they raise highly
relevant questions about censorship; they also beg questions about authorship and agency and about the processes
of textual production, transmission, and reception.
- My aim in what follows is to settle the question of authorship (or perhaps more accurately, un-settle
it) within the larger context of the text's full publishing history. Shifting the latter from the
bibliographic margins to the interpretive centre shows the value of material criticism not just for resolving
particular interpretive disputes (whodunnit--Burroughs or Ferlinghetti?), or even for generating new readings of the
text, but for recognizing new objects of critical analysis--objects useful for editors and critics alike.
- If I focus on Burroughs' "In Search of Yage," deal with his later material more briefly, and pass over the Ginsberg texts, I do so
because the publishing history of this section is the most richly complicated. Across the three editions published in 1963, 1975, and 1988, "In
Search of Yage" exists in book form in three versions (see Table 1). But its prehistory also involves the
appearance of its material published separately in four different little magazines (see Table 2). And so, before describing how in 1963 Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights came to publish this text within
The Yage Letters as a whole, I reconstruct the history of these magazine part-publications in order to recover their reception
(their bibliographic, social, and cultural histories) and then, more surprisingly, in order to reveal their active role in
the production of Burroughs' "final" text.
The Little Magazine Lark
- Burroughs' interest in magazines for the part-publication of his manuscripts goes back to his first novel,
Junkie. Having completed a first draft called "Junk" in December 1950, he was by November of the following year
sufficiently pessimistic about his chances of publishing the whole text as to be "ready to hack it up and
peddle it to magazines" (Letters 95). Although Junkie was published in 1953--as a pulp
paperback, hacked up in numerous places by its editors--Burroughs made no progress with its planned sequel, "Queer."
As for "Yage," Burroughs finished it in December 1953 (producing, with Ginsberg's help, a manuscript since lost), but
started working on it again in 1955, by which time he was in Tangier, immersed in writing what became Naked
Lunch and struggling ever more grimly with the commercial unviability of his writing. When quoting one of its
obscene "routines" in December 1954, he quips revealingly to Kerouac: "I can just see that serialized in
Cosmopolitan or Good Housekeeping. I mean it's hopeless, Jack" (242). This, of course, was
the point: Burroughs lacked a publishing context. That is why his comments about commercial magazines are so
revealing. For, as his manuscripts got smaller--"Queer" and "Yage" combined were much shorter than "Junk"--and
Burroughs found himself producing brief routines rather than coherent narratives, magazines actually offered the
most formally appropriate mode of publication.
- The turning point in the history of Naked Lunch, which prompted Maurice Girodias at Olympia Press
in Paris to accept the whole in June 1959, was the publication of the Big Table "Episodes" studied by
Loranger--or rather, the non-publication of parts of this material in the issue of Chicago Review
infamously banned by the university authorities, which in turn led to the creation of Big Table as a way
to get the material into print. Burroughs himself summed up the immediate and longer-term significance of this chain
of events: "So it was publication in a little magazine that led to the publication of Naked Lunch at a
time when I had almost given up. For many years I sent out pieces to all little magazines that asked me for a
contribution" (Maynard and Miles x). Actually, Burroughs' publication in little magazines after Naked Lunch was
more than just grateful payback; in important ways it was materially related to his cut-up practices, the
kinds of text they produced, and the kind of reception they sought. The
larger point is again one of context: by
the 1960s there was a great countercultural world of little magazines, not
integrated into either commercial or academic institutions, of a kind that barely existed in the previous decade.
Burroughs' closest Beat friends, Ginsberg and Kerouac, were also aware of the new opportunities and their promise to renew the magazine culture of prewar
modernism--hence, Kerouac's reference in late 1959 to Marianne Moore's famous avant-garde magazine of the 1920s when he predicts the future for three of
the new outlets, Kulchur, Yugen and Beatitude: "all those lil things will grow into big DIALS in
time" (Selected Letters 219).
- The general picture needs some specificity, since the category "Little Magazine" conceals important
differences in content, format, readership, and so on, and Burroughs' involvement was with four quite different
magazines: Black Mountain Review, Big Table, Kulchur and The Floating
Bear. As well as their particular social and cultural histories, each of these magazines presented Burroughs'
material in distinct bibliographic environments, inviting us to consider both how these part-texts were received in
their original publishing contexts, and how this relates to the reception (and indeed, production) of The Yage
Black Mountain Review
- While its circulation remained very small ("a usual printing of some 500 to 750 copies, about 200 of which ever
got distributed," according to its editor, the poet Robert Creeley ), Black Mountain Review was
highly influential culturally both on its own terms and for the new magazines its example inspired. For Creeley, the
point of BMR was that it was not The Kenyon Review--not, that is, another forum for the
academic literary establishment, any more than Black Mountain College was another orthodox educational institution.
Although it was never a Beat magazine, BMR lasted long enough to publish its "epochal final issue"
(Watson 225) of Autumn 1957 (actually issued in Spring 1958), co-edited by Allen Ginsberg and featuring an impressive
Beat lineup, which included texts by Ginsberg, Kerouac, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and a certain
1: Image from Black Mountain Review 7.
Image used by permission of William S. Burroughs Trust and Estate.
- The Beat context for Burroughs' text in BMR--the letter dated "July 10, 1953"--actually
signaled a double publishing breakthrough: as Ted Morgan notes, it was "a crucial break in the pattern of rejection" for
Burroughs, and the first gathering of the major Beat writers in print, evidence "that the Beats were now a bona fide
movement" (287). On the other hand, the cultural importance that is clear in historical retrospect contrasts
strikingly with the obscurity, to all but a very few readers, of this particular text at the time.
- For nothing here identified the "Lee" whose name appeared on the contents page and at the end of the letter as
William Burroughs, nor for that matter identified the "Allen" to whom it is addressed as Allen Ginsberg. The title--"from Naked Lunch, Book III: In Search of Yage"--would
surely have been just as mystifying then as it is now, albeit for different reasons. For here, contrary to all
appearances, "Naked Lunch" does not in fact refer to the Naked Lunch that would be published
in 1959, but to a tripartite work comprising "Junk," "Queer," and "Yage" that, during the mid-1950s, Burroughs grouped
under that title: in other words, the heading in BMR actually identifies this text as part of "In Search
of Yage." But the most obscure aspect of the text's presentation for the magazine's readers is the most obvious: the
letter appears on its own without any larger narrative context to make sense of it. Then again, after the opening
lines, the text's presentation as a letter is easy to forget, since most of it does not give the appearance of
being part of any sort of epistolary narrative. It reads like an entirely self-contained text, and when it ends
abruptly without any signing off, the name "William Lee" at the foot of the page (set in distinctive bold type) seems
to identify an author, not a letter-writer.
- As for the particular contents of the "July 10, 1953" letter--the vision of the "Composite City"--this requires
the most detailed analysis since it is by far the most widely referenced part of The Yage Letters. One of Burroughs' most extraordinary pieces of writing, stylistically close to the densely poetic collage
cartographies of Rimbaud and St. John Perse--both major influences on Burroughs--it begins by declaring that "Yage is
space time travel" and ends by prophetically announcing the intersection of "the unknown past and the emergent future"
(Yage Letters 44, 46). While its striking thematic of physical and chronological transcendence is clear, the full
significance of this text depends on recognizing the multiple material analogues of its theme generated by
its equally striking bibliographical chronology. These analogues are of two kinds: firstly, the text's publishing
history, and secondly its intertextual relations as a part of The Yage Letters.
- To begin with, the "July 10, 1953" letter was the first published part of Burroughs' "Yage" manuscript, but it is
also the final letter in the whole epistolary sequence. Picking up BMR number 7, the first readers of
"In Search of Yage" literally began at the end. However, the text goes on to perform an even more paradoxical inversion of
chronology, since in 1963 the first readers of The Yage Letters were presented with another ending (the
"July 8" letter) and would not find this letter there; nor would they until twelve years later, when it was at last
included in the second edition. Bizarrely, then, the first letter of "In Search of Yage" to be published (in
BMR) was also the last letter to be published in "In Search of Yage" (in The Yage Letters).
On the other hand, sixteen years earlier, in 1959, readers of Naked Lunch would have come across it,
because the letter, minus only the first four lines and with a few minor differences, appeared there at the start of "the
market" section. The peculiarity of this complex bibliographical chronology in turn accounts for the genetic confusion
in Loranger's analysis. She inverts the true relation between texts because, far from the later-published Yage
Letters "reworking material from the narrative portion of Naked Lunch" (24), as she asserts, in fact Naked
Lunch assimilates the overlapping material--the "July 10, 1953" letter--first published separately in BMR but ultimately taken
from the "Yage" manuscript. If yagé, the drug, "is space time travel," and if "space time travel" became
"the hallmark of Naked Lunch and his subsequent cut-up novels" (Mullins 65), then so, through its various material
manifestations, is the very text that said so.
- This analogy between theme and material history is remarkable, but it is also accidental, a byproduct of
contingent circumstances. The question of agency is crucial here, suggesting that the phrasing Skerl used to describe
The Yage Letters as a whole--"Burroughs refuses to conform to the convention of the final text produced
by the individual artist"--has to be revised: to downplay the assumption of authorial motivation (in
ironically determining the refusal of authorial control), and to play up the material agency of the text (in
determining the refusal of textual finality).
- What then, of the other--intertextual--analogue of this text's thematics? Perhaps unsurprisingly, it also begs questions of agency and
operates in two chronological directions at once. The first set of intertextual relations becomes visible only when the "July 10, 1953" letter is
read retrospectively as the final part of "In Search of Yage." In this context, the text describing the "Composite City" and "space time travel"
now appears, materially, as itself a composite text that travels through textual space and time. This is because its collage aesthetic renders
the yagé experience of visionary possession by being based on the wholesale recycling and transformation of phrases already read
in the earlier letters, so generating cumulatively an uncanny sense of déjà-vu. In terms
of the book's spatial and temporal existence, it is therefore fitting that this text should generate intertextual relations not just backwards
in space and time but also forward.
- Within The Yage Letters as a whole, the Composite City vision that concludes "In Search of
Yage" finds an exact parallel in the text that concludes the whole book, "I Am Dying, Meester?" Although she gives no
detail and overlooks the parallel, Skerl rightly observes that this text "employs the cut-up technique to create a
collage from the materials in the earlier letters" (31). In fact, nearly a quarter of its 660 words derive from "In
Search of Yage," mainly from the "January 15" and "April 15" letters, although it is very difficult to be precise,
given not only the nature of the cut-up method but the extent of this text's internal repetition (nearly half the
first paragraph, for example, occurs scattered about in later paragraphs). Such features are secondary, however, to
the text's visible foregrounding of its material procedures. For the immediate physical appearance of textual
fragments, bridged by over seventy dashes in a piece less than 700 words long, forces the sign to point to itself and
to its origins in other texts. This is apparent even before reading, which marks the obvious difference between this
text and the "July 10" letter, whose act of recycling can only be recognized in retrospect, after reading the whole
narrative. The cut-up text radicalizes this process by insistently calling into question the agency and integrity of
authorship and language, not only with respect to itself, but with respect to all the preceding texts--to all the
letters, franked with dates and signatures as signs of authenticity--that it has mixed and sampled.
- The very placement of the "July 10, 1953" letter and of "I Am Dying, Meester?" in The Yage Letters
invites the reader to see Burroughs' cut-up technique as a systematic development of the earlier,
yagé-inspired, bricolage text, and so recognize cut-up as the textuality of yagé
experience. It is possible to explore the relations between the hybrid textuality of this letter
and its thematics of cultural hybridity, and so recognize the relation between Burroughs' emerging experimental
aesthetic and his background in ethnology and anthropology. We might therefore read the Composite City, and its
avatars in Naked Lunch and the cut-up trilogy, as a topographic mapping in the tradition of
Surrealist ethnography, based on a collage aesthetic of juxtaposition that foregrounds "cuts and sutures"
rather than presenting fixed wholes (Clifford 146).
- However, the placement of these two texts first makes its invitation only to the reader of the revised edition
of The Yage Letters in 1975, because, as noted, the "July 10, 1953" letter wasn't included until a dozen years after "I Am Dying, Meester?" was included. Or to put this bizarre inversion of
chronology and causality another way, the text that was the earliest aesthetic precursor of Burroughs' cut-up
technique (by a decade) only took up its place in The Yage Letters a decade after the cut-up
text whose recycling deliberately paralleled it. This in turn accounts for the significant--and otherwise
surprising--absence from the cut-up text of any phrases derived from the "July 10, 1953" letter, since Burroughs cut up
only those letters that appeared in the first edition.
- The bibliographic and intertextual time travel that began with Black Mountain Review might go
still further--to analyze, for example, the version of the Composite City that appears in Naked
Lunch--but the central point remains the remarkable multiplication of its relations and meanings in comparison
to its original magazine publication. How ironic that this specific letter--which not only concluded "In Search of
Yage" but was partly made from recycling its materials--should have been published first and without any context so
that it appeared to be self-contained. Then again, that is precisely why Ginsberg--acting on Kerouac's
recommendation in September 1956--chose it from among Burroughs' other
manuscripts for Creeley's magazine.
- Burroughs' involvement with Big Table has become familiar, but only in terms of
its publication of the Naked Lunch "Episodes." The untold story of its relation to The
Yage Letters is, however, of equal significance for the relation between magazine and book
- After the suppression of The Chicago Review, the inception of the new magazine was, as Peter Michelson observed, "a stunning
counterattack" against the academy that in turn "helped give shape to the Beat and Black Mountain 'revolution' in poetics" (350, 353). The
"Chicago Review-cum-Big Table war" was therefore a decisive cultural moment, showing how the Beats "even turned apparent
tactical defeats into strategic victory" (346). Big Table was also exemplary of the "kamikaze" little magazine that realized a
specific function and then folded (after five issues). As Peter Martin notes, "it began as a controversial magazine, publishing suppressed
material, but did not shift its emphasis or settle into a less incendiary editorial policy" (683). Burroughs' praise was certainly emphatic. When
he saw the Spring 1958 issue of Chicago Review, he told its editor, Irving Rosenthal, that it was "way ahead of these dead, academic
periodicals like Partisan Review and Hudson Review," and to be compared only with BMR. In November 1959 he told editor Paul Carroll that "Big Table is the best in the field."
- Controversy was essential to Big Table's existence, and it is important to recall, as Martin does,
that the first issue "was itself banned in March 1959, and more than four hundred copies were impounded by the Post
Office" (683). In a lawsuit supported by the ACLU, on 5 July, judge Julius J. Hoffman ruled that the ban declaring
Big Table "non-mailable" was null and void, and this second attempt at censorship ironically ensured the
new magazine's celebrity and the sale of its 10,000 print run. It also established the publishing
context for the letters presented under the title "In Quest of Yage." That is to say, the specific epistolary
character of Burroughs' text took on potential meaning insofar as it appeared in a magazine not only created from and
then subjected to earlier acts of censorship involving publication of his fiction, but specifically in relation to
censorship of this material distributed through the mail.
2: Image from Big Table 1.
Image used by permission of William S. Burroughs Trust and Estate.
- The reception of "In Quest of Yage" in Big Table is determined by its immediate bibliographical
context in unique ways. In contrast to the material's presentation in other magazines or in The Yage
Letters, here it is packaged with introductory texts by other authors, Paul Bowles and Alan Ansen, and with photographs of Burroughs by Ginsberg.
Although Bowles's essay, entitled "Burroughs in Tangier," makes no direct
reference to the letters, he does introduce them by way of a memorable
personal portrait of Burroughs that must have had some bearing on the text's reception.
Ansen's essay, however, is the
more precisely determining and significant. The first issue of Big Table had trailed the appearance of
his "critical and biographical study" (2), and this substantial essay--over a third the length of "In Quest of
Yage"--duly appears, before the Bowles piece. Ansen's essay gives a compelling
account of Burroughs' career based on first-hand knowledge, but sets up for the reader a whole series of specific
expectations about the letters that are--emphatically--not met. For example, according to Ansen, the letters describe
Panama, introduce the character Allerton, and feature five "routines" ("Friendly Finance," "Billy Bradshinkel,"
"Roosevelt after Inauguration," "the Zen Routine," and the "most ambitious routine of all . . . a vision of 'The
Composite City'" ). Since there is no account of Panama, no Allerton, and not one routine in "In Quest of Yage,"
the reader could only be left baffled, as if Ansen had described a different text altogether. The short explanation
for the confusion is that nothing in Big Table clarifies for the reader that the six letters published
here are actually part of a larger whole. But the view in retrospect--for readers of The Yage
Letters--is, if anything, even more confusing, because the "whole" publication would still not match the text
Ansen describes. It is just as well that Ferlinghetti did not take up Ginsberg's suggestion to use Ansen's
essay--since it "describes the letters"--as an appendix for the City Lights edition. However, the mismatch in Big Table does provide invaluable insights for critics
into the fluid state of Burroughs' manuscripts, since the reference to Allerton establishes the surprising overlap
between "Yage" and "Queer" in the mid-1950s, while the inclusion of the "Friendly Finance" routine confirms that the
"Epilogue" added to Queer in 1985 (where the routine appears) originally belonged to "Yage." Another "In
Search of Yage" becomes suddenly visible, one entirely different from the version eventually published.
- Finally, what of the text made by the letters themselves? Since "In Quest of Yage" comprises the fourth, fifth,
sixth, seventh, tenth, and eleventh letters in the whole sequence of "In Search of Yage," the reader inevitably
confronts gaps in the narrative chronology. Thus the first letter--dated "February 28, 1953"--begins with Burroughs on his "way
back to Bogota" (44), even though we've not seen him go there in the first place. Likewise, Doc Schindler is mentioned
in the "March 3" letter, as if we had already been introduced to him (which happens in the second letter of "In Search
of Yage"). On the other hand, the final letter, of "July 8," makes similar references to "the Naval Lieutenant" and "the
furniture salesman" (62)--and these are never explained in the whole sequence either. In other words, the very
fact of epistolary presentation makes it easy to naturalize such gaps or slips as generic textual features, even to
interpret them as signs of authenticity. This appearance is aided by the text's presentation here--by "William S.
Burroughs"--and it is noticeable that all the letters are signed "William" or "Bill"--none "Lee"--so avoiding (very
likely deliberately) the contradictory signals about literary authorship and epistolary authenticity given in "In
Search of Yage" within The Yage Letters.
- Where Black Mountain Review was the poetry magazine of an experimental College in North Carolina,
and Big Table had emerged as an alternative to the censored press run by the University of Chicago,
Kulchur, under the financial patronage of Lita Horlick, was formed in 1960 as "a determinedly New York
publication" (Burns 41), with an intellectual outlook of "high seriousness and wide-ranging interest" that included
the Beats (Clay and Phillips 85). For Gilbert Sorrentino, "Kulchur most definitely reflected the close of
a literary era that had begun in about 1950 and found its first voice in Black Mountain Review," and
(echoing Kerouac's prediction) in his estimation it "must be considered one of the great magazines of the twentieth
century, an authoritative voice, as important as The Little Review, The Dial,
transition" (315, 311).
3: Image from Kulchur 3.
Image used by permission of William S. Burroughs Trust and Estate.
- Predictably then, in issue number 3, Burroughs' "In Search of Yage" appeared in familiar company, alongside
poems by Ginsberg and Olson, and texts by Kerouac and Bowles. And, as with Big Table, Burroughs' text
also appeared here in the context of his own work's publication in an earlier issue. In fact, the relations between texts in Kulchur are far
more significant, since the text that appeared in number 1--"The
Conspiracy"--was Burroughs' unique, explicit fictional development of his interest in yagé, here
described as an elixir of creative power and a weapon of political resistance. This would have set the
Kulchur reader up to be disappointed, since the five letters presented here make almost no reference to
yagé, let alone to its vital role in global conspiracies.
- The letters in Kulchur are directly introduced by a short editorial note that acknowledges their
relation to "others, already published--BIG TABLE 2," claiming that, together, "they constitute a collection that will
one day appear as a book, under the title 'In Search of Yage'" (7). Of course, when that one day came, the book that
appeared would not bear this title, since by then "In Search of Yage" had itself become a part in a larger
whole. However, the note at least explains the otherwise perplexing gap in the chronology of the letters--after three
long letters, all dated within two weeks of each other, the sequence cuts from "January 30" to "May 12" and from Pasto to
Lima, with no journey in between--a gap, this time, too large to naturalize.
- In the structure of "In Search of Yage" published in The Yage Letters, the letters here are the
first, second, third, eighth and ninth. So, putting the selections from Big Table and
Kulchur together, a reader can now interleave the two separate blocks of text used in each
magazine to construct the proper sequence. Or the reader could do so, if a footnote to the last letter, "May
23" (1953), didn't direct readers to yet another text in yet another magazine: "'The Routine' appears in
The Floating Bear (#9), distributed solely by mailing list" (18). Adding to the bibliographical
confusion, the routine referred to in the letter--"Roosevelt after Inauguration"--appeared in The Floating
Bear four issues after that magazine had already published another element soon to appear in The Yage
Letters (Burroughs' letter of June 21, 1960), written some seven years after the routine; yet
again, the publishing history of the text contrives to scramble the chronology of its parts.
The Floating Bear
- Although its contents and readership partly overlapped those of quarterlies like Kulchur,
The Floating Bear, at first distributed semi-monthly, was an altogether different type of magazine.
Edited by Diane di Prima and Leroi Jones, and published out of a West Village bookshop's storeroom, the
Bear was a key player in the avant-garde "mimeograph revolution" of the early 1960s. Peter Martin describes one reason for its
importance: "The subtitle 'A Newsletter' is the key to The Floating Bear's chief contribution to
literature of the 1960s; it was a newsletter, a speedy line of communication between experimental poets"
(699). Di Prima elaborates on this aspect, noting that it "was like writing a letter to a bunch of friends" and that
she and Jones had a common "sense of urgency of getting the technological advances of, say, Olson, into the hands of,
say, Creeley, within two weeks, back and forth" (x-xi). Her comments give rise to two ironies, the first of which is
that, performing a broadly similar function, Black Mountain Review had actually "developed from the
friendship in daily correspondence between Creeley and Black Mountain Rector Charles Olson" (Clay and Phillips
107)--which made all the more appropriate their magazine's publication of Burroughs' "July 10, 1953" letter. The second
irony concerns the material appearance in Floating Bear of the two Burroughs texts that would later
appear in The Yage Letters.
4: Image from The Floating Bear 5.
Image used by permission of William S. Burroughs Trust and Estate.
- To begin with, the readers of Burroughs' June 21, 1960 letter in Bear number 5 (April 1961) would
not have been able to identify the "Allen" to whom it is addressed as Ginsberg. More importantly, nor would they have
been able to reconstruct, or even imagine, the biographical epistolary context that gave rise to Burroughs' letter,
since nothing in it clarifies that Ginsberg had urgently asked him for advice about his own yagé
experiences. Contrary to the magazine's aim of reciprocation, here the reader is given only one half of an exchange of
letters--indeed, is presented with the reply, without knowing what prompted it (and needing to wait
two-and-a-half years to find out). The result is that Burroughs' already enigmatic letter--a cryptically written
prescription for Ginsberg to use his new cut-up method as "Help"--appears more mysterious still.
5: Image from The Floating Bear 5.
Image used by permission of William S. Burroughs Trust and Estate.
- The bibliographical environment does, however, produce a direct context for Burroughs' letter. For it is immediately preceded by "OUT SHOW WINDOW AND WE'RE PROUD OF IT." Although there is
no acknowledgement, this short cut-up text is almost exactly the same as "FROM SAN DIEGO UP TO MAINE" that had
appeared in Minutes to Go (1960)--the launching manifesto of the cut-up method, to which Burroughs'
letter actually directs Ginsberg. In other words, Floating Bear expanded on Burroughs' letter by
juxtaposing it with a specific and presumably relevant example of his cut-up practice. On the other hand, while the
text illustrates and so helps disseminate what Di Prima called "technological advances" in literary technique, it does
absolutely nothing to clarify the therapeutic function cryptically claimed in the letter.
- The same can be said of The Yage Letters, where Burroughs' 1960 letter is followed by his cut-up text, "I Am Dying, Meester?"
and where, once again, any demonstration of the method's therapeutic function remains obscure. However, while a direct relation between
Burroughs' letter and "I Am Dying, Meester?" appears self-evident, the invitation to read the second text as an illustration of the
method announced in the first is, in fact, the product of entirely contingent publication circumstances. For Burroughs' decision to
include "I Am Dying, Meester?" turns out to have preceded by some sixth months the plan to include his letter. The addition of this
1960 material therefore disguised and usurped the original intention, according to which the cut-up text from 1963 followed
sequentially and logically after the 1953 letters of "In Search of Yage."
- Finally, the material features of the text as it appears in
are of particular importance. Ben Lee argues that the "willfully haphazard production" of the newsletter resulted in an improvisatory
"slapdash aesthetic" that was "meant to mirror the sort of 'open form' its contributors favored in poetry and prose"
(379, 375, 374). The low-cost mimeo format determined the physical appearance of the text on the page. Di Prima was specifically
conscious of this point in relation to the Bear's use of 8-1/2" x 11" paper and standard typewriter font:
"Almost everybody writes on typewriters, and I felt that a lot of what they were doing had to do with the shape of
their page" (xi). Burroughs' letter has, therefore, an appearance of authenticity that is entirely
appropriate: at first sight, the letter printed in the Bear appears to be an exact facsimile of his
original manuscript, down to his use of sections in block capitals and unusual layout. On closer inspection, it proves
not to be, and the autograph signature reproduced here isn't in Burroughs' distinctive hand. This is also entirely
appropriate given the letter's cut-up critique of authorship ("My Voice. Whose Voice?") and the fact that the
signature is not actually for Burroughs' name but for that of his spiritual patron, "Hassan Sabbah" (Yage
Letters 59, 61). Nevertheless, it is a nice irony that by far the cheapest of the little magazines should have
been the only one to approximate the material form of Burroughs' letters, and that this particular letter should have
been the only one to make decisive use of formal features.
- As for the appearance of "Routine: Roosevelt after Inauguration" in Bear number 9, no contemporary
reader would likely have made any connection between it and the texts published in number 5. Although it is undated, readers
familiar with Burroughs' new cut-up methods would surely have recognized it as writing from the previous decade. Then
again, there's no obvious internal evidence for any connection to his various "Yage" publications, and it appears a
self-contained and free-standing satire. This, the first part of the "Yage" manuscript to be
completed (in May 1953), would be the very last part to be included in "In Search of Yage," only appearing in the
third edition, twenty-five years after the first. The reason for this delay was censorship exercised by the British
printers in 1963, itself the renewal of an earlier act of censorship on the routine's appearance in Floating
Bear. Fittingly, this act had inserted the routine (back) into an epistolary context, since the censorship was
directed against the magazine's distribution to its mailing list. It came about when a copy sent to one man on
the list, who was in a New Jersey prison, was intercepted by the censor. In October 1961, Di Prima and Jones
were arrested for using the mail to disseminate obscene materials and, although cleared, their confrontation with the
forces of censorship was certainly noted by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
- City Lights was set up in the mid-1950s as an independent publisher closely aligned with the emerging
alternative poetry magazine culture, a position that led Ferlinghetti to fight the same battles against censorship (he
supported Big Table, for example, and had famously gone to court over his publication of Ginsberg's
Howl and Other Poems in 1957). The cultural identity and social meaning of The Yage
Letters was, therefore, decisively shaped by its publication as a City Lights paperback. City Lights' ideal status as a
publisher of Burroughs' "Yage" material is evidenced by the dialogue conducted throughout the mid-1950s and early
'60s between Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti concerning the destiny of Burroughs' manuscripts. Although, in September 1953,
Ginsberg initially contacted Malcolm Cowley at Viking about "Yage," he would soon begin to exert what he referred
to as "golden pressure" on Ferlinghetti, driven by his belief that the
expatriate Burroughs needed to be published not just in an American context but in one specifically determined as
Beat. Ferlinghetti, for his part, resisted Ginsberg's lobbying, not only
turning down the chance to publish the
material in the banned issue of The Chicago Review simply because it had been censored--unlike Maurice
Girodias, he was no opportunist--but also resisting for almost six years Ginsberg's repeated suggestion he publish
- Burroughs had returned from South America in September 1953 and moved into Ginsberg's East 7th Street
apartment, where they worked together on his "Yage" and "Queer" manuscripts. So far as "Yage" was concerned, Ginsberg
knew that no one "in the publishing business in N. Y. will find it an acceptable commodity." From the outset, Ginsberg expected censorship problems, and a decade later he even
anticipated self-censorship by Burroughs in the run-up to the City Lights publication, asking Ferlinghetti:
"Are you sure Burroughs' Yage mss. is same as was published in Kulchur & Float bear & Big Table? Hope he hasn't edited
too much." Ginsberg's anxiety was misplaced--and for a reason that reveals
something fundamental about the editing history of The Yage Letters. The fact is that Ferlinghetti never
saw an original manuscript, because Burroughs no longer had one; instead, he simply collected into a whole those parts
that were in print. As the internal evidence of transcription errors carried over suggests, and as the City Lights
editorial files at Berkeley prove, "In Search of Yage" was materially based on those texts already published in the
little magazines, and these were accepted by all concerned to define the
- Now at last we can settle the question of agency and authorship with respect of the material that did (and did
not) appear in The Yage Letters, by answering the whodunnit question posed by the censorship claims made
by Mullins and Martinez. The short answer is that both of them are wrong, because neither Burroughs nor
Ferlinghetti "edited out" anything. Martinez's claim that Ferlinghetti "cleaned-up" Burroughs' "original letters"
for publication is based on two false assumptions: firstly, that the publisher was dealing with the manuscripts of
Burroughs' real correspondence (as later published in The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1945-1959), which is contradicted by the
fact that his "Yage" manuscript was entirely separate (and mostly not even based on real letters), and secondly, that
Ferlinghetti worked on any Burroughs manuscript at all, whereas actually, apart from the two Ginsberg letters,
everything in The Yage Letters derived directly from earlier magazine publications. If any censorship had
affected "In Search of Yage," it would have been the responsibility of Creeley, Carroll, or Horlick. In fact, the
racially "offensive" passage probably was in the lost "Yage" manuscript Burroughs completed in December 1953; if
so, it was contained in a separate, fabricated letter (dated "June 23/28," Pucallpa) that wasn't available to
Ferlinghetti precisely because this (and one other, dated "July 20," Mexico) had not previously been offered for
Rather than a
deliberate act of last-minute editing, what took place was a prolonged, messy process of piecemeal manuscript cannibalization, an operation conducted
long-distance, first from Tangier and then from Paris, always mediated by Ginsberg, and shaped decisively by other
publishing contingencies in North Carolina, Chicago, New York and San Francisco.
- To a striking degree, the City Lights publication was determined by multiple and divided agencies and by
contingent factors, affecting not just "In Search of Yage" but also the work's other two sections. Thus, it turns out that
Burroughs' June 21, 1960 letter was only included on the suggestion of Ginsberg, six months before publication, and he
only suggested it because Ferlinghetti had just then (by "a real stroke of luck") stumbled across, via a
third party, Ginsberg's June 10, 1960 letter, to which Burroughs' letter was the reply. In other words, Ginsberg's efforts to get "In Search of
Yage" published brought about the creation of an entirely new section of 1960 letters, "Seven Years Later," written by both men but never
intended for the book. Paradoxically, the book that Ginsberg had been promoting on Burroughs' behalf was itself radically transformed by his
efforts. Burroughs approved the addition of the two 1960 letters, or perhaps simply
acquiesced. He did not entirely surrender authorial control to Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti, however, overruling both of them when each expressed
doubts about the inclusion of "I Am Dying, Meester?" as the final text. And yet, even here, Burroughs had the last
word in the book only in a paradoxical fashion. After the cut-up text, there appears his name--but only
because John Sankey, Ferlinghetti's London printer, suggested it should be there, since otherwise the "reader cannot
see if this is by Ginsberg or Burroughs." The very name of the author thus
reflects the determinism of a social agency.
- In the "Roosevelt" routine--a text only admitted into The Yage Letters in 1988 after a contingent
publishing career determined by acts of censorship--there's a passage where Burroughs fantasizes the post of
Congressional Librarian being awarded to a "transvestite lizzie" who "barred the male sex from the premises" so that
"a world-famous professor of philology suffered a broken jaw at the hands of a bull dyke when he attempted to enter
the Library" (36). Given Burroughs' own experience of being barred from fulfillment by those institutions regulating
sexuality and literature, this vision of aggressive hybrid creatures taking over the academy and roughing up the
venerable authority of philology seems strangely prophetic.
Naked Lunch Restored
- In a comprehensive critical review of D.C. Greetham's attempt to postmodernize editing theory, Paul Eggert
contests his verdict in Theories of the Text that we now live in "post-philological days," arguing that
"the moment of editorial theory is over" (331). Then again, Greetham had himself questioned the value of McGann's
influential theory of social text editing ("I am by no means sure I understand exactly what is a socialized text"
), expressing the central doubt about the practical value of theory with which Thomas Tanselle began his
millennial review of textual criticism, noting how "a focus on texts as social products came to characterize the bulk
of discussion of textual theory, if not editions themselves" (1; my emphasis). "What we need now" is not more
theory, Eggert concludes, but "the practical responses: the reports from the editorial trenches" (332).
- Before concluding my own "report" from the front-line of Burroughs editing, what of the "Restored" Naked
Lunch as a response to Loranger's call for a postmodern, hypertext edition? Although it has many other merits,
the edition produced by Grauerholz and Miles overlooks the value of her analysis for presenting, if not an interactive
hypertext, then at least a text that (to cite the quotation in her title) "spill[s] off the page in all directions." Most
simply, it does this by providing a contents page that locates each of the book's many sections. Since one of the most
distinctive features of Naked Lunch is the extraordinary difficulty every reader experiences in finding
their way around it, the effect--to stop the words spilling off the page--is, in Loranger's terms, "a grave
editorial sin" (23).
- More substantially, the "Restored" edition falls short in theoretical and practical respects. As Eggert notes, even "if there is no
stoutly defensible philosophical grounding for editing," practice can at least "be self-consciously aware that its operations are necessarily
contextualised by the present" (331). The "restored" Naked Lunch misses this opportunity because, while it does describe and reflect
on its own workings, there's almost no development either in terms of theoretical models or in terms of practical detail. Thus in their "Editors'
Note," Grauerholz and Miles observe--unlike Loranger--that the texts of the 1959 Olympia and 1962 Grove Naked Lunch "are quite
different" (234), but since they give no details, it remains unclear how a comparative descriptive analysis informed their editing practice.
Equally, while both editors are well aware of the complex, contingent circumstances of the text's production and publication, they do not
position their work with respect to the old or the new "grails" of editing theory--put reductively, the single, intentional, originating
authorial genius and the socially collaborative multitude of equally valid contributing agents.
- One especially fitting example should illustrate this editorial practice in Naked Lunch. In the "Editors' Note," the author's
"authority" is called upon to approve
the removal of certain duplicate passages: "Miles once asked Burroughs if the repeated passages in the book were all intentional; Burroughs replied
that they were there by mistake, caused by the rush to get the text to Girodias" (245). It might seem that the issue
here is whether the editors should have chosen, as a matter of principle, a social rather than authorial model of
agency, and let the repetitions stand. But it is also a question of which "repetition" should be cut. In "the market" section they remove the passage
beginning "the room seems to shake and vibrate with motion" from what was its
first appearance in the text. This material at the start of the section, however, reproduces the "July 10, 1953" letter as published in Black Mountain Review (minus its opening lines and with other minor differences).
By deleting the passage in this context, rather than when it reappeared a few lines after this
material, the editors overlook the longstanding integrity of the "Composite City" text as it had existed
in its manuscript, magazine, and book publishing histories. The descriptive potentials of a socialized
approach could have better guided the editors' decisions, even if they were framed by a traditional theory of final
The Yage Letters Redux
- I have already argued that The Yage Letters is suited to a social text approach to editing because of the
text's bibliographical variability--both its external multiplicity (as Stillinger would term it) and also (adapting
Bakhtin) its internal multiplicity--and because of the strong material parallels between its thematic and formal
hybridity. In describing the publishing history of its various parts, I have made it possible to recognize the ways in
which the published edition of The Yage Letters, in the very act of "restoring" these part-texts to their proper chronological
place in the whole, also removed them from their social embedding and material histories. Those several histories in
turn clarify that this "whole" was no more than the retrospective sum of the parts.
- In order to suggest the implications for editing of these acts of historical repression and recovery, I want to
focus on perhaps the smallest possible concrete instance of editorial practice, one with minimal semantic value. In the text, certain letters
have a comma while others have a colon to conclude the opening line of address ("Dear Allen:" etc.). Burroughs'
letters have seven colons and six commas, which looks like a simple matter of inconsistency in his use of epistolary
formats. Since both the French and German editions of The Yage Letters standardize the use of the comma,
the issue seems to be the appropriateness of editing for internal consistency. Given the heterogeneity of materials
and the hybridity of the text overall, such homogenizing might seem a mistaken effort to resolve contradictions and
unify dissonant parts into a singular whole. Equally, we might appeal to authorial practice to question
such regularization. In the case of Burroughs' letters, however, a striking fact emerges with exceptional clarity. Up
until late 1959, Burroughs never used a colon to punctuate his address, but always a comma. After November 1959, he
shifted--suddenly and almost completely--from comma to colon. Therefore, the use of the colon in his June 21, 1960 letter appears consistent with
his letter-writing, while its use in six of his "1953" letters now appears inconsistent. The implication for any editing intervention seems clear.
- However, something else might be involved if a pattern were observable. The six 1953 letters that use
colons are the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, tenth and eleventh letters in the sequence of "In Search of Yage." In
short, these were all the letters first published in Big Table. And of course the fact that this issue
was published in Summer 1959 (before Burroughs changed his epistolary practice) establishes that the use of
the colon in them cannot be attributed to Burroughs' making belated revisions, but must be accounted for by the house
style of the magazine's editor, Paul Carroll.
- What, then, is the editorial upshot of unraveling this history of the comma and the colon? Should the 1953
colons be replaced by commas to bring the letters correctly into line with the author's practice and to remove the
"corruption" of Carroll's editing? Or should the colons be retained for this very reason, since they are material
traces carried over from the text's original part-publication, evidence of the determinism of material history at the
level of even the smallest bibliographic code? Allowing the contradiction in punctuation to stand across the text of
"In Search of Yage" becomes, then, a way to respect internal units of consistency by acknowledging the separate
authority of the part-publications. In that case, the new edition would make no change, and it may seem a
metaphysical distinction to have arrived at this conclusion by such a long and circuitous path. However, if we take up
Tanselle's argument for the "constructed" rather than "emended" text ("editors should not be thinking in terms of
altering a particular existing text but of building up a new text, word by word and punctuation mark by punctuation
mark, evaluating all available evidence at each step" ), then The Yage Letters Redux becomes the
first edition to knowingly employ both forms of punctuation, guided by the larger aim to represent the multiple
histories and composite agency of the text.
- Clearly, there's no need to detail the micro-editing decisions made for Redux, but the descriptive
analysis in previous sections should have demonstrated the validity of a practice informed by the full social and
bibliographical life of the text in its multiple material histories. To give just the example involving the largest
number of interventions; the third edition of 1988 made wholesale changes in accidentals and bibliographical codes,
altering most visibly the first edition's layout in twelve out of the fifteen letters. Here, a precise knowledge of
the magazine formats establishes the arbitrary nature of these alterations, which are neither internally consistent
nor motivated by being grounded in previously published versions (let alone manuscripts). But if the third edition
(being the most complete) can still be used as the base text, should the first be used as the copy text in its
accidentals? A socialized approach might suggest restoring the formats of the magazines rather than that of the first
City Lights edition. This would bring differences in original codes to the foreground, to display rather than conceal
the text's multiple material histories. And yet there's a distinction between removing arbitrary homogenizations (as
in the punctuation of the French and German editions) and preventing a smooth, consistent reading by crudely
maximizing heterogeneity to the extent, for example, of reproducing different typefaces to make visible the
historicity and provenance of each part.
- In any event, there are practical limits to such variability. What to do about layout features particular to
one bibliographical format that cannot be carried over to another, such as the line spacing of letters manipulated to
fit page size? Likewise, if social editing suggests a "diplomatic" documentation to reproduce the mimeograph qualities
of Burroughs' letter in The Floating Bear, then how is one to justify clear-text elsewhere? Then again, the key
practical limits, the most materially determining consequences of the collaborative agency of publication, are those
set by the publisher. Although immune to theory, commercial publishers work with the practical contingencies of the
world, and it would be ironic and naïve for a social text approach to forget it. Take, for
example, the label "definitive": discredited in theory as the chimera of positivist philology (for implying an
autonomous, timeless text that exists beyond the historical contingencies of its own making), it returns in practice
if the publisher has the last say on the title and the sales department wants it on the cover (see my Introduction to
Junky: the definitive text of 'Junk'), or if the marketing term seems useful to promote the book on the
publisher's website). And so for
The Yage Letters, as a City Lights publication, the challenge remains how best to exploit the rich
descriptive and interpretive opportunities of a social text approach while still retaining the reader-friendly
clear-text demanded by publishing.
- A new edition can advance interpretive criticism by materializing the text's neglected histories of formal,
thematic, and bibliographical "space time travel," while being itself part of that historical process and not its conclusion.
As Eggert acknowledges, "one does one's best. The result is practical, not ideal; useful and usable, not perfect"
(334). Burroughs himself knew the "fix" is never final, even if, at the time, that is what he wanted to or did
believe, which is surely why he did not include in his text the verdict he reached in July 1953 about the object of
his own grail quest: "Yage is it" (Letters 180).
Department of American Studies
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Table 1: Editions of The Yage
|Contents: b + c + d + f
||Contents: 1st edition + a
||Contents: 2nd edition + e
All editions contained Ginsberg's June 10, 1960 letter in "Seven Years Later" and "To Whom It
May Concern" (letter, August 28, 1963) in the "Epilogue." A printing in October 1990 mistakenly identified itself as the 4th edition; in fact,
The Yage Letters Redux (April 2006) is the true 4th edition.
Table 2: Magazine Publication of Burroughs Material
Appearing in The Yage Letters
|Autumn 1957 (issued Spring 1958)
|Black Mountain Review 7
||Big Table 2
||Floating Bear 5
||Floating Bear 9
||City Lights Journal 1
|"from Naked Lunch, Book III: In Search of Yage"
||"In Quest of Yage"
||In Search of Yage"
||"Routine: Roosevelt after Inauguration"
||"I Am Dying, Meester?"
||"July 10, 1953"
||"February 28, 1953," "March 3," "April 15," "May 5," "June 18," "July 8"
||"January 15, 1953," "January 25, 1953," "January 30," "May 12, 1953," "May 23"
||Text of Burroughs' letter to Ginsberg, June 21, 1960
||Text of "Roosevelt After Inauguration"
||Text of "I Am Dying, Meester?"
||12th in "In Search of Yage" in The Yage Letters (2nd and 3rd editions)
||4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 10th, 11th in "In Search of Yage" in The Yage Letters (all editions)
||1st, 2nd, 3rd, 8th, 9th in "In Search of Yage" in The Yage Letters (all editions)
||In "Seven Years Later" in The Yage Letters (all editions)
||In "In Search of Yage" in The Yage Letters (3rd edition)
||In "Epilogue" in The Yage Letters (all editions)
I would like to thank the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Keele University for generously providing
the leave needed to carry out the research for this essay, and Jim McLaverty for giving supportive feedback.
For permissions to publish material and for their personal assistance, I want to thank Anthony Bliss (Curator,
Rare Books and Literary Manuscripts, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley); Richard Clement
(Special Collections Librarian, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas); Bernard Crystal (Head of Rare
Books and Manuscripts, Columbia University, New York); and Sandra Roscoe and Jessica Westphal (Special Collections
Research Center, University of Chicago Library).
1. Compromising precision for the sake of convenience, I ignore the fact that the
definite article in the title was only dropped after the first edition of 1959.
2. On closer inspection, paragraphs Loranger identifies as having been
"deleted" from Big Table (105 and 107) were actually moved elsewhere in Naked Lunch ([New York:
Grove, 1966; Black Cat edition] 160).
3. The Olympia edition also had two hundred more words that did not
appear in later editions.
4. Like many other critics, Loranger confusingly refers to the two dozen
separate sections of Naked Lunch--divisions of the text that, inconsistently in the first edition, were
given their own titles--as "routines," a term Burroughs only ever applied to self-contained material of up to a few
pages in length.
5. Equally, knowledge of the manuscript history would have changed
dramatically Loranger's analysis of the genetic relation between material appearing in Big Table and
in Naked Lunch where she sees the texts "developing" from magazine to book--"Burroughs makes extensive
revisions of all but two episodes" (8); in fact, in almost all cases it can be shown that the "revised" material was
not new at all, but was already present in his 1958 "Interzone" manuscript, from which Burroughs had made
selections for Big Table designed to avoid American censorship. Although she employs appropriate caveats
here ("It is reasonable to assume" ), the detailed tables that document her comparative analysis give an impression
of more materially-grounded rigor. For example, in her Table 2, "Revision from
Big Table to Naked
Lunch," Loranger describes the relationship between "Episode 6" in Big Table and the "Islam
Incorporated" section of Naked Lunch, noting "additional material on 147, 148-52 including Sample Menu."
Far from being new material written in 1959, all this material was in the 1958 "Interzone" manuscript.
6. Loranger refers only to "cosmetic changes--the numbered episodes in
Big Table become unnumbered, titled routines in Naked Lunch" (8).
7. For my terms here, see Young's excellent article. There are signs that
field of Burroughs textual scholarship is starting to expand. Most notably, Davis Schneiderman has produced strong,
culturally informed materialist readings in two recent conference papers: "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except
for Me and My Lawsuit: DJ Danger Mouse, William S. Burroughs, and the Politics of Grey Tuesday" (Collage as Cultural
Practice Conference, University of Iowa [March 2005]), and "If I hold a conch shell to my ear, do I owe a royalty to
Neptune? Scribbles on the a-history of pla(y)giarism" (Association of Writing Programs Conference, Vancouver, British
Columbia [April 2005]).
8. This is a case I have made with reference to the radical errors in
bibliographic chronology that led another of Burroughs' otherwise finest critics, Robin Lydenberg, to get backwards
the relationship between "early" and "late" texts in her deconstructive analysis of his cut-up novels. See my
Secret of Fascination, 244-45.
9. Junkie published in "unexpurgated" form as
Junky in 1977; I quote from the re-edited 2003 text; see my introduction for a detailed publishing history.
The relation seems especially self-evident in the 1978 German edition,
which prints the two books back-to-back so that the last page of Junkie, with the words "Vielleicht ist
Yage der endgültige Fix" (206), is followed by the first page of "Auf der Suche nach Yage" (confusingly using the
title of just one section to identify the whole).
11. Although all editions carried a note acknowledging these
part-publications, full details were never given, and were given sometimes only to be obscured (e.g., the second
edition of 1975 did give full bibliographical details of the "July 10, 1953" letter it now included, but by the eighth
printing [February 1978] the information had been reduced to read only as follows: "A 1953 letter was in Black Mountain
Review No. 7").
12. The phrase comes from Burroughs' letter to Mel Hardiment, 23 Jan. 1961
(The Ginsberg Circle: Burroughs-Hardiment Collection, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas).
13. See my "Cutting Up Politics."
14. Here and throughout, I cite the date of each letter from "In Search of Yage" as if it were the
title of a text precisely in order to make clear their fictional status as dated letters.
15. Ironically, Ginsberg's contribution, his poem "America," actually names
16. As Ginsberg recalled, this specific text was actually "the seed of
Naked Lunch" (Lotringer 807). The letter's compositional history can also be seen as another materialization of its "space time
travel" theme. For while the bulk of the text dated "July 10, 1953" does derive from Burroughs' real letter from Lima of the same date, the
final paragraphs--from "Followers of obsolete unthinkable trades" to "waiting for a live one"--were composed in Tangier, two years later.
17. For example, the account of a literal trip "across the Pacific in an
outrigger canoe to Easter Island" returns the reader to the yagé trip in Mocoa (in the "April 15" letter), where
a hut seems to take on "an archaic far-Pacific look with Easter Island heads" (44, 24), while the Composite City,
where "the untended dead are eaten by vultures in the street," echoes the gross sight in Esmeraldas, Ecuador (in the "May 5" letter) of
"vultures eating a dead pig in the main drag" (45, 31).
18. Indeed, agency and authority are interrogated as a coded joke in the
very first line --"Panama clung to our bodies -- Probably cut --" (65)--which takes the reader back to the first
letter of "In Search of Yage": "I wonder what a Panamanian boy would be like. Probably cut" (4). The repetition of the
phrase is at once fully motivated--a precisely contrived pun on the cutting-up of physical and textual bodies,
deconstructing their integrity--and yet called into doubt by the very notion of "probability" that governs the
production of meaning in the cut-up text. An intertextual analysis of "I Am Dying, Meester?" would also include its
extensive overlap with material in the "Where the Awning Flaps" chapter of The Soft Machine (2nd and 3rd
19. Interestingly, at about the same time, Burroughs did make a cut-up
version of the whole "July 10, 1953" letter, possibly intended for The Yage Letters.
20. "Tell Allen the piece of Burroughs I suggest for Black Mountain [Review]
would be the whole vision of the Yage City" (Selected Letters 586). It seems Ginsberg initially
considered offering Creeley another letter as well, as evidenced by a version of his "January 25, 1953" letter headed "2
letters from Bk III of Naked Lunch by Wm. Seward Burroughs (pseud. is William Lee)" (Burroughs Collection, Columbia
University). In contrast to the "July 10, 1953" letter, this one is clearly part of an ongoing epistolary narrative.
21. Letter, Burroughs to Rosenthal, 17 May 1958 (The Chicago Review Papers,
University of Chicago).
22. Letter, Burroughs to Carroll, 14 Nov. 1959 (Paul Carroll Papers, Series
2, University of Chicago).
23. Unlike Ansen's essay, Bowles's was not commissioned by Big
Table, and was, in fact, originally written as a letter to the poet John Montgomery.
24. Letter, Ginsberg to Ferlinghetti, 19 Sept. 1962 (City Lights Records
1955-1970, Correspondence Files, University of California, Berkeley) [hereafter CLR, UCB].
25. There is also an indirect context, since, before the cut-up text, there
appears an undated letter from "Roi" (Jones) to "Diane" (Di Prima), in which he advances his understanding of
Floating Bear as, precisely, "letters."
26. "Re ROUTINE, you were not very happy about it yourself, especially the
name Roosevelt, and we had already discussed some possible modifications from your own point of view before they
[Scorpion, who refused to print the text] came along." Letter, Sankey to Ferlinghetti, 8 Oct. 1963 (CLR, UCB).
27. Letter, Ginsberg to Kerouac, 9 Oct. 1957 (Miles Collection, Columbia
28. Letter, Ginsberg to Cowley, 10 Dec. 1953 (Miles Collection, Columbia
29. Letter, Ginsberg to Ferlinghetti, Feb. 1963 (CLR, UCB).
30. The internal evidence shows the presence in the City Lights text of
numerous transcription errors carried over from the magazine publications. In the City Lights Editorial Files,
together with proofs and long galleys, Carton 1 contains the relevant pages cut from Big Table 2 and
Kulchur 3, marked up with instructions (e.g., "Printer: Begin here") (CLR, UCB).
31. "Have you thought again of printing Burroughs' collected So American
letters - they're all available in Big Table, Kulchur + Floating Bear -- It would make a nice small prose
book + it's all there in print now." Letter, Ginsberg to Ferlinghetti, 26 Jun. 1962 (CLR, UCB). Italics added.
32. The "July 20" letter overlapped extensively with the text later published as the Epilogue to
Queer. Most of this material in turn derives from Burroughs' original notebook; see my introduction to The Latin American
Notebook of William S. Burroughs (forthcoming from The Ohio State University Press).
Ferlinghetti to Ginsberg, 11 Jun. 1963 (Ginsberg Collection, Columbia University).
34. Letter, Sankey to Ferlinghetti, 16 Oct. 1963 (CLR, UCB).
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Review 7 (Autumn 1957): 144-48.
---. "In Quest of Yage." Big Table 2 (Summer 1959): 44-64.
---. "In Search of Yage." Kulchur 3 (1961): 7-18.
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