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  • Not Burroughs’ Final Fix: Materializing The Yage Letters
  • Oliver Harris

The essay reconsiders recent developments in the field of material scholarship and editing to advance the case for a social text approach that recognises the independent life of the text in its multiple material histories. Focusing on the especially complicated textual history of two works by William Burroughs—The Naked Lunch and The Yage Letters—it demonstrates the opportunities of such an approach for both critical interpretation and the production of new editions. Demonstrating how Burroughs criticism has rested upon an inadequate material base, the essay then argues the importance of a more rigorous descriptive approach to his texts, including recognition of their physical codes, and for recovering the original circumstances of their production. In the case of The Yage Letters, making visible the rich complexity of the text’s publishing history enables a more accurate and complete factual record both to underpin new critical interpretation and to generate entirely new objects of critical analysis. It also generates new understandings not only of Burroughs’ writing and of the publishing environment in which he worked, but of the relationship between authorial intention and contingent agency. The bulk of the essay details the materialist underpinnings to the author’s new edition of The Yage Letters. Documenting the text’s provenance in numerous little magazines, it recovers the original social, cultural, and bibliographical histories of these part-publications, and then reveals their unsuspected role in the production of the final text itself. Finally, it considers the implications of textual history for editing practice, framed by recognition of the determining social agency of the publisher.

Consistent Scrutiny

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 Lunch,1 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 [2003]), 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...

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