- Well, Fun and Games What?
William S. Burroughs was a man of letters, not only in the sense of being “a humble practitioner of the scrivener’s trade,” as he described himself in his last journals, but in its most literal sense, as a writer of letters. Of course, all writers keep correspondence of varying scope, but Burroughs’s epistolary exchange is exceptional insofar as it is inextricably linked to his literary production in sheer material and technical terms, in the beginning of his career as a source for his books, and later for his cut-up experiments. The writing of letters was for Burroughs a ritualized artistic activity, as he made clear in his instructions on “The Lost Art of Letter Writing” to his friend Brion Gysin in 1964: “The letters you write are your messengers. Your messengers should be well informed neat and special to your correspondent. No time is ever saved by doing anything improperly. You are a writer? a painter? Any letter you write is or should be your best work.” The interdependence between literary production and epistolary communication echoed in this quotation has been well documented in the first volume of Burroughs’s correspondence that contains a considerable number of routines, brief vignettes charged with grotesque humor, which would later make up large parts of Naked Lunch (1959). In material terms, this interconnectedness can be best demonstrated by pointing to the fact that the routines are not attachments to the letters, but instead, they are an integral part of their textual body.
The insight about the importance of the epistolary for Burroughs’s writing is rather new among Burroughs scholars, and has been stressed and examined on numerous occasions by Oliver Harris, the editor of the first volume of the writer’s correspondence. Rub out the Words (2012) is the long-awaited follow-up, which features a treasure-trove of hitherto unavailable letters that shed light on a decisive period in the writer’s life and career. The book was edited by Bill Morgan, who is known for his work as a biographer and editor of Allen Ginsberg’s correspondence. The division of Burroughs’s biography into two distinct periods created by these two volumes inevitably begs for a comparison of the content and of editorship.
As for the content, New York Times reviewer Luc Sante set both volumes in direct comparison by remarking that: “Rub out the Words, unlike its predecessor is longer on argument than on incident.” To some extent, Sante is right, the previous volume does cover a tumultuous period in Burroughs’s life: his failed farming enterprise in South Texas; his sojourn in Mexico, which ended in the tragic shooting of his common-law wife Joan Vollmer; his arduous odyssey through Central and South America in the search of the drug yagé; and finally his stay in Tangier, defined by his opiate addiction and the recovery therefrom that allowed him to write Naked Lunch, the novel that would make him famous. On the other hand, Sante’s assessment seems very debatable in the light of the biographical and historical events that marked the writing of these letters. The period 1959–1974 was no less eventful than the previous fifteen years. Burroughs was very productive and busy during this time. He ascended to the status of an underground icon, who continued traveling, writing, and taking personal and artistic risks.
The most striking difference between the first and the second volume of Burroughs’s letters is a shift in correspondents. While the focus of Burroughs’s correspondence during 1945–1959 was on Allen Ginsberg, it shifted during 1959 and onwards towards the painter Brion Gysin, who became Burroughs’s close friend, collaborator, and artistic influence. After the publication of Naked Lunch in the summer of 1959 and the ensuing censorship controversies, Burroughs’s work and his persona gained a wider public attention. In the fall of the same year Gysin discovered, by a...