Naked Lunch at Fifty

“‘Disgusting,’ they said . . . ‘Pornographic’ . . . ‘Un-American trash’ . . . ‘Unpublishable’ . . . Well, it came out in 1959, and it found an audience . . . Town meetings . . . Book burnings . . . And an Inquiry by the State Supreme Court . . . That book made quite a little impression . . .” — William Burroughs

In 2006 Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” turned fifty years old. A year later, in 2007, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road hit that same milestone. Now it’s William S. Burroughs’ (the oldest of the trio) turn to see his masterpiece turn fifty.

In July of 1959 Naked Lunch was published in France by Olympia Press. American obscenity laws prohibited the publication of the book in the United States, and so it wasn’t until 1962 that Naked Lunch came to be published by Grove Press. The two editions differed greatly because the Grove Press version was based on a much earlier manuscript, given to them by Allen Ginsberg.

The title of the book is a somewhat contentious issue. According to Burroughs’ introduction, Jack Kerouac was responsible for naming the book, and that “the title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” Kerouac appreciated the accreditation, as he stated in a 1960 letter to Ginsberg, but pointed out that the phrase had been misread. Originally it had been “Naked Lust”.

And so from the misread “Naked Lust” we came to “Naked Lunch”, which the publisher of the book and many of fans over the years have all mistaken for The Naked Lunch. Over the years editions have varied in titling the book with or without the article “the”.

But the debate over the title of the novel is hardly the limit of its controversy. Naked Lunch caused an uproar upon publication, and has been infamous ever since. Its obscenity trial in Boston was the last significant obscenity trial in American literature.

Upon its publication in the United States it was banned in both Boston and Los Angeles. The Los Angeles ban was repealed in 1965 and the Boston ban was repealed in 1966, due to the fact that the books were deemed to have some social value.

Ginsberg – who helped Burroughs write Naked Lunch – was instrumental in orchestrating its success over the obscenity charges brought in a Boston courtroom. He was, of course, no stranger to such controversy and censorship. In 1957 the Supreme Court’s Roth v. United States decision saved all copies of “Howl” from being destroyed and freed Lawrence Ferlinghetti from criminal charges of distributing obscene material through his City Lights bookstore.

Ginsberg thus testified as an expert witness on behalf of Grove Press, who succeeded in having the book tried instead of individual retailers – as a means of protecting its constitutional rights. When he appeared in court he even went as far as to wear a shirt, tie and jacket – something that was unheard of for Ginsberg at the time. He normally fit the bill as a stereotypical Beatnik.

Ginsberg spoke about the novel in court for more than an hour, discussing its structure, themes and literary merit. Having helped Burroughs compose it appeared to have given Ginsberg a better understanding of Naked Lunch even than its author. He dissected every element of the book and demonstrated how it acted as an incredibly complex piece of social criticism, and was therefore an important piece of art.

Despite Ginsberg’s testimony – not to mention that of Norman Mailer and the other witnesses – the judge branded Naked Lunch obscene, and few people were surprised.

However, on July 7th, 1966 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favour of the appeal that was launched by the defense, and a huge victory was struck for free speech and for art. Naked Lunch was no longer deemed “obscene”.

It is notoriously difficult to describe or summarize Naked Lunch, which is why it is so surprising that Ginsberg so adequately put forth its case in Boston, and why critics reacted so well to David Cronenberg’s 1991 film version.

Naked Lunch isn’t meant to make any particular sense in a conventional, linear way. The book is intended to be read in any order, in keeping with the cut-up method used to create it from Burroughs’ giant manuscript, and the chaotic volumes of writing from which various parts of his novels were drawn. He believed that by distorting the text he was revealing implicit meanings. As Ginsberg demonstrated in his courtroom defense, Naked Lunch was hardly lacking in meaning.

There are passages in the text that deal with capital punishment, with drugs, sex… The prose flits between locations from New York to Tangiers, and predicts with startling precision a future that the book continues to outgrow. It deals with themes and ideas that are still relevant today – and as such one could claim is more significant a piece of writing that either On the Road or “Howl”. One could spend years pulling Naked Lunch apart and explaining each scene or sentence or moment. In doing so, if Burroughs’ theory has any credence, we are exploring the author’s mind.

Indeed, Naked Lunch was more than social commentary – it was a highly personal book in many respects. Although Kerouac and Ginsberg helped Burroughs compile his book, it was drawn from stories and journals inspired by his own warped life. Naked Lunch unfolded sporadically over nine years and never truly settled on any finalized version. It was – like Burroughs himself – in a constant state of flux and development. Reading the “Editor’s Note” from the Restored Text edition, it is a wonder that the novel ever came to be published.

But published it was, thanks entirely to Ginsberg’s role as literary agent for the Beats. He managed to have excerpts published by Robert Creeley’s Black Mountain Review, LeRoi Jones’ Yugen, and – controversially – the Chicago Review. The book was composed throughout travels on four continents, but finally came to a “final” version only when Maurice Girodas told Burroughs that he had two weeks to make the Olympia Press deadline.

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For more information on Naked Lunch and its fiftieth anniversary, please see www.nakedlunch.org or read Naked Lunch @ 50: Anniversary Essays, published by Southern Illinois University Press.

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Author: David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom magazine and the author of The Dog Farm. He travels a lot, and is currently working as a professor in China. His latest book is called Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult. You can read more about and by David at his blog, www.davidswills.com or on Tumblr.

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