Lecture 9

[Ted Morgan: Literary Outlaw: The Life & Times of William S. Burroughs (1991)]

William Burroughs:
Naked Lunch (1959)


Anthology Texts:

History of the Ban:

The novel has the distinction of being the last literary work to be declared obscene and brought to trial in America. From the 1959 publication of the book until January 1963, Customs agents seized copies of the work entering the United Stares, justifying their actions under the Tariff Act (1930), which provided for the seizure of allegedly obscene materials. The work was later involved in two legal actions. Although cleared in Los Angeles in 1965 before the case went to trial, it was declared obscene the same year in Boston, where the attorney general argued that the work was "trash." Writers Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg and John Ciardi were called as expert witnesses with psychiatrists and academics to testify regarding the literary merit of the work, but Judge Eugene Hudson remained unconvinced. In delivering his verdict, the judge declared the book to be "obscene, indecent and impure ... and taken as a whole, .. predominantly prurient, hardcore pornography and utterly without redeeming social importance." In response to the claim by the defense that the work held significant social and scientific value, Hudson declared Naked Lunch to be trash written by a "mentally sick" individual.

An appeal was made to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, and Attorney General v. A Book Named "Naked Lunch," 351 Mass. 298, 218 N.E.2d 571 (1966) was heard on October 8,1965. The Supreme Judicial Court acknowledged that the book was "grossly offensive" and reminded those present that the author had himself described the book as "brutal, obscene and disgusting." They also applied the test of redeeming social value to the work and could find no reason to declare the novel as "not utterly without redeeming social value." Their determination that the work was not lacking in social importance resulted from the many reviews and articles in literary and other publications that discussed seriously the controversial hook and showed that a "substantial and intelligent group" within the community believed the book to be of literary significance. On July 7, 1966, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declared the book not obscene. The four members of the court who delivered the favorable decision and the two dissenting members declared further than the book could be sold in the state, but that people would be subject to prosecution if they "have been or are advertising or distributing this book in this Commonwealth in a manner to exploit it for the sake of its possible prurient appeal."

– Nicholas J. Karolides, Margaret Bald & Dawn B. Sova, 100 Banned Books: Censorship Histories of World Literature (New York: Checkmark Books, 1999): 394-95.

Four Compass-points

Leslie Fiedler, in The Return of the Vanishing American (1968), refers to four persistent foci of mythic patterning in American literature, which he identifies with the four points of the compass:

  • The Eastern: the novel of manners, in a European or sophisticated east-coast setting (henry james, Edith Wharton, Scott Fitzgerald)
  • The Western: the novel of the frontier (he'd include Herman Melville here, as well as some of Mark Twain)
  • The Northern: the austere New England Yankee novel (Ethan Frome, The Country of the Pointed Firs)
  • The Southern (Huckleberrry Finn, The Grandissimes - even Uncle Tom's Cabin and Gone with the Wind

This seems to refer back to the distinction between (so-called) "Redskins and Palefaces" in American literature which I discussed in my first lecture on Henry Miller.

If Naked Lunch is a Western, though, what kind of a Western is it?

[Interzone (1998)]

Workshop 9:

We'll begin with the book report on Naked Lunch, then move on to do the class exercise in pairs.

Exercise 9:
Do-it-yourself cut-ups

  • Write a short piece of pure fiction, in whatever mode feels most comfortable to you. You might want to choose a genre like Detective Story, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Children’s Story, rather than realistic narrative
  • Bring along two copies of your piece of fiction to the workshop.
  • When you get here, you'll be divided into pairs, and issued with a pair of scissors, some paper, and some scotch tape.
  • You'll each then be given a short text to read, together with one of the copies of your partner's piece.
  • Your task is to reconcile the two texts in whatever way pleases you best.
  • You can chop up, extract, abridge, and rearrange to your heart's content.

Next week:

Group 4: Book report on The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec due.

[Michel Delsol: I Came Out of My Dream (1988)]

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