Jonathan Williams

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Jonathan Williams Feature

Jed Birmingham

William Burroughs and Jonathan Williams


1

As an obsessive collector who places great significance in every scrap of Burroughsiana, it delighted me to learn that in 1965 Jonathan Williams and Ronald Johnson invited William Burroughs and Buckminster Fuller to dinner. Williams and Johnson were living in a temporary flat in London, and Burroughs must have recently arrived in town after a nine month stay in the United States. Williams reports that Burroughs and Fuller did not know each other. It is a bit of a mystery to me just how friendly Burroughs and Williams in fact were, but in the 1965/ 1966 timeframe, they appeared together in some obscure little magazines like The Spero, Cleft and Residu.

2

This is not all that surprising given that William Burroughs seemingly published everywhere during the mimeo revolution. It is interesting to consider where Burroughs did not appear. The Cleveland scene of d.a. levy is one, and Williams’ Jargon Society series is another. Burroughs’ closest link to Williams as a publisher is not that close. Burroughs appeared in the legendary final issue of Black Mountain Review in 1957. A key appearance for Burroughs. Williams attended Black Mountain in the early 1950’s and began his first forays into publishing there, but he was not involved with the Black Mountain Review as Robert Creeley was in charge of the editing and printing. Of course, Fuller taught at Black Mountain, and he attempted to construct his first geodesic dome there in 1948. So Burroughs had a tenuous link to the Black Mountain scene and was aware of the college. Maybe Williams, Johnson, Fuller and Burroughs talked of Black Mountain at their dinner.

3

This link in publishing history is indeed tenuous. Williams did not publish the Beats. He turned down Howl before City Lights stepped in after the Six Gallery Reading. Williams never felt bad about his decision. Howl would have only sold 300 copies if Jargon had published it he reasoned. Williams did not ask for much in the way of readers. He was happy with 50 dedicated eyes and ears.

4

There are similarities between Jonathan Williams and Burroughs. Both men had privileged backgrounds; both had a sophisticated, aristocratic air about them; both were gay; both lived as expatriates in England; both were jacks of all trades in all aspects of experimental literature and art. Yet I cannot think of two writers more different in their personality, lifestyle, creative work, and literary concerns. I think we can get to the heart of some of those differences by comparing the two men’s relationship to England.

5

For Burroughs, England was simultaneously an escape and a prison. In the mid-1950’s, Burroughs went there seeking a cure to his addiction to heroin with the help of Dr. Yerbery Dent. The apomorphine treatment temporarily freed Burroughs from staring at his shoe in Tangier and allowed him to pour himself into the process of writing Naked Lunch. Yet Burroughs also viewed England as a straitjacket: too buttoned up with university tie fixed on too tight; the royal crown screwed on too tight. In a sense, he hated England. I should stress that England for Burroughs was quite simply London. Anywhere else in the country was strictly Hicksville. Clearly, Burroughs found even London boring: the pubs closed too early as did the subway and restaurants, but in the late summer of 1965, Burroughs saw signs of life in the old slag. Burroughs moved to London just as Swinging London exploded into the global consciousness. Beatles London, Pop London, the Albert Hall Reading London, Mary Quant London, Indica Bookshop London. This was England for Burroughs. He lived at St. Duke Street, St. James from 1966, residing near Anthony Balch and Brion Gysin. The ties to film and art are important. London at the time was the center of international popular culture in music, film, fashion, and art. It was an international center on par with Paris and New York. Such locales were Burroughs’ natural habitat. He was an urban creature, and his best work is urban in nature, even if his view of the city is not entirely positive. Burroughs’ literary landscape and his characters are generally urban: Interzone, the drug underworld, corporate bureaucracy run amok. The cut-up is the urban experience par excellence. Reading the landscape out of a rushing subway, the flood of images and text at Times Square, the polyglot gibberish of an international marketplace, scanning a newspaper over somebody’s shoulder at a street corner.

6

Jonathan Williams’ England was a pastoral one. In 1969 (when Burroughs was living in London), Williams settled at Corn Close, an estate in the North Country of England. Williams was led there by the work and suggestion of Basil Bunting, particularly Bunting’s poem Briggflatts, a poem that electrified many readers when it appeared out of the English North in 1966. If Burroughs’ England is the South, Pop, surface, fast, glossy, schizophrenic, urban and international with an eye toward Paris/ New York, Williams’ England is Northern, earthy, gnarly, slightly daft, Anglo-Saxon, tweedy and rural. Corn Close was the aristocratic country manor gone backwoods. Williams’ experimentalism comes not from the sophistication of the international avant garde, but from the primitivism of folk art, the plain talk and homespun wisdom of the back roads. Williams resisted the urban. Williams stated “I have turned more and more away from the High Art of the city and settled for what I could unearth and respect in the tall grass.” Burroughs found his inspiration in the exact place that Williams turned his back on and closed his ears to.

7

Late in their lives, Williams and Burroughs were the eccentric old men of American Letters, but they came by their eccentricity differently despite similar backgrounds. Both men were clearly at the forefront of the experimental art community of the post-WWII era. In a side note, this is the great triumph of Black Mountain College. Black Mountain incorporated both Williams and Burroughs into its creative vision. There was an international sophisticated experimentalism as well as a backwoods funkiness to the place that was unique in the 20th Century.

8

To return to that seemingly odd dinner in 1965, Williams writes that dinner ended with a Shaker lemon pie baked by Johnson. Williams remembers Burroughs muttering, “Hey, man, that is the craziest lemon pie. I mean groovy.” As Johnson had baked two pies, Burroughs returned to his apartment with a small gift from Williams and Johnson. Now it does not get more classic, more simple, and more homespun than Shaker lemon pie. In fact, it is so old-school that you would be hard pressed to find a restaurant serving it nowadays. Williams specialized in such acts of archeology, both literary and culinary. It is funny how Williams portrays Burroughs as a stereotypical Hippie or Beatnik. Burroughs’ talk is all hip clichés, “man,” “craziest,” and “groovy.” Williams’ critique of Burroughs and the Beats is subtle here. One reason Williams never published the Beats and Burroughs is because he felt they got distracted by hip fads. In Burroughs’ case, this would be the Pop Art, rock music, underground newspapers, and Scientology of Swinging London. I suspect that Williams would have admired Naked Lunch’s excavation of the lost era of 1910 small town Americana and arcane drug slang, but he would have disapproved of Burroughs’ infatuation with the “groovy.” Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and other writings could use more Shaker lemon pie: the homespun, the retro, the old school. More small town Americana, less warmed over European experimentalism exemplified by The Composite City and Interzone. Williams feasted on just such literary comfort food and created works that stuck to the ribs and minds of generations of readers. So on that night in 1965, Williams fed Burroughs well and no doubt provided Burroughs with some much needed food for thought as well.


Jed Birmingham

Jed Birmingham

Jed Birmingham writes occasional articles on William Burroughs, book collecting, and the Beat Generation for Beat Scene magazine. He is the contributing editor of RealityStudio.org, the premier Web site dedicated to William Burroughs, as well as co-editor (with Kyle Schlesinger) of Mimeo Mimeo, a magazine about the Mimeograph Revolution.  His essay on the Olympia Press edition of Naked Lunch will be in the upcoming Naked Lunch @ 50: Anniversary Essays edited by Oliver Harris and Ian MacFadyen.

 
 
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