Monday, March 31, 2014

Super Copy Of William Burroughs' Scarce Digit Junkie $15,000 At New York Antiquarian Book Fair

by Stephen J. Gertz

A copy of the incredibly scarce first U.K. edition of William S. Burroughs' Junkie, published in London by Digit Books in 1957, is being offered at the upcoming New York Antiquarian Book Fair, April 3-6, 2014. Inscribed by Burroughs to his friend, Phoenix Bookshop owner Robert Wilson ("For Bob Wilson / With all best / wishes / William Burroughs / as William Lee") and in unusually wonderful condition, the asking price is $15,000.

Yes, that's $15,000 for a mass-market paperback book. But it is the most difficult Burroughs "A" item to acquire and one of the most collectible vintage paperbacks of all. It is definitely the most desirable drug-lit. paperback.

Banned by British censors immediately upon publication with all copies in retail circulation ordered returned to their distributors and then all copies in distributors' warehouses commanded to be destroyed, few copies have survived. I've only seen three copies in over thirty years of collecting and book selling, the last one in 2002. That copy, uninscribed, was owned by a friend who sold it to a British dealer for $5,000. What a difference twelve years and an inscribed copy with stunning association in excellent condition makes. This copy is likely the finest extant; if there's a better one it has yet to surface.

William S. Burroughs, c. late 1970s.
Photographer: David Sandell.
Provenance: Though not noted, from the collection of Tuli Kupferberg.

"For many struggling writers and poets of the latter half of the twentieth century, Robert A. Wilson [b. 1922] was a familiar and comforting presence. As the third proprietor of the Phoenix Bookshop in New York City from 1962 to 1988, Wilson provided both encouragement and financial support to beginning writers. A great lover of literature, Wilson specialized in rare books and manuscripts and shipped his material to enthusiastic readers in all parts of the world.

"Through the bookshop, Wilson published the work of many notable writers, including Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore, W.H. Auden, Allen Ginsberg, Elizabeth Bishop, and Richard Wilbur. During his twenty-six year tenure as the proprietor of the Phoenix, Wilson oversaw the publication of no less than forty-three volumes.

"An avid collector of rare books and manuscripts for his own personal collection, Wilson himself is the author of more than a dozen volumes, many of which he published on a mimeograph machine in the back room of the Phoenix. Among these are Auden's Library (1975); Marianne Serves Lunch (1976); Robert Haggard's She (1977);  Faulkner on Fire Island (1979); and Tea With Alice (1978), an interview with his friend, Alice Toklas.

"In 1988, financial difficulties forced Wilson to close the doors forever, thereby ending the Phoenix's fifty-six year history" (University of Delaware, Special Collections, Robert A. Wilson Collection).

Wilson's memoir, Seeing Shelley Plain ( 2001), relates how he transformed a small, obscure book shop into a internationally renowned literary harbor. Within he writes of his close, long-standing friendships with some of the great figures of 20th century literature, including Marianne Moore, W.H. Auden, and Burroughs, and provides mini-biographies of many famous "Beat Generation" poets, including Allen Ginsberg, Diane Di Prima, Gregory Corso, and Michael McClure. It also contains a previously unpublished piece by Burroughs.

When Junkie was originally published in the U.S. in 1953 by Ace Books it was issued in a two-fer edition inversely bound with a reprint of ex-Bureau of Narcotics agent Maurice Helbrant's 1941 Narcotics Agent. By doing so Ace exploited the contemporary craze for dope-themed literature but played it safe in a hostile environment that in 1952 had seen the United States Congress hold hearings on literature it considered morally repugnant for children and of dubious cultural or otherwise value to adults. Ace took no chances, correctly reasoning that Helbrant's tough anti-dope book would mitigate Junkie's unapologetic, outlaw romantic, almost positive view of heroin use.

The British edition - the first separate edition of Junkie - without the influence of Helbrant's book was a bit too much for British authorities. The back cover to the Digit edition, a masterpiece of sensational drug eroticism, didn't help. Falling firmly onto the censors' list of Yikes! its overt message of sex and drugs was not one the British wished to be delivered.

The front cover art to the Digit edition recreates rather than reproduces Al Rossi's original for the Ace edition and, strictly speaking, attribution should read, "after Al Rossi"; it is a repainting of the original with subtle differences in color, framing, the figures' hair, face, etc.

The book is being offered by Brian Cassidy, Bookseller, who, in celebration of Burroughs' centennial, is devoting an entire display case to Burroughs material, including the photos seen here, at the Fair, which will include another scarce gem, a precious copy of the 1957 off-print of Burroughs' Letter From a Master Drug Addict To Dangerous Drugs, which originally appeared in Vol. 53, No. 2 of The British Journal of Addiction (1956). A notorious Burroughs rarity, it was issued at his request in a print-run estimated at no more than fifty copies, tops. In excellent condition it is being offered for $3,000.

Letter From a Master Addict..., is, as critic Carol Loranger has written, "one of Burroughs' most subversive pieces of comic writing. The 'scientific' language and deadpan asides both anticipate and replicate...the 'scientific' language and asides of much of the narrative of Naked Lunch...The language of the article, together with Burroughs' heavy use of passive constructions and medical jargon, careful attention to definition of terms, and (for botanicals) use of Latin species names, combines with its encyclopedic organization and tabulations of data to effectively imitate science writing of the day - an imitation Burroughs then undermines with odd anecdotes" (Postmodern Culture, Volume 10, Number 1, September 1999).

William S.. Burroughs, c. 1962,
with Antony Balch in the Beat Hotel, Paris.
Photographer: Nicolas Tikhomiroff. $4,000.

The fact that this piece by Burroughs (whose Junkie pseudonym, William Lee, was blown by this time) appeared near simultaneous to the Digit edition of Junkie likely helped doom the book's appearance on the British welcome wagon of wholesome literature, William S. Burroughs a serious saboteur of mainstream cultural and moral values. 

So, go to the 2014 New York Antiquarian Book Fair, with over 200 expert dealers from nearly twenty countries around the world exhibiting, check your steely dan at the door, go to the booth of Brian Cassidy, Bookseller, wish Burroughs a happy 100th birthday, and drool over a fine selection of his contributions to the decline of Western civilization.

Afterward, visit the offices of Dr. Benway, Burroughs' go-to medico, who doesn't give a bat's butt about a patient's state of mind but has some marvelously graphic things to say about how to remove a patient's brain with the sucker none the wiser and better off for its excision. In a brainless world the brainless are kings with the brainful at a distinct disadvantage.

Images courtesy of Brian Cassidy, Bookseller, with our thanks.

It's about time and long overdue that a census be taken of all extant copies of the Digit edition of Junkie. Any volunteers?

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