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Naked Lunch, Big Table

"'I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves.' So starts Naked Lunch, the touchstone novel by William S. Burroughs," Peter Schjeldahl wrote in the New Yorker in 2014.

That hardboiled riff, spoken by a junkie on the run, introduces a mélange of "episodes, misfortunes, and adventures," which, the author said, have "no real plot, no beginning, no end."

It is worth recalling on the occasion of Call Me Burroughs (Twelve), a biography by Barry Miles, an English author of books on popular culture, including several on the Beats. "I can feel the heat" sounded a new, jolting note in American letters, like Allen Ginsberg's "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness," or, for that matter, like T. S. Eliot's "April is the cruelest month." (Ginsberg was a close friend; Eliot hailed from Burroughs's home town of St. Louis and his poetry influenced Burroughs's style.)

In Burroughs's case, that note was the voice of an outlaw reveling in wickedness. It bragged of occult power: "I can feel," rather than "I feel." He always wrote in tones of spooky authority - a comic effect, given that most of his characters are, in addition to being gaudily depraved, more or less conspicuously insane.

Naked Lunch is less a novel than a grab bag of friskily obscene comedy routines - least forgettably, an operating-room Grand Guignol conducted by an insouciant quack, Dr. Benway.

"Well, it's all in a day's work," Benway says, with a sigh, after a patient fails to survive heart massage with a toilet plunger. Some early reviewers spluttered in horror.

Charles Poore, in the Times, calmed down just enough to be forthright in his closing line: "I advise avoiding the book."

Naked Lunch was five years in the writing and editing, mostly in Tangier, and aided by friends, including Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

It first appeared in 1959, in Paris, as The Naked Lunch (with the definite article), in an Olympia Press paperback edition, in company with Lolita, The Ginger Man, and Sexus.

Its plain green-and-black cover, like the covers of those books, bore the alluring caveat "Not to be sold in U.S.A. or U.K." (A first edition can be yours, from one online bookseller, for twenty thousand dollars.)

The same year, Big Table, a Chicago literary magazine, printed an excerpt, and was barred from the mails by the U.S. Postal Service. Fears of suppression delayed a stateside publication of the book until 1962, when Grove Press brought out an expanded and revised edition. It sold so well that Grove didn't issue a paperback until 1966.


On to Chicago, from a secret location:

Big Table was launched in spring 1959 following the suppression of the Winter 1958 issue of The Chicago Review. An exposé in the Chicago Daily News revealed editors Irving Rosenthal's and Paul Carroll's plans to publish work by William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and other Beat writers, and the administration quashed the magazine.

Rosenthal and Carroll, along with other Chicago Review editors, resigned and with the suppressed material started Big Table. The first issue (edited by Rosenthal) contained work by Jack Kerouac (who named the magazine in a telegram: "CALL IT BIG TABLE"), Edward Dahlberg, and Burroughs (a section from Naked Lunch), and was summarily impounded by the U.S. Post Office.

The lawsuit was unsuccessful and Big Table continued through 1960 and five issues. Rosenthal left the magazine after the first issue and Carroll stayed on as editor for the duration, publishing such writers and artists as Paul Bowles, Antonin Artaud, Leon Golub, John Logan, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Robert Fulton, Harry Callahan, Douglas Woolf, Aaron Siskind, Paul Blackburn, Franz Kline, Diane di Prima, and Gregory Corso.

Big Table began publishing books in 1968 and continued through 1971, bringing out The Big Table Series of Younger Poets which included Bill Knott, Kathleen Norris, Dennis Schmitz, and Andrei Codrescu.

Aside from poetry and fiction Big Table also published Claes Oldenburg's Proposals for Monuments and Buildings 1965-69 and No One Was Killed: Documentation and Meditation: Convention Week, Chicago, August 1968, by novelist John Schultz who was covering the Democratic Convention for The Evergreen Review. The imprint was resurrected around 1991 and published three books by editor and poet Paul Carroll before his death in 1996.



"In 1959, Gregory Corso and Peter Orlovsky accompanied Ginsberg to Chicago for a benefit reading for Big Table [named at Kerouac's suggestion], a newly established literary publication born as a result of censorship of the student magazine the Chicago Review. The reading took place on 29 January, 1959."


Comments welcome.


Posted on June 26, 2018

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