Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs, was originally published in 1959 and is included in Time magazine’s “100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005”. Burroughs stated that the chapters, or “routines” as he calls them- are a collection of loosely-connected vignettes and intended to be read in any order which follow the adventures of junkie William Lee, who takes on various aliases from the U.S. to Mexico and other places. The stories come from Burroughs’ own experiences and his addiction to drugs (heroin, morphine, and while in Tangier, “Majoun”- a strong marijuana confection-, as well as a German opiate called Eukodol, of which he wrote about frequently).
It was originally published as The Naked Lunch in Paris in July 1959 by Olympia Press, but due to U.S. obscenity laws a complete American edition did not follow until 1962 and was titled Naked Lunch. This edition was noticeably different from the Olympia Press edition because it was based on an earlier 1958 manuscript in Allen Ginsberg’s possession. The article “the” added to the title was never proposed by Burroughs and added by the editors of Olympia Press.
Burroughs states in his introduction that Jack Kerouac suggested the title. “The title means exactly what it states: naked lunch- a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.”
Naked Lunch is Burroughs’ signature work and considered today one of the pillars of American literary history despite being quite controversial with subjects such as drug use and homosexuality.
Sections of the original manuscript were published in the Spring 1958 edition of Robert Creeley’s Black Mountain Review and the Spring 1958 edition of the University of Chicago’s student-run publication The Chicago Review. The student edition was poorly received and caused the university’s administration to discuss the future censorship of the Winter 1959 edition of the Review, resulting in the resignation of all but one of the editors. When the editor, Paul Carroll, published BIG TABLE Magazine (Issue No. 1, Spring 1959) alongside former Chicago Review editor Irving Rosenthal, he was found guilty of sending obscene material through the U.S. mail for including “Ten Episodes from Naked Lunch”, a piece of writing the Judicial Officer for the United States Postal Service deemed “undisciplined prose, far more akin to the early work of experimental adolescents than to anything of literary merit” and initially judged it as non-mailable under the provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 1461.
The book was banned in Boston and Los Angeles in 1962 and several European publishers were harassed.
The controversy even resulted in an infamous 1965 obscenity trial taking issue with its inclusion of child murder and acts of pedophilia, but that decision was reversed in 1966 by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The Appeals Court found the book did not violate obscenity statutes and ruled it to have some social value. The hearing included testimony in support of the work by Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer.
For a further- and thoroughly-interesting read- here is a link to a partial transcript from the trial involving testimony by Ginsberg and noted author Norman Mailer. Here’s a snippet:
Q: When you use the words, “absolutely fascinating,” and so on, do you mean also, it has importance to you as a writer and other writers? Are you expressing notion of its importance?
Mailer: It has enormous importance to me as writer.
As for its social value, that is derived from the social discourse the work prompts on various subjects- specifically the death penalty. In Burroughs’ “Deposition: A Testimony Concerning A Sickness”, “The Blue Movies” which appear in the routine “A.J.’s Annual Party”, is considered “a tract against capital punishment.”
Naked Lunch was also banned in Australia from 1960-1973 and labeled as “hard-core pornography” by Customs after an imported copy was seized at Port Adelaide in February 1960.
In September 1963 the Literature Censorship Board received an application from Clem Christesen, founder of the literary and cultural affairs journal Meanjin, to import the novel under Regulation 4A of the Customs Act, which allowed prohibited literary books to be placed on restricted circulation. The Board didn’t agree with the Customs Department’s decision to ban Naked Lunch as pornographic recommended that Christesen’s request be approved. However, the censors unanimously agreed to retain the ban on the general sale of the book. Chairman Kenneth Binns concluded that “there is no need to note any particularly objectionable scene or passage for the book is so full of them and the general writing so extremely coarse that one need only consider the general character and tone.”
By July 1973, Naked Lunch was one of the last literary works to remain on Australia’s prohibited list. John Allen wrote to Customs Minister Don Chipp in 1972: “(sic) Being well aware that book censorship has to some extent been liberalised during your present term of office, I am most perplexed that Burroughs’ work should still be unavailable here.”
The Board agreed and removed the ban as well as on two other titles by Burroughs. What’s disturbing is the reasoning behind the decision. It wasn’t logic or an acknowledgment that censorship in any form is wrong. The official reason to lift the ban was because “none of them [are] likely to be popular reading, [and] had already been on the list for some time”.
The full 44 page customs report from 1973 can be viewed on the National Archives of Australia’s website.
For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at http://bbark.deepforestproductions.com/