Surrealistic in its tone, this novel is narrated by a drug addict traveling through the American South and Mexico in search of drugs. Along the way he sees grotesque scientific experiments on human beings, subhuman monsters, and bizarre sexual activity. His largely formless narrative ends in violence, with him killing narcotics officers as he struggles through a nightmarish withdrawal from drugs.
When the manuscript of Naked Lunch was almost complete in 1958, Allen Ginsberg sent a copy to French publisher Maurice Girodias, whose Olympia Press had produced many books that were banned in the United States and Great Britain. After Girodias dismissed the book as “uncommercial,” Ginsberg sent it to Irving Rosenthal, the editor of The Chicago Review. Rosenthal tried to publish eighty pages of the manuscript in the journal, but the administrators of the University of Chicago suppressed the entire issue. Rosenthal then founded a new journal, Big Table, which was published with ten episodes from Naked Lunch in the spring of 1959.
Hoping to capitalize on this publicity, Girodias requested the entire manuscript and published it in Paris in 1959. The book was not legally available in the United States until Barney Rosset of Grove Press, which published Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in 1961, decided to release an American edition in 1962. Burroughs added an introduction in which he compared the book to Jonathan Swift’s satirical A Modest Proposal, a response to reviews like those by John Willett in the Times Literary Supplement which called for “the book world” to “clean up the mess”—an obvious invitation to censor the novel.
The book was prosecuted as obscene by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, an action following what scholar Michael Goodman cited as the last step in the publishing history of a book “censored by the academy, the U.S. Post Office, the U.S. Customs Service, and the state and local government.” After an illustrious group of artists, including Norman Mailer, John Ciardi, and Ginsberg were called as expert witnesses to testify to the book’s artistic objectives and values, the Massachusetts Supreme Court declared the work not obscene based on national criteria in 1966.