Irving Rosenthal: “Your money or your life!”

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by Alastair Johnston

Philip Whalen, Invention of the Letter & Winning His Way

Philip Whalen, Invention of the Letter and Winning His Way

The famous saying of highwayman Dick Turpin, as he pointed his pistol at travelers on the roads of England in the 1670s, was “Stand and deliver, your money or your life!” My partner Frances Butler interpreted this another way: you can spend your life working for others to make money to enjoy what free time you have left, or you can have a life and let the material things go. Most artists are not appreciated in their lifetime, so why struggle to earn a living from your art? Give it away and you wont have to fulfill anyone else’s expectations. The real artist, a true outsider, produces not a body of work which is collectable but their own life as their artwork.

Irving Rosenthal, born in San Francisco in 1930, first attained notoriety as the editor of Chicago Review in the late 50s when he decided to publish William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and other underground writers. He was forced out by the academic editorial board. After moving to New York he started Big Table, printing as his first issue the contents of the suppressed Beat edition of the Chicago Review. In 1961 he visited Cuba and then lived in Tangier from 1962 to 1964. He appeared in Jack Smith’s films Flaming Creatures (1963, with Judith Malina), No President (1967, alongside Charles Henri Ford, Piero Heliczer, Robert Lavigne and Gerard Malanga) and The Borrowed Tambourine (1967). Back in New York he started a small offset press called Carp & Whitefish.

Edward Marshall, Transit GloryHis first publication was Edward Marshall’s Transit Glory, which is 14 cards in a beaded envelope, each with a poem by Marshall on the recto and a drawing by William Heine on the verso. He recalled:

In 1966 I was in New York, putting together a print shop called Carp & Whitefish. By mid-1967 I had one book printed (Marshall’s Transit Glory) and another in the works (Whalen’s Invention of the Letter). The Marshall book was a fancy little contraption with a drawstring that pulled the pages up from a pocket. It was to sell for a dollar, and I was hoping to distribute fifty or a hundred copies to each of the half-dozen or so bookstores in New York City that specialized in modern poetry. As I was planning to move to San Francisco, either temporarily or permanently, I was eager to unload as many books as possible in the East before I left. But the first (supposedly hip) bookstore I approached placed so minuscule an order, that I resolved to sell the book on the streets myself, and bought a two-dollar City of New York Peddler’s License. But I was too busy collating and binding the Whalen book to sell the Marshall book. A month after I got my license I was on my way to San Francisco with both editions.

Philip Whalen, Invention of the Letter, Title Page & ProspectusThe book he commissioned from Philip Whalen, The Invention of the Letter, was a hand-drawn fable about Adam & Eve and birds and lions written while Philip was teaching English in Kyoto in 1966. It’s a simple goofy, happy-ever-after number in Whalen’s charming, casual and characteristic style, reminiscent of Edward Lear. But it depressed Rosenthal who was unhappy precisely because Adam and Eve were so happy. He wrote Philip to ask him if he couldn’t add a page of “two males holding hands — so homos don’t cry when they see all the little lion cubs…”

Two weeks later Rosenthal got Philip’s reply to the above suggestions:

Phiip Whalen, Invention of the Letter, backAs for additions, just leave the book alone. I’ll write you another one entirely, guaranteed to suit your most extravagant fancies — but I don’t want to alter this one, which is another kick entirely. I don’t think that you are sinful or wicked or evil, I don’t put you down I don’t put myself down. All I mean is that THE INVENTION OF THE LETTER is finished, as far as I’m concerned. Let me write you something else.

In response to this offer, Rosenthal wrote, “Please begin work at once on your second book for me — a homo erotic book of text and drawings guaranteed to suit my most extravagant fancies — Jesus! Philip pull out all the stops! I WILL PRINT IT.”

Whalen had taken psilocybin and wrote, “I feel too happy & loose to worry about lovely beefcake book — later, when I’m scared & neurotic enough, I’ll be able to do it, but not today.”

Irving Rosenthal, Sheeper1967 was a pivotal year for Rosenthal. His novel Sheeper, a bawdy, self-deprecatory gay romp, which he started writing in Tangier, appeared from Grove Press, immediately establishing him as an important novelist. It contains telling portraits of Allen Ginsberg, Alex Trocchi & Herbert Huncke. Fifty years on the graphic homosexuality doesn’t phase us, but the misogyny is a bit hard to swallow, however it is tempered by a sympathetic comic portrait of his overbearing immigrant mother:

My mother was a tiny chattering woman who could bully no one but an infant. Alas I was her infant and now blast trumpet and tuba against the monstrous regiment of women.

Richard Brodney, the designer at Grove Press, was a friend of Rosenthal and Mike McClure and a fan of Dave Haselwood’s work. Sheeper was elegantly designed by Haselwood, who had wound up Auerhahn Press the year before. It has an elaborate cover image, not of a sheep, but of a dragonfly — how lovely, yet how like a winged cockroach — with a sunburst and bordered boxes like stained glass. “Style belongs to the insects,” proclaims Sheeper. The rear has a black and white photo of the author looking like the Bearded Lady he mentions in the text. The work flashes like a dragonfly from scene to scene, mentioning authors in passing: “Hurrah for poets who squeak! Wieners! McClure! Lamantia! Corso!”

Later he catches mice, who also squeak, and hurls them out the window. Edward Marshall is a scrounger who went home with a sadist who put a dog collar on him and forced him into sex acts “and him a poet and divinity student too.” He addresses (Don) Allen, pointing out which parts he knows the Grove editor will object to, and the other Allen, the poet with whom he has a love-hate relationship. “And here we sit like two outmoded adding machines, crocheting a passage in Marrows’ great novel from twelve different manuscript versions.”

Sheeper is sex and drugs and a little jazz. And when the sex and drugs run out (infrequently) there is sparkling prose style cut with the baby laxative of literary criticism:

When I first met Charles I thought, O great God a Gargantua! A Pantagruel! A whale! A walrus among men! Great God did Melville have him in mind — in the back of some old black ledger? His tusks rise up from the steamy brine ten feet ahead of him. Above I hear the whirr and boom of gull cries, and down below my mother cries, ‘What’s a goddam walrus doing in the bathtub?’ Throw him a fish! O throw him a fish! (Or throw him a piece of Duncan’s poetry — chunks of whale fat — thick curls and flourishes — can’t see the bum for the blubber.) O great bursts of gas he is a grampus! A house! A cow or barn! A Major Hoople or Mighty Mouse! O.K. black mountain, soon come the caterpillars.

The Invention of the Letter was finally printed by October 1967 and out of the blue the pornographic sequel Rosenthal had requested from Whalen showed up in his mail.

Rosenthal moved back to San Francisco in late 1967 with George Harris, founder of the Cockettes, taking all his printing equipment and they co-founded a commune later known as Kaliflower (after their weekly newsletter, published between April 1969 and December 1971). The collective also organized the Free Food Conspiracy in 1968, whose aims were self-evident. Their printing was done in his Free Print Shop on Sutter Street. Rosenthal ran into Richard Brautigan whose come-on was handing out broadsides of his poems in the Haight and so was inspired to give away the Whalen book at a reading at Glide Memorial Church in May 1968. The book was advertised at $1.25 but copies were handed out gratis to the audience. Then Rosenthal got preoccupied with his social activism and diverted his printing to help local arts and community service groups. While the Hippies and Diggers made inroads and gained acceptance in the local community there was a backlash against gays. As late as 1978 the Briggs Initiative attempted to bar homosexuals from working in California public schools.

Philip Whalen, Winning His WayRosenthal still had Whalen’s gay manuscript, titled Winning his Way, or the Rise of William Johnson, stashed away, and finally printed it in 1984. However the cultural climate of San Francisco had changed by then: the gay community was reeling under the blow of the AIDS epidemic, so “gayness” in terms of being lighthearted and frivolous was no longer applicable. Furthermore Whalen was an abbot at the San Francisco Hartford Street Zendo, ministering to indigent people dying of AIDS, and Rosenthal couldn’t find an appropriate venue to give away the work. After Philip’s death in 2002 he took the finished copies to a memorial reading at Presentation Theater and handed them out.

During the time I had edited the Chicago Review, I had slowly come to understand that my calling in life was art, and in those days — my late twenties — I took it for granted that one tried very hard to earn one’s living by practicing one’s calling. But in truth, only a small handful of all the artists I knew or knew of actually earned their livings by selling their art-work. I asked myself what a work of art was worth. What is a poem worth? When I edited the Review I inaugurated a policy of payment to contributors — $5, $10, $15, $25 — token sums, that would, I hoped, make the recipients feel as though their work had value. But after I had written a book, and suffered the humility of seeing it treated by the publisher as a piece of meat, and after I had seen my Marshall books, each one strung with two beads, treated by a bookseller like Greenwich Village earrings, I came to the conclusion that works of art don’t belong in the marketplace, being qualitatively different from pork chops and costume jewelry. They are emanations of the spirit and cannot be priced. For what price tag can be stuck on a Moby-Dick? — which has by now fed thousands of publishers, doctoral fellows, full professors, translators, grocers with book-racks, actors, and make-up persons, not to mention the spiritually hungry — as if it were the dining table of a king. When I came to San Francisco the last stone of this fence of reasoning fell into place. Let others keep an eye on the market and dollar-up their art-work; as for me, mine was unpriceable — it was to be bestowed.

Irving Rosenthal, Pros in PoetryIt is from this background of “sharing is caring” that Rosenthal’s feelings about poets who seek fame in order to accrue wealth, groupies, whatever, came to the boil with his polemic essay “Pros in Poetry.” The writing is a bit quaint but the passion is there. It is set in Caslon Old Face, which was Auerhahn’s house typeface and the title page with the swash italic Ps plus the little devices made of inverted cap Ps are also very reminiscent of Haselwood’s style. But while it is set in Haselwood’s signature Caslon, it is photo-set and not repro-ed from metal. (It appears to be the Mergenthaler cutting designed by George Ostrochulski for film-setting.)

We know from Sheeper that Rosenthal had a difficult relationship with Ginsberg when he wrote, “Because when I faced Allen under ether I saw he loved me exceedingly, but my facing him stopped that love in its tracks, built a wall around it that will never be scaled.”

Is your aim to be a brilliant poet or a grinding careerist? he asks. “A little talent may help — the way a little truth lends credence to a lie.” Ginsberg is a poet of publicity and not dissimilar to Zsa Zsa Gabor. His cohort Gary Snyder is the “cult poet of the ecology movement, patron saint of the hippie lifestyle” but given to long-winded, drab prose. Both of them are guilty of feeding into the monoculture they pretend to reject in their work. Say something once and shut up. There’s no need to repeat it ad nauseam, he insists, turning to Whitman. The beef with Whitman goes back a long way also: “I’m not talking about cock itch but rosy boy body love. Or rosy girl body love (phony democratic device we queer writers seem stuck with since Whitman).” (Sheeper, p. 124) “By ‘harmless’ celebration of Self Whitman bumsteered a a lineage of poets into indulging already rampant and ugly self-habits…”

Candide-like, he urges us to avoid the big-city slicker poets who come to town and “water the flowers of our own local yokelhood”: “Either one issues samizdat or is Rod McKuen.”

The book — a fine example of samizdat — bears no copyright, and so we can assume the author’s intent was to have it freely available. And one of the main problems of things given away is they immediately accrue scarcity value, so that all the Carp & Whitefish works now fetch exorbitant prices on the rare book market.

As of this writing Rosenthal, now in his 80s, is still involved in community activism, operating a food pantry and shelter out of his South-of-Market home.

Written by Alastair Johnston and published by RealityStudio on 1 July 2018. Irving Rosenthal’s papers are housed at Stanford.

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