Irving Rosenthal, low-profile force on the Beat scene, dies at 91

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Irving Rosenthal, low-profile force on the Beat scene, dies at 91
He published Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs in the late 1950s. The university that oversaw his journal was not pleased with the “Naked Lunch” excerpt.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK, NY.- Irving Rosenthal wasn’t famous like the Beat figures he associated with — Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and others. But he was an integral part of their scene. In fact, he propelled it forward at a crucial time.

In the late 1950s, Rosenthal was a graduate student at the University of Chicago and editor of its affiliated journal, Chicago Review. He and his poetry editor, Paul Carroll, were fond of the Beat writers who had emerged on the West Coast and elsewhere and began publishing them. The spring 1958 issue featured Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Ginsberg, Kerouac and others who had been making an impression on the San Francisco poetry scene, as well as an excerpt from Burroughs’ shocking (but not yet published) novel “Naked Lunch.”

Another “Naked Lunch” excerpt appeared in the autumn 1958 issue, garnering considerable attention — not all of it positive. “Filthy Writing on the Midway,” read the headline of a scalding October column by Jack Mabley of The Chicago Daily News. Rosenthal quickly felt pressure from university officials; he was told that the next issue needed to be “completely innocuous,” something he could not guarantee.

“As we’ve got it planned,” he wrote to the university’s chancellor, “it won’t be innocuous.”

Rather than give the university an excuse to kill the journal, Rosenthal resigned, taking the galleys for the suppressed issue with him.

He, Carroll and other editors who quit the Chicago Review founded Big Table, an influential although short-lived journal. In the first issue, appearing in spring 1959, they published the material that had been planned for the Chicago Review, including more “Naked Lunch,” writings by Kerouac and Edward Dahlberg, and three poems by Gregory Corso.

Rosenthal died on April 22 at the commune in San Francisco he founded in 1967. He was 91.

Eric Noble, a historian well versed in the Beat era who had known Rosenthal for decades, confirmed the death.

Rosenthal’s life after the Chicago Review episode had its colorful moments, including a court case over an attempt to suppress Big Table and the publication of his gay novel, “Sheeper,” in 1967. His San Francisco commune was known for its print shop and its newsletter, Kaliflower. For the most part, though, Rosenthal remained a background figure in a scene defined by big names, which was his preference.

“Irving had a radical disinterest in fame and notoriety,” author Steve Silberman, who was a teaching assistant to Ginsberg, said by email. “After jump-starting the Beat Generation by publishing William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso in his magazine Big Table, Irving spent the rest of his life making himself invisible to the literary and academic establishment and the press, while living out his anti-capitalist beliefs in a commune that persisted from the Summer of Love era until the present day.

“As successive generations of his heroes ‘sold out,’” Silberman added, “he retained a kind of impeccable purity through the sheer force of crankiness and monklike devotion to the countercultural community he built and died in.”

Irving Rosenthal was born Oct. 9, 1930, in San Francisco to Sidney and Belle (Wolfred) Rosenthal. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Pomona College in 1952.

He was at the University of Chicago studying human development when he began working at, and then running, the Chicago Review. Eirik Steinhoff, who would be the journal’s editor in the 2000s, reconstructed the late-1950s clash in a 2006 article in the Chicago Review.

“If little magazines are barometric instruments, as Lionel Trilling described them,” Steinhoff wrote, then Rosenthal “produced a magazine that made as much weather as it measured.”

Steinhoff, in an email exchange, elaborated on Rosenthal’s impact.

“Irving Rosenthal dilated the horizons of what was possible both on and off the page,” he said.

His wide-ranging vision was evident in the summer 1958 issue of the Chicago Review, which was devoted entirely to the subject of Zen in all its manifestations.

“Where the Burroughs publications accelerated an inevitable intergenerational seismic transformation,” Steinhoff noted, “the Zen materials supplied an enduring methodology for engaging with disturbance.”

Rosenthal’s censorship battles didn’t end when he left the University of Chicago. The first issue of Big Table was impounded by the U.S. Post Office, which deemed it too obscene for the mail. In 1960, a U.S. District Court ruling rejected the Post Office’s arguments and said the magazine could indeed be mailed.

After leaving the university, Rosenthal spent time in Cuba and Tangier, Morocco, as well as in New York, where he tried his hand at running a small press. He was also involved in the projects of experimental filmmaker Jack Smith, appearing in his “Flaming Creatures” (1963) and “No President” (1967).

In 1967, he returned to San Francisco with George Harris, who would soon take the name Hibiscus and achieve fame in gay circles and beyond by founding the Cockettes, a collective of drag performers. They lived at the commune that Rosenthal set up, originally known as the Sutter/Scott Street Commune after its location and founded “on principles of a common treasury, group marriage, free art, gay liberation and selfless service,” as a catalog entry put it for an auction of back issues of the Kaliflower newsletter.

Rosenthal’s survivors include members of that commune, where he had lived ever since.

As for “Sheeper,” Rosenthal’s major literary output (the title referred to the central character), Donald Stanley, writing in The San Francisco Examiner when it was published in 1967, described it as having no plot except “the recurrence over and over and over again of the details of Sheeper’s homosexuality.”

“But leaving the question of morality to better moralists than I,” he added, “one is stuck with the conviction that this approach, this startling frankness, this violation of old taboos will become commoner before it becomes rarer.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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