* This post orginally appeared on my old dead blog on 07/11/06
There are four absolute inviolable masterworks of prose in the history of world literature: a la recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust, The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil, The Recognitions by William Gaddis, and Sheeper by Irving Rosenthal.
Chances are you’ve heard of if not actually read the first three (well maybe not the third, it’s somethin’ else). But regarding the last, if you’ve read it then consider yourself among “the happy few.” There was no second printing and copies are as rare as the proverbial hen’s teeth. Published in 1967 by Grove Press Sheeper is not exactly a novel, not exactly a memoir, and not exactly a dissertation on Herman Melville. Yet it’s all three and more. Amidst the “more” you’ll find an extended passage of drug-taking at Alexander Trocchi’s “pad,” plenty of gossip about Allen Ginsberg, Herbert Hunke and William Burroughs (called “Professor X” in the text) and an extended paean of love to a youth called “David.”
It is heaven.
If you “Google” Irving’s name you’ll learn that his story began many years before -- 1958 to be precise at the University of Chicago when ...
Well here’s what the most important account says:
“By fall 1958, Irving Rosenthal and the rest of his student staff had made the Chicago Review one of the most respected literary quarterlies in America, largely on the strength of two thematic issues released earlier that year. The Spring 1958 issue, a collection entitled The San Francisco Poets, included works by Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Whalen, Philip Lamantia, John Wieners, Robert Duncan, and Michael McClure. Except for Evergreen Review 2, the issue had given the so-called "Beat Generation" its first public exposure, and the Chicago Review's connection with the prestigious University of Chicago lent the new literature a patina it had not enjoyed before. Rosenthal then devoted the summer issue almost exclusively to writings on Zen Buddhism, a virtually unknown discipline in the United States. Within four months, the Spring and Summer issues had tripled the Review's circulation. (Sales of the two issues continued steadily into the 1960s.)
----The Review's future looked rosy in September when it released its Autumn issue, an eclectic number that included pieces by Whalen, John Logan, Brother Antoninus, David Riesman, Hugh Kenner; and, as the cover advertised prominently, Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs. Burroughs had become the primary literary enthusiasm of most of the Review staff. They had discovered him almost accidentally through poet Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg was writing long letters to Rosenthal and Paul Carroll, Review poetry editor and the only non-student on the staff, suggesting authors and promoting the new writing. One of these letters included a section from Naked Lunch with the instruction, "Write to Burroughs." Although no one on the staff had ever heard of him, they wrote.”
Burroughs wrote back, and thus a literary legend was born..
“The entire Review staff was aware that Naked Lunch could create problems with the Post Office Department and the police. It was full of voracious homosexuals, homicidal physicians, vicious racists, and cannibalistic sex. Ginsberg wrote to the Review that the book was probably "too raw" to be published in the United States at the time.
----Irving Rosenthal was completely captivated by the writing. He thought Burroughs might he the most important American writer of the century, and he determined to publish Naked Lunch. He conceived a strategy to "sneak" it into the mainstream of American literature bit by bit by publishing excerpts in the Review, each progressively stronger in tone and substance. By the time anyone noticed that Burroughs's writing was objectionable, the novel would he in print, the nation would acknowledge its genius, and censorship would have been forestalled.”
What happened was a whole mess o trouble.
As an account of the above account explains --
“At the University of Chicago, the Chicago Review, under the editorship of Irving Rosenthal and Paul Carroll, had been closely following the emergence of what came to be called the San Francisco Renaissance (Michelson 1990):
They excitedly set about gathering manuscripts from writers who were getting to be known as Beat. The Spring 1958 issue of the Chicago Review was a special San Francisco number. It included work by Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, [...] and the first chapter of Burroughs's Naked Lunch.
A Chicago newspaper columnist got hold of this issue and the Autumn issue (containing a second chapter of Naked Lunch). He wrote a sensationalistic article under the headline "Filthy Writing on the Midway," which resulted in the University administration's suppression of the Winter issue.
----The incident sparked the resignation of Rosenthal, Carroll, and four of the remaining five editors of the Chicago Review. Jointly they decided to start their own magazine, using the suppressed Chicago Review material for their first issue. That magazine emerged under the name Big Table, a name which had been suggested in a telegram from Jack Kerouac. Peter Michelson, in a lengthy article on the controversy, called the inception of Big Table "a stunning counterattack" (Michelson 1990.)”
But maybe we should go back a bit earlier to note some to date unpublished writings stored at the University of Delaware of all places:
“The Irving Rosenthal Papers consist of 28 letters and two postcards from American editor and Beat author Irving Rosenthal primarily to American editor, poet and filmmaker Ira Cohen (b. 1935), as well as manuscript versions of Rosenthal's novel Sheeper, of his Pastiche of the Golden Flower and of his translations of Mohammed ben Abdullah Yussufi's The First Yarmulkas. The collection spans the dates 1963-1967.
----The letters, most of which were written from Morocco, provide valuable insight into the influences that shaped Rosenthal's Sheeper. Rosenthal wrote Sheeper to tell the world how his friend Mohammed ben Abdullah Yussufi was killed by the Moroccan police. Rosenthal's relationship with Mohammed, Rosenthal's own experiences of being falsely arrested and imprisoned by the Moroccan police, Moroccan customs and culture, and other aspects of Rosenthal's personal life are discussed as well. In the letters Rosenthal also gives direction to Cohen regarding his editorial practices and the publication of Sheeper; makes frequent requests for provisions and money; and talks about the Beat culture. Rosenthal mentions several Beats, such as Allen Ginsberg, whose language style he claims had become "popular currency."
What also became part of “popular currency,” though quite inadvertently, was the work of Irving’s erstwhile friend Jack Smith whose Flaming Creatures became a cinematic scandale in 1963, and one of the most famous avant-garde films of all time. Irving appears in this black and white fandango, as well as in Smith’s subsequent unfinished epic No President. When Jack died further problems were created for Irving vis-à-vis the Smith “estate” and its most vociferous guard dog, Penny Arcade.
As C. Carr notes:
“If she thought she had to guard the work from Smith's despair and then his family, Arcade intended to guard it just as tightly against one old friend of Smith's in particular, writer Irving Rosenthal. Rosenthal had appeared in Flaming Creatures and No President and has his own collection of Smithiana in San Francisco. "Jack made me swear," says Arcade, "that if I did not destroy his work, which was his main wish, at least I would not let Irving get it." (Smith had a horror of going into anyone's collection or "vault.") This eventually prompted Arcade to write a will that Smith never signed, but first she suggested institutions that might take his oeuvre. Smith rejected all of them. Rosenthal says he actually wanted the same institutional protections for Smith's archive. He'd encouraged him early in 1989 to donate his work to a museum where it could be properly cared for.
----By the time Rosenthal got to New York, Smith was in a coma, and Arcade was primed for battle. She confronted Rosenthal when he walked into Smith's hospital room, declaring, "Jack told me what an incredible control freak you are" and "his work is not going into your vault." According to Arcade, Rosenthal stormed back out, while she followed him into the hall, screaming, "Talk to Jack! He's not dead yet!" It was the first time Arcade and Rosenthal had ever met.
----For his part, Rosenthal says, "It was absolutely clear to me that the worst thing that could happen to the archives would be for them to end up in Penny's ownership." In his own account of Smith's death, he wrote of finding Smith surrounded by unnamed "death managers," who wanted only to call attention to themselves and then acted irresponsibly with Smith's artifacts. For example, Smith's own slides were projected at his memorial, when Rosenthal thought they should have been duped.
----Everything Smith owned eventually went to a storage space in Arcade's building, where it remained unpacked until the boxes were moved to P.S.1 for archiving in 1991. Arcade spent a couple of years in court trying to save Smith's apartment so it could be turned into a museum. The day the landlord gutted the place, she was there pulling things out of a dumpster.
----Back in San Francisco, Rosenthal wrote a couple of long letters to Mary Sue Slater, whom he'd met at the memorial, urging her: "Get the stuff. Don't leave it in their hands."
Irving survived this deeply unpleasant episode, living to on to achieve a certain level of newfound glory via The Cockettes, Bill Weber and David Weissman’s brilliant documentary film about the great San Francisco hippie/drag queen/acid freak performance troupe. Here’s A brief history of the Cockettes they put together, and here they are with a Cockettes wannabe.
Hibiscus (born George Harris) was one of the great loves of Irving’s life. He is also a signal figure in American political history. Having left the east coast for San Francisco George and Irving stopped off in Washington D.C. to join one of the first massive anti-Vietnam war demos. George’s inspired notion was to stick flowers into the rifles of the National Guardsman standing off against the demonstrators at the Pentagon
AND THUS “FLOWER POWER” WAS BORN!
As for his “workaday enameling,” here are a few choice excerpts from Sheeper:
“Think of an American boy minus that goddam axe of fear in his brain to chop off your cock only wanting to give him what is eyes and shy manners wants an invite in spite of his brainwashing. Think of him belly down on the bed, his bluejeans pushed down to his ankles. He is one who doesn’t wear underwear. The skin of his buttocks is very pale, and he is looking up at you with quiet blue eyes. Without dropping his eyes, he spits into his fingers and wets his own asshole. Please fuck him.”
“Sex as you like it is an animal right -- no mere civil liberty. Defend it with your beak and claw.”
“When I first men Charles I thought, O great God a Gargantua! A Pantagruel! Awhale! 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 above him. Above I ear 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!”
“If I don’t go to Heaven, and if heaven isn’t lined with all the sixteen-year-old boys who even go so far as to make the approach to me, asking me where to catch the D train fro a meet with his girlfriend on West Fourth Street -- he is late - and I asked him if he plucked his eyebrows they were so straight, which he didn’t raise to answer no -- I repeat if those boys don’t give me a second chance to pick up on them in heaven where I won’t get off the D train in a panic bumbling, but with God’s help I will ride all the way to West Fourth Street, where there never was a girlfriend, even I knew that when he said it, and ‘Gee I guess she got tired of waiting,’ and I am supposed to say, ‘We’re not far from my pad, care to come up for a beer?’ I say if this doesn’t happen in heaven then I have wasted my life.”
“The job ahead is to hit it. Dead leaves. Floods of heart attacks. Fleas. Hit it! Hit it! Appetite and diseases! Hit it! Fringes of flaking skin. Hit it! The gigantic cock of a tiny redheaded fairy, thank God you are fucking him in the ass. Hit it! Hit it!
“Prose style is a fistful of marbles dropped by a king’s hand onto a billiard table.”
“Need we go through the whirls of personality just to reach cock? A resounding no. Just reach right out and grab it on the Williamsburg Bridge, unattached to any psyche or particular set of clothes, free-floating and unattached to any body. No one has the right to lay his person on you as codicil to cock -- that’s blackmail Always grope out and short-circuit coy meander. Reach right through the page with your hand. Pay no mind to the maze of colors, just grab. My cock is throbbing for you. This prose is a new space I built special for an eager hand to plunge through. Put forth your hand.”
LeRoi Jones, Irving Rosenthal, and John Fles