Irving Rosenthal dies at 91

Irving Rosenthal
Photo: Ira Cohen

Irving Rosenthal (October 9, 1930 – April 22, 2022), writer, underground publisher, and editor of Big Table, died Friday at Friends of Perfection (Kaliflower), the San Francisco commune he founded in 1967.

Rosenthal served as editor of the Chicago Review in the late 1950s, while a graduate student of human development at the University of Chicago. In 1958, the magazine obtained several chapters from William S. Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch, not yet published in the US, which the editors began publishing in serialized form. In addition to the Naked Lunch excerpts, the Spring 1958 issue also contained work from “Ten San Francisco Poets,” (Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, Robert Duncan, John Wieners, Michael McClure, Philip Lamantia, and Philip Whalen), which drew national media attention (none of it good) along with the ire of the editors’ faculty advisor. When further excerpts from Naked Lunch appeared in the Autumn 1958 edition of the Chicago Review, an article by Jack Mabley in the Chicago Daily News excoriated the university for publishing what it called “…one of the foulest collections of printed filth I’ve seen publicly circulated.”

Irving Rosenthal with the Chicago Review staff (photo credit: Chicago Review)

In the interest of saving face, the university administration broke from tradition and intervened in the normally student-run magazine, prohibiting the inclusion of pieces by Burroughs, Kerouac, and Edward Dahlberg, slated for the forthcoming issue. Rosenthal saw it as a clear act of censorship, and wrote that Chancellor Lawrence Kimpton “…does not want free expression at the University of Chicago; he wants money.”

Rosenthal and all but one member of the magazine staff resigned in protest, forming their own journal, Big Table, again under the editorship of Rosenthal and poetry editor Paul Carroll. The first issue appeared in Spring of 1959, with “the complete contents of the suppressed Winter 1959 Chicago Review” as declared on the cover. Almost immediately, Big Table ran into trouble. The Postal Service refused to send the “obscene” material through the mail, and impounded 400 copies of the magazine. The case went to court, and wasn’t resolved until July of the following year. Big Table went on to publish five issues (though Rosenthal left after the first), featuring not only Beat Generation poets and writers, but other avant garde figures foreign and domestic, and launched Big Table Books.

Big Table - Complete Set of 5
Complete set of Big Table issues 1-5

Rosenthal’s penchant for controversy was on par with his ability to spot and appreciate emerging new ways of thinking. He took an early interest in Zen Buddhism, prompted by Alan Watts’ Beat Zen, Square Zen, and published a special section titled “On Zen,” which included three essays on the subject by Kerouac, Whalen, and Gary Snyder in the Summer 1958 issue of the Chicago Review.

Sheeper, published by Grove Press

After leaving Chicago, he moved to New York City in 1960, where he became close with Allen Ginsberg, Herbert Huncke, Ira Cohen, and others, and lived for a time with John Wieners. He traveled to Cuba in 1961, then Morocco, where he spent time with William Burroughs and Paul Bowles in Tangier, and began his deeply odd and delightful novel, Sheeper (published in 1967). He visited Spain and Greece before returning to New York in 1964. He also appeared in filmmaker Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963) with Judith Malina, and No President (1967). Toward the end of his time in New York, Ronsenthal set up an offset press, Carp & Whitefish, which published Edward Marshall’s Transit Glory and The Invention of the Letter, a hand-illustrated book he commissioned from Philip Whalen. 

The ATF Chief 15 offset press at Kaliflower’s Free Print Shop

In 1967 he returned to San Francisco, where he was born, and while living with George Harris (“Hibiscus”), founder of the Cockettes, started the Kaliflower commune. Originally known as the Scott Street or Sutter Street commune (after its location), outsiders took to calling it Kaliflower after its newsletter. Inspired by the work and principles of intentional communities like the Diggers, and earlier utopian projects like the Oneida Community, Kaliflower was founded on ideals of shared property, polyamory, and rejection of heteronormativity, commercialism, war, racism, and government. The community operated a free food program, along with the Free Print Shop that published its eponymous newsletter, along with other underground publications put out by others. Rosenthal lived at Kaliflower for the rest of his life, and the commune continues to survive and thrive in San Francisco.

Rosenthal’s papers reside at Stanford University’s Green Library and the University of Delaware.

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Special thanks to Steve Silberman (Twitter: @stevesilberman) for his reporting on the passing of this important counterculture luminary.