COLUMN THIRTY-NINE, NOVEMBER 1, 1998
(Copyright © 1998 Al Aronowitz)
Copyright 1998 © Gerald E. Brennan)
[Contact Gerald Brennan by email: firstname.lastname@example.org]
[I have no doubt that so dedicated a neo-fascist ideologue as Kenneth Starr would have jumped at the chance to add his voice to that strident chorus of sanctimonious hypocrites howling in protest against the publication of Beat Generation writing some 40 years ago. After all, the Grand Inquisitor's father was a Christian Fundamentalist minister (in other words, a neo-fascist like his son).
And yet, it ended up being Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and all the other Beat Generation writers who made it possible---paved the way, so to speak---for America's daily newspapers to be feel free to publish the salacious filth which permeated Starr's referral to Congress on the subject of the blowjob Monica Lewinsky gave to President Clinton. Free-lancer Gerald Brennan precedes his history of the emergence of the magazine, Big Table, with this quote:
"Why can't they ever grow up and dig that Burroughs is talking about us & them & the truth of wot they really go thru but are so spooked & full of the habit of lying that they can't see with their own two eyes?"--Paul Carroll to Irving Rosenthal]
In November 1958 administrators at the University of Chicago told the staff of the Chicago Review, the student literary magazine, that it could not publish the Winter 1959 issue as planned. Four months later the first issue of Big Table, which contained the complete contents of the suppressed Chicago Review, was released. Within days of its publication the U.S. Post Office Department seized hundreds of copies for alleged obscenity. Eventually the magazine was fully exonerated, but Big Table's story is a case history of how radical new literature was fought at every turn by an establishment that included not only the federal government and local police departments but also universities and the media, groups one would expect to jump to the defense of intellectual expression.
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.
Brief routines began to trickle in, from both Burroughs and Ginsberg, and eventually a box containing an incredible manuscript arrived at the Review office. The onion-skin pages were in no particular order, and the surreal episodes had little narrative connection to one another. The sheets had been erased repeatedly and retyped, and the margins were crowded with addenda. Burroughs' language was full of criminal and drug argot that the college students had never seen before. The difficulties that the manuscript presented in its unedited state---along with its graphic violence and sexuality---had already caused it to be rejected twice, by Maurice Girodias' Olympia Press in Paris and by Barney Rosset's Grove Press in New York.
Nonetheless, Rosenthal and Carroll recognized an essential brilliance in Burroughs' nightmarish satire. Rosenthal began editing the manuscript into readable form, and the first installment of Naked Lunch appeared in the Chicago Review's Spring Issue.
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.
The Winter 1959 issue was to he the capstone of the plan. It would contain eight excerpts from Naked Lunch, the most to be published thus far. Two pieces by Edward Dahlberg, The Garment of Ra and The Further Sorrows of Priapus, and Jack Kerouac's long prose experiment Old Angel Midnight, a stream-of-consciousness meditation reminiscent of Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, would accompany them. Like Burroughs' writing, Old Angel Midnight was liberally sprinkled with "cocks," "cunts," "fucks" and "assholes" and seemed likely to offend puritanical censors. Rosenthal felt it was his job to publish Burroughs and Kerouac, regardless of the consequences. He realized that he might even be forced to
A Chicago Daily News columnist objected to 'filthy writing in the Chicago Review
resign the editorship of the Review, but he had been thinking of leaving Chicago anyway to pursue his own writing. Nonetheless, Rosenthal felt sure that, in spite of any misgivings it might have, the University recognized the seriousness of the writing and would come to the Review's defense if censorship problems arose.
For a while it seemed that the strategy might work. The Spring issue came and went without comment, the Autumn issue was released to muted praise in early October, and the staff then began work on the Winter issue. On Saturday, October 25, a column by Jack Mabley entitled Filthy Writing on the Midway appeared on the front page of the Chicago Daily News:
"A magazine published by the University of Chicago is publishing one of the foulest collections of printed filth I've seen publicly circulated. . . The obscenity is put into their writing to attract attention. It is an assertion of their sense of bravado, 'boy, look what I'm doing' just like the little kids chalking a four-letter verb on the Oak Street underpass. . . I don't put the blame on the juveniles who wrote and edited this stuff, because they're immature and irresponsible. But the University of Chicago publishes the magazine. The trustees should take a long hard look at what is being circulated under their sponsorship."
Though Mabley never mentioned the name of the publication, people on campus knew what he was talking about. The University's student newspaper, the Chicago Maroon, printed a front page article about the column a week later. The Review staff was at first amused by Mabley's remarks, which reflected a complete misunderstanding of the writing. But within three weeks, Chancellor Lawrence Kimpton had met with trustees. He sent word to Rosenthal: there would be no Burroughs, Dahlberg, or Kerouac in the Winter issue. In fact, Kimpton wanted the next issue to be "completely innocuous" in character. Faced with this ultimatum, Rosenthal and five Review editors, Paul Carroll, Eila Kokkinen, Doris Nieder, Barbara Pitschel, and Charles Horwitz, resigned. A sixth, Hyung Woong Pak, refused to leave and became the new editor.
When he left, Rosenthal took the banned manuscripts and set out to find a way to publish them. For reasons of time and economy, Rosenthal hoped to interest an established magazine in publishing the Winter issue, but he was unable to find anyone who would publish it in its entirety. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, for example, wanted Old Angel Midnight, but not the other pieces, for his Journal for the Protection of All Beings. Rosenthal, however; was determined to see all the pieces published together as they would have appeared in the Review. Grove Press and New Directions refused to publish the issue as well. It was apparent that the staff would have to launch a new publication.
By mid-December, when that decision was reached, publicity about the events at the University of Chicago was mounting. The Maroon had covered the story from the beginning and made the affair a minor cause celebre on campus. In early December the Student Government appointed a committee to investigate the suppression. By mid-month the news had burst the campus bounds and was written up in the Chicago dailies. Little magazines across the country followed the developments. Both Albert Podell, the Review's business manager, and Paul Carroll were asked to write accounts of the suppression. The reams of publicity seemed to guarantee that the new magazine would be an instant success, and it seemed likely that the notoriety of the first issue might provide a solid foundation for subsequent ones. Thus it was decided that after Rosenthal had edited the first issue, he would resign to devote full time to his writing. Carroll would then become the magazine's editor and see it through the censorship fight that seemed inevitable.
Finding a name for the magazine proved to be a problem. Carroll and Rosenthal rejected countless ideas before Rosenthal finally decided on the name 331 around Christmas for reasons no one remembers today. Advertising contracts were drawn up, and Podell sent out all of his initial letters of solicitation under the name 331 during the last week of December. But on New Year's Eve Rosenthal abruptly changed his mind and wrote to William Burroughs that the name of the magazine was to be Review instead, probably in response to advice that the new magazine capitalize on its connection to the Chicago Review by taking a name like The New Chicago Review or The Chicago Review Uncensored. But with the magazine planned as an ongoing project, the name had to outlive the first issue. Even
got its name
Review did not sit well with Rosenthal or Carroll, who wanted a title that would separate their magazine from the Partisan Review, the Paris Review, the Evergreen Review, and all the other Reviews, as well as a title that would express the non-derivative, unacademic nature of the writing. Rosenthal wrote a desperate post card to Allen Ginsberg:
"Think up a name for Paul's mag."
Jack Kerouac replied with a typed [including lines and asterisks] list of suggestions on a card that read like one of his poems:
4. Big Table
12. This Mag
or 14. Howl
And, as an afterthought, he jotted in,
"I'll send more later."
Big Table occurred to him, Paul Carroll recalled, when Kerouac found a note he had written himself: "Get a bigger table." Rosenthal was struck immediately by the name. The magazine was christened Big Table around the second week of January. A few days later Paul Carroll filed the papers that established the publishing company, Big Table, Inc.
By late December 1958, with the manuscripts completely edited, the staff faced the relatively unfamiliar task of raising enough money to print the magazine. Although Podell remained business manager for the Chicago Review, he had offered his services to the new venture in November and threw himself zealously into soliciting ads. Carroll talked the magazine up among his society friends and the adult study groups he taught and began collecting pieces for the second issue. Barbara Pitschel was in New York City asking publishers to take ads, getting printing estimates, and giving interviews on the suppression. Irving Rosenthal was preparing to leave Chicago altogether. He had been so taken with New York's fervid literary scene during a trip to scout printers that he suddenly decided to move there. By early January 1959, with Ginsberg's help, he had settled into a small cold-water flat on the Lower East Side where he set to work dummying the magazine.
The theme of everyone's pitch for money was the same: the Chicago Review had been unjustly, if not illegally, censored by the University of Chicago. To potential advertisers, Podell wrote letters that opened emphatically: "THIS IS QUITE URGENT. PLEASE GIVE THIS YOUR IMMEDIATE ATTENTION. THE Chicago Review HAS BEEN SUPPRESSED by its owner; the University of Chicago." Podell repeated this plea again and again. Suddenly, the ban that had been so frustrating just a month and a half before became a badge of distinction. It set Big Table apart from all the other little magazines in the country and highlighted the fact that it was not simply a literary magazine but a moral crusade that advertisers were invited to join. That strategy was successful, according to Podell, who estimates that publicity about the suppression helped Big Table sell twice as many ads as it might have otherwise.
Paul Carroll used the same approach, although in a less self-conscious way. At a Christmas party at the Old Town home of photographer Arthur Siegel, he described the suppression to Congressman and Mrs. Sidney Yates. William Hartmann, an architect and senior partner at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, overheard the story. Hartmann later approached Carroll, told him that he believed in Big Table's cause, and asked Carroll to come to his office the next Monday. When Carroll arrived, Hartmann presented him with a check for $250. Carroll elicited donations from other Chicagoans as well, most notably art collector Muriel Newman, who donated $100 to Big Table and lent $1000 more. (She later threw a party for other potential donors the night before Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso's reading at the Sherman Hotel on January 29, 1959.)
By January 20 everything seemed to he falling into place. Rosenthal had settled in New York and found a printer willing to take on Big Table despite its precarious finances and controversial contents. Podell had raised hundreds of dollars in advertising revenues. Carroll had Newman's check for $1,000 in hand, and on January 24 he sent Rosenthal $500 for the printer.
Despite the University of Chicago's order that Burroughs, Kerouac, and Dahlberg be cut from the Winter issue of the Chicago Review, indeed despite the fact that the university did little to dispel the pall of obscenity that it had helped cast over the magazine, it clung to the manuscripts with surprising tenacity. From the time the resignations had become public, the university had insisted that eventually all the suppressed works, as well as every manuscript that Rosenthal had accepted for publication, would appear in the Review. None of the former editors took the claim seriously. They knew that Pak, the new editor; had never shared their enthusiasm for the new writing. They did not expect him to fight for the manuscripts, or even to care if they were ever published. The university's attitude was typified by Richard Stern's remarks in the Maroon. Stern, an English professor and faculty advisor to the Review, begrudgingly acknowledged Burroughs' originality, but maintained that the Review had become a mouthpiece for a small, insignificant group of writers. That was the reason the administration had felt a different Winter issue should appear. It was time, said Stern, for the Review to return to its true audience: the intellectuals. This could be interpreted as a demand that the Review publish more academic writers like himself. In light of these facts, Rosenthal and the other Big Table staff members felt that the university simply meant to hold the manuscripts until the furor had died down. Then the pieces would be quietly returned to their authors.
In November Pak made a token effort to recover two of the manuscripts. Ten days after the resignations, perhaps at Stern's urging, he sent his assistant, Willard Colston, to get Dahlberg's pieces from Rosenthal. Failing that, Colston was to obtain a letter from Dahlberg absolving the Review from the responsibility of publishing him. Curiously, neither Pak nor Colston believed that the other manuscripts belonged to the Review. In a letter regarding his visit to Rosenthal, Colston described the manuscripts "as part of a larger amount of material held by Mr. Rosenthal more, it seems, in the capacity of agent, friend and disciple than as editor of the Review." Rosenthal flatly refused to hand over the Dahlberg pieces. He then produced letters from all three writers withdrawing their works from the Review and assigning publication rights to Rosenthal personally. Colston asked for Dahlberg's letter for the Review's files. Rosenthal refused to give Colston the letter or to allow it to be photocopied. Pak and Colston decided that there was nothing they could do or cared to do.
"We had no responsibility for the Kerouac and Burroughs Manuscripts," Colston concluded his report on the meeting, "and if Mr. Dahlberg saw fit to grant Mr. Rosenthal the power of agent it was of little concern to us."
For the new Review editors the issue was dead, but not for Stern. In mid-December Rosenthal and Carroll publicly announced their intent to publish the material themselves, and Stern replied in the papers that if they did they would be sued by the University of Chicago. He claimed all three manuscripts belonged to the university. In January 1959 he began making efforts to recover them.
Al Podell finally resigned as business manager of the Review the week of January 11, 1959. He had joined in October just before the Mabley article had appeared. After the storm on campus broke, the university administration from Chancellor Kimpton down to Stern had portrayed Rosenthal and his staff as fanatics interested in publishing only one kind of literature. By postponing his own resignation Podell hoped to distance it from the resignations of those responsible for the controversial issues. He felt no deep personal commitment to the new writing. But he believed that whatever one's feelings about Burroughs and Kerouac, anyone committed to freedom of expression had to oppose the university's censorship. Podell had arranged with the editor of the Maroon, where he also worked, to print an account of his resignation, hoping to encourage a more sympathetic understanding of the editors' action as well as further publicity for Big Table. The Maroon editor, perhaps cowed by the university's strong hand with the Review, refused in the end to run the piece.
Once Podell tendered his resignation, Stern began pumping him for information about the new magazine. He demanded that the editors of Big Table provide a letter from each author asking that his work be withdrawn from the Review. A day or two later Stern and Podell met again, and Stern hinted broadly that unless the letters were forthcoming the university would sue Big Table. Podell snapped hack that Stern ought to check with superior court to see if the Review had been enjoined from publishing an issue without the banned manuscripts. The remark threw Stern into a rage, and Podell hastened away.
Despite his cavalier attitude, the threat of a lawsuit worried Podell as well as Paul Carroll. They both wrote to Rosenthal recommending that the authors send the letters as requested, but that they word them so that the withdrawals could be construed only as the result of the university's refusal to publish the works in the Winter issue as promised. Podell talked to some lawyers and learned to his further chagrin that legally all of the manuscripts were the university's property and had been from the time that Rosenthal, acting in his capacity as Review editor (and thus as the agent of the university), had accepted the pieces for publication. His letters of acceptance to the three authors constituted binding contracts that could not be broken simply by asking that the pieces be returned. The only loophole for Big Table was that the university had reneged on its promise to publish the works in the Review's Winter issue. The matter, it seemed, would probably have to be decided in court.
The news dismayed Paul Carroll, who dreaded a long and costly lawsuit that could knock the legs out from under Big Table before it could stand on its own. Irving Rosenthal, however, relished the prospect of a showdown with the university.
"Just between you and me," he wrote Podell, "there is nothing I would welcome more than a suit of any kind by the university. . . . It would be a scandal that might very well result in [Chancellor] Kimpton's resignation."
To Rosenthal, a court action was the only way to expose the truth behind the university's disgraceful action would ever be exposed. It had recanted its long-standing policy of student autonomy at the Review; it bad violated the basic canons of academic freedom; it had proved itself as Philistine as Jack Mabley, the newspaper columnist; and, in the process, it had lied about its intentions and motives. Rosenthal looked for signs that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) or Big Table's attorney, Lewis Manilow, would support the writers in a suit for breach of contract. He even considered initiating a libel suit against Richard Stern for remarks Stern had made in the Maroon. Whether or not he bad a chance of winning, Irving Rosenthal felt a lawsuit would serve a valuable purpose.
Rosenthal believed that the university had no case, despite what the lawyers had told Podell. First of all, the Review had no documents relevant to the case. Rosenthal had never written formal letters of acceptance to either Kerouac or Burroughs, which may explain Colston's remarks about the ownership of their manuscripts. Second, if push came to shove, Rosenthal could claim he had rejected the pieces when the university told him they could not be published.
Stern was bluffing, he wrote Podell. "The University lawyers would not be stupid enough to bring any kind of legal action, and if they've given Stern any legal counsel it's that the University is subject to suit."
The reasons for the bluff seemed clear to Rosenthal. He wrote to Paul Carroll:
"There are only two explanations why Stern wants these releases. 1. (weak explanation): he wants to claim there was no suppression since the writers withdrew their mss. 2. (strong explanation): The Univ. is afraid of being sued by the writers for failure of their mss. to appear in the Winter CR. I have no wish to relieve this fear."
Stern, meanwhile, was playing a two-sided game. Privately endeavoring to obtain letters of withdrawal, he publicly continued to claim that the Review fully intended to publish the manuscripts even if Big Table did too. Though Stern had also promised to publish every piece accepted by the former editor, the Review had already begun returning other manuscripts from authors like LeRoi Jones in mid-January. Stern's action and his private
A benefit reading by Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Peter Orlovsky sparked publicity in Chicago's newspapers
indifference to the manuscripts support Rosenthal's interpretation of the events.
By the end of January Stern had abandoned both his pretense of wanting the manuscripts and his efforts to secure letters of withdrawal. By then the university's actions were undergoing renewed scrutiny, and nearly all the publicity was negative. The benefit reading at the Sherman Hotel given by Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Peter Orlovsky on January 29 sparked fervid coverage in all the Chicago newspapers, and most mentioned Big Table and the Chicago Review in their articles. The Shaw Society, which sponsored the event, made indirect reference to the university when it explained its involvement with the strange new writers by citing George Bernard Shaw's opposition to censorship. Most embarrassing, though, was the belated release of the Student Government report on the suppression. It came down squarely on the side of the student editors. The report acknowledged that the university had acted well within its rights as legal owner of the Review, but it criticized the suppression's broader implications. The denial of academic freedom, the implicit distrust of the students, and the narrowing of the school's intellectual atmosphere. The report concluded that the administration had interfered with the Review not because its editors had limited themselves to a narrow clique of writers as the school had claimed, but because the magazine contained "obscene" words, and this might result in adverse publicity and a subsequent loss of income for the university. The report was printed in full and distributed to students. It created such a sensation that all 1,000 copies were snatched up within a couple of days.
January was an enormously successful month for Big Table. Benefit readings at the Sherman Hotel and the Gate of Horn attracted more than a thousand people and created a flurry of publicity, including front page coverage in the Sun-Times and the American. Between the readings, loans, and donations, the magazine's staff had raised some $2,900 in working capital. Rosenthal spent February laying out the first issue, and Big Table was finally published on March 17, 1959, about a month later than originally projected. The delay was due in part to Rosenthal's decision to include three poems by Gregory Corso, Power, Army and Police, as a supplement to the issue. The magazine was almost shipped too late to make it to its own unveiling in Chicago. After frantic telegrams to Rosenthal in New York, it finally arrived on the same day as the press party. Afterward, Paul Carroll, Doris Nieder and Charles Horwitz drank a quiet toast to Irving Rosenthal.
Public reception of the magazine was remarkable. The first issue already sold 200 subscriptions, thanks in large part to an article on the suppression that Al Podell had written for the Vil1age Voice. Sales were brisk in bookstores and newsstands across the nation. Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso were giving readings and hawking the magazine up and down the East Coast. Edward Dahlherg gave a reading for it in New York City. As Carroll and Podell walked down Division Street in Chicago looking at a copy only days after its release, passers-by. stopped them to ask where they could obtain copies. By March 19, 2,000 copies had been distributed in Chicago alone. Despite the University of Chicago's resistance, enduring financial hardship, and the media's almost universal representation of the magazine as the product of a group of unlearned, unwashed beatniks, the editors had seen Burroughs, Kerouac, and Dahlberg through to publication. In the flush of success there seemed only one relevant question:
"So how many to reprint?" Rosenthal wrote Carroll and Podell on March 22, "considering that we are still in the first week of publication, that no reviews have appeared anywhere, no censorship trouble of any kind yet, no attacks by squares. 5M, 1OM, or 15M?"
No one at Big Table was aware of it, but only days before Rosenthal's letter was written, the United States Post Office Department had seized more than four hundred copies of Big Table, labeling them obscene. Conviction of the publishers on mail obscenity charges could mean a sentence of five years in prison and a fine of $10,000.
Though Rosenthal had expected the University of Chicago to support him if the US. Post Office Department tried to ban the Winter issue of the Chicago Review from the mail, he had taken the manuscripts to attorney Melvin Wulf at the American Civil Liberties Union for an opinion. Although Wulf could not offer a formal opinion on behalf of the ACLU, he told Rosenthal that he was positive about their chances should the Post Office Department or local police departments interfere. Beginning in January 1959 Big Table's staff remained in contact with the ACLU in Chicago and New York. Concern over an obscenity charge was, if anything, greater without the protection of the university. Podell also hoped to coax a written statement from the ACLU with which he could confront a postmaster who objected to the word "suppressed" on the front cover. There was concern, too, that bookstores might resist stocking the magazine for fear of police interference, and Podell thought such a letter would reassure them that Big Table was not likely to cause trouble. Podell and Carroll were apprehensive. Carroll worried in letters to Rosenthal that Stern might tip off the Post Office Department or the Chicago police to Big Table's objectionable nature in order to block its circulation. Podell had heard rumors in February that Jack Mabley was working to have the Department deny Big Table second-class mailing privileges. And, of course, there was concern that all the publicity surrounding the appearance of Big Table and the action by the University of Chicago might make authorities suspicious.
The ACLU had said unofficially that an obscenity charge could be successfully fought. Nevertheless the threat of legal action against Big Table was potent. Staff members, except for Al Podell, asked Rosenthal to remove their names from the masthead of the first issue to distance themselves from possible repercussions. Doris Nieder, for example, was trying to finish her doctorate in the University of Chicago's English department, which still harbored hostility toward the new writing. Paul Carroll feared that his connection with Big Table, especially with Burroughs' blatant homosexuality, might jeopardize his teaching position at Catholic Loyola University. He continued to be outspoken in Chicago on behalf of the magazine, however, and was invariably identified as Big Table's editor by the city's media, even before the first issue appeared. Shortly after his decision to omit his name from the issue in February 1959, Loyola notified him that his contract would not he renewed after June.
Irving Rosenthal was concerned about the printer, Profile Press. He had learned from Barney Rosset, then preparing to publish an unexpurgated American edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover, that if obscenity charges were pressed the printer was liable to criminal penalties. This convinced Rosenthal that he should leave Profile's name out of Big Table 1 altogether. Podell argued that it must appear, on the grounds that much of Big Table's fight for legitimacy would be won if the magazine put on a respectable front. That meant not wrapping it in brown paper; selling it openly in established, reputable bookstores, and avoiding tawdry, pandering advertisements. The courts had already recognized these measures as evidence of a publication's obscenity. (Big Table's attorney later raised them, albeit unsuccessfully, at the Post Office Department hearing.) Podell pressed the point home by saying that if Profile was ashamed or afraid it should not have taken the job, apparently forgetting that Profile had been the only printer willing to print Big Table when its finances were nonexistent. (Profile had never objected to having its name included in the magazine and may have even wanted it there to advertise.) "Printed by Profile Press" appeared in Big Table 1 with no untoward effects.
On Thursday, March 19, Al Podell wrote to Irving Rosenthal; "Leaving day after tomorrow for the Coast---don't want to be around when Kimpton reads Big Table 1." He arrived in California on Monday morning and set out to publicize the magazine and place it in stores. But he had a surprise.
"The Big Tables I mailed to Calif. have not yet arrived. Hope nothing wrong with postoffice," he wrote to Rosenthal and Carroll, but added immediately, as if shying away from a ridiculous conclusion, "Paul---I hope you gave that extra $50 to cover mailing costs under temporary permit."
The Post Office Department had been creating minor hassles for Big Table all along, demanding, for example, that the editors provide an address that belonged to a real office, or threatening to deny second-class privileges simply because the first issue's covers had not been included in the pagination. Through it all Podell continued to believe that the Post Office Department would not really interfere with the magazine. When he arrived at Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, though, he changed his mind.
Podell wrote to Rosenthal after be returned to Chicago in early April:
"NOW the big news. I THINK THE POST OFFICE HAS BANNED BIG TABLE! I'll tell you everything that I know. On March 17 I took three boxes of books plus 21 advertiser's copies to the main post office. This was the first they had seen Big Table. One of the men made some remark about 'I'll take a copy with me and read it during lunch.' I left after giving them $150 deposit. The next day I mailed some 400 individual copies to subscribers and another box from the post office around here. When I got to San Francisco a week later, Ferlinghetti had received only the box I sent from the local post office. He had not received his advertiser's copy which had been left at the main post office. Everyone on whom I've been able to check to whom books were sent from the main post office, has not received their copies. I can't afford to check the others but perhaps you can check one or
How Post Office
held up mailing
of the magazine
two since they are in New York. If ANY of them have received their copies. then I am falsely alarmed. But if none of them has received their copies, then the post office is screwing around."
Conversations Podell had with an acquaintance at the main post office only deepened the mystery. At first the friend "assumed" that all the copies had been delivered. But a few days later he told Podell:
"I can't say anything but I may have something in a week." As if, Podell concluded, "some asshole in Washington were trying to decide if his twelve-year-old daughter would be corrupted by reading Big Table."
In essence, that was exactly what was happening. At the same time that Podell had taken the copies of the magazine to the main post office, he had submitted Big Table's application for a second-class permit. Joseph Kozielec---perhaps the same clerk who said he was going to look through the magazine during his lunch break---noticed that a space on the form for the number of subscribers had been left blank. Kozielec explained it later at Big Table's Post Office Department hearing in June: he had decided, in fine bureaucratic form, that he could not process the application without this information. But instead of notifying Carroll or Podell that there was a problem, he set the form, along with the magazines, aside for two weeks. Finally on April 3, with the Big Table staff still unaware of any problem, Kozielec sent a copy of the magazine with a letter of transmittal to the director of postal services in Washington for an opinion on its mailability. Exactly when the Post Office Department's perception of the problem switched from the unfinished application to Big Table's potential obscenity was never brought out. Perhaps the Post Office's confusion is reflected in Kozielec's confusing testimony that "[On April 3] we thought it was sufficient time that had elapsed and Mr. Podell is not willing to come in with the subscription individual orders."
Why would a minor clerk at Chicago' main post office suddenly publicly decide to examine a copy of a literary magazine? Was the Post Office Department expecting, even waiting for Big Table" Why would the Department, which clearly felt it was within its prescribed duties in policing the mail, use the smoke screen of an incomplete form to cover its suspicion that Big Table was obscene? Definite answers are hard to come by, but there are some tantalizing hints in James C. Paul and Murray L. Schwartz' book, Federal Censorship: Obscenity in the Mail. They write that in the 1950s the U.S. Post Office Department had no set procedure for inspecting the mail for obscene material. It was not inspected systematically, and when obscenity was discovered by a postal employee it was almost always a chance occurrence, as when a carton of books bursts open inside a post office. Otherwise, almost every action taken by the Department against mailers of alleged obscenity was the result of complaints by individuals whose names had gotten onto mailing lists used by smut peddlers.
Such complaints were, for the most part, made against sellers of hard-core pornography who depended on mail orders to sell their merchandise. Big Table's staff, like all publishers of legitimate literature, never sent out unsolicited copies, except to book reviewers. However, with feelings running high at the University of Chicago it is possible that someone there notified the Post Office Department about the objectionable nature of . It is equally likely that Jack Mabley, as rumored, had called the Post Office Department.
Furthermore, it was no secret that Chicago's Catholic hierarchy took a dim view of Burroughs. Catholic newspapers took up Mabley's denunciation of the Review almost immediately, and parish priests put pressure on Catholic trustees to do something about the appalling literature being published. Perhaps the complaint came from this quarter. The most probable explanation may be that the enormous local publicity Big Table had received had alerted postal officials in Chicago.
As advertiser after advertiser reported that they had not received their copies, Podell clung to the hope that it was only a false alarm. He stayed in daily contact with his connection at the post office, who was becoming increasingly nervous at Podell's persistence. The man begged Podell to back off, while telling him nothing about the impounded magazines. It was a "delicate situation," he told Podell, which was putting him "between the Devil and the deep blue sea." The clerk, however; was equally persistent in demanding the names of Big Table's distributors. Podell refused every time, first out of sheer laziness, later from concern for their welfare. He lost no time in notifying one of the magazine's distributors---Paper Editions, the one Podell thought would not be scared off by the threat of postal sanctions---that trouble was brewing. He emphasized that the ACLU had assured Big Table it could win such a case, but urged the distributor to get its copies into bookstores as soon as possible.
On Friday, April 17, still in the dark and desperate for a resolution of the difficulty, Podell wired the U.S. Post Office Department in Washington, D.C., requesting Big Table's status and the whereabouts of the impounded issues. General Counsel Herbert Warburton replied the same day, saying a decision had not been reached but that one could be expected by the following Monday. By Thursday, April 29, the ruling had not been received, and Podell sent another telegram:
"Urgently request the decision on mailability. You promised Monday but none has arrived. If you rule Big Table non mailable we request hearing on the matter, preferably late May or early June."
Warburton replied the following day that the magazine was "of questionable mailability." However, he was still not prepared to state formal charges; he promised they would be sent, along with a hearing date, by early the next week.
Evidence that the Post Office Department might actually ban Big Table filled Irving Rosenthal with renewed energy. He conferred with lawyers at the ACLU to learn how serious the postal authorities might be and to plan a course of action. He talked to Barney Rosset, who was planning a defense of Lady Chatterley's Lover. He made a list of "eminent squares" who might testify on behalf of Big Table. He wrote to Carroll and Podell long "strategy letters" full of advice, exhortation, pointed questions, and plans of attack drawn mostly from his own experience during the suppression at the University of Chicago. He relished the prospect of battling the Post Office Department not only because it would mean a vindication of Burroughs and the work of Big Table and the Chicago Review, but also from a childlike malice toward the blind powers that had blocked his efforts.
"I've always wanted to get back at the Post Office for making me study those endless documents to try to figure out how much postage goes on a package, and this is a good time to do it," he said.
He instructed Paul Carroll to save all reviews, especially remarks Richard Stern had made in the Maroon defending Burroughs when Mabley's attack first appeared.
"I do, however, think that the work of Burroughs which the Chicago Review printed in its last issue is lively and quite brilliant," Stern told the newspaper, "and I myself would have accepted it for publication in a serious magazine (not, of course, in a family newspaper)."
"The ironic justice of this clipping," Rosenthal wrote Carroll, "is that it would not surprise me to learn that Stern had had a hand, a secret or anonymous hand in alerting the Post Office."
The first of May came, and the Post Office Department had not yet issued formal charges. To Rosenthal that indicated that the postal authorities were unsure of themselves. That was hardly the case. The Department, under Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield, was on the verge of launching a fierce antismut campaign, which would enlist the help of the entire nation to stamp out pornography once and for all. Local postmasters were to give lectures alerting citizens to the threat; citizens were to turn in smut peddlers.
Newspapers investigated the menace and reported on it. Literary productions like Big Table, Lady Chatterley's Lover, or Tropic of Cancer, containing vulgar language or graphic portrayals of sex, were every bit as repugnant to the Post Office Department as hard-core pornography. When the Department gave evidence of the burgeoning trade in pornography to Congresswoman Kathryn Granahan's House Subcommittee on Postal Operations in summer 1959, one of the publications presented in evidence was Big Table.
The Post Office Department was fervent in its pursuit of smut, despite its defeat in every major court case and the reluctance of the Justice Department to expend time, money, and manpower on cases it had little chance of winning. Postal authorities continued to grab anything they considered obscene with a ferocious zeal, but they were unable and unwilling to follow through when it came to formulating charges in a timely manner.
For one thing, the enormous bureaucracy of an organization the size of the U.S. Post Office Department made expedient action virtually impossible. Once a piece of mail had been targeted, it had to work its way through the department as officials at various local and federal levels inspected it. Typically when a clerk at a local branch received a copy of a publication along with a complaint from the addressee, he looked at it and gave it to his postmaster. If the local postmaster thought the material might be obscene, he sent it to the general counsel in Washington, who gave it to a team of lawyers to evaluate for pornographic content.
Once the general counsel's office had judged that the publication was obscene, the decision was relayed back to the local post office where other copies had presumably been impounded. The local postmaster notified the mailer, who was then entitled to an administrative review of the judgment. Usually matters never got that far. Vendors of hard-core pornography generally just pulled up stakes, abandoned their books, and took the loss.
The process took time, too much time, Congress thought. In 1958 it passed legislation requiring the Post Office Department to notify mailers of a seizure within twenty days. To hold mail longer required a court order. Postal authorities fought the law, calling it unrealistic, and made no effort to comply. In fact, they consistently ignored the law, which, together with more than ten years of court rulings, would have severely limited the Post Office Department's power to hold up the mail. This attitude indicates another reason behind the Department's delay in notifying the editors of Big Table: a deep-seated contempt for individual rights and the rule of law, at least where they affected postal power to censor the nation's mail.
In May the staff was still discussing how many copies of Big Table 1 to reprint. Irving Rosenthal had ordered a first printing of 10,000, an unprecedented run for the first issue of a small literary magazine. Publishers like Barney Rosset had urged him to start with only 2,000 or less, and Paul Carroll, though confident of Big Table's potential, begged Rosenthal time and again to print only 5,000 at first.
The large print run---and the expense it involved---became the source of bitter disagreement between Rosenthal and Carroll. Eventually it led to a rupture in their friendship that lasted nearly a year.
A week after publication it seemed as if all of the 10,000 magazines would be in bookstores, and a Post Office Department ban was expected to increase demand dramatically. But demand was difficult to judge from the actual sales. Kroch's in Chicago had sold more than 150. The University of Chicago bookstore sold more than 50 copies
Podell feared that if local cops banned the magazine, Big Table Inc would be stuck with thousands of copies
within two days of the magazine's release. But many stores had trouble selling more than 5 copies. Rosenthal wanted to reprint at least 5,000.
Al Podell, uncharacteristically cautious, recommended holding off until after the Post Office Department's case had been settled. By itself, he thought, a postal ban would support a reprint. But if local police also banned it, Big Table, Inc., would be stuck with thousands of copies and nowhere to sell them.
By mid-May, although none had actually been harassed about it, some Chicago booksellers were hesitating to stock the magazine,. The police did interfere in other cities, however. In Toronto, Ontario, a bookseller who sold Big Table was arrested on an obscenity charge. The day after Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso gave a reading in Cambridge, Massachusetts, police arrived at a bookstore that had stocked the magazine. The poets removed Big Table from the store rather than endanger the bookseller with fines or arrest. A group of Harvard law students notified a local civil liberties group, who intimidated the police into backing off and sales resumed undisturbed.
On May 8 newspapermen called Al Podell and asked him to comment on the announcement by the U.S. Post Office Department that Big Table was nonmailable. Podell knew nothing about such a decision and immediately called the main post office in Chicago to inquire. It took the better part of the day to get any information, but eventually he was told that indeed a ruling had been made and a letter sent on April 5.
Podell protested that he had received no such letter. The post office was aware of that there had been "errors in the letter of transmission," he was told, which had held up the delivery of the decision. The editors had apparently listed two addresses on their application for Big Table's second-class permit: Paul Carroll's apartment on North Dearborn Street (where they were actually working) and Al Podell's in Hyde Park. The letter had been sent to Podell's apartment. But he had given up that residence when he left on his trip to the West Coast. The letter had to be returned to the main post office via the Hyde Park branch before it could be delivered to Carroll.
Postal officials assured Podell that he would eventually receive the letter. He asked that the letter be read to him and learned that the Post Office Department had determined that Big Table was probably statutorily nonmailable "because of its obscenity and filthy contents with particular reference to the articles entitled Old Angel Midnight> and Episodes from Naked Lunch." Some 441 copies were being held at the main post office. A hearing had been scheduled for June 2 in Washington, D.C.
Podell went to work immediately. He wrote a letter to General Counsel Warburton with five demands: release the twenty-one advertisers' copies since they' were sent only to prove that ads had appeared, or allow him to remove the invoices from these copies; allow them to mail "several hundred copies" of Big Table to recognized critics, authors, physicians, and sociologists to solicit testimony on the magazine's behalf; allow them to send about fifty copies to publishers to solicit ads for Big Table 2; send the foregoing mailings "airmail special delivery on a postage free basis "to compensate for the financial loss the Post Office Department had already caused Big Table"; and finally, in respect to the magazine's right to due process, move the hearing to Chicago, where Big Table was published and mailed, and where its editors lived. Not surprisingly the Post Office Department refused every demand, except for the advertisers' paperwork. Podell was told he must petition the hearing examiner for a change of venue.
The obscenity charge was just another grim burden for Paul Carroll. Despite his precautions and the protests of his Loyola students, he was going to lose his job at the end of the month. Besides searching in vain for a new one, he had been putting together Big Table 2, learning editing as he went, trying to find manuscripts for Big Table 3, a special issue entitled The Literature of Crime (which never came off), worrying over the magazine's finances, as well as finding time to write his own poetry.
The reality of the Post Office Department's action hit Carroll hard at first. When he heard the news he sent Rosenthal a terse, rather uptight wire, with no trace of his usual poet's whimsy:
"PO says obscene. Call Saturday morning.
But although his mood swung erratically between despondency over money to frustration at "the puerile shit over obscenity and dirty words," Big Table's cause sustained a quiet elation in Carroll that lasted through the hearing.
"Having to fight for Big Table is good," he wrote to Rosenthal, "-- concrete things like this seem to ram home to me that certain things like this are valuable worth a fight & not just fancy talk in a classroom."
In the weeks after Al Podell received official word of the ban, the staff set to work lining up testimonials, publicizing the ban, calming book-sellers and distributors, negotiating a change of venue to Chicago, and preparing for the hearing with the American Civil Liberties Union.
They had always implicitly counted on the ACLU's help. But despite the many months Rosenthal and Carroll had consulted the ACLU's and its repeated---if unofficial---assurance that Big Table was not obscene, it was not until mid-May, two months after the Post Office Department first seized the magazine, that the ACLU made a commitment to the fight.
After he returned from California in the first week of April and had spoken to his acquaintance at the main post office, Al Podell relayed his suspicions to the ACLU's Joel Sprayregen, a young staff attorney. Sprayregen wanted to confront the post office as soon as he had heard the vague yet ominous report Podell had received from the anonymous source. Podell, perhaps to protect his informant, asked Sprayregen to wait until he had wired the Post Office Department in Washington the following Friday.
Podell and Sprayregen stayed in close touch as the situation unfolded the next week. Then, around April 15, Podell wrote to Rosenthal with the news that the ACLU would not be able to take their case.
Until that point Carroll and Rosenthal could rationalize the ACLU's ambivalence as the result of the Post Office Department's delay in pressing charges. But Rosenthal's assumption was that the ACLU did not have to wait for charges to be sent to Big Table. The magazine's rights under the law had already been violated by the failure of the Post Office Department to notify its publishers promptly. Podell explained that the Chicago branch of the ACLU was not sure the legal principle at stake---the failure to notify within twenty days---was worth the expense that the fight would entail.
The news that the ACLU would not take the case put Big Table, Inc., in limbo. Its own lawyer, who had volunteered his services during the heady days of the previous January, refused to get involved in a confrontation with the Post Office Department. Now, with an action of some kind or another inevitable, a feeling of desperation must have arisen among the staff members.
Advertisers were not paying their bills because they had not received their advertisers' copies or invoices. There was not enough money in the bank to pay for the next issue. How could they hire a lawyer for a court fight that could drag on for years?
When Rosenthal heard that the Chicago office was hedging he tried to interest the New York ACLU in defending Big Table. Rowland Watts of the New York office was favorably impressed by Rosenthal's story and referred the case to Herbert Levy, a senior civil rights attorney there. Watts was particularly interested in the Post Office Department's failure to notify Big Table, Inc., as well as its failure to specify exactly what was obscene in the magazine.
Rosenthal told Podell he thought that New York would jump in immediately if the Post Office Department did not make its obscenity charge more precise. Despite not getting the commitment of support he had hoped for; Rosenthal offered to wage the battle from New York if necessary, the very role he had hoped to avoid by giving up the editorship of the magazine. At the same time he urged Podell to persuade the Chicago ACLU to get involved immediately, to save everyone time and expense later.
A meeting scheduled by the Chicago ACLU board to decide the issue of support for Big Table came and went without a resolution. Podell then wrote to Rosenthal about rumors that the Chicago ACLU planned to wait until the case reached the Federal Court of Appeals "two or three or four years from now when we are both old and tired and washed out."
At the same time he told Rosenthal that Joel Sprayregen had offered to take the case himself, regardless of the ACLU's decision. This should have been welcome news, hut Rosenthal, Carroll, and Podell were all hesitant to put the fate of Burroughs and the new literature in the hands of an attorney less than a year out of Yale Law School.
Podell mused, "I personally would feel more confident with me defending the magazine than with him," and recommended approaching Jake Ehrlich, who had won the Howl obscenity trial in San Francisco a few years earlier. But time was short; a hearing could be set as early as the end of the month, and Podell reasoned, "perhaps we can let Joel handle the hearing (I don't [think we should] if he wants pay) then see what is what when the hearing is over."
Rosenthal agreed, calling Ehrlich "an old hero of mine," but advised care lest they estrange Sprayregen. Even after the ACLU agreed to defend Big Table and assigned Sprayregen to the case, Paul Carroll felt concern at Sprayregen's inexperience and consulted other lawyers as well as Rep. Sidney Yates, saying:
"He [Sprayregen] is our lawyer; of course. But I suspect the more advice the better/as long as we let the ACLU lawyer make the final councel [sic]."
Much of this attitude may have been the result of nerves tautening as the postal vise closed around the magazine. Sprayregen handled the case from start to finish, and the staff of Big Table had nothing but praise for him.
In May 1959 Chicago postmaster Carl Schroeder unveiled the Post Office Department's war on smut in the city, urging "citizens to join the Post Office's crackdown on . . . the half-billion-dollar-a-year traffic in obscenity." At the same time, Al Podell as business manager, was concerned with collecting a few hundred dollars from Big Table's advertisers, who could not be billed without a copy of the magazine.
Because of the growing wave of publicity, more and more subscribers wanted Big Table 1 delivered to them. Podell, concerned about the magazine's reputation as well as its finances, searched for a way to get the copies out. He discussed clandestine mailings with Paul Carroll, who was opposed to the idea without exception. He believed that the legal repercussions would be much greater for the magazine and its editors if they were discovered to be sending copies through the mail after the Post Office Department ban. Without telling Carroll, Rosenthal, or later Joel Sprayregen, Podell began sending out individual copies by first-class mail in plain brown paper wrappers through "a little hick postoffice which hasn't gotten the word yet."
Later that summer, Podell loaded his car with cartons of Big Tables and drove down to New Orleans. He stopped at every little post office along the way, there and back, and mailed two or three copies from each one.
On Friday, May 8,1959, the day after Podell's call to Chicago's main post office, the Chicago ACLU agreed to represent Big Table, Inc., and to pick up virtually all costs of the defense. The hearing was held in Chicago and, as expected, the U.S. Post Office Department upheld its judgment that Big Table 1 was obscene.
But in September 1960 Judge Julius Hoffman, in a literate and well-considered opinion, declared that no part of Big Table 1 was obscene and ordered the Post Office Department to release all the copies it held. During the hearing and appeal Big Table continued to publish and was mailed openly, without interference from postal authorities. A few weeks after Judge Hoffman's decision, Big Table 5 was published. It was to be the final issue of the magazine. ##
CLICK HERE TO GET TO INDEX OF COLUMN THIRTY-NINE
CLICK HERE TO GET TO INDEX OF COLUMNS
Blacklisted Journalist can be contacted at P.O.Box 964, Elizabeth, NJ 07208-0964
The Blacklisted Journalist's E-Mail Address:
BLACKLISTED JOURNALIST IS A SERVICE MARK OF AL ARONOWITZ