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With Ray and Rosenthal at Chicago Review

From October 1956 to December 1957, while on the staff of Chicago Review, I witnessed its transition from an eclectic journal of ideas and literary writing under Editor David Ray to a launching pad for the meteoric rise of the Beat Poets to national prominence, led by Ray's successor, Irving Rosenthal. Irv and his staff became famous in 1958 for spiriting manuscripts of Beat writers William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and others away from University auspices to their alternative magazine, Big Table. The ensuing conflict with University administrators and the US Post Office is documented in Gerald Brennan's article, "Big Table." ([dagger]) My narrative ends where that one begins and provides a context out of which the fracas developed. Working closely with both editors, I observed their contrasting management styles and the distinctive persona each brought to Chicago Review.

I grew up a mile and a half due north of the University of Chicago. With a BA in philosophy from a small college whose faculty idolized Robert Hutchins's "humanism for the masses," I enrolled in the U of C's one-year MA program in English. I supported myself debt-free by working swing shift as an engineer's caller with the Illinois Central Railroad. The job required a few hours of intense concentration, but also afforded blocks of quiet, solitary time to read and write school assignments. My appetite for intellectual excitement led me to CR.

On the second floor of the Reynolds Club, David Ray occupied a dark, wooden, paper-cluttered rolltop desk against a wall of the large square room that was the CR office. The place smelled of old floor wax and musty sweat. David, who disliked the nickname "Dave," was a spectacled, curly-haired dynamo in his twenties. He had entered the College as a mid-teen in Hutchins's liberal arts program. He showed me a table with 10" x 14" manila envelopes standing upright in bins, each envelope with a submitted poetry or fiction manuscript and a sheet of paper for staff comments. He said, "Read everything. Write evaluations of each one and whether it merits publication." He opened the door to a closet filled with stacks of the magazine, saying, "A former editor ordered ten thousand copies of this one issue. Stupid overprinting!"

David's "Editorial" in the Winter 1957 issue (CR, 10.4) explained the magazine's objectives: "We print the very best writing we receive, regardless of the writer's reputation or obscurity, opinions or subject matter. He must simply be the possessor of skill and insight." At this time, CR published poets such as Philip Booth, Isabella Gardner, and Donald Hall, and fiction writers such as Jack Matthews, Walter Ballenger, and Philip Roth. Essays addressed cultural and social issues and analyses of recent fiction by J. D. Salinger, Saul Bellow, and Nelson Algren. A conspicuous proletarian, Algren and essayist Lawrence Lipton were David's preferred social critics of consumerism, gadgetry, and suburban euphoria. They listened to America's "losers" while the mainstream focused on getting ahead. Humanistic psychiatrist Erik Erikson and his son Kai T. Erikson critiqued middle-class eagerness to label nonconforming youth "delinquents." Book reviews exposed the Atomic Energy Commission's lies about the effects of nuclear radiation and delineated the tradition of racial violence in the South.

At meetings, the CR staff voted on which pieces to publish. David took everyone's evaluations seriously and liked mine well enough to promote me to Essay Editor. The magazine also sponsored readings and lectures, one of which was Isaac Rosenfeld's "On the Role of the Writer and the Little Magazine" (CR, 11.2). David invited architect Frank Lloyd Wright to visit campus and protest the proposed demolition of Robie House, which he had designed and the Theological Seminary was planning to replace with a dormitory. Wright spoke at the Robie site in March and returned to lecture in November.

Our Poetry Editor, George Starbuck, was a tall, thin ex-GI who wrote in traditional verse forms and, like David and I, was working toward an MA in English. His education was financed on the GI Bill, and he nearly always wore olive-drab army fatigues. Later, he taught at Eastern colleges. One fired him for refusing to sign a loyalty oath, so he and others sued the school and won their case in the US Supreme Court. George eventually became director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

In the later 1950s, the U of C campus was in the forefront of America's recovery from McCarthyism. To strengthen the US in its Cold War against Soviet Russia, Joseph McCarthy's House Committee on Un-American Activities and FBI infiltration had decreased the American Communist Party to miniscule membership. Many progressives with no connection to the USSR had also been forced out of careers in the academy and other areas of public life. Despite a general climate of fear, some faculty and students (including Bernie Sanders) addressed issues of income inequality, racial discrimination, and especially the danger of nuclear annihilation. One successful group could show independence from Stalinist USSR by their allegiance to ideas of Leon Trotsky. Similarly, anarchists affiliated with Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker Movement--as I was--avoided the public's wrath against "godless Communists." U of C activists, along with off-campus intellectuals and religious pacifists, were becoming a coalition of peace and civil rights advocates.

Pursuing a doctoral program in human development, Irving Rosenthal joined the CR staff when I did. We got along well, discussing incoming manuscripts and our literary interests, which included a mutual predilection for Marcel Proust's Remembrances. I perceived a physical resemblance between Irv and photos I'd seen of Proust. Irv was pleased to know I had published in The Catholic Worker. He borrowed my volumes of Teresa of Avila's complete works. His interest in mysticism may seem odd for the future author of Sheeper and fan of the Marquis de Sade, but Irv's tastes were diverse. A follower of psychologist Wilhelm Reich, he had constructed his personal "orgone accumulator." He published his first story in CR ("An Invitation to Sleep," CR, 11.1), staying on staff only one quarter before leaving for home on the West Coast.

In spring 1957, David, George Starbuck, and I enrolled in novelist Richard G. Stern's creative writing seminar. Visiting writers Saul Bellow, John Berryman, Peter Taylor, and Howard Nemerov each presided over two weeks of the seminar. They held conferences with individual students, and we discussed our writing submitted for their review. Philip Roth, who was teaching in University College, audited Bellow's seminar sessions.

When Starbuck completed his degree and relocated, David replaced him with guest Poetry Editor Paul Carroll. Paul was well qualified but lacked the student standing required for regular staff membership. I had become Associate Editor. Irving returned and rejoined staff as the second Associate Editor, so he and I were the two-highest ranking staff members after David. With his degree and staff eligibility finished, David provided for succession by appointing Irv and me coeditors. We accepted the arrangement and at a staff meeting concurred on a selection of manuscripts for a forthcoming issue. A week later, David told me Irv had asked to be made sole Editor and David acceded, saying I would remain Associate Editor. I was disappointed, but agreed. The Business Manager had already retired, and I had taken over his responsibilities of logging subscriptions and selling ads in addition to my editorial functions.

As Irv and I sat in the office one July afternoon, he picked up the phone and listened to shouting on the other end. It was David. "Yes, I did," Irv said. More ranting. Then Irv's jaw dropped and his eyes bulged. His face crumpled. He told me, "David says he's going to come and beat me up."

"Why?" I asked.

"I sent accepted manuscripts back to their authors."

I felt compelled to protect my vulnerable boss and, without a second thought, took the phone. "David, did you tell Irv you're going to fight him?"

"Damned right!"

"You're going to have to fight me first," I said.

"Oh yeah? Come on over and I'll clean your clock."

"I'm coming for you right now." I felt confident striding out of the office. I was in better physical shape than David and had grown up in a tough neighborhood where I learned to fight. But during the three-block walk to his apartment, I was bothered by thoughts of my "1-0" conscientious objector draft status and belief in Tolstoyan pacifism. Because I'd committed myself to this fight, I felt honor-bound to go through with it.

Outside David's apartment building, a thin young man wearing glasses was dodging behind one and another parked car, trying to avoid notice while watching me. I remembered him from creative writing seminar--it was Philip Roth.

When I rang the bell, David's wife Florence answered. I said, "I want David to step outside."

She smiled and said, "He'd rather have you come in and talk." David appeared behind her, a can of beer in his hand: "Come sit down, Ed." I did. The summer heat was intense. He offered me a beer. I accepted. We talked quietly. Philip came to the door, and the four of us had a friendly conversation. Once Philip left, David told me Irv had returned all the manuscripts for one whole issue even though he had voted to accept them. He said Irv's unethical reversal deserved retribution. Without agreeing, I left, relieved we had avoided violence. David soon relocated out of state.

As before, the Editor picked up CR' s mail at Faculty Exchange, but no submissions appeared for staff to read. Irv extolled poetry he'd brought back from San Francisco. He showed me three poems in manuscript by either Philip Whalen or Michael McClure and asked my opinion. In free verse scattered randomly on the page, they seemed incoherent and banal. I read carefully and said, "I don't much like them." Irv took them back and smiled.

I became increasingly uneasy about the leadership's lack of transparency. I now felt that Irv's belated rejection of accepted material was unethical and dishonorable. Another staff member agreed with me, so I called a meeting to include the two of us, faculty advisor Richard Stern, Irving, and his supporter Paul Carroll.

Once I explained their editorial malfeasance, Stern concluded that Irv and Paul deserved dismissal. But he added, "Ed, I hear you have only one quarter remaining of student eligibility. Who would you expect me to replace them with?" Since I hadn't thought ahead about this problem, my honorable gesture made me look foolishly impractical. Stern concluded, "Irving and Paul can keep their positions because no one else is available."

Irv kept me on staff till the end of fall term. When it began and staff returned, the office was dustless, furniture polished, and the waxed floor shining. Bookshelves with locked glass doors guarded review copies which had once lain on open shelves. The overprinted back issue was gone from the closet. Most staff were new. With manuscripts still unavailable for general reading, Irv and Paul appeared to be sole deciders.

Allen Ginsberg gave a reading from his poem "Howl" in Mandei Hall Under CR auspices. He concluded by dropping his pants and exposing himself. Reminiscent of the Dauphin's "Royal Nonesuch," which Mark Twain portrays in Huckleberry Finn, Ginsberg's antic shocked the audience and embarrassed the administration. Next day in the CR office, staff members expressed amusement and delight over Ginsberg's audacity. The provocation began a process that led Chancellor Lawrence A. Kimpton to forbid publication of Beat writers in CR.

In November 1957, CR sponsored a lecture by Frank Lloyd Wright celebrating the University's decision not to raze Robie House. The staff planned a convivial dinner at the house with its architect. Wright insisted we have a bottle of his favorite whiskey on hand. Shy about conversing with the great man, Irv said he counted on me to keep conversation going. Five of us holding our glasses of Old Bushmills beside a glowing fireplace listened to Wright pontificate on how "Americans have a lust for the ugly." Later, before a capacity crowd in Mandei Hall, he cited Emerson, emphasizing the importance of self-reliance and imagination. Robie House still stands, and so does Chicago Review.
                                                          Edward Morin

As Chicago Review approaches its 75th Anniversary in 2021, we will be soliciting and publishing memoirs from former editors and staff members. We'd love to hear from anyone who wishes to contribute to this process of collective memorialization; write us at
                                                          The Editors

([dagger]) / Gerald Brennan, "Big Table." Chicago History: The Magazine of the Chicago Historical Society, 17 (Spring and Summer 1988): 4-23.

Caption: Frank Lloyd Wright (center) and Irving Rosenthal (right) outside the Robie House at the University of Chicago, 1957. Photographer unknown. Chicago Review Papers, Special Collections Research Center, the University of Chicago Libraries.
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Author:Morin, Edward
Publication:Chicago Review
Geographic Code:1U3IL
Date:Jun 22, 2019
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