Pages of History

Big Table 3

"I was seeing Pershing Square, Los Angeles, now for the first time…the nervous fugitives from Times Square, Market Street SF, the French Quarter — masculine hustlers looking for lonely fruits to score from, anything from the legendary $20 to a pad at night and breakfast in the morning and whatever you can clinch or clip; and the heat in their holy cop uniforms, holy because of the Almighty Stick and the Almightier Vagrancy Law; the scattered junkies, the small-time pushers, the queens, the sad panhandlers, the lonely, exiled nymphs haunting the entrance to the men’s head, the fruits with the hungry eyes and jingling coins; the tough teen-age chicks — 'dittybops' — making it with the lost hustlers … all amid the incongruous piped music and the flowers — twin fountains gushing rainbow colored: the world of Lonely America squeezed into Pershing Square, of the Cities of Terrible Night, downtown now trapped in the City of lost Angels … and the tress hang over it all the like some type of apathetic fate."

— JOHN RECHY: Big Table 3

dropcap_I_vadisf you read Norman Mailer’s article for Esquire on the 1960 Democratic National Convention, you might notice a description of Pershing Square by John Rechy and wonder “What’s Big Table 3?” Thanks to EBay, I now have a copy of the magazine and here’s the answer: 

Big Table (1959-1960) was edited by Irving Rosenthal and Paul Carroll, who began the journal after resigning from Chicago Review over criticism of what was intended as the first installment of William S. Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch.”

In fact, almost the entire staff of Chicago Review resigned after Chicago Daily News writer Jack Mabley wrote a scathing column about the issue headlined “Filthy Writing on the Midway.”  As reconstructed from the Village Voice and the Chicago Reader, Mabley's Oct. 25, 1958, column read in part:

"Do you ever wonder what happens to little boys who scratch dirty words on railroad underpasses? They go to college and scrawl obscenities in the college literary magazine. A magazine published by the University of Chicago is distributing one of the foulest collections of printed filth I've seen publicly circulated.

"I don't recommend anyone buying the thing out of curiosity because the writing is obscure to the unbeat generation, and the purple prose is precisely what you can see chiseled on washroom walls.

"The beat generation has quite a representative on the Midway. I haven't had much contact with these people, but I get the impression they are young, intellectual, need baths and have extreme contempt for the less fortunate than themselves, which is almost everybody. I'm sure these words won't bother them because they wouldn't be caught dead reading anything so plebeian, even for a good sneer . . .

"The obscenity is put into their writing to attract attention. It is an assertion of their sense of bravado, 'Oh boy, look what I'm doing' just like the little kids chalking a four letter word on the Oak Street underpass.

“What is legally obscene and what is not? If anyone used these words orally in the street, he would be arrested. If the obscenity in the magazine were read in a public performance as a literary presentation, the performers would be arrested and charged with indecency, in my opinion. Yet, in print, stamped 'this is literary,” they get away with it.

"To save argument, let's concede that I am a bluenose. I am disturbed by the increasing legal tolerance of obscenity. I abhor public circulation of vulgarity and coarseness. I think it is evidence of the deterioration of our American society. I think it is dangerous. We are  going overboard in the liberal side — in the courts, in literature, in popular men's magazines and paper-cover books. The Chicago magazine is abundant evidence of this trend.

"I don't put the blame on the juveniles who wrote and edited the 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's being circulated under their sponsorship." (If anyone has a scan of the original column, please send it along).

But the controversy wasn’t over. More than 400 copies of Big Table 1, which included further excerpts of "Naked Lunch" and Jack Kerouac's "Old Angel Midnight," were seized by postal authorities because of "obscenity and filthy contents," according to the University of Chicago's website on Carroll's papers. An initial ruling found Big Table 1 to be obscene, but that was overturned on appeal by Judge Julius Hoffman (yes, the “Chicago Seven” Julius Hoffman). The journal ceased publication after five issues.

Bonus fact: The title of Big Table was suggested by Jack Kerouac, inspired by a note on his writing desk: “Get a bigger table.”

As for novelist John Rechy, the excerpt quoted by Mailer (who also had an item in Big Table 3) is from “The Fabulous Wedding of Miss Destiny,”  written about “a flaming drag queen”  while Rechy was renting a room on Hope Street in downtown Los Angeles. 

A highly revised version, titled “Miss Destiny: The Fabulous Wedding,” appears in Rechy’s “City of Night.”

According to WorldCat, Big Table is available in many local libraries.Or you can buy copies from various book dealers.

On the jump, a page from Big Table 3.

Big Table 3 excerpt

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in #gays and lesbians, art and artists, books, Downtown, Parks and Recreation. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Pages of History

  1. Aleta Zak says:

    Thanks for the post on Big Table. What a flash from the past. I worked at the Chicago Historical Society in the late 1980s and we published an article in Chicago History Magazine on the genesis of Big Table. I believe it was the Spring/Summer 1988 issue, if you want to check it out. We found some good photos and included them in the article (one is a group shot of the Big Table staff). As a bonus feature, this issue included a tear-out 45 record of Allen Ginsburg reading his epic Beat poem “Howl.” The issue was focused around the 20th anniversary of the 1968 Democratic Convention riot–the one featuring Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin (among other radical notables) in starring roles.


  2. Maryrose says:

    How wonderful the experience you had in working on the 1988 issue of “Chicago History” which was attempting to show how avant-garde advances in literature, theater and the Civil Rights Demonstrations in Chicago helped lead Brennan did an amazing job in resenting the history of Big Table.
    Big Table issues 2, 3, 4, and 5 were edited by Paul Carroll. Irving Rosenthal had removed himself from the magazine.


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