About Us

Contact Us


February 17, 2003


A Biography of Philip Whalen's Winning His Way (Part 1)

By Irving Rosenthal

At the end of July 1967, I received a surprise package in the mail. It was from Philip Whalen in Kyoto. It turned out to be a sequel to the picture-book of his I had almost finished printing. It was a surprise, because even though I had commissioned it, I was never certain he would do it, and even if he did, I thought it would happen many months down the line.

I had commissioned his first picture-book also. But the word “commissioned” is much too fancy for the way it happened, so I’ll backtrack a little.

I used to publish Philip’s poems for a magazine I edited in Chicago. My stint as editor lasted only a year, but Philip and I continued corresponding, and five or six years after leaving Chicago, I started a small poetry press in New York. I solicited a few of the poets I knew, who I thought were under-appreciated. I liked Philip immensely, but, to be honest, thought his poems (though crisp) unfocused, intellectual, and (to use his word), goofy. Deep or sustained feelings seemed hidden. But I liked his letters, which he would sometimes decorate with small drawings. So I proposed that he do a book of drawings, a goofy kid’s-type book, and he agreed to do it. He sent it to me in July of 1966. It was twenty-five pages long and called The Invention of the Letter.

It was a quite silly book. Adam (of Adam and Eve) was lonely, wanted to correspond with someone, took the advice of a lion buddy and a bird, and started inventing the letters of the alphabet. Then God took pity on him and created Eve from his body, so that he would have someone to correspond with. Soon after, Adam and Eve fell in love and went to sleep in their cozy cave together with the lion, a lioness and their “splendid family of cubs.” Even the bird got himself a family. The last illustration shows Adam and Eve holding hands, taking a walk in their garden along with the lion family.

I agreed to do the book but wrote Philip:

Your book made me sad — when I saw all the happy families. Couldn’t you draw a special sequel — just a few pages the same size — showing 2 males holding hands too? I know what we do is inconvenient and against the laws of God and man — but Compassion should be extended to cover us too — so that homos don’t cry when they see all the little lion cubs....

Couldn’t Adam have one indiscretion before the creation of Eve — maybe with the lion when they are in the cave. You wouldn’t even have to change the numbering of the pages you already have — just add letters for example 6-A — the lion reaches over and gropes Adam, 6-B they are singing scales in the act of 69 and so forth. A moralistic parent could tear these pages out of the book leaving the story as it now is. Or we could print a limited number of copies of the queer edition so as not to overly tarnish your reputation....

And then even though Adam and the lion are happily married they still occasionally make it with each other.

Two weeks later I got Philip’s reply to the above suggestions:

As for additions, just leave the book alone. I’ll write you another one entirely, guaranteed to suit your most extravagant fancies — but I don’t want to alter this one, which is another kick entirely. I don’t think that you are sinful or wicked or evil, I don’t put you down I don’t put myself down. All I mean is that THE INVENTION OF THE LETTER is finished, as far as I’m concerned. Let me write you something else.

In response to this offer, I wrote, “Please begin work at once on your second book for me — a homo erotic book of text and drawings guaranteed to suit my most extravagant fancies — Jesus! Philip pull out all the stops! I WILL PRINT IT.”

Ten months later (Memorial Day, 1967) Philip complained about my own and other publishers’ lack of progress in publishing his books. “I’d like to see it [The Invention of the Letter] finished,” he wrote. “I really am grateful to you for commissioning the book — without your request, I probably would never have written the thing — but now I want to see it get out & read &c. &c. so I can worry about other things.” I answered him immediately, as follows:

Please don’t upset the precarious apple cart by impatience or by scolding me no matter how well I deserve it — I told you when first I asked for a book how slow I am — and I swear to you that I have been giving you silent mental thanks every single day for your trust and patience....

Perhaps you don’t understand how important it is for me to publish your book and not only for itself. For when I have met my commitment then I shall ask you to meet yours — a queer book with the same naive beauty of The Invention of the Letter. So you ought to be thinking about that instead of brooding about the light of day your books don’t see.

The letter soothed Philip about the production of The Invention of the Letter. As to its “sequel,” he wrote, “I’m gradually descending from an absolutely indescribable trip on psillicybin [sic] {mushroom chemical magic}I took two days ago. I feel too happy & loose to worry about lovely beefcake book — later, when I’m scared & neurotic enough, I’ll be able to do it, but not today.”

A couple of months later, I got the surprise package described in the first paragraph of this memoir — the manuscript of a book called “Winning His Way or The Rise of William Johnson.” It was a surprise because I had still not finished printing Philip’s first book. This was my reaction:

The Rise of Wm. Johnson is a mind-blower pure and simple — it throws your whole oeuvre into facets — no one will ever take you for granted again (not that I ever did) -- nor will anyone know what ‘69 or ‘70 will bring. Not only am I pleased by the dedication — and by being the publisher — but let every man in the world tattoo his cock with my initials! The only thing that worries me is, is it ethical & kosher for a man to publish books dedicated to him? Do you think somebody will think I published them because they were dedicated to me? This book makes your mind seem like an office building at night with just a few windows lit — and then more and more windows start blinking on — but one never knows where the next light will go on. And frankly, I didn’t think you would begin the book till you received a printed copy of The Invention of the Letter, and then I thought I would have to wheedle it out of you — I was already rehearsing in my mind. The book is pornographic, and funny (some use for jockey shorts) and the cock-botany drawings must be the most beautiful drawings you’ve ever done — good

God, Philip, what will you do next? I have so far showed it to Huncke & LaVigne — I wish I had made a tape recording of La Vigne’s laughter — and it wiped them out....

Boy I like you — especially now that you’ve dropped your pins as they say — now don’t gallop off in some fugal reaction-formation scribbling a heterosexual masterpiece — leave this one stand alone in its class — for awhile anyway....

Those cock-flower drawings are just gorgeous, each one more than the others — more — more — more — just give up writing entirely or limit yourself to captions — man you’ve made it as a poet already — just keep on turning out more and more luxuriant pornography — I would say queer for awhile until the balance in America moves a little more in the queer direction, and then bisexual which is my ultimate ideal and the democratic hope of the world. Maybe for the next 20 years do about 4 queer books to one AC-DC book just to even things out. Then you could change the ratio.

On October 28, 1967, a day or two before I left New York for San Francisco, I sent copies of the finished Invention of the Letter both to Philip and to the Copyright Office.

In 1967 San Francisco was probably one of the most exciting places in the world, and by May 1968 I had rented a large flat in Japantown, helped found a commune, and had my New York print shop brought to San Francisco on a U-Haul trailer — along with the still undistributed Invention of the Letter. “Free” was the watchword then, and I believed in it completely. Philip had already been paid advances against royalties for both of his books, so it was clear to me that The Invention of the Letter could be distributed free. How? During a May conversation with Richard Brautigan in Golden Gate Park, where he was handing out copies of his pretty little Plant This Book, he suggested that a book could be given out all at once to its appropriate target audience. A big free poetry reading was scheduled on June 14 at Glide Church. My fellow communards showed up with all our Whalen books and handed them out into the audience when Philip came to the podium. It was a fun gesture, everyone appreciated the books, and all distribution problems were solved at once.

Little by little, the commune created a running free print shop in San Francisco. I put aside all the unfinished literary projects I had brought with me from New York, and my friends and I plunged into printing what was immediately needed by emerging arts and service groups in the City (Medical Opera, Kaliflower, Angels of Light, Hare Krishna, S.F. Switchboard, etc.). Years passed without releasing me from the burden of guilt for unfinished projects, and finally, in 1983, the print shop had an opening and we were able to begin work on Philip’s Winning His Way. The printing and binding were finished in 1984. There was an upside to the long delay, because by then we had mastered color printing on the offset press, and one of us had taken a cover drawing of Philip’s not used for The Invention of the Letter, and given it a delicate coloring of white, lilac and gray, green and rose. By that time, Philip’s commitment to Zen Buddhism had deepened, and he was living at Page Street Zen Center. From time to time I would visit him, with ten copies or so for him to give to his friends. But in my mind a book had to have an “official” publication, and I started searching around for some free event that had something to do with Philip, and was as open and glorious as the 1968 reading at Glide. But times had changed. The mood of the City was different. No event seemed to fit, and there were no near misses. The Buddhist ceremonies at which Philip was initiated or ordained didn’t seem appropriate, and it didn’t seem fair to hand out our book at a publication party for another of Philip’s books. So I decided to just bide my time.

I quoted from Philip’s Memorial Day letter of 1967 to make the point that in the years between 1967 and 2002 (when he died), he didn’t make one complaint, direct or indirect, written or oral, about the length of time it had taken to publish Winning His Way. In fact one day in the eighties, when I sheepishly expressed regret for the printing delay, he brushed it right off the table.

I have often wondered whether my own feelings blinded me from finding the proper venue for distributing Winning his Way. For example, did my affection for Philip lead me, unconsciously, into shielding this Buddhist priest — this abbot — from embarrassment that this book might cause him? Was his silence to me about the book a subliminal plea for silence from me? Was I shielding myself from the embarrassment of publishing a book dedicated to the publisher (for Winning His Way was so dedicated)?

During Philip’s last lengthy illness, I had made up my mind that his mahasamadhi would be that suitable time, and when his mortal end came (June 26, 2002), I looked for an appropriate venue.