Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America, John McMillan, Oxford University Press, 304 pages
By Jesse Walker | May 18, 2011
One Sunday in 1968, the Washington wing of the Liberation News Service stole a bunch of money, a $400,000 printing press and collator, an addressograph, some office furniture, and every copy of the organization’s mailing list from the New York wing of the Liberation News Service, hauling the loot out to a farm in Massachusetts. It was one of the more notorious faction fights in the radical press of the 1960s, a saga that would soon include a kidnapping, a beating, and a rural rumble that was improbably interrupted for an informal concert. When the Georgia State historian John McMillian tells the tale in Smoking Typewriters, his new book on the American underground press, he is able to jump in just two sentences from “When one of them rushed the truck, he was knocked over by the moving vehicle and suffered a few cracked ribs” to “members of the Children of God even brought out their guitars and sang songs.”
It would be unfair to say this sort of confrontation was typical of the ’60s and ’70s left, but it wasn’t unique either. The history of underground newspapers, community radio stations, and New Left activist groups is peppered with these little clashes, though they don’t normally include abductions and musical interludes. As with the cattle raids that inspired so many medieval Irish sagas, such escapades can be exciting when recounted with élan. Raymond Mungo did that in his memoir Famous Long Ago, which told the tale of the Liberation News Service heist from the thieves’ perspective. In Smoking Typewriters, McMillian repeats some of the high points of Mungo’s vivid narrative but tempers it with the perspectives of the other parties in and around the melee.
It’s one of the best parts of McMillian’s book—a segment that doesn’t just relate a diverting story but uses it to illustrate a deeper theme about the underground press: the conflict between different visions of what constitutes that New Left ideal, a “participatory democracy.”
Unfortunately, most of the book isn’t nearly that good. There are other lively sequences, such as McMillian’s rundown of the ways the government repressed underground papers, a process that included deliberate attempts to stoke the sort of faction fight that ripped the Liberation News Service apart. But more often, the book drains the life from some of the most colorful episodes in recent history. McMillian manages even to make the banana hoax of 1967, when pranksters spread a rumor that smoking bananas can get you high, into a dull academic argument that the hoax “created a liminal space, a conceptual border area between the counterculture and straight society. In smoking a banana joint, youths could participate in a hippie ritual without undertaking a significant amount of risk.”
Besides violating the general rule of thumb that anyone using the word “liminal” is trying too hard, McMillian doesn’t grapple with the fact that the number of “hippie rituals” that did not entail “a significant amount of risk” probably exceeded the number that did; his “conceptual border area” encompasses everything from attending a rock concert to reading the underground newspapers that helped spread the banana story in the first place. Passages like that one aren’t very useful for a general audience, and they don’t really do much for McMillian’s scholarly peers either. They feel like they’re there to convince a small group of people that the author is doing something novel and valuable. Smoking Typewriters began as a Ph.D. thesis, and sometimes it still feels as though its imagined audience is a dissertation committee.
A deeper problem is that McMillian sees his subject as a subset of the New Left. In fact, underground papers were a product not just of the New Left but of the counterculture, two trends that were by no means identical. Many young leftists wrote off the hippies as blissed-out zombies, and many longhairs deeply distrusted politics and preferred to pursue personal liberation, which might mean anything from LSD to pop Buddhism. And when hippies did have political commitments, they didn’t always match those of the modal protester.
McMillian acknowledges the distinction but then argues essentially for ignoring it, pointing out that the left and the hippie world overlapped heavily, especially by the end of the ’60s. This is true, but the fact that he lumps the resulting mixture under the “New Left” header, privileging the politicos over the acidheads, affects his narrative in a number of unfortunate ways.
Take the opening chapter, which explores the bulletins and round-robin letters that circulated in one of the most significant ’60s groups, Students for a Democratic Society. McMillian may be right that these outlets “set the template for underground newspapers that functioned as open forums, to which virtually anyone could contribute,” and he may be right that they were a precedent for papers that “functioned as democratic collectives.” But another writer could as easily have opened with a chapter on the mimeographed poetry and art zines that flourished in the Beat era. If the beatniks influenced the hippies, then surely the Beat press influenced the hippie press; and indeed, the mimeo revolution produced experiments in layout, typography, and content that set yet more templates for many underground papers. (You can draw a direct line, for example, between the mimeo poets and the New Orleans–based newspaper NOLA Express.)
But a book that began with those publications while ignoring the SDS Bulletin would have a very different flavor, and probably different conclusions, than a book that does the reverse. And a book that looked at both would be better equipped to discuss how the New Left and the counterculture engaged with each other as underground newspapers evolved.
McMillian’s New Left focus shades the narrative again when we encounter Walter Bowart, co-founder of the Underground Press Syndicate (UPS) and publisher of the influential East Village Other. Bowart is an important figure in hippie history, but he makes just three brief cameos in the book, of which the most memorable comes when he “sent out a bizarre letter to UPS editors, in which he vastly inflated the power of the ‘Psychedelic Movement,’and called for hippies to build an alliance with the Republican Party.” For McMillian, the letter is a sign of how scrambled UPS was in its early days. But maybe it’s worth more than one throwaway aside. The psychedelic-Republican alliance wasn’t going to happen, but the fact that someone suggested it says something significant about his worldview.
In 1996, Bowart would tell the New Age Phoenix Journal, “I was always, I guess you would have called me back in those days, politically, a libertarian.” He added: “In those days we were called ‘leftists.’ I never felt like a leftist because I was never—I didn’t like Karl Marx. I looked at all that stuff but it was, to me, Adam Smith, ‘Self-interest motivates people. Competition limits self-interest.’ That always made sense to me.” The fact that the publisher of the East Village Other preferred Adam Smith and Timothy Leary to Karl Marx and Ho Chi Minh should be a sign that the category “New Left” isn’t quite large enough to cover all of the underground press.
And Bowart wasn’t alone. A number of libertarians, from Leonard Liggio to Kerry Thornley, contributed to underground newspapers, and I am aware of at least one underground paper, the LA-based Protos, that had an explicitly libertarian perspective. (Some of those free marketeers also saw themselves as a part of the New Left, confusing our categories still further.)
It’s when McMillian talks about the successors to the underground papers that his framework really falls apart. His discussion of the alt-weeklies that rose in the ’70s is a decent overview, and I have no substantial complaints about his brief comments on the zine scene that flowered in the ’80s. But when he gets to the modern world of blogs, he zeroes in exclusively on the liberal netroots. It’s bizarre enough to leave out the conservative, libertarian, and just plain unclassifiable segments of the blogosphere. But even if you’re intent on sticking to those websites that can plausibly position themselves as the heirs to the New Left, wouldn’t it make more sense to discuss the radicals of cyberspace, not the liberals, starting with the Indymedia sites that sprouted around the world after the Seattle protests of 1999? Don’t they have more in common with the Liberation News Service than any outposts oriented toward the Democratic Party?
Smoking Typewriters is a smart effort but a disappointing one, a history that increases our understanding of alternative media by small increments rather than large leaps. I understand how a publisher could look at McMillian’s academic scholarship and see the seeds of an interesting book. Now that the book’s been published, though, I still don’t see much more than seeds.
Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason and author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America.