Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in Americaby John McMillian
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How did the New Left uprising of the 1960s happen? What caused millions of young people-many of them affluent and college educated-to suddenly decide that American society needed to be completely overhauled? In Smoking Typewriters, historian John McMillian shows that one answer to these questions can be found in the emergence of a dynamic underground press in the 1960s. Following the lead of papers like the Los Angeles Free Press, the East Village Other, and the Berkeley Barb, young people across the country launched hundreds of mimeographed pamphlets and flyers, small press magazines, and underground newspapers. New, cheaper printing technologies democratized the publishing process and by the decade's end the combined circulation of underground papers stretched into the millions. Though not technically illegal, these papers were often genuinely subversive, and many of those who produced and sold them-on street-corners, at poetry readings, gallery openings, and coffeehouses-became targets of harassment from local and federal authorities. With writers who actively participated in the events they described, underground newspapers captured the zeitgeist of the '60s, speaking directly to their readers, and reflecting and magnifying the spirit of cultural and political protest. McMillian pays special attention to the ways underground newspapers fostered a sense of community and played a vital role in shaping the New Left's highly democratic "movement culture." Deeply researched and eloquently written, Smoking Typewriters captures all the youthful idealism and vibrant tumult of the 1960s as it delivers a brilliant reappraisal of the origins and development of the New Left rebellion.
"A lucid new work by a promising young media historian, Georgia State University's John McMillan.... Suitable for scholars, graduate students, and aging hippies everywhere."
"The story that John McMillian tells in Smoking Typewriters and the lessons he implies are at once admonitory and inspirational; this is a work of serious scholarship that suggests both a call to resurgent action and a demand that people do better next time."
Roz Kaveney, Times Literary Supplement
"Exploring the variety of cultures that produced the papers as well as documenting how the papers reshaped their communities as they connected young people across the country, McMillian offers fascinating portraits of many colorful characters while also developing a temporal narrative tracing the rise and fall of the newspapers and the youth movement they chronicled....Those who teach the sixties, protest history, or journalism history are indebted to McMillian for providing a readable chronicle of this critical moment when words fired minds and were, themselves, a form of action." H-Net Reviews
"Readable, richly detailed study of the hundreds of anti-establishment 1960s newspapers.... A welcome book on the '60sa nostalgia trip for those who were there and a vivid work of history for anyone curious about the journalism that jolted a decade." Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"This tour d'horizon of the 60s underground press is a tour de force.... [A] compact, sharply-etched, and well-informed recollection of the rebellious young journalists whose voices and views breached the high walls of Mainstream Media long before the current Internet-savvy generation rushed in to finish off to what remains of Conventional-Wisdom-based reporting. Seen with fresh eyes by a talented young scholar, Smoking Typewriters tells an important-and entertaining-story about modern American culture and its endless upheavals." Richard Parker, Harvard University
"Thoroughly researched and well-written, this book will serve as the definitive treatment of the radical and alternative media of the 1960s. While telling his story, much of it both exciting and tragic, John McMillian confronts crucial issues-questions about objectivity and democratic activism-with verve and insight." Kevin Mattson, author of "What the Heck are You Up To, Mr. President?"
"John McMillian's meticulous scholarship delves into the rambunctious, chaotic world of the counterculture weeklies that sprang up around the country, and mostly imploded, in the era of Vietnam, rock, psychedelics and pot. Smoking Typewriters (the witty title was a gift from Allen Ginsberg) explores the ambitions and private demons of several leading figures in the alternative press, notably Ray Mungo, Marshall Bloom, and Tom Forcade. The author parses - no easy task - the dizzily fractured political and sexual rebellions promoted by the founders, writers and cartoonists of the cheaply produced, offset, raggedy papers that thumbed a collective nose at The Establishment as they grooved on their beleaguered 'underground' status. I think he gets it right. This book is an enlightening contribution to a nation that still has not come to terms with The Sixties." Susan Brownmiller, author of In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution
"John McMillian's Smoking Typewriters is as vivid, subtle, and scrupulous as the '60s upheaval, in all its audacity and weirdness, deserves." Todd Gitlin, author of The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage
"The forgotten cradle of today's 'indymedia' and blogosphere was the Underground Press of the Sixties revolution, an autonomous journalistic culture of writers, critics, poets and political radicals who were the connecting tissue for our generation. John McMillian succeeds in bringing their story back to life in this well-researched history." Tom Hayden
"McMillian is at his critical best when he examines the history of the papers that led the youthful resistance. A solid and informed commentary on the New Left's independent press." Publishers Weekly
"Meticulously researched and richly written with humor, tragedy, and grace, this book will find a home on the shelves of those interested in the New Left movement, free press, the youth culture of the 1960s, and the history of the underground press in America." Library Journal
"[A] thrilling historical narrative.... McMillian brings this crucial story alive for a new generation." Austin American-Statesman
"[A] fast-moving narrative about the birth, the death, and the second life of the newspapers that were spawned by the upheavals of the 1960s and that were also spurred on by those upheavals.... McMillian puts readers in the cockpit of the era. He conjures up the radical style, the exuberant mood, and the bravado no mean feat given the fact that he wasn't there to live it himself. An historian, he looks back at the era with the benefit of hindsight and with a certain detachment, too, that enables him to tell the story without aiming to grind obvious ideological axes." The Rag Blog
"[An] outstanding new book.... Smoking Typewriters is a fascinating read and a meticulously well-researched book, describing the time in American history, the personalities, and the economics that allowed the alt-press to flourish.... Anyone interested in the role of media in modern history will want to read Smoking Typewriters."
"Smoking Typewriters clearly illustrates what has changed, and what has stayed the same, making it a must-read for anyone who wants context on today's IT-fueled freedom fights." East Bay Express
"Meticulously researched and richly written with humor, tragedy, and grace." Library Journal
"[A] lively chronicle of the dedication, ecstasies, nuttiness, pathologies, and generational cockiness of the 1960s left that the decade's underground press reported and embodied." The American Prospect
"It's hard not to get swept up in this engaging history of a bygone era in publishing."
Time Out Chicago
"History books rarely speak as trenchantly to contemporary issues as McMillian's Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America. As the cascading revolts in the Muslim world demonstrate, communication systems matter.... Smoking Typewriters is as much a history of the '60s as it is of the era's 'alternative media,' a phrase we hear a lot these days (if you replace 'alternative' with 'independent'). It often seems like there is nothing new to learn about the '60s, but McMillian provides a fresh history by putting the role of media at the center. He helps us better understand the decade by providing a window into the institutions this anti-institutional generation built." In These Times
"[An] amply researched, intelligent and admirably even-handed chronicle.... McMillian, much to his credit, never falls off the cliff in his general admiration for the radicals; he's careful to point out that people on either side of the aisle might see events differently without being exactly wrong or right. Also, he points out that underground leaders weren't without biases of their own.... [A] valuable book that connects the dots from then to now, from underground to alternative to blogosphere, filling in an important part of America's cultural history along the way." Free Times (Columbus, SC)
"There have been at least a gazillion histories written of the 1960s, but John McMillian's latest, Smoking Typewriters, ... is one of the best. Many chroniclers louse up their tales of freak history by neglecting the subject's inherently subversive humor. McMillian's academic background and meticulous research are impressive, but he also knows when to let readers have fun while they're getting smarter." High Times
"[B]risk and illuminating...Smoking Typewriters offers a compelling argument that the underground press was one of the New Left's most important counterinstitutions.... Thanks to adroit writing as well as engaging source material, Smoking Typewriters is a lively read that should be of strong interest to historians of the 1960s, journalism, and American political movements across a range of disciplines." Journal of American History
"McMillian has done something valuable. Smoking Typewriters is a diligent work of history, and its toggling between numerous close-ups and the occasional wide shots adds up to an impressive montage of the period." Dissent
"McMillian has produced a necessary work for those who would like to understand how the underground press contributed to the growth of the white youth rebellion in the 1960s; and he gives us, too, some sense of the texture of the times." David Barber, American Historical Review
An unusually thoughtful account of the in-your-face underground press of the 1960s and its role in fomenting a decade of youth revolt.
McMillian (History/Georgia State Univ.;co-editor: Protest Nation: Words that Inspired a Century of American Radicalism, 2010, etc.) immersed himself in Bell & Howell's Underground Press Collection on microfilm to write this readable, richly detailed study of the hundreds of anti-establishment 1960s newspapers—from theLos Angeles Free Press to Rag (Austin, Texas) and The Paper (East Lansing, Mich.)—that "educated, politicized and built communities among disaffected youths in every region of the country." Edited by young radicals, filled with heated prose and muckraking by reporters who were engaged in the events they covered and made possible by inexpensive new printing technologies, these brash, often amateurishly produced, grassroots publications helped unite revolutionaries and bohemians and played a seldom-acknowledged key role in fostering the protest culture of the '60s. Sympathetic but fair, McMillian points out the aesthetic and intellectual shortcomings of these often-salacious publications even as he traces their astonishing success at reflecting the democratic sensibilities of '60s youths. The author provides numerous sharp portraits: Art Kunkin, half-Marxist, half-hippie founder of theLA Free Press(the "Freep"), and his superior coverage of antiwar activities and the 1965 Watts riot;Ray Mungo and Marshall Bloom, founders of the Liberation News Service, which issued weekly packets of political news and analysis from an urban commune; and the legendary John Wilcock, a founder of the Underground Press Syndicate. The chapter on the papers' role in spreading rumors about getting high on "banana joints" is a hoot. In 1968, the FBI began compiling information on underground papers. Federal and local authorities busted underground journalists for obscenity or drugs; intimated the landlords, advertisers and printers; and hassled their street vendors. By decade's end, most underground papers ceased publication. In their wake, they left a bevy of lifestyle-heavy alternative publications like the Chicago Reader and Washington City Paper.
A welcome book on the '60s—a nostalgia trip for those who were there and a vivid work of history for anyone curious about the journalism that jolted a decade.
- Oxford University Press
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Meet the Author
John McMillian is Assistant Professor of History at Georgia State University. He is the author of Beatles vs. Stones and the co-editor of The Radical Reader: A Documentary History of an American Radical Tradition, The New Left Revisited, Protest Nation: The Radical Roots of Modern America, and The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.
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