Kirkus Reviews QR Code
SMOKING TYPEWRITERS by John McMillian Kirkus Star

SMOKING TYPEWRITERS

The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America

By John McMillian

Pub Date: Feb. 16th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-19-531992-7
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

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 the Los 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 the LA 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.