on December 25, 2011
On the Ground is a unique contribution to the literature on the counterculture newspapers which "spread like weed" during the Vietnam Era. Many of the issues so many people are now protesting, especially in light of the Occupy movement, such as inequality, corporate greed and government, censorship, mistrust of mass media, and anti-war sentiment are exact echoes of what was expressed in the sixties underground press.
Quite a few good books (e.g., John McMillian's Smoking Typewriters) have been written about the historical, cultural, and social value of the sixties underground newspapers. However, basing this book solely on interviews with the actual participants of the underground press, Stewart provides a glimpse into what it was really like to create and write for an underground newspaper. Especially interesting, are reflections on the daily operations of working in an underground press office. For example, Abe Peck (The Chicago Seed) writes about the "sheer balls-to-the-wall, nose to the grindstone, laughing-all-the way daily life" he experienced. Peck reflects on the biggest folder in the office of the Chicago Seed labeled "No More Goddamned Hippie Poetry." One can only imagine!
One great feature of the book is the wide variety of individuals Stewart chose to interview, ranging from newspaper founders, editors, artists, those who wrote for underground high school papers, comic strip artists, to one participant who started out placing sex ads for the classifieds of one paper. The participants were also not limited to just those who expressed left-wing viewpoints but included a diverse group of thinkers from anarchists, Libertarians, anti-authoritarian rebels, to those who were most concerned with racial equality.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the artists whose expresssion of the counterculture movement with such vivid, shocking, poingnant, psychedelic, and often beautiful graphics was a huge part of what made the the underground newspapers so unique and interesting- something quite lacking in today's alternative blogs. Emory Douglas provides fascinating insight about the techniques he used for illustrating the Black Panther Party's paper. Trina Robbins speaks about the sexism she experienced amongst the tight group of well-known male comix artists in San Francisco during the late sixties. Reading her reflections makes me want to go back through the papers she illustrated, such as Rat and It Ain't Me Babe and check out some of her artwork.
Just as fascinating as the founding of the papers is the story, as told by the interviewees, of their ultimate demise (some lessons the Occupy movement might
heed). Disillusionment, the feeling that there was nothing left to protest after the Vietnam War ended, and frustration from being beaten down by censorship and constant harrassment and crimes against free speech by the Establishment were among some of the reasons behind the disappearance of many papers. Interestingly, the issues expressed in the underground press of the sixties are the same social, political, and ecological problems which are at the forefront of the Occupy movement protests now. This is not the first time, folks!
Finally, On the Ground is just a fun book to peruse through because it's packed with cool and interesting graphics from the original newspapers and the fascinating and, often times funny, anecdotes of those intimately tied to the history of the underground press. As Harvey Wasserman (Liberation News Service) wrote "we were not only political activists but comedians..." Even though many of the issues expressed by the counterculture movement were extremely serious (I learned through this book that Wasserman went on to co-found the "No Nukes" movement in 1975 and spent time speaking out against Fukushima in Japan) there is an ever-present element of humor which runs thoughout the underground press. That zany mixture of silliness and seriousness is what I find so charming and great about the writers and artists of the underground press.
I've read just about everything published on the sixties underground press and I
recommend this book as a fun and entertaining read filled with interesting tidbits.