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Customer Review

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars useful but has weaknesses, December 26, 2011
This review is from: Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America (Hardcover)
I enjoyed the book and learned a great deal from it. McMillian is at his best in tracking the birth of the underground press. He has done significant research with lots of interviews which are helpful. The story, however, seems to me to be more complex than presented and he slighted the period after Altamont. First, his emphasis is on the role that SDS, and especially "The Port Huron Statement", had on the development of the underground press. There were other significant factors which, although he mentions them, he fails to give sufficient importance to. The civil rights movement was a huge factor, especially the Freedom Summer of 1964. After that campaign, thousands of students returned to campuses across the United States imbued with altered views of the world and their ability to influence that world. I would be interested in knowing about the publication efforts of the Civil Rights movement. SNCC, CORE, and other groups had press people: what did they publish? did any of the folks from Freedom Summer get involved in the underground press?
Second, my impression is that much that is attributed to SDS might be a matter of correlation rather than causation. My guess is that a lot of SDS chapters were organized as SDS because this provided a convenient banner; they were in fact spontaneous local organizing efforts that cabbaged on to SDS slogans and were not organized by any SDS personnel or based on any SDS literature. While a lot of copies of "The Port Huron Statement" were printed, the distribution was pretty uneven. Locally in this valley town I know of only two copies that were around, picked up on a weekend sojourn to Berkeley. They weren't discussed; they were momentos.
Third, he focuses on a few papers. Granted that it would be impossible to cover all, but additional survey might have been helpful. An appendix listing underground papers and their periods of publication and other details would have been helpful. Knowing there were about 700 papers is nice, but where were they? How often and how long did they print? What was the print run and/or sales? How many pages were there? For the papers he did discuss, he gave some sense of what they covered which was helpful. I was surprised how many had book and record reviews, for instance.
Fourth, the book glides over the last decade of the underground press, noting that it became an alternative press. After LNS was stolen and recovered, he does little on the rest of the underground press run. That is, from about 1969 he has little to say. But 1970 was one of the more interesting years in the underground press. There were lots of events that year, such as bombing Cambodia and Kent State killings. The underground press covered these from LNS packages. But the above-ground media also covered these and maybe did a better job. In some sense, it felt like the wind went out of the underground press's sails after that summer. Was this a turning point? McMillian notes that the alternative press began then or shortly thereafter. Is this accurate? Was it causal?
It is my sense that the papers were also run somewhat differently after 1969. There seemed to be a more political stance, maybe because the politics of the war were harsher. It is my sense that the papers were less concerned about egailitarianism. It is also my sense that the coverage provided by LNS was significantly different. There seemed to be a lot more polemics sent out and less hard news. And I do not believe there were several packets a week, but that LNS struggled to send out one a week after the coup.
Fifth, there is little on the economics of the underground press. Abbie Hoffman said you could start an underground paper with $2,000. I know of papers that started on $200. Even more interesting would be how much and who was paid. The "Berkeley Barb" and the "Berkeley Tribe" paid some staffers. How much? Who else paid? And did anyone make money? The "Barb" supposedly made a lot of money. And who advertised? How much did ads cost?
Sixth, what happened to individual papers? The "Barb" was an early rag that went through labor unrest and then began printing lots of sex ads. When did the paper fade away? McMillian interviewed a fair number of people, but they all seem to have been from prominent rags, LNS, and SDS. What about the other papers?
Maybe McMillian or another can cover these areas. But even without this coverage, this is an interesting and informative book. It deserves to be widely read. And, fortunately, it reads well for a supposedly academic book.
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