Smoking Typewriters

John McMillian

For the past couple years, I’ve been pretty focused on fiction, so I determinedly picked this history of the 1960s underground press off my to-read list in an attempt to seek a bit of balance, plus the alternative media angle still had my curiosity piqued two years after I first flagged it for later reading. I felt an ominous suspicion near the beginning when McMillian disclaims that he “tried to present the New Left accurately, as a largely white, broad-based, and male-dominated movement, while nevertheless recognizing the crucial influence of the civil rights movement and the important contributions of women.” It made me worried enough that the recognitions that popped up were more than I expected. Based on its size (under 200 pages, assuming you skip the plentiful footnotes in order to keep your momentum going), it’s not too surprising that the book has a narrower focus that excludes the larger scope of how the underground press intersected with civil rights and feminist movements.

While reading, I didn’t think about it much. The book maintains a compelling narrative, even if it’s conspicuously absent of any images of the actual underground newspapers. Instead there’s a small section of photos of some of the people profiled in the book. It’s worth reading about the entertaining Great Banana Smoking Hoax of 1967, especially at that link since it does include some reproductions from actual papers. Both the Underground Press Syndicate and the Liberation News Service — two groups that worked toward creating national networks for the often locally-focused New Left newspapers — have the beginnings of archival presences online.

Afterward I poked around for more informed comments and found thoughts from the feminist side through Jeanette McVicker’s review and her mention of Tobi Vail’s “Women Talking To Women.” Vail’s paper looks at the 1970 takeover of Ladies Home Journal by a hundred women, including mainstream journalists, “for its failure to present the changing views of women or articles relevant to its nearly seven million female readers.”

In Smoking Typewriters there is also a passing reference to an early 1970s feminist newspaper called Goodbye to All That. I wondered if it could be a reference to Joan Didion’s essay (first published in 1967 — though, to be precise, Didion borrowed the title from Robert Graves’ autobiography). It still could be a Didion reference, except more likely it was filtered through Robin Morgan’s essay published in 1970 about the feminist takeover of New York City’s paper Rat. In 2008 she wrote “Goodbye to All That (#2) to discuss the misogyny during Hillary Clinton’s bid for president; then The New Yorker published a Talk of the Town piece about the reactions to that one.

Following these trails indicated a potential of stories within the intersection of the underground press and the feminist movement — despite the apparent male dominance in the underground press. Noticing this made me consider how limiting the scope of written histories to the groups that dominated at the time essentially perpetuates the original discrimination. McMillian does a fair job of acknowledging the existence of what he calls influences, but it could have gone a bit further without stretching the scope of the book.