Review of John McMillian's Smoking Typewriters by William A. Percy
John McMillian is almost unique among professors. When I saw him on Book TV, he was charming, witty, delightful, together, and even sexy. His “Smoking Typewriters” is well written and contains a solid thesis. McMillian maintains that the “Underground Press”, using cheaper offset printing rather than linotype, began in 1966 with the “Berkeley Tribe”, the “LA Free Press,” the “Austin Rag, “Atlanta’s “Great Speckled Bird,” Michigan’s “The Paper,” and “The East Village Other.” Like other rags to follow in their wake, they were hippie produced: antiwar, pro-civil rights, for free love and drug-fueled clamorous rock and roll, hoping to mobilize segments of public opinion beyond the campuses and their environs.
Around 1975, according to McMillian, the “Alternative Press” superseded the Underground Press. Less anti-capitalist, undrugged and less improvised, the Alternative Press ran ads, found investors, was better organized and more professionally run.
However, for all McMillian’s winning ways and favorable reviews, Carter Jefferson, a former editor of “The Internet Review of Books,” noted that unlike the major press, the Underground Press “covered from the inside such events as the antiwar rally at the Pentagon in October 1967 and the rebellion of Columbia University students in April 1968. By then local police forces and the FBI were trying everything to destroy such publications.” ST also includes so many names of individual people one can easily get confused, but many will be happy to have been mentioned.
McMillian grossly overstates the power of the Underground Press. Most were low circulation locals, swayed by a mélange of mixed up Maoists, and unpersuasive even to the majority of college age youth. The Liberation News Service, ST duly notes, helped organize and spread The Movement. Continual spats over degrees of ideological purity sapped staff and hastened many papers’ dissolution. In a review in “Windy City Times,” a gay paper, Tracy Baim “highly recommended it (Smoking Typewriters) for anyone interested in media history.” I dissent and found the book unacceptable because of its homophobia.
Recognizing homophobia in The Movement, McMillian himself never once noted a gay newspaper – not “Vice Versa,” which flourished for a few issues in World War II; nor “One,” the most influential (underground) publication from 1953 to 1965 (which the United States Supreme Court allowed to go through the U.S.mail); nor its lesbian counterpart “The Ladder;“ nor “Tangent;” nor “The Mattachine Review.” Those L.A. homophiles were mostly World War II vets. Harry Hay and Jim Kepner, both having been expelled from the Communist Party because of their homosexuality, led the way with heroic self-sacrifice. They were a disorganized, volunteer, and police suppressed underground press using at first only the typewriter and mimeograph during the 1950s. Alternative gay periodicals appeared such as “The Advocate”, which is still publishing, and its clones after 1966 after “One” declined. Thus, the gay press led the way again, creating an advance that McMillian calls “alternative” just when his so called straight Underground Press began. As Oscar Wilde quipped, “the only thing worse than being talked about is NOT being talked about.” McMillian, ignoring us, personifies the New Left’s “unwitting” homophobia. It was “a great trip down memory lane” for me too, as one positive review on Amazon oozes, because I recall the ignoring or the disparagement of LGBT people by those boisterous, overconfident, rude young would-be revolutionary boomers.