Off the Presses

Off the Presses

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

by John McMillian
Oxford University Press, 2011, 277 pp.

Theodore Roszak, in The Making of a Counter Culture, identified the central battle of the sixties as that between youth culture and the technocracy. Integral to the struggle for liberation was the ouster of the expert, whose regime was predicated on a tautology: “The technocracy is legitimized because it enjoys the approval of experts; the experts are legitimized because there could be no technocracy without them.” So did the counterculture expose the “myth of objective consciousness,” Roszak wrote, and offer a way out of the consensus cul-de-sac of that terrible decade.

Roszak’s critique was aimed primarily at science, management, and the military, but another emblem of objective consciousness and remote expertise could have been an explicit target. By the late 1960s, it was axiomatic on the left that the mainstream media were part of the whole corrupt gang. Warren Hinckle, editor of Ramparts, the era’s most successful New Left magazine, summed up the sins of the “don’t-rock-the-boat” press as “work from within; don’t vilify or embarrass the government; father knows best.”

To a vocal and visible segment of the nation’s youth, the situation had become unacceptable. They gazed out at the manicured American landscape and saw problems everywhere: racial inequality, the threat of the Bomb, a gathering war in Asia, a suburban sprawl that deadened the American soul. This reality, not given its proper heft in the mainstream media, needed to be revealed to the wider world. Thus was born—messily, noisily—the underground press.

In Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America, Georgia State University historian John McMillian plays sober docent to that raucous scene. The 1960s remains an enduring object of fascination. And yet for all its importance to the rise of the counterculture, the movement’s media remain a curiously under-researched subject. Smoking Typewriters hints at the riches that await historians who dig deep into the archives of those butcher-paper dispatches. Spilling over with rollicking stories and vibrant color, the book suggests that any history of a culture’s media invariably becomes a history of the culture itself.

What was the underground press? Partly, it was a product of technology. Before the sixties, newspapers had to be set in hot type on a Linotype. Photo-offset printing changed all that, making it easier and cheaper to put out a paper. Under these favorable conditions, radical newssheets began springing up mid-decade, venturing into areas from which dailies shrank. At the helm were New Leftists and counterculture warriors, mainly amateurs, and McMillian concedes that the papers “by conventional standards...