Smoking Typewriters

 Smoking Typewriters, historian John McMillian‘s recently-published definitive history of the underground press scene in America in the ’60s, and of “the rise of alternative media”, brings to mind an earlier “Smoking Typewriters”, Allen’s lead essay in the 1981 City Lights compendium, UnAmerican Activities – The Campaign Against The Underground Press (edited by Geoffrey Rips & Anne Janowitz, with reports by Aryeh Neier, Todd Gitlin and Angus MacKenzie). That book was the result of a decade’s zealous study made possible by the release of files, courtesy of FOIA (the Freedom of Information Act – ironically, an outgrowth of the Nixon administration). Allen’s essay was later reprinted in Deliberate Prose – Selected Essays 1952-1995. Here he is in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1981, speaking about the book

“Well, for the last ten to twelve years, I’ve been working on a book.. published by City Lights…Is there any possibility of getting that in the school? …you got it? … ok.. It ‘s called “Underground Activities – The Campaign Against the Underground Press – A Pen American Center report”. P.E.N (poets, essayists, novelists), a big middle-class organization – Kurt Vonnegut, Norman MailerBernard Malamud was the head. So this is a survey of the sabotage of the underground press (including the local newspaper here (Atlanta), The (Great) Speckled Bird (which was bombed in ’72 or 3)..yes, so this is an account of the fire-bombings, arrest of vendors, double-agent set-ups, sabotage, intimidation of landlords, god knows what..what they do (legal stuff), legal intimidation, yeah, lets make a list of all the different kinds of things they do – harassing distributors, harassing printers, harassing vendors, harassing distribution on college campus(es), harassment for obscenity, harassment for drugs, harassment of publishers, harassment of advertisers, harassment of printers, sabotage of news services, spies (government spies, FBI people outside the newspaper offices), dis-information (circulating fake information in to disrupt the New Left), anonymous letters, narcotics agents infiltrating, raids (an officer’s description of office equipment and records and mailing lists), theft of legal papers, harassment of “angels” (the people that bought the.. who subsidized the newspapers),wire-taps, harassment of customers, bombings (as in the (Milwaukee) Kaleidoscope and here), bomb threats, conspiracy charges, direct assaults, insults, vigilante groups, the whole gamut of the kind of sabotage you read about in..Poland..or Nicaragua..or (El) Salvador.. or Iron Curtain countries. .were.. (they) destroyed about 60 per cent of the underground press in America – or helped destroy it. So this report, which I assembled material for over a ten year period, just came out this year”.


Thirty years on and John McMillian is at City Lights talking about his book – a 48-minute video on Book TV (C-Span) can be accessed here.

The book’s reviews have been, in the main part, pretty positive. Here’s the most recent one (from the July edition of J-History, republished courtesy of Humanities and Social Sciences Online), a review by Jeanette McVicker. Here’s Jenny Williams in Wired. The press reviewing the press. Always useful to see what survivors of the ’60’s underground think of the book. Here’s Bob Patterson’s review in the Berkeley Daily Planet. And here’s Richard Greenwald in In These Times, Robert M Knight in the Washington Independent Review of Books, Jonah Raskin in The Rag Blog, and (allow us the irony) Russ Smith in The Wall Street Journal.

McMillian is interviewed here (on the OUP blog) about his work, and also submits to the Ford Madox Ford Page 99 test – “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you” – “No, I wouldn’t quite say that the quality of Smoking Typewriters is (thus) revealed…much of the book is done in a narrative style, but a few sections are analytical. On page 99, I’m fully in analytical mode, I’m exploring the possibility that members of a radical news agency..(the) Liberation News Service (LNS) might have, on a very few occasions, consciously tried to advance the New Left’s aspirations by putting across “strategic myths” – stories that they knew were not fully accurate but retain a kind of “impressionistic honesty”. Again, I don’t think this happened often”. As Jonah Rakin points out, “An (accomplished) historian, he (McMillian) looks back at the era with the benefit of hindsight, and with a certain detachment, too, that enables him to tell the story without aiming to grind obvious ideological axes”. Allen would surely have approved.

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