One Sunday in 1968, the Washington wing of the Liberation News Service stole a bunch of money, a $400,000 printing press and collator, an addressograph, some office furniture, and every copy of the organization's mailing list from the New York wing of the Liberation News Service, hauling the loot out to a farm in Massachusetts. It was one of the more notorious faction fights in the radical press of the 1960s, a saga that would soon include a kidnapping, a beating, and a rural rumble that was improbably interrupted for an informal concert. When the Georgia State historian John McMillian tells the tale in Smoking Typewriters, his new book on the American underground press, he is able to jump in just two sentences from "When one of them rushed the truck, he was knocked over by the moving vehicle and suffered a few cracked ribs" to "members of the Children of God even brought out their guitars and sang songs."
It would be unfair to say this sort of confrontation was typical of the '60s and '70s left, but it wasn't unique either. The history of underground newspapers, community radio stations, and New Left activist groups is peppered with these little clashes, though they don't normally include abductions and musical interludes. As with the cattle raids that inspired so many medieval Irish sagas, such escapades can be exciting when recounted with élan. Raymond Mungo did that in his memoir Famous Long Ago, which told the tale of the Liberation News Service heist from the thieves' perspective. In Smoking Typewriters, McMillian repeats some of the high points of Mungo's vivid narrative but tempers it with the perspectives of the other parties in and around the melee.
It's one of the best parts of McMillian's book—a segment that doesn't just relate a diverting story but uses it to illustrate a deeper theme about the underground press: the conflict between different visions of what constitutes that New Left ideal, a "participatory democracy."
Unfortunately, most of the book isn't nearly that good. There are other lively sequences, such as McMillian's rundown of the ways the government repressed underground papers, a process that included deliberate attempts to stoke the sort of faction fight that ripped the Liberation News Service apart. But more often, the book drains the life from some of the most colorful episodes in recent history. McMillian manages even to make the banana hoax of 1967, when pranksters spread a rumor that smoking bananas can get you high, into a dull academic argument that the hoax "created a liminal space, a conceptual border area between the counterculture and straight society. In smoking a banana joint, youths could participate in a hippie ritual without undertaking a significant amount of risk."
Besides violating the general rule of thumb that anyone using the word "liminal" is trying too hard, McMillian doesn't grapple with the fact…
Read the rest of this article at The American Conservative, where it originally appeared.