Voices from the Underground
Ken Wachsberger complete his magnum opus
by Eve Silberman
"This process has gone on so long!" exclaims Ann Arbor writer Ken Wachsberger. Two decades after he started work on Voices from the Underground: Insider Histories of the Vietnam Era Underground Press, the final volume was published last month by MSU Press.He'll sell all four volumes at the Kerrytown BookFest on September 9 (see Events).
Wachsberger believes strongly that the significance of the hundreds of free newspapers published during the Vietnam era has been underestimated. "The Vietnam War didn't just end on its own," he writes on his website, voicesfromtheunderground.com. "It ended because of the relentless force of the antiwar movement, led by the heroic voices of the underground press."
Equally passionate in person, Wachsberger emphasizes the "incredible diversity that was the underground press. Blacks, the Puerto Ricans, the military antiwar movement, the union workers, the Southern [activists] ... The antiwar movement was the broadest, most diverse moment in the history of the country. It wasn't a bunch of crazies on the left!"
A Cleveland native, Wachsberger was radicalized after being arrested and thrown into solitary during a student sit-in at MSU in 1970. He dropped out of school for years to work on undergrounds, first in East Lansing and then at papers around the country. He tells his own story in Volume One, which, along with Volume Three, collects articles by twenty-eight veterans of papers like Off Our Backs, the Akwesasne Notes from the Mohawk nation, and the San Francisco Oracle.
Although a piece on the Ann Arbor Sun fell through, retired Michigan Today editor John Woodford recalled his four years at Muhammad Speaks, the paper of the Nation of Islam. "The Devil has built his empire on lies," leader Elijah Muhammad told him in his job interview, "and we can destroy it with the truth." The book includes a letter he received, signed "Elijah Muhammad, Messenger of Allah."
Wachsberger was so moved by two long narratives that he ran them at book length. Michael Kindman's poignant
story fills all of Volume Two. An editor of one of East Lansing's first underground papers, Kindman moved on to the Avatar
in Boston, where he was sucked into the cultish world of editor Mel Lyman. He fled to San Francisco where, Wachsberger writes, he embraced the "gay men's pagan spiritual network 'Radical Faeries.'" He died of AIDS in 1991, shortly after finishing his autobiography.
Volume Four consists of the memories of ex-prisoner Joe Grant; sent to Leavenworth for counterfeiting, he founded Prisoners Digest International
after his release. Grant and Wachsberger became friends, and the ex-con was central to his first attempt to publish Voices from the Underground.
In the early 1990s, after publishing articles about the underground press in a journal for librarians, Wachsberger decided to do a book and began collecting stories. When his agent couldn't find a publisher, Wachsberger decided to put out the book himself. He was thrilled when, upon its release, a Los Angeles Times
reviewer wrote that "It comes closer to anything I've yet read to putting the sights, sounds, and texture of the '60s on paper."
The celebration was brief. A reluctant fundraiser, Wachsberger had left it to Grant to raise money to print the book, and Grant stored at least half of the 2,500 copies in a warehouse in Iowa. But the son of one of Grant's funders, a drug addict, stole all of them and tried to blackmail Wachsberger into forking out cash for their return. Wachsberger refused and looked into legal action, but realized he couldn't afford it--or to reprint the stolen copies. "I went into a huge depression, and it took me years to pull myself out of it," he says.
About six years ago, he decided to try again. "There's no way I could have done this without the Internet," he says. "I had to get permissions [from authors], then I had to find all the images, in many cases photos of artwork." While he doesn't expect to get rich off the project that consumed much of his life, he is hoping it will bring attention and respect to the work of the underground press.To his delight, that's already begun to happen: online activist Markos Moulitsas--founder of dailykos.com --wrote a glowing introduction to Volume One, praising the "media pioneers" who broke ground for today's progressive bloggers.
[Originally published in September, 2012.]