Abe Peck looked into the past and saw a stranger--himself.
"Who was that masked man?" he wondered. And who were all those other people, once united, now scattered and often uncertain of who they had been, too?
To find out, Peck wrote "Uncovering the Sixties: The Life and Times of the Underground Press" (Pantheon: $12.95, paperback). Part history, part autobiography and part reminiscences of other writers and editors, the book is a search for the legacy of those now mostly defunct journals that grew out of the social protests of the era.
"I was trying to make my own synthesis between the 22-year-old at the Chicago Seed and the 40-year-old (who teaches) at (Northwestern University's) Medill School of Journalism," Peck said of himself in an interview. "I had been an underground-press reporter. I had worked at Rolling Stone and the Chicago Sun-Times. I had seen a whole spectrum of people and I had seen a whole spectrum of journalism and I wanted to see how it all fit together."
To "reconnect with being a wave, being a part of history," Peck said he spent three months reading the yellowing pages of those often cheaply printed, luridly inked newspapers that delighted in "freaking out the bourgeoisie." Then he sought out the people who had once been colleagues and peers.
He said he was amazed to find that many were still activists, "whether they're journalists who are muckrakers or whether they're opposing American involvement in Nicaragua."
Generally, these veterans of the anti-war and civil rights movements gave themselves mixed reviews. They decried their excesses in rhetoric, the disregard for facts and for accurate reporting and the political extremism that some adopted because "the (Vietnam) war was making us mad," as one former editor put it.
"I think people see there were some pipe dreams, some gullibilities, some power trips, some extreme politics," Peck said. "At the same time some of this extremism came from a sense that the war had to end by any means necessary, that there were injustices in this country."
Peck said he found a positive legacy--today's more tolerant social climate--that owes much to the underground press and the bands of hippies, zanies, crazies and committed activists it represented.
No Lasting Institutions
But Peck said that the underground press and the movement it was part of built no lasting institutions.
"We were unable to put our utopias into an economic or social vision that any large number of people could live in. But people are still basically pro-choice (on abortion), they don't want Draconian penalties for smoking pot . . . socially this country is very, very different. I like America better now than I did in 1971 and I think there are a lot of people in this country who are basically well-intentioned."
And, in that context, it may not be such a bad thing that most of the newspapers--the old Los Angeles Free Press, the Berkeley Barb, Old Mole and Oracle were some--have folded, Peck said.
"One editor said, 'They weren't designed to last 100 years. They weren't designed to be institutions--and some of them weren't even designed,' " Peck said. But, he added, the alternative press "did have an agenda of fighting racism, of fighting the war and they did put out their messages under a lot of pressure" from local, state and federal agencies, including break-ins and arrests.
Moreover, the underground newspapers gave many youth their first job experience as well as social commitment.
The times "really were radical in the sense that all the roots were being considered and because they were being considered primarily by young people who had few ties, not much historical context, a lot of energy, nothing to lose and the strength of numbers," Peck said.
The underground newspapers ultimately collapsed under the weight of the contradictions that fragmented the youth/political movement of the era, in Peck's analysis. People and newspaper staffs were divided and confused by the Charles Manson murders and other examples of violence within a subculture that had proclaimed itself nonviolent and loving, he said.
"After a while, by 1971 and 1972, it got so heavy that even if you could say your guy was right, that all prisoners were political prisoners and you glossed over problems, the threshold of violence was so heavy that your whole life had to be devoted to gearing up for the revolution or for the police to break down your door. So a lot of people moved on," he said.
Now that he has gone back over the aging ground of his youth, Peck said he is satisfied that he has produced an objective report on a period that is often remembered solely for its extremes. "I think when you've lived through a time when everything was up for grabs, it's not surprising that--now that our lives are relatively normal--we tend to remember the excesses of the roller-coaster ride. . . . I don't like being nostalgic about this stuff because I think nostalgia is a kind of trap. If you want to appreciate it, if you want to reject it or if you want to take what you can use and move on, fine, but I don't want to live in the '60s again."