Volume 1 of Voices Series Named Finalist for Two National Book Awards

I recently learned that Insider Histories of the Vietnam Era Underground Press, Part 1, volume 1 of the Voices from the Underground Series, has been named a finalist in two 2012 national book awards: the Eric Hoffer Award and the Montaigne Medal.

I’m delighted and yet amused by the irony.

According to the Hoffer Award’s mission statement, the award was founded

to honor freethinking writers and independent books of exceptional merit. The commercial environment for today’s writers has all but crushed the circulation of ideas. It seems strange that in the Information Age, many books are blocked from wider circulation, and powerful writing is barred from publication or buried alive on the Internet.

How true. Can I be anything but pleased? Insider Histories, Part 1’s award was in the Culture category. Makes sense.

Furthermore, many of the top literary prizes will not even consider independent books or previously unpublished prose, choosing instead to become the marketing arms of large presses.

Not the Hoffer Award, which honors mainly unpublished prose from small, academic, micro, and independent presses. Michigan State University Press published the Voices from the Underground Series.

While I was basking in the glory, I received an email from Peter Werbe, anarchist talk show host on Detroit radio station WCSX-FM, wanting to set up a time for an interview. Peter is a long-time activist and intellectual as well as an early and still current writer for Detroit’s Fifth Estate, the longest-running underground paper, going back to 1965. Peter’s recollections and reflections are a significant part of Bob Hippler’s history of Fifth Estate that appears in Insider Histories, Part 2.

In my response, I mentioned the award and told Peter that Hoffer had been one of my favorite philosophers.

Peter responded:

I’m surprised you are fond of Hoffer. He was part of the cultural component of McCarthyism, elevated to philosopher as the common man who spoke against radical ideologies. I found his writing fairly insidious since his central message was that rebels and radicals [all, not just stalinists] suffered from low self-esteem and were easy prey for totalitarian movements. The idea that people who objected to the Cold War or who fought for civil rights or labor were either commie stooges or emotionally troubled was a cudgel used against radicals even into the 1960s. And, his contention that Nazis and Communists slipped back and forth into each other’s movements in Germany shows a woeful lack of history. Have you read him lately? Given what I know of you and what you write and are committed to, I wonder if you would still have a favorable opinion of him.

Oy. I had to admit that, no, I had not read him lately, though I appreciated Peter’s faith in my political commitments. Actually, I only read his The True Believer one time and it was long before I was an independent thinker. I was growing up in the suburbs of Cleveland, probably in middle school. The Vietnam War was already happening, although at a low level, and was still flying under the radar of the major media. What I remembered about his writing was that it made me go “Wow” but I didn’t really understand why. Years later, I had no idea what he wrote. I just remembered that I had enjoyed reading it.

And for what it’s worth, I consider my self-esteem to be fairly high and have no patience for totalitarian movements, including cults, fundamentalist religions, and the Republican Party.

Today I’m not sure Hoffer himself would have read past the frontmatter of my book, or else he would have read it in its entirety in order to denigrate it. My thanks nonetheless to the independent panel that found my book worthy. I hope they will be equally generous for Insider Histories, Part 2.

Insider Histories, Part 1 also was a finalist for the Montaigne Medal, for most thought-provoking book. The Montaigne Medal is sponsored by the Hoffer Award.

The Voices from the Underground Series is a four-volume collection of histories of underground papers from the Vietnam era as told by key people on each of the papers. The underground press was the independent, antiwar press of the Vietnam era that reported the news that the corporate papers suppressed about what our government was doing in Vietnam.

Stories in the series represent the gay, lesbian, feminist, Black, Puerto Rican, Native American, military, prisoners’ rights, socialist, new age, rank-and-file, Southern consciousness, psychedelic, and other independent antiwar voices of the era as never before told. My history of the Lansing, Michigan-area underground press is one of the stories in volume 1 along with Muhammad Speaks, off our backs, Akwesesne Notes,  Space City!, Fag Rag, Liberation News Service, Freedom of the Press, the Guardian, Great Speckled Bird, and others. Forewords are by Markos Moulitsas, Abe Peck, and William Kunstler.