Jonathan Lerner: Swords in the Hands of Children

October 30, 2017 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

Swords in the Hands of Children: Reflections of an American Revolutionary – Jonathan Lerner – OR Books – Hardcover – 9781944869472 – $22 – 224 pages – December 5, 2017. Ebook versions available at a lower price. Order direct from the publisher, OR Books.

As Writerscast listeners doubtless know, I am interested in books about the sixties, a period in our history that shaped so much of what is now our current worldview and world situation, for better and for worse. This was a period in American history marked by social and political conflict, sparked principally by the Vietnam War. For many young people, it was the time in their lives when political and social idealism flourished, yet for some, directions taken and decisions made, acts committed, that would later appear misguided and wrong.

In the early sixties, Jonathan Lerner was a student at Antioch College, who almost accidentally became a full-time staff member of Students for a Democratic Society, the most powerful organization of the New Left (among its founders, the recently deceased Tom Hayden). In this book, Jonathan recounts the story of his life during the most fraught years of the political upheavals of this era.

Jonathan Lerner was at the center of many of the most important political events of that time. He became a founding member of the Weatherman faction of SDS, which ended up taking over the organization in 1969, and was the editor of its newspaper Fire! and an “above ground” representative of the Weather Underground organization, that was responsible for much of the far left spawned violence of the era.

The Weather Underground ultimately carried out a campaign of bombings across America. Some of its members died, many stayed underground for years, and some went to jail. Lerner tells some compelling stories about this time in particular and the people he worked and lived with. Overall, he seems to have been almost an accidental radical, who like many in the sixties, “went with the flow” of events and people around him, trying to find his place in a complicated environment.

Jonathan tells his story with brutal honesty, questioning much of what he once took for granted, as an insecure gay man existing in an environment that was not supportive in any way. This memoir has much to offer to those of us still seeking to understand the politics and culture of our youth, as well as for those too young to have experienced the sixties directly.

Lerner is the author of the novels Caught in a Still Place and Alex Underground, and is today a journalist focusing on architectural, urbanist and environmental issues. He lives in the Hudson Valley of New York state with his husband.

We had a great conversation in our wide ranging conversation. Visit Jonathan’s website here.

“Imagine if your favorite uncle, a brutally honest, worldly, self-reflective gay raconteur, had been, as a twenty year-old, a lieutenant in an underground guerrilla army dedicated to the violent overthrow of the government of the United States. Jonathan Lerner is that favorite uncle you never had, telling unbelievable true stories―no bullshit―from the ‘revolution’ fifty years ago. This is the closest you’ll ever get to being there.” ―Mark Rudd, national secretary of SDS, founding member of the Weather Underground and author of Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen

Clara Bingham reading from Witness to the Revolution

September 19, 2016 by  
Filed under AuthorsVoices

clara-binghamWitness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost Its Mind and Found Its Soul
9780812993189 – Random House – Hardcover – $30

I interviewed Clara Bingham about her terrific and important book, Witness to the Revolution for Writerscast.  You can listen to that interview here. When she was in the studio, I took the opportunity to ask her to read from her book as well. Here is that terrific selection. Of course if you like what you hear, you can buy the audio book and listen to the whole thing.

And if voices from the sixties is of interest, there is a wealth of such material online. There’s a great collection of interviews with sixties era radicals and activists at Winthrop University, for example, and much, much more to be found and heard.

 

George Gmelch: Playing With Tigers, A Minor League Chronicle of the Sixties

August 1, 2016 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

george-gmelch-playing-wth-tigers9780803276819 – University of Nebraska Press – 288 pages – Hardcover – $26.95 (ebook versions available at roughly similar prices)

Today, George Gmelch is a successful anthropologist, with a number of books to his credit. But when he was a young man, he was a very good baseball player, with the typical dreams so many shared of becoming a professional baseball player and making it to the Major Leagues. Growing up in an all-white suburb in California in the late fifties and early sixties, George led a fairly sheltered childhood, playing ball and having fun. In 1965 he signed a contract to play professional baseball with the Detroit Tigers organization and so began a four year period of coming of age, during which George experienced the challenges of life in baseball’s minor leagues.

While learning to be a professional athlete, he also became aware of the realities of race and class; minor league baseball in the nineteen sixties was often played in small towns in the south where segregation was still in effect, despite the advances of the civil rights movement. And as an adolescent on his own with other boys in the cocoon like world of pro sports, he also had his first experiences of sex and romance, living, traveling and playing ball. Somewhat unlike most of his teammates, George paid attention to the events of the era, including the Vietnam War, the rise of the counter culture, and civil rights protests.

Playing with Tigers is a memoir certainly unlike most others written by baseball players. The sixties was a time of turmoil involving young people of all backgrounds and professional baseball was not immune from its disruption. George was likely more socially aware than most of his compatriots, and his direct experience of racial issues ultimately led to the end of his professional baseball career.

To write this book, George relied on the journals he kept as a player, as well as letters from that time, and in addition he used his skills and experience as an anthropologist to interview thirty former teammates, coaches, club officials – and even some former girlfriends. This is a unique story, documenting a socially disrupted period in American history through the lives of many of the young people who lived through it. We get to experience first hand the naivete, frustrations and joys of a young man trying to find his way in a complex time. And clearly, some of the motivation for writing this book was unfinished business, events, relationships with people, his baseball experience, on which George wanted to gain some closure.

I read alot of baseball books, as many listeners know. Among the many I have read the past couple years, I found Playing With Tigers extremely compelling, and one I had fun reading. I very much enjoyed the opportunity to speak with George Gmelch for the second time – in 2013, George and I talked for Writerscast about another of his baseball books, Inside Pitch. In addition to being an intensely personal memoir, Playing With Tigers opens a door to a period in our history that deserves a lot more exploration than it seems to have been given. George has some great stories and a deep understanding and love for the people and places he’s experienced. This is a fine book and you do not need to know anything about baseball to like it.

George Gmelch is a professor of anthropology at the University of San Francisco and at Union College in Schenectady, New York. His books include In the Ballpark: The Working Lives of Baseball People, with J. J. Weiner (Bison Books, 2006), and Inside Pitch: Life in Professional Baseball (Bison Books, 2006). He is the editor of Baseball without Borders: The International Pastime (Nebraska, 2006). His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, Society, and Natural History.baseballtalk_gmelchGmelch

Loren Glass: Counterculture Colophon

August 5, 2014 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

0804784167Counterculture Colophon: Grove Press, the Evergreen Review, and the Incorporation of the Avant-Garde (Post*45) – 978-0804784160 – Stanford University Press – Hardcover – $27.95 (ebook versions available at substantially lower prices)

This book has turned out to be one of the most influential on my recent thinking  about publishing and how it should work, proving that history can tell us a great deal about both the present and the future. Grove Press was immensely influential in changing American culture from the 1950s through the 1980s, and remains meaningful today, with its massive backlist representing the golden age of the literary avant-garde of that time. Its longtime owner and spiritual leader, Barney Rosset, has been an almost mythic hero to many who got into publishing because of what he accomplished with Evergreen Magazine and Grove Press.  How a publisher could become so powerfully influential makes for a terrific and inspiring story.

Grove’s accomplishments and innovations are legion and well documented by Loren Glass in this book. While Counterculture Colophon is written as an academic history, and sometimes Glass falls prey to academic terminology that may put off the non-scholarly readers, I was happy to overlook the academic jargon and focus on the compelling story he tells of Grove and what it has meant for modern publishing.

This heroic and sometimes tragic saga reminds us of what it means to be a passionate and committed publisher. It’s difficult for anyone alive today to believe that up until the 1960s it was illegal to publish and sell literary books that included sexually explicit content.  Battles were fought – and finally won at great expense –  by Grove Press against the US government and many local jurisdictions over DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and William Burroughs’ notorious Naked Lunch. These cases literally led to “the end of obscenity” and created the groundwork that has enabled modern literary publishing to flourish in our time.

Rosset and Grove, together with myriad editors and publishers in Paris, London, San Francisco, and New York, were at the heart of a revolution in publishing, both in content and in form that in many ways inspired and led directly to an equivalent revolution in the overall American culture, that reverberates today.  Grove was at the heart of political, cultural and literary ferment in North America, introducing new voices not only from here, but from around the world, to American readers. Rosset more or less invented the trade paperback, and was a leader in introducing trade books to be used as supplemental reading for college courses, of course hitting its stride at the very moment that the Baby Boom generation went to college. The magazine and press brought an emerging set of writers to an emerging generation of readers, inspiring and changing the way millions read and thought about writing, politics, theater and art. Grove Press was as much a cultural institution as it was a publisher.

And, importantly, what this book most strongly highlighted for me is the meaning and power of a publisher’s brand. It is widely accepted that most publishers today have no identity with readers. Grove Press and its house literary journal, the Evergreen Review, were made into powerful and coherent brands that recognized the publisher as enabled it to introduce formerly unknown writers and artists to their audiences. Using graphics, typography and a consistently subversive publishing program, Grove was able to become a recognized brand for readers, the power of which, seemingly very few publishers have understood or been able to duplicate.

Counter Culture Colophon is a book I strongly recommend to anyone interested in contemporary literature and of course, publishing. Loren Glass was able to interview Rosset and many other principle players in the story of the press. And for many, it will be a truly inspiring tale.glass-150

 

Loren Glass is a Professor of English at the University of Iowa. There is a really nice video of Glass speaking about Rosset and Grove at the Chicago Humanities Festival here. (55 minutes)