Nov. 28 2012 12:00 AM

Author documents America's underground newspaper movement


“What a long, strange trip it’s been,” may be part of Grateful Dead lore, but it goes a long way in describing Ken Wachsberger’s lifelong passion of documenting America’s Vietnam-era underground newspaper movement. Wachsberger’s entry into the subject matter began while working for the Joint Issue, an early and seminal Michigan underground newspaper first published in 1969 and circulated on the campus of Michigan State University. Little did he know that nearly 45 years later, he would be completing a fourth volume in his “Voices from the Underground” series, which details the movement’s various aspects.

“It’s been amazing — every time I turned around the underground press found me,” he said. The most recent volume, “Stop the Presses! I Want to Get Off! A Brief History of the Prisoners’ Digest International,” documents the history of a prison underground publication that Wachsberger discovered while hitchhiking on I-80 from Madison to Boulder in 1972. He was picked up by a couple of guys who worked on the Prisoners’ Digest International, and his ride ended up at their offices, where he crashed — but not before he did some unsolicited editing on their layout. He said this is just one of many “serendipitous” experiences that had him crossing paths with the underground newspaper movement.

“If you believe in predestination,” Wachsberger writes, “I’m the guy about whom God said, probably somewhere between Day 6 and Day 7, ‘He’ll cover the underground press for me.’”

Wachsberger, 63, has spent more than 25 years updating and publishing a revised version of an earlier, single volume, 600-page behemoth which almost immediately went out of print when all the copies were stolen from storage. Wachsberger, an Ann Arbor writer and editor, has also written a fictional account of some of his hitchhiking experiences in what has become a cult classic novel, “Beercans on the Side of the Road: The Story of Henry the Hitchhiker,” published in 1988. The previous three volumes on the underground press, meanwhile, cover first-person histories of specific publications, including ones published in the Lansing, Detroit and Madison areas, as well as specific histories of gay and lesbian and military newspapers.

In his most recent volume, “Stop the Presses,” he uses the words of Joe Grant, founder of Prisoners’ Digest International (originally called Penal Digest International), to tell the history of that publication and the underground press and prisons. Wachsberger said the publication and others like it served two purposes. 

“It was the voice of the prisoners (without control),” he said. “And they helped create a connection with prisoners and the outside world.” 

Wachsberger said that underground newspapers are all but dead in the prison system due to a society that, he believes, now favors punishment over rehabilitation. In a previous volume he wrote how the underground press has been replaced by blogs and social media. He said his long strange trip has been a “remarkable experience,” both in meeting people associated with the movement and becoming more aware of the diversity of the underground press. He cited, as an example, that in a previous volume (now out of print), about 200 underground newspapers published by and for the military were listed. New research has added another 300 to that list.

“I was amazed how broad and how diverse the anti-war movement was,” he said. “Different parts of the country had different styles in how they approached it.” 

Wachsberger said he hopes the new four-volume set helps preserve the history of the underground press in America.

“I wanted to point out that they were everywhere,” he said. “There weren’t just a few big names. Papers like the Berkeley Barb weren’t universally known. In East Lansing, it was the Joint Issue — people read that.” 

Wachsberger was thinking he had completed his life goal when another piece of serendipity struck: He was approached by a businessman who wanted to take that preservation one step further by digitizing the underground press publications and making them available to libraries. Wachsberger said he has been working with the company identifying newspapers and both establishing and clearing copyrights.

“The idea is to take the underground press which is dispersed in back rooms (or held in research libraries) and make them accessible online,” he said.  

He said the first targets for digitization are military newspapers and feminist and lesbian newspapers. Although each of the four volumes is available through MSU Press, he hopes to see a less expensive boxed set developed and electronic versions created for sale.

“It’s been a great adventure, living it, and now I am reporting it,” Wachsberger said. 

Ken Wachsberger book signing
Dec. 6
6:30 p.m. (6 p.m. reception at The Avenue Café, next door)
EveryBody Reads Bookstore
2019 E. Michigan Ave.
(517) 346-9900