Believe it or not, RVA Mag was not the beginning. Much as we’d love to lay claim to having started it all, the history of independent press in Virginia goes back many years longer than the single decade we’ve been in operation–and Richmond-based author Dale Brumfield has chronicled a significant portion of that history in his new book, Independent Press In DC and Virginia: An Underground History (History Press).
Believe it or not, RVA Mag was not the beginning. Much as we’d love to lay claim to having started it all, the history of independent press in Virginia goes back many years longer than the single decade we’ve been in operation–and Richmond-based author Dale Brumfield has chronicled a significant portion of that history in his new book, Independent Press In DC and Virginia: An Underground History (History Press). A sequel to his previous, RVA-focused volume, Richmond Independent Press: A History of the Underground Zine Scene, Independent Press In DC and Virginia will be released this weekend, and you can meet Brumfield and pick up a copy for your very own at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery this Sunday, April 19, from 3 to 6 PM.
Brumfield’s previous book, which focused specifically on RVA, also covered a wider time period, extending forward into the early zine scene. “There were only two true underground papers in Richmond–the Sunflower and the Richmond Chronicle. The Sunflower came out in ’68, the Chronicle in ’69; they were both gone by ’71. You can’t build a book on that,” he says, explaining the genesis of 2013’s Richmond Independent Press: A History of the Underground Zine Scene, which was nominated for a Library of Virginia Literary Award. “Richmond is unique because of the comics, the small press, and the handbills, which were all really precursors of what we call zines today.”
Turning to the subject of his new book, Brumfield continues. “Now in the rest of Virginia, and up in DC, it was a lot different, because the strictly underground scene was much broader.” Brumfield subtitles Independent Press In DC and Virginia “An Underground History” for a reason. “Underground fits a narrow culture of magazines that were all united for similar reasons, against the war in Vietnam,” he says. “They stood up to the establishment press. They were totally against the way the establishment press was covering the student movement and the youth movement. [Underground was] a very small 60s era… this book only covers 1965-72.”
Brumfield was an independent publisher himself, co-founding Throttle in 1981. The pre-Style alternative newsprint monthly existed until 1999, though Brumfield himself was only involved until 1987. “After Throttle, I was so burned out,” he explains. “I said, ‘I’m done.'” However, his interest in independent publishing in Virginia did not desert him, and in recent years, he began to write a series of historical investigative articles for Style Weekly. “I did a story in Style Weekly about Ed Peeples and The Ghost–the 1960s civil rights paper that came out here,” Brumfield says. “And I thought, ‘Well damn, how many others are there?'”
Once Brumfield started digging, he found quite a lot. The results of his investigations eventually resulted in both Richmond Independent Press and Independent Press in D.C. and Virginia. “All these people started out in Richmond, and nobody knew this stuff,” Brumfield says. He points out that “we had a paper called the Richmond Mercury here, and four of the six founders of that paper have either won or been nominated for Pulitzers.” Brumfield mentions New York Times theatre critic Frank Rich, novelist and legal scholar Garrett Epps, and former MOMA curator Peter Galassi, all of which got their start at the Mercury.
He also learned of some remarkable political figures who were involved in the DC and Virginia underground press. William Blum, founder of the Washington Free Press and the Quicksilver Times, in particular caught Brumfield’s attention. “He publishes a blog called the Anti-Empire Report, so he’s [still] very [politically] involved. In fact, he’s the guy that Osama Bin Laden famously said, ‘There’s a book every American should read’–it’s Bill Blum’s book [Rogue State: A Guide To The World’s Only Superpower].”
Meanwhile, a now-beloved figure in the kitschier cultural realms of Virginia also came into the picture. “The women’s liberation movement split in 1971,” Brumfield explains. “They threw all the lesbians out, because they were afraid they’d be considered man-haters. So the lesbians formed The Furies. Rita Mae Brown was one of the original founding members.” The author of groundbreaking lesbian-empowerment novel Rubyfruit Jungle, Brown is more famous today for her long-running mystery series, “co-written” by her cat Sneaky Pie and starring talking cats and dogs that solve murders.
For Brumfield, documenting and speaking with the creators of relatively unknown publications like The Furies was a particularly rewarding part of writing Independent Press In DC and Virginia. “One part of this book that was really interesting–and it is a history that’s totally forgotten–was the anti-war movement on Virginia’s military bases,” Brumfield says. He found underground papers from several different Virginia military bases–and even one from the Pentagon. “OM was published out of the Pentagon–the first issue. Then he got thrown out of the Pentagon,” Brumfield explains. While it was technically not illegal for military members to publish anti-war newspapers, it was up to the discretion of the base commander, who tended not to take kindly to such things. But one anti-war publication from a Virginia military base received a unique distinction. “Rough Draft, from Fort Eustis, was the first underground GI paper in America to be given headquarters approval to be distributed on base,” Brumfield says.
The author calls one paper he covers in Independent Press In DC and Virginia “the holy grail of underground newspapers.” This was a publication called The Rational Observer. “In 1969, at American University, up in DC, they started having a growing radical left wing student movement, and the FBI was very upset by that,” Brumfield explains. “So the myth went that they created a phony underground newspaper to publish at American to offset the radicalism. Nobody could find it, and everybody had about come to the conclusion that it had never existed.”
However, his dogged research ended up paying off. “I submitted six Freedom Of Information requests to the FBI, and I got 4300 documents. In those documents was an actual copy of the Rational Observer.” Brumfield had tracked down an actual copy of a counterfeit underground newspaper, created by the FBI during the height of the COINTELPRO era. “The paper was a damn phony!” Brumfield exclaims. “And I found all the documentation leading up to its creation. I even found the names of the agents who created it. It wasn’t the only one, either–they had several others around the country.”
From LSD-fueled hippie collectives in DC to revolutionaries at unlikely universities such as Radford and Lynchburg College, Independent Press In DC and Virginia is full of tales from the golden era of the underground press, all of which took place right here in our home state. Both of Brumfield’s books are must-reads for any fans of independent publication and the history of the anti-war and pro-civil rights movements. Be sure to head out to Hardywood this Sunday, grab a beer, and pick up a copy! Or if you can’t make it on Sunday, copies are available online from Brumfield’s publisher, The History Press.