THIS OLD PRESS
ON JUNE 12, 1983, a million people gathered in Central Park to demonstrate against Reagan's nuclear madness, and I was almost one of them. My mother had fueled the car. My sister was ready. But I, drip-nosed crybaby and asthma poster-child, had a wheeze. So we all stayed home. I spent the day languishing in the suburbs, then watched the event on the five o'clock news. Thus began my checkered life at the periphery of progressive politics, too cynical for the Birkenstock set, and too lazy for much of anything else. While I have photo memories of my mother's weekend forays to the "Friends of the Mountain" spiritual retreat and my father's more worldly searches for lifestyle fulfillment, my impressions of '70s zeitgeist owe just as much to a limited media canon: early Doonesbury, The Return of the Secaucus Seven, Nashville, Janis Ian, and Sherman's March.
Superseding this list of late is a fascinating release from Duluth's Holy Cow! Press, Ringing in the Wilderness: Selections from the North Country Anvil. The first issue of the Anvil emerged in 1972 from the rural community of Millville, Minnesota, where 33-year-old editor/publisher Jack Miller had moved with his family. Citing back-to-the-land leader Scott Nearing in his first column, Miller and an ever-evolving cast of volunteers and collaborators conceived of the Anvil as an attack on "the emptiness and the sterility of the American Way of Life [and its] mindless, fleshless consumerism." Imagine the Utne Reader without yuppies, four-color ads, or woo-woo feel-goodism. Imagine City Pages with a wholistic agrarian angle and comprehensive dairy-goat-raising directions. Imagine The Nation with eco-pacifist etchings and poetry. Imagine all the people, living for the day.
The Anvil's circulation rarely exceeded three or four thousand copies, and the magazine eventually folded in 1989. But Rhoda Gilman, volunteer editor of the recently released collection, believes the ideology of the newspaper still survives in the long-struggling Green movement and other regional and communal organizations. "There was always the hope it would catch on bigger," she says. "For that generation, the revolution was always around the corner."
Almost 70 years old, Gilman has followed the revolution around countless corners while working for 34 years at the Minnesota Historical Society. In her view, part of the Anvil's mission was to connect with Minnesota's radical past, from Finnish farming cooperatives to socialist labor leaders--a tradition that McCarthyism and modern memory have either erased, or translated into a milquetoast liberalism. Perhaps where Miller & Co. returned to their parents' generation to find old models for new living, the next generation can now turn to the Anvil itself. I can discover the social history that I missed at home--an open-ended, journalistic approach committed as much to inquiry as to the logical pessimism of its results. "What's hopeful about the movement now," Gilman says, "is that it has so far refused to die."
To confirm that theory, Gilman points to the trajectories of the Anvil's scattered staff and contributors, many of whom she located for updated biographies. After hearing the grievances of countless disaffected friends, two-term editor Jack Miller threw himself full-bore into the consolation business, studying for the Lutheran ministry. He now serves two congregations in southern Minnesota. Other writers were more difficult to locate. One woman who had written about a commune in Georgeville, Minnesota, had used the byline "Sun-Fire," and Miller, Gilman, and most every one else, had forgotten her real name. Gilman discovered that most of the contributors are still active, though--or at least "they're still acting on the same ideas to the extent our society allows them."
But what of the Jerry Rubin factor so often used to discredit an era's wilted idealism--the purported throngs who leaped from personal and communal development to real estate development? "I don't know of any such sellouts," Gilman says. She smiles. "If they existed, we probably would have hit them up for money by now." (Michael Tortorello)
Rhoda Gilman reads from Ringing in the Wilderness! on July 22 at 8 p.m. at Hungry Mind Bookstore in St. Paul; call 699-0587 for more information.
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