Penguin Classics is going to publish Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book in June.
Yes, Penguin Classics, home of Shakespeare, Milton, and Melville.
Hey, I’m tickled pink about this. I’m all for expanding the canon with classic radical and outsider works. (My very first published writings (book reviews for Factsheet Five) and my first two books (containing over 2,000 capsule book reviews) were all about promoting radical, subversive, and small-press books.)
Then again, this always leads to the same dilemma: When the mainstream embraces/commodifies something radical, is it really radical anymore? Or has it been defanged?
Then again again, and this is a point I make on a regular basis, classic literature is a lot more radical than our culture thinks it is. So many of the masterworks of literature caused a furor when they were first published - hated by the literary establishment of the time, attacked by the religious, and/or prosecuted by the state. We forget this because our culture views the canon as boring fossils - and this is because of the crummy way almost all of us were introduced to literature - as a school subject, with no bearing on the real world, filled with details to memorize and be tested on.
You could make the argument that age has made Steal This Book toothless, a quaint relic of late Counterculture, but I’m not so sure. The general idea - giving specific instructions for beating or blowing up the system, fighting in the streets, armed revolution, etc. - is still radical, even though - with the rise of the Net - it’s not exactly hard to come by anymore. Yes, much of Hoffman’s information is hopelessly dated (”On the West Side, there’s a poet named Delworth at 125 Sullivan St. that houses kids if he’s got room.”), but quite a bit of it still holds. And squatting, shoplifting, gas-syphoning, and Molotov cocktails and pipe bombs remain illegal. Plus, repeatedly referring to cops as “pigs” is still highly frowned upon.
It’s funny what time and success will do, considering that Penguin - like all the other corporate publishers, and many independents - rejected Steal This Book when Hoffman was originally trying to get it published in 1970-1. He ended up self-publishing it under the imprint Pirate Editions, and it became a surprise New York Times bestseller, prompting him to say: “It’s embarrassing when you try to overthrow the government and you wind up on the Best Seller’s List.” I wonder what he’d say about this. “It’s embarrassing when you try to overthrow the government and you wind up enshrined as canonical literature.”
In other words, never mind what Homer, Dante, and Woolf would think about Hoffman joining their ranks - what would Hoffman think about it?
[Steal This Book is available in its entirety here.]