Critical Overview

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Hoffman had trouble finding a publisher for Steal This Book. He insisted the three-word phrase, which had appeared in small print on the back jacket of his earlier book Woodstock Nation, must be the title, even though some publishers would have been glad to print it in spite of its advice for illegal activity, if only it did not tell consumers to steal from them. In all, over thirty publishers rejected it before Hoffman paid to have it published by Grove Press. Even then, many bookstores refused to carry the book, and major distribution chains refused to handle it. Libraries refused to put it on their shelves. In several cases where people committing crimes were found to have Steal This Book among their possessions, prosecutors tried to indict Hoffman as a criminal conspirator.

After a glowing review by Dotson Rader in the New York Times Book Review, sales of the book began to pick up. According to Jack Hoffman, Abbie Hoffman’s brother, Rader’s review was that the book was most useful when perceived as a way of getting to know its author. In his book Run Run Run: The Lives of Abbie Hoffman, Jack Hoffman quotes Rader’s position as saying, ‘‘It reads as if Hoffman decided it was time to sit down and advise his children on what to avoid and what was worth having in America. He says that if you want to be free, then America might kill you. You must know certain things if you are to survive.’’ Presenting the book as a source of insight into America’s most famous and interesting hippie made the book itself interesting and famous. Hoffman toured the country, appearing on local talk shows to stir up interest.

It was not long after the publication of Steal This Book that the public began to turn against Hoffman. Rumors circulated that he was living a luxurious lifestyle from the book’s proceeds, living in a penthouse apartment and socializing with celebrities. Most of the money from the book in fact was donated to the Black Panthers Defense Fund. Though the rumors were unfounded, they cast a pall of hypocrisy over the project. In 1973 Hoffman was arrested for selling cocaine and he went underground to avoid a jail sentence. The arrest seemed to confirm the rumors of an extravagant lifestyle and living in hiding, he was unable to support his book.

Since its publication, Steal This Book has continuously stayed in print. No reviewers have recommended the advice it gives and except for Rader, none has seriously thought of it as way of understanding its complex author. Still, it captures the antiestablishment mood of the 1960s, an era that, even by the time of the book’s publication in 1971, was fading into nostalgia.

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Essays and Criticism