Steal This Dream: Abbie Hoffman and the Countercultural Revolution in America is an oral biography of 1960s radical leader, Abbie Hoffman. The book’s author, Larry Sloman, was an active agent of the 1960s counterculture in some capacity, and statements by himself appear in this text to reflect his own familiarity with Hoffman. Like any oral biography, Steal This Dream is composed recorded words of hundreds of Sloman’s interview subjects. This book is one of several biographies about Abbie Hoffman, including Marty Jezer’s Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel, For the Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman by Jonah Raskin, Run Run Run: The Lives of Abbie Hoffman by Abbie’s brother, Jack Hoffman, and finally Abbie’s autobiography, Soon to be a Major Motion Picture. All of these biographies were written by people who knew Hoffman personally, and perhaps with the exception of Abbie’s brother, all were by individuals who were directly involved in the counterculture that Abbie helped to develop. Steal This Dream’s is unique among the Hoffman literature in that it is an oral biography.
Author Larry Sloman is probably best known as a collaborator of Howard Stern, with whom Sloman authored Private Parts and Miss America. Sloman has also written a number of biographies of figures such as Bob Dylan, Anthony Keidas, and most recently, Harry Houdini. Sloman also authored a book about the social history of marijuana titled, Refer Madness: A History of Marijuana. He holds a masters degree in Deviance and Criminology, which appears to carry into his work as an author and journalist, as much of his work focuses on figures who play in the margins of culture and society. While a number of Sloman’s books play on issues of nonconformism and deviance, Steal This Dream, in its lack of criticality of its subjects, appears to be a culmination of a wave of nostalgia for the radical 1960s that carried through the late 1980s and 1990s.
Sloman is frequently the invisible hand whose name appears smaller than the celebrity he collaborates with even though it is often his labour that makes it appear as though a rock star has actually sat down and written a book. Steal This Dream is unique among his own ouevre, and among the Abbie Hoffman books, as it is an oral biography, meaning that Sloman interviewed scores of people who knew the man, and structured their resultant statements into an account of his life from this myriad of perspectives. The printed statements, often many appear to a single page, may be supplemented by statements made by Hoffman himself from interviews he gave during the 1960s and by images of him or events related to the events being discussed. This is the basic structure of the book, and the structure of almost any oral biography.
The text of this book exists in two time periods. The statements of people, speaking from the 1990s but looking back on the event that was Abbie Hoffman, and excerpted statements given by Hoffman from various points in his life. This approach highlights an issue with the oral biography regarding the aspect of distance. Hoffman (deceased since 1989) can only speak through his media appearances from the times being discussed by all of the other textual sources. As is noted by many of his friends in Steal This Dream, Hoffman was a master media figure, and was always attempting to present an image of himself that balanced an appearance of mischievous playfulness as well as radical seriousness. This representation is manifest in the quotations by Hoffman selected by Sloman, and such quotes were primarily used to fill out the details of a particular event under discussion. Abbie's included statements are already conditioned by his approach to media appearance. Meanwhile everyone else is looking back on events that occured 20 to 40 years ago from a situation where The Sixties have been apotheosized as a new golden age for radical political activity and alternative living (the age which inspired Theodore Roszak to coin the term ‘counterculture’). Sloman’s subjects are speaking from a sense of their own historical relevance - and are discussing Abbie Hoffman in a nostalgic manner - often to demonstrate their own appearance and importance in that history. Additionally they are looking back upon a completed life. We now know that Hoffman suffered from bipolar disorder and the people who knew him may now give enlightened comments on that component of his personality. Steal This Dream is not a source for finding how his friends and associates understood his bipolar-related behavior at the time.
Steal This Dream covers all of the important events of Hoffman’s life, as told by his friends and enemies (including some of the law enforcement personnel he had encounters with). His childhood, his unhappy first marriage, his Freedom Ride experience, his anti-war activism and related pranks, Chicago 68’ and the subsequent trial, his cocaine bust and flight underground, his resurfacing, his environmental activism, his career as a campus speaker and his death are discussed. With oral biographies there is a lack of critical distance, as the people in the subject’s life tend to rosily wax nostalgic or vent their anger, often over minor details and irrelevant anecdotes, (Abbie’s brother Jack, for example, appears fixated on the radical prankster’s sexual life). The book is most interesting when Abbie’s self-mythologizing is challenged, for example, when Bob Zellner (an SNCC activist) stated that Hoffman exaggerated his involvement in the civil rights movement. I believe that for a figure who wrote so much about himself, such commentary is fair and welcome to a researcher, but primarily much of what is critical of Hoffman is focused on minor details rather than on deconstruction of his acts or statements.
This book’s value to a researcher may be primarily in its sources and their quotations. The statements of many notable figures of the 1960s appear in this book, and while much of what they say is about Hoffman, many statements are also just ruminations on the events of the decade. Additionally, insights into rivalries between groups, such as the tension between the Diggers and the Yippies, for example, can be found in Sloman’s text, and may help give depth to some of the attitudes different radical factions held towards one another at the time.
An unfortunate dimension to the experience of reading Steal This Dream is that the connection an interview subject has to Abbie can easily be forgotten. The text has an appendix that lists all of the interviewees and their status as of the time of publication, but a similar appendix that lists their role in the 1960s or in Hoffman’s life would have been extremely helpful in making the book searchable. Interviewee names may disappear and then reappear later, and it is easy for the reader (i.e., me) to forget who they were if they are not a well known ex-radical. Sloman’s subtitle for his text suggests that this book is a history of the American counterculture, from its civil rights movement beginnings through to the 1980s environmental movement. The book would be useful as a historical text if it contained some means by which a reader may search it quickly.
Abbie Hoffman committed suicide in 1989. There’s a quote, given by New York City poetry maverick John Giorno towards the end of the book, where he quoted William Burroughs as saying, “He really let us down.” Many of the final statements of Sloman’s book were in response to Burrough’s shorthand eulogy. Mike Rossman (I’ve lost track of his connection to Hoffman) said “If anything, Burroughs’ is a reiteration of the attitude which, introjected, helped to kill Abbie. This demand that the man’s life should not be his own... it appears to me to be an inhuman demand.” It may have been an inhuman demand, but Sloman’s biography describes a man who loved life as a media figure, and entered the media in order to make similar demands of others.