I first found a copy of this book at a friend’s place in Toronto in the late 1970s and wondered a) how it had managed to get published in the first place and b) how it had found its way into Canada (of all places). In Harper’s Magazine, Gabriel Thompson talks about the author’s attempts to get the book out of circulation:
Written by nineteen-year-old William Powell, The Anarchist Cookbook included sections such as “Converting a shotgun into a grenade launcher” and “How to make TNT.” The book’s message wasn’t subtle. In the forward, Powell expressed “a sincere hope that it may stir some stagnant brain cells into action.” The final sentence reads: “Freedom is based on respect, and respect must be earned by the spilling of blood.” When it was published, in January 1971, Powell was young and angry in a country where the young and angry had started to blow things up. But by the time the bomb detonated in the Bronx — marking the first of many connections between the book and real-world carnage — Powell had become a father and converted to Christianity and was having reservations about what promised to be his life’s most enduring legacy.
Powell is now a sixty-five-year-old grandfather. He still speaks with a slight English accent from a young childhood spent in London and has the professorial habit, before answering a question, of raising his eyeglasses to his forehead and pausing a beat to think. In 1979, he left the United States and has made his home in outposts throughout the world: Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Jakarta, Indonesia; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He has become a respected leader within the field of international schooling, heading several schools before launching an organization called Education Across Frontiers, which seeks to support international students with special needs. A recent book of Powell’s is entitled Becoming an Emotionally Intelligent Teacher. Much of his work has been funded by the U.S. Department of State.
When I first contacted Powell, he didn’t sound interested in revisiting the past. “The AC story is old and I’m not sure I can add much to it,” he wrote. This wasn’t surprising — he rarely speaks to the media. But as we continued to exchange emails and then talk over Skype, I learned that he had recently been working on a memoir. He later shared the manuscript, much of which deals with the circumstances that led him to his writing the book, along with his inability to fully get out from beneath its shadow. “The book has hovered like an awkward question on the rim of my consciousness for years,” he wrote, “and has the annoying habit of popping into mind every time I am about to be absolutely certain about something.”
Powell’s politics were vaguely left but sharply antiauthoritarian. He considered the older Hancock, a dedicated anarchist, “a trail guide” to the chaos of the times, where people were taking to the streets, marching and publicly burning draft cards, with some promising to “bring the war home.” Hancock was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, and told Powell about a plan the group once discussed to post recipes as broadsides throughout the city, instructing passersby on how to make everything from Molotov cocktails to LSD. Nothing came of it, but Powell filed the idea away in his head, intrigued by the possibility. Together, they attended a number of antiwar protests. At Grand Central Station, they watched police attack people with clubs. During the melee, officers shoved a Village Voice reporter into a glass door, bloodying his face. Hancock went out and purchased two motorcycle helmets for future demonstrations. The scene was turning heavy.
Dropping out of school meant that Powell was eligible for Vietnam, and he met three times with the Draft Board’s psychiatrist. While he’d been granted extensions — he showed up drunk and on speed and mouthed off during interviews — by 1969 he felt the walls closing in. “Get your ass prepared for Vietnam” is how he remembers the last interview had concluded. He didn’t believe in the war, didn’t want to move to Canada, and certainly didn’t want to spend time in prison. His personal life was slowly stabilizing: he had a girlfriend and, after a long struggle, finally kicked his speed habit. He purchased a used typewriter for twenty-five dollars and dreamed of becoming a writer. Yet the government seemed intent on tearing everything away by sending him across the globe to an early grave. (His fears were, in fact, unfounded: the government eventually classified him as 4-F, or unacceptable for military service, for reasons he never discovered.) On a return trip from a demonstration in Washington, D.C., Powell concluded that peaceful protest was too easily ignored to be effective; he decided instead to write a book that expanded on the broadside idea he’d heard from Hancock, teaching ordinary people how to blow things up.