The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test Analysis

Tom Wolfe

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test begins very nearly where it ends, with novelist Ken Kesey in a San Mateo, California, jail awaiting trial for drug possession. From there, however, it loops back in time to tell the tale of Kesey and his Merry Pranksters from their beginnings in 1963 to their demise less than four years later, with a number of pages devoted to Kesey’s pre-Prankster days at the bohemian Perry Lane community near Stanford University. Like the legendary Robin Hood and his band of merry men, Kesey and his Pranksters possessed a vision of social change, the precise nature and extent of which Tom Wolfe attempts both to describe in his odd text and to embody in the very manner of its telling.

For those readers interested in Kesey as the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), the early pages devoted to the Perry Lane period will prove the most useful: Kesey’s surprising ordinariness and authenticity (against the well-heeled pseudobohemianism of most of the Perry Laners), his meeting with Vic Lovell and subsequent participation in the experimental drug program at the Veterans Hospital at Menlo Park, and the ways in which those experiments (as well as others initiated by Kesey) influenced the writing of his first and best novel. That period serves as the necessary background for what follows, but, as with Kesey’s wife and three children, that background quickly fades away as soon as the next phase begins. Having just delivered the manuscript of his second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion (1964), to his publisher and suddenly awash in the royalties from his first, Kesey decides to forgo the role of novelist, one who records the passing action, and instead to become the one who makes it happen, to be, in Kesey’s own words, the “lightning rod” rather than the “seismograph.” The results of that decision were, as Wolfe recounts them, at once cataclysmic and anticlimactic, exhilarating and sad.

Wolfe has Kesey and his band emerging Phoenix-like from the ashes of San Francisco’s beatnik bohemia of the 1950’s in the city’s North Beach area. Kesey’s Pranksters were different and far more diverse—an eclectic as well as electric group. They included Ken Babbs, former helicopter pilot in Vietnam, and Neal Cassady, fresh from the pages of Jack Kerouac’s beat novel, On the Road (1957), and a host of others, some permanent, others not, but most dropouts from American middle-class culture and known not by name but by epithet (Mountain Girl, Golden Mouth, Zonker). Individually, except for Kesey, they are nearly nonentities; together, they constitute the leading edge of an American society based upon openness, communal sharing, spontaneity, and extreme permissiveness. Or so they believe. Their watchword is “intersubjectivity,” but whether their harmony is real or illusory is a question Wolfe raises...

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The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

The Work

Tom Wolfe characterizes Ken Kesey, acclaimed author of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest(1962) and Sometimes a Great Notion (1964), as one of millions of post-World War II “superkids” living out the American Dream of power, possibility, and immunity from inhibiting obstacles. Portrayed as a modern pioneer exploring inner space through psychedelic drugs, Kesey first took LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide, or acid) as a volunteer for government drug experiments in 1959 while studying creative writing at Stanford University. For Kesey, LSD was a religious experience providing meaning in a society that had lost its spirit of adventure. It introduced Kesey to “Edge City,” Wolfe’s term for a life-risking but spiritually enlightening psychic cataclysm. Kesey felt that LSD broke down the psychological barriers between the self and others, creating a feeling of living in the “now.”

In 1964, seeking a more spontaneous form of communication, Kesey quit writing and traveled with the Merry Pranksters across the United States in a reconverted 1939 International Harvester bus, ingesting LSD and capturing the experience on thousands of feet of film. On the way from San Francisco to New York and during the next few years, Kesey and the Pranksters participated in a number of antics designed to shake up conformist middle-class people. They shocked staid clergy (and delighted some young people) at a Unitarian Church conference,...

(The entire section is 605 words.)

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Dennis, Everett, and William Rivers. Other Voices: The New Journalism in America, 1983.

Hartshorne, Thomas L. “Tom Wolfe on the 1960’s,” in Midwest Quarterly. XXIII (Winter, 1982), pp. 144-163.

Hellman, John. Fables of Fact: The New Journalism as New Fiction, 1981.

Hollowell, John. Fact and Fiction: The New Journalism and the Nonfiction Novel, 1977.

Johnson, Michael. The New Journalism: The Underground Press, the Artists of Nonfiction, and the Change in the Established Media, 1971.

Zavarzadeh, Mas’ud. The Mythopoeic Reality: The Postwar American Nonfiction Novel, 1976.