In Literature

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Dominant in the literature of addiction is the writing of the Beats. The Beats took their name from Jack Kerouac’s famous novel On the Road (1957), which tells of young people who have exiled themselves from the mainstream culture. To be Beat was to be open to all experience. To be Beat was to live the life of the artist and the philosopher. Specifically, to possess the red eyes of the marijuana user was to have “philosopher’s eye.” Also included in this counterculture were certain legal drugs, most notably Benzedrine, or “speed,” which could be purchased at a drugstore and which was said to have fueled the three-week frenzy during which Kerouac typed On the Road, which mentions addiction to speed.

Following on the heels of the Beats came the hippies, whose own counterculture movement grew much stronger and more visible than that of the Beats. A mix of environmental, free love, and equal rights philosophies, the hippie movement also spawned more literature of addiction. Many hippies practiced elements of Eastern religion, including Yoga and Zen Buddhism. As a shortcut or alternative to the enlightenment attained through meditation, the counterculture used LSD, magic mushrooms, and other psychedelic drugs. Drug use, then, was seen not as merely recreational but as one way of opening a door to a higher consciousness. The pursuit of this chemical bliss is chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), a work of creative nonfiction that depicts the exploits of drug guru Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters as they traveled across America in a wildly painted bus.

By the 1970’s the casualties of the drug culture had risen. Many casualties—of drugs and violence—also returned from Vietnam to the United States. Fusing the promise of the counterculture and the horror of the war, Robert Stone’s novel Dog Soldiers (1974) renders heroin addiction in vivid, startling detail. The summer of love reached a winter of disillusionment.

In the 1980’s the greed of bankers, stockbrokers, and lawyers was fueled by cocaine, as portrayed by the characters in Jay McInerny’s Bright Lights, Big City (1984).