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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1180

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.

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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 without ever quite answering.

Their identity is summed up in a perfect metonymy, their fantastically pastel-painted International Harvester bus that frequently breaks down but that always bears the same cartoonishly spelled destination sign, “Furthur.” In their ongoing efforts at “tootling the multitudes”—the Pranksters’ epater les bourgeoisie—they travel further than not only the middle classes but even those who had taken Timothy Leary’s advice and turned on, tuned in, and dropped out: on to drugs, in to transcendental reality, and out of middle-class conventionality. The Pranksters judge Leary and his League for Spiritual Discovery (LSD) wanting—too privatistic, too intellectual, too well financed, too “constipated,” and too Eastern (New York as well as India). Nevertheless, even those who have gravitated to California’s Esalen Institute to learn how to live in the ever-changing Now steer clear of Kesey when he arrives to lead a seminar. The scenes at Millbrook and Esalen point in two directions: at the phoniness or conventionality of such enterprises and, conversely, at the very real danger inherent in Kesey’s brand of pranksterism, a danger obscured for the Pranksters themselves by the merriment and “good vibes.”

Part of the danger in the Prankster movement derived from their love of allegory and parable, their finding a meaning, a significance, in everything they did. Another derived from their love of “fantasy,” their all-purpose word for any plan, idea, or ambition they might have. The danger existed less in the fantasies themselves than in what happened when the Pranksters tried to realize them, and realizing them was virtually a categorical imperative among the Pranksters given their belief that they had to choose (and so act out) their own fantasies in order to avoid having to play an unwilling or unwitting part in someone else’s. A further danger, one to which Kesey was alert, was that one could become trapped even in one’s own fantasy (or alternately, “game” or “movie”): thus the frantic need for spontaneity, improvisation, play, and the Pranksters’ fondness for the I Ching (Book of Changes).

That the Pranksters’ preferred reading also included Robert Heinlein’s science-fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953), and Hermann Hesse’s Die Morgenlandfahrt (1932; The Journey to the East, 1956) attests what, for want of a better word, may be called their religious side— the belief serving to sanction the behavior. Each of these novels, along with the superhero comics that influenced Kesey’s art and mind so strongly, involve the belief in a higher reality and the possibility of tapping into or merging with a supranatural power. In fact, the Pranksters devoted themselves not only to going further in order to reach this state themselves but also to bringing more and more people into their improvisational pilgrimage, to bringing more and more people to “Edge City.” As Tony Tanner has pointed out, Edge City was located “between social identity and dissolution, a sort of third area between structure and the flow, . . . where the movies end and the flow begins, or where definitions and versions give way to the thing itself.” This obsessive desire to annihilate the self and mystically to enter the cosmic consciousness culminated in a series of “acid tests” held around the San Francisco area in late 1965 and early 1966 in order “to get it across to the multitudes who have never had this experience themselves[.] You couldn’t put it into words. You had to create conditions in which they would feel an approximation of that feeling, the sublime kairos.” Staged in huge halls, the acid tests were in fact multimedia events (with light shows and the acid rock music of the Grateful Dead), all designed to induce the same euphoric, communal state that the Pranksters had achieved through drugs. On February 12, 1966, however, three weeks after Kesey had fled to Mexico to escape criminal prosecution for drug possession, a soft drink spiked with LSD—“electric Kool-Aid”—was administered to the crowd en masse. The metaphorical acid test became a literal fact, and with it the demise of the Pranksters began, soon to be abetted by Kesey’s call for a going “beyond acid,” a choice few were willing to make but many were more than willing to condemn.

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

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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, partied with the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, and created the acid tests, multimedia happenings involving dancing, rock music, strobe lights, colorful swirling images projected onto a screen (light shows), and the use of LSD.

After returning from Mexico, where he fled to evade marijuana possession charges, Kesey held an acid test graduation, encouraging people to move “beyond acid” and to incorporate the insights obtained with the drug in their everyday lives. Wolfe’s book concludes with the sober message that Kesey’s awareness is difficult to translate into practical social applications. “We blew it,” said Kesey, who served a prison sentence on the marijuana charges in 1967, went to Oregon, and resumed writing.

Impact

Immediate critical response was positive, with reservations. Some reviewers felt that Wolfe lacked critical distance from his subject. Others praised Wolfe’s attempt to mirror Kesey’s subjective reality. Most critics judged the book to be an important example of New Journalism, blending fiction and nonfiction techniques and recognizing the implausibility of objective reporting. New Journalism influenced the development of Creative Nonfiction, whose proponents (including John McPhee, Annie Dillard, and Barry Lopez) realized that the writer is inevitably part of the story.

Thematically, Wolfe’s book provides a reflection on the American Dream. The perennial debate between individual freedom versus social order was renewed in the turbulent 1960’s. Although many young people were inspired by Kesey’s vision of social experimentation, Wolfe suggests that his concept of freeform association, as appealing as it is, may not work for an entire society. Wolfe is cautious about any role for mind-expanding drugs in the pursuit of a new understanding of humanity’s potential.

Related Works

Other examples of the New Journalism include Armies of the Night (1968), by Norman Mailer; In Cold Blood (1966), by Truman Capote; and Dispatches (1977), by Michael Herr.

Bibliography

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.

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 80

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.

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