The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
|The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test|
Cover of the first US Edition
|Subject||LSD, beat generation, hippies|
|Publisher||Farrar Straus Giroux|
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is a nonfiction book by Tom Wolfe that was published in 1968. The book is remembered today as an early – and arguably the most popular – example of the growing literary style called New Journalism. Wolfe presents a first-hand account of the experiences of Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters, who traveled across the country in a day-glo painted school bus named "Further". Kesey and the Pranksters became famous for their use of LSD and other psychedelic drugs in hopes of achieving intersubjectivity. The book chronicles the Acid Tests (parties in which LSD-laced Kool-Aid was used to obtain a communal trip), the group's encounters with (in)famous figures of the time, including famous authors, Hells Angels, and The Grateful Dead, and it also describes Kesey's exile to Mexico and his arrests.
Tom Wolfe Biography
Tom Wolfe began his writing career as a journalist. He started at The Springfield Union in Massachusetts and later worked at such venues as The Washington Post and the New York Herald Tribune. In 1963, Wolfe was recognized for a contribution of articles in Esquire and New York, a spinoff of the Herald Tribune. His early literary contributions achieved great acclaim. Eventually, Wolfe became one of the early contributors to New Journalism. Wolfe became famous for his observations of American life, as many of his works featured the most prominent issues of the time. Works like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test displayed Wolfe’s tackling of modern day phenomena and his use of new journalism techniques that are considered to be the roots of New Journalism, a sort of renaissance in the field of journalism.
New Journalism was an innovation of Tom Wolfe and other journalists of his time. This style marks a turning point in the writing of nonfiction. While nonfiction and fiction traditionally were marked by a stark contrast in style, the work of Wolfe and other ’60s and ’70s journalists altered this perception. New Journalism was the predominant trend in reporting, until the movement eventually gave way to a newer trend of investigative journalism. Books like the The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test are nonfiction works written in a realist style that mimics fiction writing. While the phrase "New Journalism" was not coined until later, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is a prime example of this new-wave writing style. Books and stories written in the style of New Journalism included scene by scene accounts, dialogue, points of view, and extreme use of detail. Wolfe admits that he did not start the movement that led to this style that greatly resembled fiction, yet was a factual account of real-life events. In 1973 however, Wolfe did co-author the book New Journalism which served as a sort of guide book for the new style, explaining the characteristics of the writing and also providing examples by identifying earlier works that incorporated such techniques. By the time he wrote New Journalism, Wolfe predicted that this new line of nonfiction narrative would supersede the novel as the predominant literature form in America. He stated that novelists had sat at the high rungs of the literary world while journalists barely even qualified as writers.When New Journalism came along, he said, the style revolutionized the field of literature.
Historical Context and the Book's Subjects
During the 1950s and 1960s, America’s youth were invested in activism and the promotion of a progressive agenda. When society endorsed norms and attitudes that were contestable, a growing number of youths challenged norms and sought to promote change through participation in the political and social process. Historical events including the Civil Rights Movement and early anti-Vietnam opposition were fueled by youth participation. Groups like SNCC and Students for a Democratic Society were purveyors of change, and did so through active participation. Oftentimes historical periods and social movements are blurred together and realities forgotten. The typical presumption about youth in the turbulent decades of ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s is that they were the type of people Wolfe writes about in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. The reality however is that groups like the SDS and SNCC were actually college students and workers who sought to change America from the inside. Intellectual movements like Black Power and the New Left were formed during this time, but popular portrayals and lack of adherence to history lead to the muddying of these significant contributions.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was a significant literary contribution of its time because it led to the muddying of historically significant movements from only years before. By the time Wolfe was writing his book, a shift had already occurred in which intellectual movements were slowly fading and a new culture was growing amid America’s youth. Wolfe’s book universalized the newer sentiments of this generation, and forgetting the fervor of recent political movements, a self-involved generation with less globalized ideals emerged. This shift to the Beat Generation or “dropout generation” led to the eventual development the iconic hippie movement which became the synonymous with American activism. Earlier movements also rejected societal norms and expectations, but they were willing to wade through society and cultivate change through representation and participation. The Beats and eventual hippies that Wolfe brought to the public eye sought isolation and exclusion. Rather than attempting to mold society in a way that fit their desires, they essentially left American society and culture behind, establishing what became known as the counterculture.
Tom Wolfe by no means started the hippie movement nor did he introduce the Beat Generation. The Beats were well established before Wolfe’s book and the hippies were well on their way, whether Acid Test was published or not. In 1968, when Wolfe published The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test the prominent movements by the educated classes were slowly deteriorating. Stokely Carmichael was removed from his post as chair of SNCC and took a more radical group of African American youth with him, ready to step away from the non-violent approach to change and introduce a more fervent form of Black Power. Within the SDS, a new faction was growing that also grew tired with non-violence and within a year this faction would split from SDS altogether and become known as the Weather Underground. This inconsistency and slow decline of the previous movements left the door open for new ideas, and Tom Wolfe publicized one of the new opportunities.
Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, represented a changing breed of American youth. Kesey was a middle-class, handsome, athletic, intelligent youth, very much run of the mill, yet he was discontent with society. Wolfe’s book describes Kesey and his experiences that ultimately launched what can best be described as the hippie movement. Tom Wolfe, an already acclaimed journalist, set out to tell the story of Ken Kesey and his gang, known as the Merry Pranksters. Wolfe joined the group on their trans-American journeys and their psychedelic mind trips and produced a work that elaborates upon the life of a new wave of American youth. The Merry Pranksters produced a contrast to the similarly aged and gifted groups like the Students for a Democratic Society, choosing a life of recreational drug use and individual ventures in place of political activism. The Pranksters, like their activist contemporaries, were middle-class college aged students. They were born of the same generation that lived and was raised through the 1950s. As opposed to the global and systematic view of other groups from this era, the origins of the counterculture were in the realm of self-fulfillment and personal satisfaction.
Tom Wolfe produced a chronicle of Kesey's and the Pranksters' journeys that defined the hippie movement that developed in unison with the famed school bus “Furthur’s” cross-country tours. The Pranksters were by no means unintelligent or destined to live a life on the margins. The Pranksters were made up of talented musicians, writers and others who opted to live outside of society and seek solace in acid and other drugs. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is a first account of some of the most famous members of the famed “dropout generation”, a group of youths who chose to live outside the restrictions and mandates of society, instead serving as forerunners of an emerging counterculture. The Pranksters lived life in the moment and did the unexpected, whether it was their demonstration in Goldwater’s home town or their embracing of LSD.
Cultural Significance and Reception
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is remembered as an accurate and “essential” book depicting the roots and growth of the hippie movement. Additionally, the book is remembered because of its usage of New Journalism techniques. The book was widely read and attitudes towards its themes were polarized. Some saw the book as a testament to the downfall of American youth, while others read the book as gospel, seeing Kesey as a sort of Christ figure.
The use of New Journalism yielded two primary reviews, amazement or disagreement. While The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was not the original standard for New Journalism, it is the work most often cited as an example for the revolutionary style. Wolfe’s descriptions and accounts of Kesey’s travel managed to captivate readers and permitted them to read the book as a fiction piece rather than a news story. Those who saw the book as a literary work worthy of praise were amazed by the way Wolfe maintains control. Despite being fully engulfed in the movement and aligned with the Prankster’s philosophy, Wolfe manages to distinguish between the realities of the Pranksters and Kesey’s experiences and the experiences triggered by their paranoia and acid trips. Wolfe is unique from the Pranksters, because despite his appreciation for the spiritual experiences offered by the psychedelic, he also accepts the importance of the physical world. The Pranksters see their trips as a breach of their physical worlds and realities. Throughout the book Wolfe focuses on placing the Pranksters and Kesey within the context of their environment. Where the Pranksters see ideas, Wolfe sees objects. Had this book been written by a Prankster it would not have the appeal that it does from Wolfe’s hand. Wolfe captures the essence of the Pranksters but tells the story in relation to the real world.
While some saw New Journalism as the future of literature, the concept was not without critics and criticism. There were many who challenged the believability of the style and there were many questions and criticisms about whether accounts were true. Wolfe however challenged such claims and notes that in books like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, he was nearly invisible throughout the narrative. He argues that he produced an uninhibited account of the events he witnessed. As proponents of fiction and orthodox nonfiction continued to question the validity of New Journalism, Wolfe stood by the growing discipline. Wolfe realized that this method of writing transformed the subjects of newspapers and articles into people with whom audiences could relate and sympathize.
In addition to its literary significance, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test had immense social implications. During its time, reviews either revered or regretted the way in which it influenced societal expectations and perceptions. The New York Times considered the book one of the great books of its time. It described the book as not only a great book about hippies, but the “essential book”. The review continued to explore the dramatic impacts of Wolfe’s telling of Kesey’s story. Wolfe's book exposed counterculture norms that would soon spread across the country. The review notes that while Kesey received acclaim for his literary bomb, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he was, for the most part, not a visible icon. His experiments and drug use were known within small circles, the Pranksters for example. Tom Wolfe’s accounts of Kesey and the Pranksters brought their ideologies and drug use to the mainstream. A separate review maintained that Wolfe’s book was as vital to the hippie movement as The Armies of the Night was to the anti-Vietnam movement.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test undeniably altered society. While it received praise from some outlets, others were not as open to its effects. A review in The Harvard Crimson identified the effects of the book, but did so without offering praise. The review, written by Jay Cantor, who went on to literary prominence himself, provides a more moderate description of Kesey and his Pranksters. Cantor challenges Wolfe’s messiah-like depiction of Kesey, concluding that “In the end the Christ-like robes Wolfe fashioned for Kesey are much too large. We are left with another acid-head and a bunch of kooky kids who did a few krazy things.” Cantor explains how Kesey was offered the opportunity by a judge to speak to the masses and curb the use of LSD. Kesey, who Wolfe idolizes for starting the movement, is left powerless in his opportunity to alter the movement. Cantor is also critical of Wolfe’s praise for the rampant abuse of LSD. Cantor admits the impact of Kesey in this scenario, stating that the drug was in fact widespread by 1969, when he wrote his criticism. He questions the glorification of such drug use however, challenging the ethical attributes of reliance on such a drug, and further asserts that “LSD is no respecter of persons, of individuality”. While many read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test as a sort of gospel, Cantor challenged the message of both Wolfe, and his subject, Ken Kesey.
Tom Wolfe chronicles the adventures of Ken Kesey and his group of followers. Throughout the work, Kesey is painted as a sort of Christ figure, someone starting a new religion. Due to the allure of the transcendent states achievable through drugs and because of Kesey's ability to preach and captivate listeners, he begins to form a band of close followers. They call themselves the "Merry Pranksters" and begin to participate in the drug-fueled lifestyle. Starting at Kesey's house in the woods of La Honda, California, the early predecessors of acid tests were performed. These tests or mass usage of LSD were performed with lights and noise, which was meant to enhance the psychedelic experience.
The Pranksters eventually leave the confines of Kesey’s estate. Kesey buys a bus in which they plan to cross the country. They paint it with Day-Glo and name it “Furthur”. They traverse the nation, tripping on acid throughout the journey. As the Pranksters grow in popularity, Kesey’s reputation grows as well. By the middle of the book, Kesey is idolized as the hero of a growing counterculture. He starts friendships with groups like Hells Angels and their voyages lead them cross paths with other icons of the Beat Generation. Kesey soon becomes revered as prophet-Kesey. Kesey's popularity grows to the point that permits the Pranksters to entertain other significant members of a then growing counter-culture. The Pranksters meet Hells Angels, The Grateful Dead, Allen Ginsberg and attempt to meet with Timothy Leary. The failed meeting with Leary leads to great disappointment. A meeting between Leary and Kesey would mark the meeting of East and West. Leary was on the East Coast what Kesey represented on the West.
As an effort to broadcast their lifestyle, the Pranksters publicize their acid experiences and the term Acid Test comes to life. The Acid Tests are parties where everyone takes LSD (which was often laced into the Kool-Aid they served) and abandon the realities of world in search of a state of “intersubjectivity”. Just as the Acid Tests are catching on, Kesey is arrested for possession of marijuana. In an effort to avoid jail, Kesey flees to Mexico and is joined by the Pranksters. The Pranksters struggle in Mexico. They are unable to obtain the same results from their acid trips.
Kesey and some of the Pranksters returned to the United States. At this point, Kesey becomes a full blown pop culture icon as he appears on TV and radio shows, even as he is wanted by the FBI. Eventually he is located and arrested. Kesey is conditionally released as he convinces the judge that the next step of his movement is an “Acid Test Graduation”, an event in which the Pranksters and other followers will attempt to achieve intersubjectivity without the use of mind-altering drugs. The graduation was not effective enough to clear the charges from Kesey’s name. He is given two sentences for two separate offenses. He is designated to a work camp to fulfill his sentence. He moves his wife and children to Oregon and begins serving his time in the forests of California.
The 2011 film Magic Trip includes footage from the Merry Pranksters' bus trip as well as interviews with many of the Pranksters, including Kesey. Many of the events chronicled in the book are featured in the film.
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- Scura, Conversations With Tom Wolfe. 185.
- Carl A. Bredahl, "An Exploration of Power: Tom Wolfe's Acid Test." Critique 23, no. 2 (1982), 67.
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- Dan Berger. Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity. (CA: AK Press, 2006) 20.
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- Eliot Fremont, "Books of the Times." New York Times (1923-Current File), Aug 12, 1968. http://search.proquest.com/docview/118265133?accountid=9920.
- “Tom Wolfe Bio” http://www.tomwolfe.com/bio.html
- Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), 175.
- Jay Cantor. “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” The Harvard Crimson. October 19, 1968.
- Fremont, "Books of the Times."
- C.D.B. Bryan. “The Pump House Gang and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”, New York Times. August 18, 1968. http://www.nytimes.com/1968/08/18/books/1968wolfe-acid.html?_r=0
- Bredahl, "An Exploration of Power: Tom Wolfe's Acid Test.". 83.
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