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¡§When the Okies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the I

A Decade of Psychedelic Decadence                 Jillian Pham


David Carle teaches biology at Cerro Coso Community College, Eastern Sierra College Center. From 1982 to 2000, he and his wife shared the unit ranger position at the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve, actively trying to protect the Eastern Sierra inland sea from diversions into Los Angeles. Today, he remains a freelance writer and is author of Water and the California Dream (2000) and Mono Lake Viewpoint (1992).



The 1960s witnessed the emergence of the Counterculture¡Xa hodgepodge of unorthodoxy that resulted from the earlier 1950s Beat Generation. Tom Wolfe¡¦s ¡§hysterical realism¡¨ book¡XThe Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test¡Xcaptures the essence of the movement dominated by hippies, LSD, and psychedelia.  Although the non-fiction¡Xyet surreal¡Xbook travels throughout America, there¡¦s a significant emphasis upon California as the epicenter of the cultural earthquake.  Referred to as ¡§The Life¡Ka very Neon Renaissance,¡¨ the psychedelic movement was nurtured by Ken Kesey¡Xthe focal point of the book.1 

Wolfe¡¦s book begins with the narrator attempting to interview ¡§the biggest name in The Life, Kesey.¡¨ 2 The narrator, a news reporter, was interested in Kesey¡¦s idea of an ¡§Acid Graduation¡¨ that would transcend previous uses of the hallucinogenic drug known as LSD. With only ten minutes to interview Kesey at the Mexican jail where he was imprisoned, the reporter only garnered vague commentary from Kesey.  After the interview, the narrator decided to visit Kesey¡¦s followers, the Merry Pranksters, in chapter two. He found the Pranksters living in an old San Francisco warehouse. The people he encountered there dressed in clothes decorated with designs of the American Flag. Ironically, the people dressed in American Flag decorations were in no way patriotic to traditional nationalistic goals. Instead, they focused on the latest fad of their own society¡XThe Acid Graduation: a movement towards another method to obtain the mental high that drugs create.  Reminiscent to the dystopian society of Aldous Huxley¡¦s Brave New World, a recording constantly plays in the background of the Prankster¡¦s warehouse. The recording acclimates and conditions the mind of followers into the liberal atmosphere of the group.  The narrator also meets Kesey¡¦s children and his beautiful wife, Faye. With hardly any transition, the story abruptly goes back to an earlier point in Kesey¡¦s life. Before 1965, Kesey lived on Perry Lane, an exclusive community of intellectual bohemians in the Stanford area.  Eventually, Kesey meets Vic Lovell, an individual of the Perry Lane society who convinced Kesey to volunteer¡Xfor money¡Xat a clinical study lab that experimented with new drugs.  In the lab, Kesey tried several drugs that became the addicting psychedelic drugs¡Xthe foundation of The Life.  Kesey eventually develops an addiction for the drugs, and incorporated them into numerous aspects of his life. He made the hallucinogenic drugs popular with his Perry Lane friends, and drug usage in the area began to increase. His experience as a medical ¡§guinea pig¡¨ prompted him to write his first novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo¡¦s Nest, which elaborates upon the different state of mind experienced by the insane. As a result, Kesey began to integrate the usage of drugs into his literary career. To experience the mentality of the insane characters in his book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo¡¦s Nest, Kesey took various drugs¡Xsuch as LSD¡Xto enter a ¡§deeper¡¨ state of mind. 

Once the bohemian Perry Lane community was threatened by a construction company, Kesey decided to move to La Honda¡Xa area situated in the Santa Cruz Mountains.  Unlike Perry Lane, La Honda was much more private and secluded. This allowed Kesey to continue his use of drugs without the scrutiny of outsiders.  Kesey wanted to continue sharing his experiences with his Perry Lane friends and invited them often. With some of them, Kesey would become intoxicated, record random sounds, and draw whatever came to mind.  Kesey then bought a school bus ¡§in the name of Intrepid Trips Inc.¡¨¡Xthe name of his filming company.3 Kesey and the Merry Pranksters originally went on the trip to attend the New York World Fair. However, the path they took deviated towards random places like the American Deep South. Although they had a set destination in the beginning, the actual trip reflected their preference for flexibility. Along the way, they filmed themselves getting high in various places. One day, the bus was pulled over by the police. Once the policemen saw some of the intoxicated bus members madly rolling around in the brown grass, they decided to leave as soon as possible without issuing a ticket. As a result of this incident, the Pranksters ¡§felt more immune than ever.¡¨4 The group reached the Deep South on a hot day, and¡Xidle-minded from being on drugs¡Xunwittingly swam in a segregated beach reserved for African Americans.  They were met with hostility there and white policemen had to breakup a mob surrounding the bus. When the Pranksters finally reached New York, they were confronted with enmity there as well.  In New York, the Pranksters met the ¡§League for Spiritual Discovery.¡¨ The League practiced mental and spiritual discovery via drugs. However, the League was ¡§one big piece of uptight constipation¡¨ much more conservative than their western counterparts¡Xthe Pranksters.5 The Pranksters headed back home to La Honda after deciding not to deal with the hostility.

Once back in California, the Pranksters faced an inspection by policemen who had a search warrant allowing them to look through the La Honda cabin.  Kesey was¡Xnot surprisingly¡Xfound guilty for possession of illegal drugs.  He tried to fake suicide, but failed in the attempt.  Then Kesey met the Hell¡¦s Angels, a rough motorcycle club that appears to be the exact opposite of the pacifist Merry Pranksters. The Hell¡¦s Angels immediately liked the charismatic Kesey because they felt comfortable around him after hearing about his marijuana possession story and the bust. Some time after meeting with the Hell¡¦s Angels, Kesey was invited to speak at a Berkeley anti-war rally against the Vietnam War.  Naturally, Kesey was also a part of the Free Speech Movement as well. Later on, Kesey attended a Unitarian Conference where he was respected. The people at the conference began referring to him as ¡§the Prophet Kesey¡¨ because they agreed with his philosophy.6 Kesey and his group paralleled Christ and his disciples.  However, Kesey denied having any relations with Christ because the Pranksters do not associate religion with their mental atmosphere.  Like the rest of the world, the Pranksters also loved the Beatles. When the Beatles came to California, the Pranksters created a welcome sign for them expecting that they would come and visit the Prankster ¡§headquarters¡¨. The visit never happened, and many Pranksters felt disappointed. However, Kesey did meet another celebrity. A celebrity of the drug business: Owsley. As a result of this meeting, the band ¡§The Grateful Dead¡¨ and ¡§Acid Rock¡¨ formed.7 Kesey also got more exposure to the New Left movement when the Vietnam Day Committee invited Kesey to speak at a huge antiwar rally in 1965 at Berkeley.

Feeling a need to escape the restraints of the American police, Kesey decided to take some of the Pranksters to Mexico. The remaining Pranksters stayed in California to continue the Acid Tests, events aimed at exposing more people to drugs and the psychedelic movement. Once Kesey left, Babbs became their new leader. However, Babbs was unpopular because he enforced more rigorous rules. Unlike Babbs, ¡§Kesey¡Xthe non-navigator¡Xmerely expressed a will and merely waited for it to move forward in the Group Mind.¡¨8 Eventually, Babbs and the rest of the Pranksters took a trip to Mexico as well, but they were not openly welcomed there.  The Pranksters stood out in their brightly colored school bus and alarmed ¡§the women [who] hid their children with their skirts.¡¨9 At this point, the Pranksters believed that Kesey would never return to America, from fear of imprisonment. However, Kesey does eventually return with his Acid Graduation Plan later on. By this time, the Acid Tests were already established in colleges. Now, the youths are known collectively as the ¡§Probation Generation¡¨ as a result of imprisonment under numerous charges of drug possession.10 As a promise to ensure his bail out of jail, Kesey eventually acknowledges the harmful side-effects of taking LSD, and proposed to ¡§go beyond acid.¡¨11 This new idea was not well received by his previous followers.  The Acid Graduation turned out to be below par to Kesey.  Towards the end, only his closest followers, the Merry Pranksters, remained. Everyone else eventually disappeared.  At this point, Kesey¡¦s golden age ended. People were unwilling to sacrifice the drugged lifestyle that led to addiction.  Many also disagreed with him because the underground LSD business was a major source of income to powerfully wealthy¡Xbut illegal¡Xbusinesses. The power begins to shift from Kesey and his groups to the hippies in Haight-Ashbury who endorsed the continuation of LSD.

With his book, Wolfe attempted to explain the rise and fall of the Merry Pranksters¡Xan influential group of the 1960s Counterculture. The author chronicled the life of another author, Ken Kesey, to reveal the events that influenced literature at the time. The author¡¦s intimate portrayal of the Merry Pranksters illuminated hippie culture.  As a result, both the causes and effects of Prankster actions were revealed. Wolfe¡¦s thesis appeared to be about the ironic conformity within an organization based upon non-conformity with the rest of society. Although ¡§there wasn¡¦t supposed to be any Prankster hierarchy,¡¨ one existed anyways.12 The group embraced innovative individuality, but all of the Pranksters were pressured to take the drugs because it was the pivotal aspect that united them. All Pranksters took actions to an extremity as well. Although individuality was emphasized, members constantly felt pressured to act differently from the rest of society. The author also emphasized the temporary nature of power. In Kesey¡¦s case, power evaporated once his philosophy ceased to please the majority.

Wolfe showed a bias perspective in the book. He examined events from the perspective of the liberal hippie characters, but never from the perspective of the conservative federal officials. The author quotes Kesey proclaiming that the officials ¡§never took LSD themselves and they had absolutely no comprehension and [the LSD experience] couldn¡¦t be put into words anyway.¡¨13 This arrangement evoked sympathy for the liberal side.  Wolfe¡¦s style of writing was intentionally informal and ambiguous at times to portray the mental state of mind hippies experienced from being intoxicated. His sentences tended to be incomplete and the language fitted with the time period. The language reflected a mentality skewed by the usage of LSD. However, it is debatable whether or not drugs were used by the author in the process of writing. The book also fits under ¡§New Left¡¨ historiography for its emphasis on the liberal side of Californian history in the 1960s.

Wolfe¡¦s book received overwhelmingly positive reviews from critiques. According to Mike H. of Teen Ink Magazine, this book ¡§gives one of the best descriptions of the beginning of the hippie revolution¡KWolfe really captures the mood.¡¨14 By reading Wolfe¡¦s eccentric writing style, the reader feels the mentally distorted aura of the characters depicted. Wolfe uses the contemporary lingo of the characters to describe events in the words of his characters. Sharkey¡¦s Book Review noticed that The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is ¡§written with wild abandon, neither the language, nor the story are refined¡Kthe style is over-the-top, even by today¡¦s standards.¡¨15 Although Wolfe is perfectly capable of writing normally, his choice of writing in an unorthodox manner made his book truly unique. As a result of its writing style, this non-fiction book stands a part from the sea of dry¡Xslow-paced¡Xhistory books.

The book was ingenious for fitting under the genre of hysterical realism: ¡§typified by a strong contrast between elaborately absurd prose, plotting, or characterization and careful detailed investigations of real specific social phenomena.¡¨16 Although it is non-fiction, the book remained interesting because it had a plot as well. However, the story was hard to follow at first because it uses old hippie language that is uncommon in the modern era. The book is also excessively informal most of the time. Most importantly, the perspective is extremely bias because only the liberal side is portrayed. Naturally, readers would lean towards supporting the hippies because it was the only perspective available in the book. Ironically, the book heroicized the hippies that ended up in jail. The book is also controversial because it related the rebellious drug-taking Kesey and his hippies with pious Jesus and his disciples. Although Kesey denied any relations to relgions, observers noticed that there was a religious aura prevalent amongst the Merry Pranksters. Kesey¡¦s group also focused upon philosophy. In the Chapter ¡§A Miracle in Seven Days¡¨, Wolfe explained the Prankster¡¦s belief of a system within a system. They believed that they were all a part of a greater being. The Cause and Effect belief that the majority believed in was disregarded by the Pranksters. Instead, the Kesey¡¦s group believed that they were all connected to each other somehow. Oftentimes, they would experience the same flow of thought when intoxicated together.

From this book, readers learn about the Counterculture that started in California. The heart of the movement began especially in Perry Lane and evolved in La Honda. The Californian movement influenced other areas of the nation via Kesey and the Merry Pranksters while they were on the road trip to New York. The book also mentioned other contemporary events in California like the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley. Although these innovative movements were seen throughout the country in the 1960s, California was the revolutionary headquarters. The pivotal events began in California and lasted there longest. The 1960s was also seen as a bridge between the beatnik and hippie generations. As Kesey once said in a 1999 interview, ¡§I was too young to be a beatnik, and too old to be a hippie.¡¨17 Kesey was the bridge.

California also retained a unique approach to these movements. Unlike the American East, California was much more liberal in its approach. The Californian Merry Pranksters preferred loose authority that celebrated randomness. On the other hand, the ¡§League of Spiritual Discovery¡¨ of New York preferred calm mental discovery. The two different approaches clashed on their first encounter in New York. Wolfe emphasizes California¡¦s importance as the avant-garde creator that pioneered political independence. The Californian Merry Pranksters did not simply endorse old¡Xbut accepted¡Xbeliefs, they started a new way of life. The Californian hippies also sought to see life from a new perspective and enjoyed elaborating upon ¡§metaphors for life itself.¡¨18 Their original intent for drug intake was to view life from another perspective. The Merry Pranksters enjoyed creative expression as well and decorated their homes¡XLa Honda and the Bus¡Xwith Day-Glo paint. The Merry Prankster¡¦s long-term project was their film¡Xwhich focused upon the drugged perspective of life. At his ¡§hill-country Versailles¡¨ in California, the king of the psychedelic movement¡XKesey¡Xreigned with almost absolute power. All of the followers respected him.19 Kesey eventually became a celebrity nationwide. All Americans knew of the movement and its leader.

California in the 1960s: a storm of change that resulted in eccentricity.  Clinical studies resulted in a mass movement of drugs and pyschedelia. The people were happy and high. Tom Wolfe creates a more positive connotation for radicals by portraying them as the heroes that created another option for those against conformity. In his book, Wolfe portrays them as the normal minority amongst the odd majority. Wolfe gave depth to historical characters normally portrayed in 2D.  The main character, Ken Kesey was ¡§a lightning rod [rather] than a seismograph.¡¨20 He preferred to be the initiator not the observer. This mentality prevailed in California during the 1960s.


1. Wolfe, Tom. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. New York: Bantam Books, 1999.

2. Wolfe, Tom. 12

3. Wolfe, Tom. 112

4. Wolfe, Tom. 70

5. Wolfe, Tom. 193

6. Wolfe, Tom. 213

7. Wolfe, Tom. 267

8. Wolfe, Tom. 308

9. Wolfe, Tom. 360

10. Wolfe, Tom. 330

11. Wolfe, Tom. 19

12. Wolfe, Tom. 330

13. Wolfe, Tom. 42

14. H., Mike. ¡§The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.¡¨ Teen Ink Magazine October 2003. 03 June 2008. <http://www.teenink.com/Poetry/article.php?link=Past/2003/October/17072.xml>

15. ¡§Sharkey¡¦s Book Review of¡KThe Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.¡¨ Mr. Sharkey¡¦s Home Page November 2001. 03 June 2008. <http://www.mrsharkey.com/busbarn/acidtest/acidtest.htm>

16. ¡§Hysterical Realism.¡¨ Wikipedia. 02 June 2008. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hysterical_realism>

17. ¡§Ken Kesey.¡¨ Wikipedia. 02 June 2008. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_Kesey>

18. Wolfe, Tom. 52

19. Wolfe, Tom. 172

20. Wolfe, Tom. 8