The 1960s were a time of rebellion, freedom, naiveté, change and revolution. Another pervasive element of the ’60s would undoubtedly be the drug culture of the time period and why it changed the country forever. Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test is a book which encompasses all of that and more regarding the hippie generation, telling the story of some of it’s most notorious proponents and informing the subsequent generations about the popular, political and rhetorical culture of the 1960s. In this story, the 1960s are represented through the character’s drug use, the writing style of the narrator and the magical story about a bus and a group of merry pranksters who decided to drive it.
The 1960s were one of the most interesting times in history for popular culture. The hippie generation was blossoming and everything focused around this wild group of drug ridden, Day-Glo freaks with beads clashing against the bourgeois values of the middle class. It was indeed a time in history that altered the way we think about things forever, and Wolfe’s The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test encompasses all of that and more. The story depicts a group called the Merry Pranksters living in a communal squat near San Francisco, California who provide the archetypal characters for the story’s cultural depiction of hippie life. They live without running water, babies crying in the open garage, taking showers above a head shop nearby and take drugs, lots of drugs. The Pranksters, aside from the fact that they all really existed, provide the archetypal living situation for members of the hippie movement. It is a true cultural anomaly, these people who normally came from middle class backgrounds living in squalor, and something that members of the older generation did not understand.
The media portrayal of hippies was sensationalized, with some even likening the Charles Manson Family as hippies out of control. They had parents all over the country worried about acid in the water and their children running off to the Haight Asbury district. Wolfe’s portrayal of the Pranksters, while certainly accurate (although we’ll leave a little room for literary purposes), is not merely then a character study on a group of people, but a character study on a group of people who represent an entire generation. And while they can’t speak for everyone, certainly, the Pranksters can be thought of as a cultural reference point for the hippies. They were they, in all forms of the word, so it makes sense that Wolfe would use them as the characters to hold a mirror to the popular cultural interpretation of the hippies. In order to tell the story of the hippies, it is best to have it told by one of their own…or at least by someone who was in on the scene. To write about the culture, you have to be the culture, and Wolfe certainly relished in the opportunity to do so. The way hippies were portrayed in popular culture wasn’t altogether untrue, it was just more like a caricature, a blanket representation that took the bad and made it worse. They had some bright ideas, certainly, and while the general misconception about hippies was that they were lazy, many proved to be anything but. How could the media of course, even be expected to comprehend anything the hippies were talking about? Most of those people had never “turned on” to the psychedelic experience, so they had no idea what it was like. It is certainly true, that you cannot explain a drug experience to someone who hasn’t had one, but what no one seemed to acknowledge was that everyone taking the same substance doesn’t equal a community. While the Sixties may have changed the world forever, they ended quite abruptly and violently for such a purportedly peaceful group of humans, and I think it is largely due to this fact. Why people thought that sharing the same synthetic experience meant they all had something in common can be directly correlated to the effects of the drug itself and the feeling it gives you. As soon as the high wore off, even if it took years to fade (or never fully did),
The political implications of Wolfe’s novel are lucid, yet not always blatantly apparent. He doesn’t shove them in your face, but they are there inherently. Kesey’s imprisonment, the first scene of the novel, is directly related to marijuana charges, and the rest of the book references the drug laws of the 1960’s. The government’s restrictions on LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs had not been instated yet (as evidenced by their research on various volunteers), so what began at Stanford University with Kesey and his crew spread to the rest of California and eventually, the whole country. These laws did however, change pretty quick, but that couldn’t stop the wave that was the hippie movement. It was a movement very much centered around politics, one that opposed the Vietnam War and advocated peace. These ideals very much come through in Wolfe’s story, yet they are not a central focus. The Merry Pranksters were more concerned with art and being, far too concerned with that to be involved in much of the political realm. They were however, concerned with getting busted. They got busted frequently, and all the cops in California knew what hippies looked like. They were persecuted for their drug use and living situations without really doing much harm, and in a sense, the Pranksters stood for their cause simply by being it.
Kesey, one of the first people to take LSD at the Menlo Park Clinic back in the LSD experiments of the late 50’s and early 60’s, is somewhat of a cultural legend at this point. An early leader in LSD movement, Kesey, through Tom Wolfe’s portrayal, is the perfect antithesis to the “white coats” of Menlo Park and the straights of society. He represents an important figure in the popular culture of the 1960’s, the once beloved popular fiction writer now labeled a drug addict and imprisoned. For many, it looked like a fall from grace, but anyone who knows Kesey or reads this book know otherwise. Kesey is a perfect example of the suburban, white, middle class kid who was on the “path to succeed” but then chose to blow his mind instead. Like so many others of the hippie movement, Kesey was committed to countercultural ideas and the desire to live differently than his parents. He is the main subject to Wolfe’s novel, though there are many characters, and he is the vehicle through which most of the group’s ideas are expressed. The narrator is somewhat of an outsider and Kesey is the leader of the merry group. He has a wife and children, the same domestic setup as most, except his is totally upside down. He is more interesting of a character because of his seemingly pure intentions, and his energy represents the naïve feeling shared by many, that LSD could change the world. And in some ways, it really did. The drug certainly informed many members of the hippie generation on their general outlook on things, which in turn shaped a lot of ideas that came out of that time period. It became a part of popular culture, especially with bands such as the Grateful Dead. LSD and drug use is so tied to the memory of the 1960’s that the two are inseparable, so a book based on LSD experiences with some of the biggest proponents of the drug is bound to be a classic work of Sixties literature.
The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test more than anything else, represents 1960’s culture through its rhetorical style. It is written in a colloquial, hip language that is mimetic to that of the hippies, which enforces its themes and is the reason why the book captures such a precise moment in history. It is language, more often than we think, that defines a generation. It is pulled from someone’s idea, distributed throughout popular culture and then slowly becomes just “something people say.” In Wolfe’s attempt to explain the unexplainable experience of LSD, he is searching through rhetoric to try and describe it. The language is free and wide roaming, like the hippies themselves, and has a focus on improvisation. Much like the LSD experience, Wolfe has some extremely spontaneous outbursts that make the story move much quicker than what’s actually going on. His phrasing is sporadic, yet it all has a natural rhythm. Through his rhetoric, he is attempting to describe the LSD experience within itself, a feat Wolfe is fully conscious he cannot achieve. As it’s perpetually illustrated, you cannot explain the experience to anyone who hasn’t had it, and a book isn’t going to do any different. That being said however, Wolfe does make interesting choices stylistically to compensate for this lack of explanation.
One common tactic Wolfe utilizes is the use of italics, to further a point or in an attempt to get at the true meaning inside the words. He also often writes things out phonetically, forgoing traditional forms and writing things as he hears them. It is an effective tactic, one that illustrates the intensified senses associated with an LSD experience and gives the reader a sensation they wouldn’t have felt otherwise. A lot seems to be stream of consciousness and it reads like a first draft (no ill criticism intended). If it wasn’t for Wolfe’s excellent sense of placement these bold choices may not work, but he somehow pulls it off pretty seamlessly. The form of many of the passages turns previously conceived notions of what non-fiction can be and turned them on their heads, providing not only an entertaining read but opening up the doors of non-fiction to other forms of literature. It is poetry, prose, an essay and a travel book, all jumbled into one focused psychedelic mess. To get the miraculous story of travelling across the country on LSD in a painted school bus however, it is really quite a necessary mess. His literary tactics are warranted however, and they definitely help him with his overall purpose, to encapsulate the LSD journey across the country and represent the wild youth of the 1960’s. Had Wolfe’s novel not been so specifically linked to LSD use and the hippie generation, they might have come off as a little off-putting, maybe even gimmicky. It is the context in which the book is written that gives its quirky literary style room to breathe, which in turn allows this book to be such a classic of the hippie generation.
Apart from the language, the story’s content is a definitively hippie theme as well. The idea of the road trip was so prevalent in 1960’s culture, that the thought of the open road caused many of that generation to lead transient lifestyles. Whether it was due to the Beat generation prior or the drugs themselves, something was making people want to pack up their lifestyles of safe suburban backyards and move into communal farmhouses and sleep in tents. There was something undeniably and faithfully human about the hippies, and a trend or not, a lot of their values seemed to adhere to human nature. Their energy was infectious, and like most of the people who got swept up in the hippie movement, it was related to drug use. The way The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test positions itself as a novel is as one big trip, synonymous with the content and the way in which drugs make you “trip.”
In the 1960’s, people wanted to escape. They wanted to escape from the bourgeois values of their society, disbar the long reach of institutionalized education and start their own cultural community. Though their time has come and passed and numerous other countercultural trends have taken their place, the impact of the hippie generation is still felt in nearly every city, particularly where it began. The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test is part of that impact, capturing a specific group sharing the same cultural experience that many others of that generation felt and putting it into enjoyable, well written prose. A book, an escape within itself, is the perfect way to explain the general feeling during the 1960’s, and The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test does exactly that.
Wolfe, Tom. The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. New York, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1968. Print.