Tom Wolfe And The Beautiful People

The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test is a tough book to read. If you are in tune with how Wolfe is talking, on the bus so to say stylistically, one is inclined to be incensed with the sneering tone  used. A sneering tone towards a gentle experience they hold dear. Like someone making jokes on stage about how you fuck while you are in love. If one is with Wolfe however, in looking down at the entire experience as a bunch of nut cases, one is well and truly bewildered with the writing style. What the fuck is this motherfucker talking about. And rightly so.

 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 an as-if-firsthand account of the experiences of Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters, who traveled across the country in a colourfully painted school bus named “Furthur“. 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.

Context is central to absorbing the book, the content, the writer, the intention and the beautiful people. We are talking about a person who has written a literary non fiction memoir about a bunch of people out of their minds on LSD, without ever having smoked a joint. Without, some say, actually spending any time with his subjects. And who is scathing in his judgemental tone nevertheless. And has written a brilliant book for all of it. A special kind of asshole.


From the Goodreads description of the book:

They say if you remember the ’60s, you weren’t there. But, fortunately, Tom Wolfe was there, notebook in hand, politely declining LSD while Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters fomented revolution, turning America on to a dangerously playful way of thinking as their Day-Glo conveyance, Further, made the most influential bus ride since Rosa Parks’s. By taking On the Road’s hero Neal Cassady as his driver on the cross-country revival tour and drawing on his own training as a magician, Kesey made Further into a bully pulpit, and linked the beat epoch with hippiedom. Paul McCartney’s Many Years from Now cites Kesey as a key influence on his trippy Magical Mystery Tour film. Kesey temporarily renounced his literary magic for the cause of “tootling the multitudes”–making a spectacle of himself–and Prankster Robert Stone had to flee Kesey’s wild party to get his life’s work done. But in those years, Kesey’s life was his work, and Wolfe infinitely multiplied the multitudes who got tootled by writing this major literary-journalistic monument to a resonant pop-culture moment.

Kesey’s theatrical metamorphosis from the distinguished author of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest to the abominable shaman of the “Acid Test” soirees that launched The Grateful Dead required Wolfe’s Day-Glo prose account to endure (though Kesey’s own musings in Demon Box are no slouch either). Even now, Wolfe’s book gives what Wolfe clearly got from Kesey: a contact high.

Phew. I’ll give you an example. Here, from an excerpt from the book, Wolfe is talking about the BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE!


who were … yes; attuned. I used to think of them as the Beautiful People because of the Beautiful People letters they used to write their parents. They were chiefly in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City, these kids. They had a regular circuit they were on, and there was a lot of traffic from city to city. Most of them were from middle-class backgrounds, but not upper bourgeois, more petit bourgeois, if that old garbanzo can stand being written down again—homes with Culture but no money or money but no Culture. At least that was the way it struck me, judging by the Beautiful People I knew. Culture, Truth, and Beauty were important to them . .. “Art is a creed, not a craft,” as somebody said … Young! Immune! Christ, somehow there was enough money floating around in the air so that one could do this thing, live together with other kids—Our own thing!—from our own status sphere, without having to work at a job,and live on our own terms—Us! and people our age!—it was…beautiful, it was a… whole feeling, and the straight world never understood it, this thing of one’s status sphere and how one was only nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two or so and not starting out helpless at the bottom of the ladder, at all, because the hell with the ladder itself—one was already up on a … level that the straight world was freaking baffled by! Straight people were always trying to figure out what is wrong here—never having had this feeling themselves. Straight people called them beatniks. I suppose the Beautiful People identified with the Beat Generation excitement of the late 1950s, but in fact there was a whole new motif in their particular bohemian status sphere: namely, psychedelic drugs.

El… Es… Dee … se-cret-ly … Timothy Leary, Alpert, and a few chemists like Al Hubbard and the incognito “Dr. Spaulding” had been pumping LSD out into the hip circuit with a truly messianic conviction. LSD, peyote, mescaline, morning-glory seeds were becoming the secret new thing in the hip life. A lot of kids who were into it were already piled into amputated apartments, as I called them. The seats, the tables, the beds—none of them ever had legs. Communal living on the floor, you might say, although nobody used terms like “communal living” or “tribes” or any of that. They had no particular philosophy, just a little leftover Buddhism and Hinduism from the beat period, plus Huxley’s theory of opening 

doors in the mind, no distinct life style, except for the Legless look … They were … well, Beautiful People! —not “students,” “clerks,” “salesgirls,” “executive trainees”—Christ, don’t give me your occupation-game labels! we are Beautiful People, ascendent from your robot junkyard

:::::: and at this point they used to sit down and write home the Beautiful People letter.

Usually the girls wrote these letters to their mothers. Mothers all over California, all over America, I guess, got to know the Beautiful People letter by heart. It went:

“Dear Mother,

“I meant to write to you before this and I hope you haven’t been worried. I am in [San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Arizona, a Hopi Indian Reservation!!!! New York, Ajijic, San Miguel de Allende, Mazatlán, Mexico! ! ! !] and it is really beautiful here. It is a beautiful scene. We’ve been here a week. I won’t bore you with the whole thing, how it happened, but I really tried, because I knew you wanted me to, but it just didn’t work out with [school, college, my job, me and Danny] and so I have come here and it a really beautiful scene. I don’t want you to worry about me. I have met some BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE and …”

… and in the heart of even the most unhip mamma in all the U.S. of A. instinctively goes up the adrenal shriek: beatniks, bums, spades—dope.


There’s a nicer way to encapsulate what Wolfe has done with his writing here, and the excellent editing folks over at wikipedia have done a wonderful job of getting it together in the Cultural Significance and Reception section, picked mainly from Bredahl, “An Exploration of Power: Tom Wolfe’s Acid Test”

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.[3] Despite being fully engulfed in the movement and aligned with the Prankster’s philosophy (Snip: Doubtful) Wolfe manages to distinguish between the realities of the Pranksters and Kesey’s experiences and the experiences triggered by their paranoia and acid trips.[3] 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.[4] 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.

Let me give you another example. When they say Wolfe captures the essence of the Pranksters but tells the story in relation to the real world, this is what they mean. The Pranksters, they have a briefing every Friday night, a sort of a picnic where everyone is sitting around cozy discussing ideas. Here’s Wolfe writing about it.

A few joints are circulating around, saliva-liva-liva-liva-liva. 

The same sentence, splashed around multiple times. One can almost feel the distaste burbling over from the pen.

Kesey and Cassady, Barechested, 1968.

Kesey and Cassady, Barechested, 1968.


It isn’t to say that he doesn’t try. Try this (another excerpt from the book) where Wolfe is talking about….

The Unspoken Thing

HOW TO TELL IT! . . . THE CURRENT FANTASY … I NEVER heard any of the Pranksters use the word religious to describe the mental atmosphere they shared after the bus trip and the strange days in Big Sur. In fact, they avoided putting it into words. And yet—

They got on the bus and headed back to La Honda in the old Big Sur summertime, all frozen sunshine up here, and no one had to say it: they were all deep into some weird shit now, as they would just as soon call it by way of taking the curse . . . off the Unspoken Thing. Things were getting very psychic. It was like when Sandy drove 191 miles in South Dakota and then he had looked up at the map on the ceiling of the bus and precisely those 191 miles were marked in red … Sandy : : : : : back in Brain Scan country the White Smocks would never in a million years comprehend where he had actually been … which was where they all were now, also known as Edge City …

Back in Kesey’s log house in La Honda, all sitting around in the evening in the main room, it’s getting cool outside, and Page Browning: I think I’ll close the window—and in that very moment another Prankster gets up and closes it for him and smi-i-i-i-les and says nothing . .. The Unspoken Thing—and these things keep happening over and over. They take a trip up into the High Sierras and Cassady pulls the bus off the main road and starts driving up a little mountain road—see where she goes. The road is so old and deserted the pavement is half broken up and they keep climbing and twisting up into nowhere, but the air is nice, and up at the top of the grade the bus begins bucking and gulping and won’t pull any more. It just stops. It turns out they’re out of gas, which is a nice situation because it’s nightfall and they’re stranded totally hell west of nowhere with not a gas station within thirty, maybe fifty miles. Nothing to do but stroke themselves out on the bus and go to sleep … hmmmmmm … scorpions with boots on red TWA Royal Ambassador slumber slippers on his big Stinger Howard Hughes in a sleeping bag on the floor in a marble penthouse in the desert DAWN

All wake up to a considerable fetching and hauling and grinding up the grade below them and over the crest comes a


gasoline tanker, a huge monster of a tanker. Which just stops like they all met somewhere before and gives them a tankful of gas and without a word heads on into the Sierras toward absolutely


Babbs— Cosmic control, eh Hassler!

And Kesey— Where does it go? I don’t think man has ever been there. We’re under cosmic control and have been for a long long time, and each time it builds, it’s bigger, and it’s stronger. And then you find out… about Cosmo, and you discover that he’s running the show. ..

The Unspoken Thing; Kesey’s role and the whole direction the Pranksters were taking—all the Pranksters were conscious of it, but none of them put it into words, as I say. They made a point of not putting it into words. That in itself was one of the unspoken rules. If you label it this, then it can’t be that… Kesey took great pains not to make his role explicit. He wasn’t the authority, somebody else was: “Babbs says…” “Page says…” He wasn’t the leader, he was the “non-navigator.” He was also the non-teacher. “Do you realize that you’re a teacher here?” Kesey says, “Too much, too much,” and walks away… Kesey’s explicit teachings were all cryptic, metaphorical; parables, aphorisms: “You’re either on the bus or off the bus.” “Feed the hungry bee,” “Nothing lasts,” “See with your ears and hear with your eyes,” “Put your good where it will do the most,” “What did the mirror say? It’s done with people.” To that extent it was like Zen Buddhism, with the inscrutable koans, in which the novice says, “What is the secret of Zen?” and Hui-neng the master says, “What did your face look like before your parents begat you?” To put it into so many words, to define it, was to limit it. If it’s this, then it can’t be that… Yet there it was! Everyone had his own thing he was working out, but it all fit into the group thing, which was—”the Unspoken Thing,” said Page Browning, and that was as far as anyone wanted to go with words.

For that matter, there was no theology to it, no philosophy, at least not in the sense of an ism. There was no goal of an improved moral order in the world or an improved social order, nothing about salvation and certainly nothing about immortality or the life hereafter. Hereafter! That was a laugh. If there was ever a group devoted totally to the here and now it was the Pranksters. I remember puzzling over this. There was something so… religious in the air, in the very atmosphere of the Prankster life, and yet one couldn’t put one’s finger on it. On the face of it there was just a group of people who had shared an unusual psychological state, the LSD experience—But exactly! The experience—that was the word! and it began to fall into place. In fact, none of the great founded religions, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Zoroastrian-ism, Hinduism, none of them began with a philosophical framework or even a main idea. They all began with an overwhelming new experience, what Joachim Wach called “the experience of the holy,” and Max Weber,”possession of the deity,” the sense of being a vessel of the divine, of the All-one. I remember I never truly understood what they were talking about when I first read of such things. I just took their weighty German word for it. Jesus, Mani, Zoroaster, Gautama Buddha—at the very outset the leader did not offer his circle of followers a better state hereafter or an improved social order or any reward other than a certain “psychological state in the here and now,” as Weber put it. I suppose what I never really comprehended was that he was talking about an actual mental experience they all went through, an ecstasy, in short.

In most cases, according to scriptures and legend, it happened in a flash. Mohammed fasting and meditating on a mountainside near Mecca and— -flash! —ecstasy, vast revelation and the beginning of Islam. Zoroaster hauling haoma water along the road and— -flash! —he runs into the flaming form of the Archangel Vohu Mano, messenger of Ahura Mazda, and the beginning of Zoroastrianism. Saul of Tarsus walking along the road to Damascus and— flash! —he hears the voice of the Lord and becomes a Christian. Plus God knows how many lesser figures in the 2,000 years since then, Christian Rosenkreuz and his “God-illuminated” brotherhood of Rosicrucians, Emanuel Swedenborg whose mind suddenly “opened” in 1743, Meister Eck-hart and his disciples Suso and Tauler, and in the twentieth-century Sadhu Sundar Singh—with— flash! —a vision at the age of 16 and many times thereafter; “.. . often when I come out of ecstasy I think the whole world must be blind not to see what I see, everything is so near and clear … there is no language which will express the things which I see and hear in the spiritual world …”

Sounds like an acid head, of course.


By nightfall the Pranksters are in the house and a few joints are circulating, saliva-liva-liva-liva-liva, and the whole thing is getting deeper into the moment, as it were, and people are working on tapes, tapes being played back, stopped, rewound, played again, a click on the plastic lever, stopped again … and a little speed making the rounds—such a lordly surge under the redwoods!—tablets of Benzedrine and Dexedrine, mainly, and you take off for a burst of work and rapping into the night. ..

Experiments of all sorts favored here, like putting contact microphones up against the bare belly and listening to the enzymes gurgling. Most Prankster bellies go gurgle-galumph-blub and so on, but Cassady’s goes ping! — dingaping! — ting! as if he were wired at 78 rpm and everyone else is at 33 rpm, which seems about right. And then they play a tape against a television show. That is, they turn on the picture on the TV, the Ed Sullivan Show, say, but they turn off the sound and play a tape of, say, Babbs and somebody rapping off each other’s words. The picture of the Ed Sullivan Show and the words on the tape suddenly force your mind to reach for connections between two vastly different orders of experience. On the TV screen, Ed Sullivan is holding Ella Fitzgerald’s hands with his hands sopped over her hands as if her hands were the first robins of spring, and his lips are moving, probably saying, “Ella, that was wonderful! Really wonderful! Ladies and gentlemen, another hand for a great, great lady!” But the voice that comes out is saying to Ella Fitzgerald— in perfect synch

“The lumps in your mattress are carnivore spores, venereal butterflies sent by theCombine to mothproof your brain, a pro-kit in every light socket— Ladies andgentlemen, Plug up the light sockets! Plug up the light sockets! The cougar microbesare marching in … “

Perfect! The true message!—

—although this kind of weird synchronization usually struck outsiders as mere coincidence or just whimsical, meaningless in any case. They couldn’t understand why the Pranksters grooved on it so. The inevitable confusion of the unattuned—like most of the Pranksters’ unique practices, it derived from the LSD experience and was incomprehensible without it. Under LSD, if it really went right,Ego and Non-Ego started to merge. Countless things that seemed separate started to merge, too: a sound became … a color! blue … colors became smells, walls began to breathe like the underside of a leaf, with one’s own breath. A curtain became a column of concrete and yet it began rippling, this incredible concrete mass rippling in harmonic waves like the Puget Sound bridge before the crash and you can feel it, the entire harmonics of the universe from the most massive to the smallest and most personal— presque vu! —all flowing together in this very moment…

This side of the LSD experience— the feeling! —tied in with Jung’s theory of synchronicity. Jung tried to explain the meaningful coincidences that occur in life and cannot be explained by cause-and-effect reasoning, such as ESP phenomena. He put forth the hypothesis that the unconscious perceives certain archetypical patterns that elude the conscious mind. These patterns, he suggested, are what unite subjective or psychic events with objective phenomena, the Ego with the Non-Ego, as in psychosomatic medicine or in the microphysical events of modern physics in which the eye of the beholder becomes an integral part of the experiment. Countless philosophers, prophets, early scientists, not to mention alchemists and occultists, had tried to present the same idea in the past, Plotinus, Lao-tse, Pico della Mirandola, Agrippa, Kepler, Leibniz. Every phenomenon, and every person, is a microcosm of the whole pattern of the universe, according to this idea. It is as if each man were an atom in a molecule in a fingernail of a giant being. Most men spend their lives trying to understand the workings of the molecule they’re born into and all they know for sure are the cause-and-effect workings of the atoms in it. A few brilliant men grasp the structure of the entire fingernail. A few geniuses, like Einstein, may even see that they’re all part of a finger of some ¡sort—So spaceequals time, hmmmmmm … All the while, however, many men get an occasional glimpse of another fingernail from another finger flashing by or even a whole finger or even the surface of the giant being’s face and they realize instinctively that this is a part of a pattern they’re all involved in, although they are totally powerless to explain it by cause and effect. And then—some visionary, through some accident—

—through some quirk of metabolism, through some drug perhaps, has his doors of perception opened for an instant and he almost sees— presque vu! —the entire being and he knows for the first time that there is a whole . . . other pattern here .. . Each moment in his life is only minutely related to the cause-and-effect chain within his little molecular world. Each moment, if he could only analyze it, reveals the entire pattern of the motion of the giant being, and his life is minutely synched in with it—



The Pranksters never talked about synchronicity by name, but they were more and more attuned to the principle. Obviously, according to this principle, man does not have free will. There is no use in his indulging in a lifelong competition to change the structure of the little environment he seems to be trapped in. But one could see the larger pattern and move with it— Go with the flow! —and accept it and rise above one’s immediate environment and even alter it by accepting the larger pattern and grooving with it— Put your good where it will do the most!

Oh dear.

… these things



I suppose I shall be talking more about the book eventually. I haven’t even begun to talk about Kesey yet. I am still in the middle of the book.  Savouring it very slowly, over months.



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