How Tom Wolfe and Haight-Ashbury Enriched Each Other

Tom Wolfe.jpg

When Tom Wolfe died in May, one thought that crossed my mind was that he and Haight-Ashbury both have richer legacies because he went searching for Ken Kesey in 1966.

That search, of course, resulted in Wolfe writing The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which for my money is still the best piece ever written on Haight-Ashbury. I’d also rate it as Wolfe’s greatest book – the book that established his reputation and the one he never outdid. It also enriched the legacy of Haight-Ashbury, explaining to generations of readers what makes the place so magical. I read it after first visiting Haight-Ashbury in 1981, and read it twice more while researching The Haight.

In 1966, Wolfe was a New York-based magazine journalist and essayist who heard about a West Coast author who had become a fugitive in Mexico after being busted on a drug charge. Ken Kesey was best known as the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion. Kesey was a born leader, a championship wrestler, and a scholar. He had spent much of the 1960s leading a band of misfits called the Merry Pranksters in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, which was becoming known as a hotbed of LSD. After being arrested for marijuana possession, Kesey fled to Mexico.

Obsessed by Kesey

The more Wolfe learned about Kesey, the more drawn he was by the story until he finally traveled to Mexico in search of him. (Wolfe learned of his location from the novelist Larry McMurtry, a friend they had in common.) Wolfe was hoping for a three-part article for New York magazine. On arrival, he learned Kesey had returned to California, where the FBI arrested him again. So Wolfe traveled north, met Kesey in a jail in Redwood City, and began to hang out with the Pranksters in Haight-Ashbury.

“Everything I learned about what Kesey and his group had been doing kept leading to something else, into more involved things,” Wolfe told Lawrence Deitz for a New York article in 1968. “At one point, I thought I’d never finish…”

Wolfe learned that these kids believed they were into something more than just drug trips. When he interviewed them, he’d ask them about the hippie life and drug trips and got dismissive responses. In an interview in Rolling Stone in 1980, Wolfe said he’d get responses like: “’We’ll tell you about that, but that isn’t what it’s all about.’ I said, ‘Well, what is it all about?’ And they said, ‘It’s the unspoken thing.’ And it gradually began to dawn on me that this was a religious group, a religion in its primary phase.”

Wolfe knew he was on to something – a rollicking tale of an outlaw literati, a social study of the blooming Flower Power culture, the burgeoning art scene that led to the acid tests, even the supposed birth of a new religion. He had too much for magazine articles and he spun this yarn into a single book. 

Exemplar of New Journalism

And what a book! The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test came out in 1968, by which time the world had heard about Haight-Ashbury and its Summer of Love. It captured all the elements of the story of Kesey and the Pranksters, and did so in a flowery, over-the-top prose that amplified the aura of Haight Street’s madcap lifestyle. Rife with interjection and bizarre punctuation, it was a stream-of-consciousness description of a community suffused with altered consciousness. Here’s a brief passage from Wolfe’s description of the third acid test:

He takes the LSD and

RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRROIL

the whirlpool picks him up and spins him down into the stroboscopic stereoptic prankster panopticon in full variable lag

SUCH CREATURES

Hell’s Angels come reeling in, shrieking Day-Glo, then clumping together on the floor under the black light and then most gentle Buddha blissly passing around among themselves various Angel esoterica, chains, Iron Crosses, knives, buttons, coins, keys, wrenches, spark plugs, grokking over these arcana winking in the Day-Glo.

The book came out in the heyday of New Journalism, when Wolfe and contemporaries like Truman Capote and Gay Talese developed highly subjective and original writing styles to deliver a pioneering form of non-fiction. Wolfe perfected this in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, using a conventional prose to draw his readers through the story and these out-of-sight passages to create the insanity of the acid tests and the Haight-Ashbury scene. The result was an exemplar of New Journalism and an American classic.

“The book was American to the core, imitating the workings of the contemporary mind by incorporating stream of consciousness, poetry, and multiple points of view,” wrote Toby Thompson in Vanity Fair in 1987. “And it was unreservedly hip. It remains the best book about 1960s America, and it is emotionally free in a way Wolfe’s writing has not been since.”

The book ensured the legacies of both Tom Wolfe and Haight-Ashbury. It was his finest book, bettering the non-fiction gem The Right Stuff and even Bonfire of the Vanities, the novel that defined the 1980s. And Haight-Ashbury is richer because it was written.

Wolfe Didn't Discover Haight-Ashbury

Wolfe did not “discover” Haight-Ashbury the way Hemingway discovered the Running of the Bulls. It was well known by the time Electric Kool-Aid came out. What he did was explain and preserve it. Even today, if you were going to recommend one book about Haight-Ashbury to anyone, it would be The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Even though its story of Kesey concluded before the Summer of Love.

Some observers of The Haight complain that Wolfe was an outsider looking in at what was going on, but even that strengthens the book. Just the fact that this East Coast intellectual came to San Francisco to write the book was testament to the fact that something was happening on Haight-Ashbury that merited the world’s attention. An insider might have produced a work that was too cliquey, or written for a local audience. What Wolfe wrote is a magnificent piece of literature, and a monument to the neighborhood it describes.

Peter Moreira