Tom Wolfe is one of the greatest writers of our age. He was one of the pioneers of so-called New Journalism in the sixties and seventies, immersing himself in the stories he told and weaving his tales with an emphasis on mood. Still going at the age of 86 and still the snappiest dresser in the literary world, Wolfe is one of a kind.
His most famous works are The Right Stuff and The Bonfire of the Vanities, which are marvelous. Almost as famous is his The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a quirky look at the drug/counter-culture that arose in the sixties. It’s a wonderful read, describing the journey of Ken Kesey (author of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and his followers, The Merry Pranksters, in 1960s America. It was a time when drugs like LSD served a dual purpose: they were a gateway to rapturous new experiences and they were a way of thumbing one’s nose at the fuddy-duddy old establishment.
Wolfe was criticized for being too sympathetic to Kesey and The Merry Pranksters by some, and for being too damning by others. He was neither. The genius of Tom Wolfe is that he is a uniquely unbiased observer of the human condition. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, he related what actually went down during that slice of history, but the emphasis was not about what fit or didn’t fit his personal world-view. What made the cut were those snippets that were both entertaining and reflected the character and motivations of the principals in the tale. The climax of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test finds the Grateful Dead attempting to recreate the acid-trip experience through music alone and, predictably, failing miserably. Wolfe leaves the reader to answer the inevitable question left hanging in the air: is society better served by prohibiting chemically induced psychic experiences, or by allowing them. Were Kesey and his followers farsighted pioneers or lawless rebels? Like all great writers, Wolfe doesn’t corner his reader into a particular conclusion of his choosing; he rather leaves his readers with sufficient information, entertainingly and fairly displayed, to draw their own conclusions.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is a roadmap for understanding the turmoil of the sixties and seventies. According to Wolfe, there are two conditions that nurture significant internal rebellion within a nation: oppression and comfort. The former is easy to understand. A populace that believes it is under attack will inevitably rebel, for better or worse. Future Americans did during our revolution, as the French did during theirs. Solidarity fought the Soviets to initiate the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, and the Iranian people embraced false promises of religious zealotry as the proper weapon to displace the excesses of the Shah.
Tying internal rebellion to a nation’s feelings of comfort and security is a more difficult concept to understand. Yet, that was at the root of the youthful restlessness that so dominated American history and self-perception during the sixties and seventies. Every successive generation engages in its own sort of rebellious behavior, seeking to separate its identity from its parents’, and to improve upon the preceding generation’s achievements. Accomplishing either or both were unique challenges for me and my fellow baby-boomers, and, Sweet Smoking Jesus, did we ever drop the ball.
Post-World War II America was prosperous, powerful and, relatively speaking, at peace. How in the world does one engage in the cherished American tradition of youthful rebellion when the society one is born into is wealthy, invulnerable, and possesses an almost unlimited capability to project power and influence?
The answer is that as my generation came of age in the sixties and seventies, a substantial minority deviated from the model that successive generations throughout American history had followed. The rebels didn’t want to build on the preceding generation’s near-perfect accomplishments; they wanted to tear them down. As we have seen, previous generations believed that America’s global power was a force for good and tried to increase that influence. The rebels believed that American imperialism was toxic, that we oppressed and exploited weaker nations. Previous generations believed that America did its best, through both the public and private sectors, to help the poor within our borders and without. The rebels believed that capitalist America exploited the poor, robbing them and getting rich from the fruits of their labors.