Life as a Novel: New Journalism and an Emerging Mass Counterculture

25 Mar

This post contains part V of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

Ken Kesey, the Pranksters, and FurtherImage from

Ken Kesey, the Pranksters, and Furthur, 1969
Image from

The free-wheeling, antiauthoritarian ideals of On the Road were taken to a literal extreme in 1964 when the Merry Pranksters took their infamous psychedelic road trip across America. Lending dubious cultural merit to their journey were “major literary celebrities” Neal Cassidy (Dean Moriarty himself, now known as Speed Limit, the driver) and Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion (dubbed The Chief) (P. Perry xxi). Cassady, who had once been “the mercury for Kerouac and the whole Beat Generation” was now “the mercury for Kesey and the whole—what?—something wilder and weirder out on the road” (Wolfe 102). Things had definitely changed since the days of bongos and coffee shops, and there was no love lost between the fractured remnants of the Beat movement and the emerging, electrified psychedelic movement.

Kesey had publicly given up writing after publishing his second novel, and he’d began to pursue ways of “living life as a novel” (P. Perry 15). He used his royalties to buy a 1939 International Harvester school bus and deck it out with thousands of dollars worth of sound and video equipment. After packing the bus with several weeks’ worth of food and acid, he and his Prankster crew hit the road. Tom Wolfe, on an assignment to write about the “Young Novelist Real-Life Fugitive,” put words to Kesey’s novelistic lifestyle in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (Wolfe 5). In doing so, he managed to expose an entirely new generation to America’s latest iteration of the counterculture.

The hippies of the sixties had taken the jazz ideals of the Beats and electrified them. The result was a counterculture that was more in tune with the influences of pop culture (including rock music), but still deeply antiauthoritarian and focused on the authentic ideal. The search for “IT”—the frighteningly authentic jazz moment characterized by Dean in On the Road—became an integral part of the hippie mentality. Historian Mark Lytle characterizes the sixties ethos as “[dismissive of] rational analysis and conventional ethics in favor of ethereal flights of fancy and a commitment to authentic experience, immediacy, sensuality, and community, defined in this instance as those who when that saxophone blew IT, knew IT when they heard IT” (Lytle 50). Much like On the Road, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is written in a style that emphasizes these ideals; but unlike Kerouac, Wolfe unabashedly exposes the unsustainable nature of the counterculture he’s profiling. He paints a raw portrait of Kesey’s psychedelic lifestyle, characterized by an overzealous embrace of outlaw behavior that was both socially-destructive and dangerous.

Wolfe’s “New Journalism” style evokes the participatory, sensory elements of Kerouac’s Beat writing. However, Wolfe’s linguistic devices and narrative techniques are much more subtle and far-reaching in their subjectivity than Kerouac’s spontaneous prose. This in itself reflects Americans’ growing skepticism towards the “objective” analysis of American life transmitted through conventional media outlets. Nonetheless, Wolfe makes use of Kerouac’s free-form, slang-heavy techniques—as exemplified in this passage describing one of Kesey’s “Acid Tests,” which puts a new electronic twist on the elation formerly felt by the Beats in jazz clubs:

Kesey looks out upon the stroboscopic whirlpool—the dancers! flung and flinging! in ectasis! gyrating! levitating! men in slices! in ping-pong balls! in the creamy bare essence and it reaches a


he never saw before. (Wolfe 244)

Wolfe takes Kerouac’s spontaneous prose a step further as his ecstatic language takes on new significance to readers: Wolfe is not merely describing a lifestyle experience, but instead a psychological experience, allowing readers to vicariously participate in the adventures and rites of the psychedelic community even if they themselves are not members. This cultural initiation by proxy is in keeping with the New Journalism style, which has been described both as “a response to the radically new kinds of events and personalities that are shaping American and world culture” and as “an attempt to record and evaluate history by keeping language and attitude closely attuned and responsive to the style of events” (Johnson 46). Wolfe himself characterizes Acid Test as an effort to “re-create the mental atmosphere [and] subjective reality” of the Merry Pranksters. “I don’t think their adventure can be understood without that,” he says (Wolfe 415). The particular energy of the cultural events depicted via New Journalism all but necessitated this unconventional mode of expression. However, it’s important to note that, unlike Kerouac, Wolfe is not himself striving to live authentically; he is merely depicting the Pranksters’ interpretation of the “authentic” lifestyle, which revolved largely around communal drug use as a means to build and strengthen a countercultural community.

Next Post: The Acid Test: Failing to Control for Social Hierarchies



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: