My Thoughts on “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” by Tom Wolfe

In “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” Tom Wolfe presents himself through use of first-person to his audience by telling them about the nonfiction “psychedelic movement” that was growing among young people in California. At the time, the drug LSD was legal, and was hiring participants for research.

Wolfe was a very competitive journalist, which led him to be able to write a book like this full of content that is not typical for literary journalism. Known as “The Feature Game,” Wolfe said the goal was to “get a job on a newspaper, keep body and soul together, pay the rent, get to know ‘the world,’ accumulate ‘experience,’…” (“The Feature Game,” Tom Wolfe). While Wolfe never tried LSD because he was too scared, he did a great job of inserting himself into the lives of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters to inform his audience on what the “psychedelic movement” was. The final goal is “The Novel,” which Wolfe accomplished by composing “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” (Wolfe).

            In “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” Wolfe can be best known for his use of parajournalism, which means he provided entertainment to his audience, which is what readers always hope for. He was known for producing parajournalism at his best (“Parajournalism, or Tom Wolfe and His Magic Writing Machine,” Dwight MacDonald). Wolfe made “no pretense at factuality but sketching with humor and poignancy urban dilemmas one recognizes as real.” An example of this is when the cops pulls over the LSD bus after following them through the woods with Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, where Kesey proceeds to tell the officer they are “show people.” Kesey easily gets the crew out of trouble with the law, and Wolfe used this tactic to add humor to what would otherwise be a dilemma.

Another category of literary journalism that Wolfe belonged to besides parajournalism was known as New Journalism. This category applies to Wolfe’s writing because he composed a book full of reporting on a subculture of people- the hippies (Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters). “The New Journalism took its energy from the recognition of society as a tableau of interesting races, age groups, subcultures, and social classes and the detachment of the self from various conventional sources of identification” (Eason). Wolfe was a part of this subculture only because he was observing them and writing about them, but he was not actually a part of the psychedelic movement. Wolfe is simply storytelling to inform his audience of this growing movement among youth. “A New Journalism emerged in magazines and in books to give shape to many of the cultural changes while revitalizing reporting as a form of storytelling” (Eason). Wolfe contributed his writings to the era of New Journalism because of his book that fell outside the category of “hard news” (Wolfe). While LSD was pertinent at this time, Wolfe shared a story of how it was actually affecting people and what their daily lives looked like while on it.

Besides adding humor to his writing, Wolfe was known for having a realist impulse. He described it as “to show the reader real life- ‘Come here! Look! This is the way people live these days! These are the things they do!’” (“The New Journalism and The Image World,” David Eason). When Wolfe originally meets Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, Wolfe becomes mystified and wants to spend lots of time with them to see exactly what it is they do. He became “puzzled over their style of life” (Eason).

Regarding the psychedelic movement of young people, Wolfe shares with his audience how this movement is also transforming into a religious movement. Ken Kesey, the “de facto” of the Merry Pranksters, was seen as a god among his peers. He was a student at Berkeley who had many talents and offers right and left. Because of his status, others saw him as prophetic. Not only is Wolfe presenting what is currently going on during this trial of LSD, but he is also leading his audience into the future of where these young lives will go. He “furnishes the most elaborate explanations, explanations that link the contemporary to a well-ordered, nonthreatening past that promises to extend into the future” (Eason). Because Wolfe writes about drugs in a way that seems safe and not completely threatening, it is as though he writes about his subjects to show the movements that come along with this crowd, not necessarily to inform his readers of the harm LSD is known for in today’s time. “The drug culture, symbolized by Ken Kesey and his Pranksters, may appear to be a multitude of styles and symbols with no apparent meaning, but it is actually only a new manifestation of an ancient religious impulse and the group an elementary form of religious life” (Eason). I agree with Eason that the movement of LSD does not really symbolize anything, rather, it just manifests into another movement that a young group will lead.

I think Wolfe is trying to focus more on California lifestyles just as Joan Didion did. He is showing how times change periodically, and it always seems that California starts a movement that will then travel across the rest of the U.S. “The diversity of California lifestyles may suggest the loss of a common culture, but they are actually only diverse expressions of a culture transformed by economic expansion that spread the idiosyncratic lifestyles of the upper-class throughout society” (Eason). The economic expansion in this case is led by the FBI legally (LSD research), and a factor such as this can alter a culture. But at the end, traditional values will still exist, mixed along with new movements, which causes a culture to diversify itself.

Tom Wolfe took a serious topic (the experimentation of LSD), and reported it in a way that did not stress the audience. “I can get the message without having it watered down into banal language or dressed up with throat grabbing urgency” (“The Personal Voice and the Impersonal Eye,” Dan Wakefield).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *