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Tom Wolfe: Storyteller of Psychedelic Adventures

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“The world was simply and sheerly divided into ‘the aware’, those who had the experience of being vessels of the divine, and a great mass of ‘the unaware’, ‘the unmusical’, ‘the unattuned.’”

― Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Tom Wolfe was an anthropologist of his time. He was a man of distinguished style who could characterize decades behind the keys of his 1966 Underwood typewriter. Wolfe was the godfather of New Journalism, a style of writing which uses literary techniques emphasizing truth over facts through immersing the reporter into the narrative. What made this author a trailblazer wasn’t his personal experiences with psychedelics or his advocacy for their use. Instead, Wolfe was the observer and reporter of one of the most psychedelic adventures of the 1960s. And then he gifted that story to the world.

Who is Tom Wolfe?

Thomas Kennerly Wolfe Jr. was born March 2, 1930, in Richmond, Virginia. He was the son of Helen Perkins Hughes Wolfe, a garden designer, and Thomas Kennerly Wolfe Sr., a newspaper editor. Wolfe Jr. pursued a career in writing to follow in his father’s footsteps.

He attended Washington and Lee University, where he majored in English. Wolfe grew particularly close to one professor, Marshall Fishwick. He was a teacher of American studies, more in the tradition of anthropology. Fishwick taught his students to look at the whole of culture, including subculture, and elements considered taboo or profane. This anthropological perspective on writing led Wolfe to a very eclectic repertoire of jobs post-college. One particular gig set him on the trajectory of his career path.

He pitched a piece to Esquire on “car geniuses” in Los Angeles. Wolfe had a deliberate writing process that was too slow for Esquire. They were ten steps ahead of him with another piece laid out to publish. Esquire suggested that Wolfe type out his notes in order for a good rewrite employee to potentially publish it one day. Wolfe sat down at 8 pm that evening and started a memo, which took all night and ended at a whopping 48 pages. The next day Esquire dropped their current assignment and ran the piece as it was. Just like that, New Journalism was born. 

Psychedelic Writing 

New Journalism

Wolfe was well-read on history and understood historical patterns. He was fascinated by the new wrinkle in time he’d discovered, which was New Journalism. Wolfe claimed that it no longer took generations for change to take place. In America, post-Second World War, a sudden financial stimulus entered into almost every level of society, which broke all sense of “normal.” These enormous changes allowed subcultures to crawl out of their caves and finally have their time in the sun. New Journalism was there to document it all. (This sounds all too familiar.) 

Wolfe realized that New Journalism had the ability to transform the subjects of articles into people with whom audiences could relate and sympathize. He wrote many stories on different subcultures around America. Wolfe knew that by immersing himself into the narrative, he was able to poetically push many of these subcultures further up the societally acceptable ladder.

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

New journalism gave birth to one of Wolfe’s most popular books on psychedelic subculture, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Wolfe got word of the next great American author, Ken Kesey, fleeing to Mexico to avoid charges of marijuana possession. He had to be the first one on the case! Wolfe started covering Kesey right away and found himself immersed in one of the biggest trips of his life (no pun intended). He boarded a 1939 International Harvester bus called “Furthur” with Kesey and his all-American gang, The Merry Pranksters. They traveled across America to push the psychedelic experience further, and Wolfe was there to absorb it all.

Wolfe was dedicated to his role as a reporter. With such commitment, he only consciously and consensually engaged in LSD once while on the bus in order to immerse himself fully into their reality. While tripping on psychedelics, consistent documentation isn’t a guarantee, so having Wolfe on the bus was a blessing. The Merry Pranksters’ great American acid trip would have never been seen so vividly through mainstream media if Wolfe hadn’t been on the bus.

The New York Times considered the book one of the great works of its time; it described it as not only a great book about hippies, but the “essential book.” Stories like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test have created the current for the psychedelic wave we are riding right now. In these renaissance times, let’s continue to push our truth further and keep sharing our experiences, just as Wolfe would do.

Top Tom Wolfe Psychedelics Quotes

Admirers

“It’s a good book. yeah, he’s a—Wolfe’s a genius. He did a lot of that stuff, he was only around three weeks. He picked up that amount of dialogue and verisimilitude without tape recorder, without taking notes to any extent. He just watches.”

—Ken Kesey

Wolfe is “the most exciting—or, at least, the most jangling—journalist to appear in some time,” and “a genius who will do anything to get attention.”

—Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Style

“You never realize how much of your background is sewn into the lining of your clothes.”

—Tom Wolfe

Radical Chic, after all, is only radical in Style; in its heart it is part of Society and its traditions—Politics, like Rock, Pop, and Camp, has its uses.

—Tom Wolfe

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

“They were … well, Beautiful People!—not ‘students’, ‘clerks’, ‘salesgirls’, ‘executive trainees’—Christ, don’t give me your occupation-game labels! We are Beautiful People, ascendant from your robot junkyard.”

“Everybody, everybody everywhere, has his own movie going, his own scenario, and everybody is acting his movie out like mad, only most people don’t know that is what they’re trapped by, their little script.”

“You’re either on the bus or off the bus.”

“Sometimes we don’t even realize what we really care about, because we get so distracted by the symbols.”

“I’d rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph.”

“What do you mean, blindly? That baby is a very sentient creature…. That baby sees the world with a completeness that you and I will never know again. His doors of perception have not yet been closed. He still experiences the moment he lives in.”

“None of us are going to deny what other people are doing. If saying bullshit is somebody’s thing, then he says bullshit. If somebody is an ass-kicker, then that’s what he’s going to do on this trip, kick asses. He’s going to do it right out front and nobody is going to have anything to get pissed off about. He can just say, ‘I’m sorry I kicked you in the ass, but I’m not sorry I’m an ass-kicker. That’s what I do, I kick people in the ass.’ Everybody is going to be what they are, and whatever they are, there’s not going to be anything to apologize about. What we are, we’re going to wail with on this whole trip.”

Tom Wolfe Works

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test 

The Right Stuff

The Bonfire of the Vanities 

The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby

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