2009; 272 pages. Full Title : The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America. New Author? : Yes. Genre : Narrative Non-Fiction; The 60’s. Overall Rating : 10*/10.
Ah, the 60’s. I remember them. Peace, love, dove, man. Long hair and beads; eating organic foods and protesting the war. Smoking pot and taking acid trips.
Of course, the 60’s didn’t start out that way. 1960 began with John F. Kennedy, “Camelot”, and a new sense of optimism, especially among the young. Everyone’s hair was short, drugs were unheard of, and the only armed conflict was some sort of police action in some faraway place in Southeast Asia.
So what happened? How’d things change so much in a mere 10 years? Why’d all those young people start getting high on drugs?
Don Lattin proposes that it was due in a large part to four academicians whose paths crossed at Harvard University in 1960, when one of them initiated a psychology research project where large doses of LSD were given to test subjects, under carefully controlled conditions, to see what would do things like decrease recidivism, cure alcoholism, and even promote spiritual enlightenment.
Yeah, you can pretty much bet those "carefully controlled conditions" didn’t last long.
What’s To Like...
The four members of the Harvard Psychedelic Club are: Timothy Leary, aka “The Trickster”, and heavily into any and all hallucinogens; Richard Alpert, aka “The Seeker”, who changed his name to ‘Ram Dass’ after finding his guru during a trip to India; Huston Smith, aka “The Teacher”, who was fascinated by any and all world religions; and Andrew Weil, aka “The Healer”, for whom a passion for holistic health and natural foods quickly overrode experimenting with drugs.
I liked the book’s structure – a chapter for each phase in the life of the HPC members, and in more or less chronological order. There’s one on their backgrounds, ‘first trips’, the inevitable falling-outs, migrations to the West Coast, pilgrimages (or in Leary’s case, ‘exile’), “where did they end up”, etc. Each chapter is divided into four parts – focusing on each member's personal odyssey at that point.
Don Lattin uses the phrase “narrative non-fiction” to describe the book, which means lots of simulated dialogue based on interviews with friends, family, and acquaintances of the four, as well as conversations with the three of them that were still alive when he penned this book. It works convincingly. Besides the fascinating biographies, the reader will learn a lot of other trivia – the origin of the word “psychedelic”, tidbits about Aldous Huxley (one of my lifelong favorite authors) and Carlos Castaneda, and the CIA’s clandestine parallel LSD research project, where they tried to see if it could be used as a truth serum for interrogations, or sprayed from the air on enemy combatants to render them senseless. Yeah, good luck with that, CIA.
These are “warts and all” biographies. Lattin neither idolizes nor vilifies these four trailblazers. They fight among themselves, thumb their noses at the authorities, and run when said authorities react in a predictable, forceful manner. Oh, and if you ever wondered how the prestigious Ivy League colleges fill their professorial positions, the mechanics here will open your eyes.
The book closes with Don Lattin giving his personal story about doing hallucinogens. Some readers found this off-putting, but I thought it worked very well. He apparently took two acid trips – one of which was very good, the other of which was very bad. Of the latter, he offers this sage advice: “It’s not a good idea for hippies to drop acid at hunting lodges”.
Kewlest New Word ...
Antinomianism (n.) : the belief that under the gospel dispensation of grace the moral law is of no use or obligation because faith alone is necessary; the rejection of established morality.
Others : Ex-cathedra (adj.); Ontological (adj.)
Hoffman had the world’s first intentional LSD trip late in the afternoon of April 19, three days after getting the accidental dose. About fifty minutes after taking the drug, the chemist scribbled in his notebook what he was feeling in his mind, reporting “slight dizziness, unrest, difficulty in concentration, visual disturbances, marked desire to laugh.” Hoffman was soon too stoned to write. (loc. 941)
Social and political activism was never a priority with Leary or Alpert. They were not out marching to stop the war in Vietnam, not even talking about it. In fact, they helped set the tone for the political disconnectedness of much of the human-potential and New Age movements, whose politics – or lack of it – were reflected in that line from the Beatle’s (sic) tune “Revolution.” If you want true freedom, the song suggests, “You better free your mind instead.” (loc. 2869)
The Harvard Psychedelic Club sells for $13.99 although I’m pretty sure I picked it up when it was temporarily discounted. Don Lattin has three other e-books available, ranging in price from $7.99 to $11.49, and all seemingly dealing in one way or another with the topic of spirituality.
“To fathom hell or soar angelic; just take a pinch of psychedelic.” (loc. 993)
For me, The Harvard Psychedelic Club was a fantastic read. The 60’s were my teenage years, although I did not become acquainted with the subject matter until the early 70’s. Those days were indeed consciousness-altering times for all concerned, and an era that probably will never be repeated. A couple of minor points should be made however.
First, the focus here is very narrow: our four Harvard Psychedelic Club members and their hallucinogenic and spiritual life paths. Other major events, such as the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, the massive protests, are barely mentioned at all. I think this is a plus here, but you may disagree.
Second, while I have no way of correlating the amounts of LSD given to test subjects in the book compared to my own experiences, I will say that some of the hallucinations described herein (palaces, courts, arcades, gardens, a mythological beast drawing a regal chariot, or camel caravans – location 591) never happened to me. Yes, everything looks different on acid, and yes, prismatic colors will pop out all over the place. But no, discrete apparitions will not appear out of nowhere and you won't receive any celestial messages from God.
But maybe I just needed to up my dosages.
10 Stars. This is fantastic read for anyone who lived through the 60’s, or is fascinated by old flower children reminiscing about that time. Subtract 1 star if you frankly get tired of hearing old hippies blather on about their psychedelic sillinesses.