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
By Don Lattin
Bits of the Trickster were shot into orbit for the ultimate trip after his death at 75. The Seeker, 78, lives on Maui, where he has gone to die. The Teacher, now 90, finally published a memoir last year. And the Healer, 67, presides over an alternative-health empire, selling items like Weil by Nature’s Path Organic Banana Manna Pure Fruit and Nut Bars.
These four men are at the center of “The Harvard Psychedelic Club,” Don Lattin’s unexpectedly grounded story of “How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered In a New Age for America,” as the book’s more breathless subtitle has it. In mini-biographies, Lattin charts their separate paths to shared — and legal — academic experiments with psilocybin mushrooms and LSD at Harvard in the early 1960s. He documents their split, when Leary and Richard Alpert (later Ram Dass) were booted from their teaching posts after Harvard figured out just how far outside the lab the pair’s research had taken them. And Lattin follows the four on their trips beyond Cambridge.
Anyone expecting “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” has come to the wrong book but might want to stick around anyway. Lattin lacks the Wolfean verbal razzle-dazzle, but Tom Wolfe was “off the bus,” in that he apparently didn’t partake, and he needed all his writer’s tricks to conjure an extra-reality he hadn’t experienced. Lattin mostly skips the Day-Glo word pictures, but then, as he says in the afterword, he has been there, most definitely done that. If he can’t paint a scene — and what a scene — the way Wolfe can, he does manage to make sense of a complicated movement so often reduced to its parody-ready costumes, haircuts and groovy lingo. And he does it with authority and an evenhanded understanding of the good, the bad and the crazy of it.
Lattin’s book can be viewed partly as a prequel to Wolfe’s. By the time the Merry Pranksters took their show on the road, the West Coast’s anarchic aggression had pretty much rolled over what the relatively disciplined East Coasters had tried to bottle, label and dispense with care. After Harvard, Leary and Alpert had decamped to an estate in Millbrook, N.Y., continuing their efforts to tap into higher consciousness in a controlled setting. When Ken Kesey’s Pranksters showed up, as Wolfe tells it, they encountered “one big piece of uptight constipation.”
The funny thing was, the Learyites hadn’t been restrained enough. Back at Harvard, a social psychologist had accused the group of fostering “an anti-intellectual atmosphere,” and Leary didn’t dispute that he was “sick of these old lab rats, these dour experimentalists.” How could their “lame questionnaires” compete with magic mushrooms? It was Weil who dealt the fatal blow. A student of botany, he had eagerly volunteered for the psilocybin research but was rejected because Harvard had instructed Leary and Alpert to stay away from undergraduates. The scorned Weil struck back in The Crimson: “The shoddiness of their work as scientists is the result less of incompetence than of a conscious rejection of scientific ways of looking at things. . . . They are contemptuous of all organized systems of action — of what they call the ‘roles’ and ‘games’ of society. . . . Yet . . . they will play these games to further their own ends.”
Weil comes off at times as something of the villain of the piece, painted first as a hypocritical snitch, later as an evangelist for pharmaceutical possibility who helped the ’90s mainstream culture catch up with the ’60s counterculture and made a mint doing it. Smith, the group’s religious scholar, decided that psychedelics held a false promise; the mystical experience didn’t carry over into the nondrugged state. Similarly, Alpert concluded that drugs like LSD allowed you only to “visit” the state of consciousness of a saint.
Not for the irrepressible Leary a rejection of the tools for enabling “each person to realize that he is not a game-playing robot put on this planet to be given a Social Security number and to be spun on the assembly line of school, college, career, insurance, funeral, goodbye,” as he once told Playboy. But near the end of his life, he acknowledged that not everyone felt as he did about his work. “Seven million people I turned on,” he said, “and only 100,000 have come by to thank me.”
Alan Davidson is the founder of ThroughYourBody.com and the author Body Brilliance: Mastering Your Five Vital Intelligences, the #1 bestselling Health & Welness book and winner of two National Book-of-the-Year awards.
Alan is also the author of the Free report “Body Breakthroughs for Life Breakthroughs: How to Peak Your Physical, Emotional, Mental, Moral, and Spiritual IQs for a Sensational Life” available at www.throughyourbody.com
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