The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Cultural significance and reception

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is remembered as an accurate and “essential” book depicting the roots and growth of the hippie movement.[1] Additionally, the book is remembered because of its usage of New Journalism techniques. The book was widely read and attitudes towards its themes were polarized. Some saw the book as a testament to the downfall of American youth, while others read the book as a kind of gospel, seeing Kesey as a sort of Christ figure.[2]

The use of New Journalism yielded two primary reviews, amazement or disagreement. While The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was not the original standard for New Journalism, it is the work most often cited as an example for the revolutionary style. Wolfe’s descriptions and accounts of Kesey’s travel managed to captivate readers and permitted them to read the book as a fiction piece rather than a news story. Those who saw the book as a literary work worthy of praise were amazed by the way Wolfe maintains control.[3] Despite being fully engulfed in the movement and aligned with the Prankster’s philosophy, Wolfe manages to distinguish between the realities of the Pranksters and Kesey’s experiences and the experiences triggered by their paranoia and acid trips.[3] Wolfe is in some key ways different from the Pranksters, because despite his appreciation for the spiritual experiences offered by the psychedelic, he also accepts the importance of the physical world. The Pranksters see their trips as a breach of their physical worlds and realities. Throughout the book Wolfe focuses on placing the Pranksters and Kesey within the context of their environment. Where the Pranksters see ideas, Wolfe sees Real-World objects.[4] Had this book been written by a Prankster it would not have the appeal that it does from Wolfe’s hand. Wolfe captures the essence of the Pranksters but tells the story in relation to the consensus world that most of our "mainstream" culture lives in.

While some saw New Journalism as the future of literature, the concept was not without critics and criticism. There were many who challenged the believability of the style and there were many questions and criticisms about whether accounts were true.[5] Wolfe however challenged such claims and notes that in books like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, he was nearly invisible throughout the narrative. He argues that he produced an uninhibited account of the events he witnessed.[6] As proponents of fiction and orthodox nonfiction continued to question the validity of New Journalism, Wolfe stood by the growing discipline. Wolfe realized that this method of writing transformed the subjects of newspapers and articles into people with whom audiences could relate and sympathize.[6]

In addition to its literary significance, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test had immense social implications. During its time, reviews either revered or regretted the way in which it influenced societal expectations and perceptions. The New York Times considered the book one of the great books of its time. It described the book as not only a great book about hippies, but the “essential book”.[1] The review continued to explore the dramatic impacts of Wolfe’s telling of Kesey’s story. Wolfe's book exposed counterculture norms that would soon spread across the country. The review notes that while Kesey received acclaim for his literary bomb, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he was, for the most part, not a visible icon. His experiments and drug use were known within small circles, the Pranksters for example. Tom Wolfe’s accounts of Kesey and the Pranksters brought their ideologies and drug use to the mainstream.[1] A separate review maintained that Wolfe’s book was as vital to the hippie movement as The Armies of the Night was to the anti-Vietnam movement.[7]

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test undeniably altered society. While it received praise from some outlets, others were not as open to its effects. A review in The Harvard Crimson identified the effects of the book, but did so without offering praise. The review, written by Jay Cantor, who went on to literary prominence himself, provides a more moderate description of Kesey and his Pranksters. Cantor challenges Wolfe’s messiah-like depiction of Kesey, concluding that “In the end the Christ-like robes Wolfe fashioned for Kesey are much too large. We are left with another acid-head and a bunch of kooky kids who did a few krazy things.”[8] Cantor explains how Kesey was offered the opportunity by a judge to speak to the masses and curb the use of LSD. Kesey, who Wolfe idolizes for starting the movement, is left powerless in his opportunity to alter the movement. Cantor is also critical of Wolfe’s praise for the rampant abuse of LSD. Cantor admits the impact of Kesey in this scenario, stating that the drug was in fact widespread by 1969, when he wrote his criticism.[8] He questions the glorification of such drug use however, challenging the ethical attributes of reliance on such a drug, and further asserts that “LSD is no respecter of persons, of individuality”.[8] While many read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test as a sort of gospel, Cantor challenged the message of both Wolfe, and his subject, Ken Kesey.

This content is from Wikipedia. GradeSaver is providing this content as a courtesy until we can offer a professionally written study guide by one of our staff editors. We do not consider this content professional or citable. Please use your discretion when relying on it.