The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test Study Guide

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was the book that made journalist Tom Wolfe a literary star, and one of the works that best describes the beginnings of 1960s psychedelia. The book chronicles author Ken Kesey's career as a rising literary star who discovered the mind-transforming power of LSD.

Kesey, who wrote the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, first began experimenting with LSD as a graduate student of creative writing at Stanford University in the early '60s. He first discovered LSD while volunteering for drug trials conducted by the CIA in an effort to find a cure for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but once Kesey discovered the drug's power to transform reality, he quickly began to encourage his friends to experiment with it. Soon, he became the leader of a band of people all set on transforming their reality.

This group dubbed themselves the Merry Pranksters, and began serious mind-altering experiments with the drug at Kesey's house in La Honda, California. The first half of the book centers around the Pranksters' experiments with the drugs in La Honda and their trip east on a bus they call "Furthur." The group then begins to expand their experiences on the drug and makes plans to take the experience to more people through events they call Acid Tests. The book chronicles the beginnings of the hippie movement, the rise of such figures as The Grateful Dead, and even the origins of the Beatles' psychedelic phase.

The book itself was one of the first to use the style known as New Journalism. Wolfe uses the style to report not only what the Pranksters were doing, but what they were feeling while on acid. The style is an eclectic mix of fiction techniques blended with actual reporting that helps create a rich context for the reader. Other writers of the time also experimented with the style, including Hunter S. Thompson and Norman Mailer, but Wolfe remains the leading figure of the movement.

The book also continues to document the movement of the American counter-cultural scene that first was brought into the American consciousness by the Beat Generation and writers such as Kerouac and Ginsberg. Wolfe explores the shifting social attitudes from the Beats to this new movement of psychedelic hippies, and the differences between the two generations. Symbolic of this shift is Neal Cassady, a member of the Pranksters who was the inspiration for the character Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac's On the Road.

Wolfe has said that one of the reasons he wrote the book was that he saw Kesey and the Pranksters as a kind of new religious movement, and indeed much of the book deals with the various aspects of how the movement compares to such world religions as Christianity, Islam, and Zoroastrianism. Ultimately, the book is about the comedic rise and tragic fall of Kesey, and the power and charisma he used to start such a significant movement.