Last week (Aug. 9, 1960) marked this 50th anniversary of the day Timothy Leary, a research psychologist at Harvard University, swallowed some magic mushrooms down in Mexico and decided that America was ready to embark on a long, strange trip. So perhaps it’s time to look back at “the high priest of LSD” and a few other men who gave birth to the psychedelic counterculture of the 1960s.
Here are three books (other than The Harvard Psychedelic Club) to start the journey:
The psychedelic sixties really began in the spring of 1953, when Aldous Huxley, the famed British essayist and author of Brave New World, had his first mescaline trip, and published his account of the journey the following year. In The Doors of Perception, Huxley writes about coming onto the mescaline in his library in Hollywood hills. He looked down on the folds of his grey flannel trousers, then over to the drapes in his study, marveling at how the fabrics were charged with “is-ness,” alive with the “miraculous fact of sheer existence.”
Seven years later, in the fall of 1960, Huxley found himself in Cambridge, MA, delivering a series of lectures to mark the centennial celebration at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There he would be introduced to Leary, who had returned from Mexico and begun a series of experiments with psilocybin, the active ingredient in some magic mushrooms he’d sampled on his summer vacation in Mexico.
Timothy Leary took the psychedelic torch from Huxley and blazed his way into the mind of America, infamously advising the baby boomers to “turn on, tune in, drop out.”
Many of us took his advice. And since then many books have been written by or about Timothy Leary, but my favorite is this relatively obscure collection of essays that includes “appreciations and castigations” by Allen Ginsberg, Winona Ryder, Ken Kesey, Hunter Thompson, Huston Smith and many others. It’s titled Timothy Leary: Outside Looking In, edited by Robert Forte.
Leary was one of the most revered and reviled figures of the 1960s counterculture. Forte smartly sums him up in his introduction, calling Leary “a brilliant, charismatic, funny prophet, a ground breaking social scientist; a poet; a fame-seeking, careless, self-important, self-destructive fool; or a scapegoat, depending on your perspective.”
So who is Timothy Leary? Perhaps the high priest of LSD said it best when he quipped, “You get the Timothy Leary you deserve,”
Birth of a Psychedelic Culture, a new book by Ram Dass and Ralph Metzner, Leary’s two principal partners at Harvard, contains a treasure trove of source material about what happened next.
Most of this book is an extended dialogue between Metzner and spiritual guru Ram Dass, known in his Harvard days as Professor Richard Alpert. The book documents the circumstances surrounding Leary and Alpert’s 1963 expulsion from the university, and their subsequent arrival at an estate in Millbrook, NY, where the psychedelic celebration continued and eventually burnt itself out. But perhaps the main selling point for this weighty volume are dozens of never-before-seen black and white photos showing the transformation of Leary, Alpert, Metzner from buttoned-down academics to wide-eyed, beaded, bearded, beatific prophets of the New Age.
Psychedelic drugs did not save the world. Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, and Ralph Metzner took us on a trip that, for some, lasted a moment – for others, a lifetime. Some of us never made it home; others found kinder, gentler ways to bring the psychedelic journey into the rest of our lives. And more than a few of us are still trying to figure out what it all means.
(This blog was first posted last week on the NPR "Three Books" blog.