On the Road–Again

categories: Cocktail Hour


Jack and friends

There will be a lot of LSD in my class next term.  Sorry, parents, this can’t be helped.  Even Glenn Beck would be hard pressed to teach a course on the 60s and New Journalism without a healthy dose of acid.  It kind of stares you in the face (with those beady little eyes that alternately spin out of control or bore into your skull) if you are teaching Hunter Thompson and TomWolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.  As a sign of how old I’m getting, I’m actually kind of worried about the whole “bad influence” thing.  At the risk of sounding like I’m doing penance for my own misspent youth, I actually know of a few cases where the conservative vision of LSD proved out: friends whose brains got burned and never came back.  My hope is that the students in the class can regard it historically, since this is after all stuff that happened over forty years ago, and that they won’t respond as I did in college, which was to look to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a kind of How-To book.

Drugs aren’t the point of the class, of course.  Excitement is.  Long ago I wrote an essay about seeing a Kandinsky exhibit in Munich.  The paintings were lined up chronologically and while I liked the early realistic paintings and the later, purely abstract ones, I loved the middle period where the houses first started to squiggle and the hills started to throb, where the real began to turn abstract but could still be recognized as real.   It’s the moment when the horse first breaks out of the barn and that’s what New Journalism really is, too. You can really see it in Wolfe, who has said to have written early drafts of Kool-Aid that, while they had his usual flair, were fairly external, reporting on the experience from the outside.  Of course it’s when he goes inside his characters heads and recreates their subjective states that it all gets so exciting. In going back to read their works, I found Thompson a bit more dated, in part because he hits the same note again and again (though that one note is very funny).   But Wolfe, in Acid Test at least, is taking wild risks with language that are still kind of dizzying.

Ken Kesey, feeling queasy

It’s natural to ask “Where the hell did this writing come from?”  There are some pretty obvious precursors, including Orwell, John Hersey in Hiroshima, Lillian Ross, Capote, and others who took objective reporting and turned it inside out.  This lineage, if it interests you, is explored nicely in Marc Weingarten’s The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight. One name that doesn’t get much mention in that book, however, is Kerouac’s.  It seems to me that what Wolfe was trying to do with language—playing with sounds, breaking down punctuation, making the run-one excitement of the line reflect the excitement of the characters—had its obvious and immediate predecessor in On the Road, and, perhaps even more in Big Sur, where language begins to spin out of control, sentences colliding and spilling over each other.

In this age of memoir, it is amazing to think of the energy required to do all the reporting that Wolfe, and Thompson in Hell’s Angles, did.  For many literary writers that energy has turned inward (though not all—see Rob Boynton’s The New, New Journalism) but for me, and for many of us right now I think, there is a huge opportunity in melding the energy, discipline and fun of journalism with the insight of the personal.  This, I believe, is where it’s at right now—see, for instance, the work of Charles Bowden—and this is  where the current horse is breaking our of the barn.

P.S. One of the fun things for me is that the same thing was  going on simultaneously in the world of cartooning and caricature.  Most people know Ralph Steadman’s work, which is as linked to Hunter Thompson’s work as  John Tenniel’s drawings are  to Lewis Carol’s.  But most people don’t know the tradition, primarily English, that Steadman grew out.  The towering figure here is Ronald Searle, with his wild, thick-to-thin brush strokes, a man who deserves credit, not just for influencing Steadman, Scarfe (of Pink Floyd’s The wall fame), and , but for being the single largest influence on American political cartooning, most notably as an influence on Patrick Oliphant.

A couple of drawings by Searle:

P.P.S. Here is the reading list for this term:


Forms of the New Journalism

I.Road Trips

1. On the Road by Jack Kerouac

2. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Thomas Wolfe

3. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter Thompson

II. Collections

4. Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion

5. Red Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes by Terry Southern

III: Issues: Race and Viet Nam

6. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

7. Dispatches by Michael Herr

IV. The Nonfiction Novel

8. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

9. The Armies of the Night by Norman Mailer

  1. Bob Raposo writes:

    The Harvard Psychedelic Club, by Don Lattin.
    tells the whole story: Hofmann, Huxley, Leary, Alpert -Ram Das, Andrew Weil, Ginsberg, Kesey, Owsley, on and on.
    It’s a great read and paints in color the psychedelic reverberation through our culture.

  2. Melissa writes:

    Makes me wish I was still a student!

  3. Peter Peteet writes:

    Thanks for the reading list,I went and read In Cold Blood’s first 23 pages on line at the New Yorker;it put the day’s news of violence in an interesting perspective..Westboro Baptist put out a news release that their god is on his throne and laughing.The poor,in so many different ways,we have with us always.
    I have memories of talking down friends who were too high ,and of some who vanished blinded in psychedelia.Some of those who returned from the wilderness did seem to have insights gained,and in some cases were stronger.An empathy for those who have lost connection with reality; the realization that there but for a small amount of brain chemistry go you and I can be a good thing and help to tame the savage beast which cries out for blood and revenge.
    I love the Queasy Kesey drawing,look forward to working my way through more of the reading list.

  4. john lane writes:

    Great stuff. I’ve always wanted to do a course like this. Now maybe someday I will just steal yr reading list. Thanks for this.

  5. eli Hastings writes:

    Gessner, you’re such a scholarly rebel. You were crafted to blow wind in the halls of the academy. Miss ya.

  6. John Jack writes:

    You know you’re getting old when you’re hopelessly aware thinking to say do as I say not as I did needs to be said. How lame it was to hear when you did what you don’t want successor generations to discover for themselves. Preferably not.

    Acid, grass, hash, oil, mushrooms, rosewood seeds, morning glory seeds, coke, banana peel, white cross, ludes, ether, mace, monkey dust, horse, purple barrels, window pane, blotter, liquid, sunshine, crystal, blacks and pinks, dolls. And booze.

    What a mess of human wreckage they left among my cohort once upon a youthful indiscretion. It wasn’t those indiscretions that ruined us.

    We came to them ruined looking for safe refuge from obligations and presupposed responsible behavioral notions, looking for cold, indifferent, quick comraderie and ritual companionships of the buzz, seeking enlightenment by blinding our senses in chemical stews.

    We thought we were self-enlightened, self-aware in our challenging and questioning quests of the inner and outer cosmos. We found our navels and plugged them with shit.

    I’m fond of literature written with tachylalia prosody, fast talking, crowded thoughts, cluttering, pressure of speech, the kind of heady tumbling acrobatics of Postmodern stream of consciousness that leaves the last thought echo Dopplering while the next thought crashes and crescendoes like a cymbal symphony and future thoughts pregnantly pendent illuminated manifestations.

  7. Andrea Q. writes:

    Wish I could take that!

  8. Hannah writes:
  9. kargs writes: