O Seers, Can You Say? Tom Wolfe, Ken Kesey 40 Yrs On; Jack Shafer 25 Yrs Later


Over at the Columbia Journalism Review, Slate's Jack Shafer (a sometime contributor to Reason) flashes back to Tom Wolfe, Ken Kesey, and Wolfe's nearly 40-year-old Electric Kool Aid Acid Test:

The antiunion message of Sometimes a Great Notion, which glorifies strike-breaking loggers, makes the reactionary journalism of Wolfe's "Radical Chic," in which he lampooned a Leonard Bernstein benefit for the Black Panthers, seem like a Ripon Society pamphlet in comparison. Wolfe encouraged the comparison to Kesey in 1989 by rejecting the conservative and reactionary labels, telling the Paris Review he preferred being called a "seer."

While both Kesey and Wolfe had their visions, neither turned out to be much of a seer. The New Journalism didn't replace the novel, as the somewhat messianic Wolfe later predicted it would in 1973's The New Journalism, and Wolfe's successes with the reported novel haven't been widely imitated. Kesey, who abandoned the novel to stage drug-aided real-time dramas with the Pranksters, failed to take the psychedelic movement through the next "door" by going "beyond acid," i.e., to a place where drugs weren't needed. He wrote very little noteworthy fiction or nonfiction after Sometimes a Great Notion.

Eat the brown acid here.

And in terms of "seer" chops, check out these positively Omega Man-esque stylings by one Jack Shafer in the pages of the June 1981 issue of Reason:

"The breakdown of the old institutions obliged individuals either to reclaim their destinies by personally embracing all the problems that define our humanity or to allow themselves to be swept into the abyss with the old institutions….In the '80s, the bedrock institutions continue their slide and are for the most part discredited. Excitement and innovation in our culture comes from what used to be relegated to the fringes: small businesses, libertarianism, self-help, and all the alternatives in medicine, energy, the arts, and architecture."

Which, when you think about it, is like an acid flashback all its own: Correct back in '81, and 2006 (or whatever year we're pretending this is). And probably true in 1881, too, man.

Pictures of actual Bedrock institutions here.

Shout-out to Robert Putnam: Even Fred Flintsone bowled alone on occasion.

NEXT: Duke's Loot on the Block

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  1. Not quite relevant, but an amusing quote nonetheless:

    If it must be Thomas, let it be Mann, and if it must be Wolfe,
    let it be Nero, but never let it be Thomas Wolfe.
    — Peter De Vries

  2. Everybody’s a critic. Yeesh.

  3. alternatives in…architecture.

    Where, oh where is it? Everything they’re building around here either looks like soy milk boxes glued together, or else it’s just hideous pairings of things that shouldn’t see the light of day, like buildings with pea green plastic siding framed by rough-sawed stainless steel.

    Be a nice change to see an ‘alternative’ material like, oh, bricks.

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