Frank Le.


In Walt Whitman’s I Hear American Singing, the reader is shown how each person in a society can “sing” their own song and ultimately all the members of that society can come together and sing together. This poetic proposition seems undeniable in a society as diverse as ours in which people co-exist so well. However, I would argue that in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, this idyllic situation is not obtainable. In Acid Test, Ken Kesey tells the other Merry Pranksters to embrace who they are and not to apologize for it, or as Whitman would say, the mechanics should sing a strong song, the deckhand should sing his on the steamboat deck, and so on. Throughout the novel we see that that is what the Pranksters do, too. Like Kesey told them, if you’re an ass-kick that’s what you do, kick asses. However, contrary to what Whitman implies, the Pranksters seem to fall short of “singing” together. At the end of the novel during the Acid Graduation we see Kesey and the Pranksters repeatedly trying to come together to create the acid effect without the acid. At the graduation it fails, and later at The Barn it fails again. Separately the Pranksters definitely sang their own songs; Kesey was the non-navigator, Cassidy was driving, etc. In the end though, they failed in combining their songs and creating what they desired. As Kesey and Babb admit at the end of the book, they “blew it.”

The non-fiction novel in many ways is far different from the highly autobiographical novels of the beats, especially those of Burroughs and Kerouac. This difference seems counter-intuitive because both the non-fiction novel and the typical autobiographical beat novel are alike in the idea that they are true accounts of witnessed events. Early in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test we see that his account of the events surrounding Ken Kesey and his release from prison seem Kerouacean, the only difference being the use of real names. However, it is also apparent that there is a fundamental difference between the two forms of writing within that realm of the biographical or autobiographical presentation. I accredit this dissimilarity to the fact that Wolfe is approaching the subject (whether it is Kesey, the Merry Pranksters, or the drug revolution taking place) from a journalistic, outside viewpoint. While one could argue that Wolfe was inculcated with the ideas of the group of people he was surrounded by, and even became a quasi-member of the group, it is still important to understand that he was not a true member of the group because he is simply there to perform a task: report. Contrarily, when Kerouac wrote Dharma Bums he was writing from a similar vantage point, one that was directly implanted into the subject, but was an actor in the events that were being written about. So, while Wolfe was witnessing the action, he was not taking a part in what he was writing about; therefore, his account of the events, unlike Kerouac’s in Dharma Bums, are lacking the description of personal involvement. This is not in any way attempting to discredit Wolfe, only an attempt to shed light on the reasons I believe the seemingly similar forms of writing are so different.

Reading novels such as Maggie Cassidy and Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac shows that Kerouac is very much a product of his environment, or more appropriately his writing is a product of his environment. In Maggie Cassidy Kerouac (Duluoz), while in Lowell, is a leader or what you might call a rule maker. He is the star of multiple sports teams and not accepting of others advice when it comes to his relationship with Maggie. This is, in my opinion due to the fact that he is the small town of Lowell. We see that when he goes into the city to study however, he is suddenly willing to conform to the wishes of his peers (this is seen in the entire prom description). Adding to this idea, in Dharma Bums, while in Berkeley, surrounded by students, poets, and Buddhists such as Japhy Ryder who he looked up to so much, it seems as if once again he is a product of the environment. This is evident in many different occasions early in the novel. Kerouac (Smith), without more than a few moments of hesitation, throws his long period of celibacy out the window and all because of the influences of Japhy and Alvah Goldbook. “Take your clothes off and join in, Smith!” After this Smith abandons his celibacy and starts “to work on her arm.” In many other instances we see Smith doing things he would not normally do, but he is doing them because of the influences around him. Based on this evidence in both Maggie Cassidy and Dharma Bums, I would venture to say it is safe to assert that Jack Kerouac, along with the characters he uses to portray himself, are easily persuaded and susceptible to outside pressures.

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