Tom Wolfe

Comparing and Contrasting Kerouac’s on the Road and Wolfe’s the Electric Kool-aid Acid Test

November 6, 2020 by Essay Writer

“Everybody, everybody everywhere, has his own movie going, his own scenario, and everybody is acting his movie out like mad, only most people don’t know that is what they’re trapped by, their little script” (Wolfe 159) As author Tom Wolfe mentions in his book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, people tend to lack freedom in their lives, as they have unknowingly let themselves become trapped by a hypothetical script. A script, just as Wolfe and fellow author Jack Kerouac with On the Road has provided for audiences, ventures into their lives dealing with a search for freedom. The two writings share several other similarities dealing with journeys, explorations, personal figure by the name of Neal Cassady, and the way they chose to write true events in a story form. The stories and their writers were anything but the same, however, as they both belonged to separate groups with different ideals. Wolfe wrote about the Merry Pranksters while Kerouac’s writing followed with that of the Beat Generation’s. The Pranksters set for New York, Kerouac set for the west. The Pranksters followed a man by the name of Ken Kesey, Jack Kerouac followed a man by the name of Neal Cassady. Though with different purposes, both decide to take on a journey. Keeping in mind their similarities and differences, we will ultimately tie in their goals in searching for the freedom they believed one had to search for by going against the traditional ideals that Americans held at the time.

Author Jack Kerouac wrote of his own adventures from a road trip in the late 1940s to 1950. The road trip was meant to emphasize a search for an identity and freedom with the involvement of drugs, sex, alcohol and other unconventional views in its times. His views were similar to that of the Beat Generation, which he was a part of. They were a group of authors who wrote of American culture in the 1950s and 60s and were responsible for paving the way for the hippie movement with their rejection of standard American values. They support those that decide to go against what was mainstream. As Kerouac puts it in his novel, he is in favor of those that “are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars” (Kerouac 4). The “mad” or crazy people are the ones after freedom. As mentioned before, they helped the “hippie” movement and in the 1960s came the Merry Pranksters. The Pranksters are associated in Wolfe’s book as a group of people who, like hippies, supported the use of hallucinogenic drugs. They often took LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide) and marijuana and were happy to provide these drugs to anyone who was interested. Although both groups shared the common ideal of accepting what American had seen as eccentric, they were vastly different. The Beat Generation made it clear that they were against what America at the time tried to censor. They opposed America. The Merry Pranksters, however, still leaned on the country’s help. Whenever a member had a “bad trip,” they’d leave them behind. Knowing the privilege that the group had as Americans, they knew that members who were kicked out would be okay simply because they were American. They relied on the system which the Beat Generation avoided. They were further seen as more of a joke than the Beat Generation and this is made apparent in Wolfe’s book when he writes “Alpert looks the bus up and down and shakes his head and says, ‘Ke-n-n-n Ke-e-e-esey…’ as if to say I might have known that you would be the author of this collegiate prank… We have something rather deep and meditative going on here, and you California crazies are a sour note” (119). Ken Kesey, the leader of the Merry Pranksters, was there to see Timothy Leary. He instead got to see Leary’s associates who opened them with closed hands and referred to them as a group of crazy people.

In that group of crazy people was a man by the name of Neal Cassady. He is associated with both the Pranksters and the Beats and although both groups were from different generations, he was there as a form of an assembly. In the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, he was merely described as one of Ken Kesey’s (the group leader) best friends and the driver of the bus in which the group takes a journey in. The author recognizes Cassady. “I remember Cassady. Cassady, Neal Cassady, was the hero, ‘Dean Moriarty,’ of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road” (29) As Wolfe puts it, he plays a bigger role in Jack Kerouac’s novel. The “hero” is the fascination of On The Road’s protagonist Sal Paradise. He often tells Sal of his freewill and because of this, Sal decides to search for his own freedom. Moriarty (Cassady’s character) often traveled across the map of America, loved and dumped all the women and wives he had, and drank and took drugs because Sal believed this was how he searched for his freedom. Sal become Moriarty’s follower and like Moriarty, Ken Kesey was followed by the Merry Pranksters. While at Stanford, he volunteered for a drug trial provided by the CIA and discovered LSD. The narrator too followed Kesey as a reporter, fascinated by a promising new writer after the success of his novel by the name of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The author admits that one of the reasons he wrote about Kesey was because of the way his group seemed like a new religious movement. The group viewed Kesey as a sort of “Jesus” figure and the few that disagreed stayed behind. The Pranksters shared the love of drugs because instead of individuality, they praised thinking as one and believed drugs helped produce that result. Ken Kesey then decides to head to New York. The group buys a bus, decorates it and names it “Furthur.” The author claims “the trip had a dual purpose, one was to turn America on to this particular form of enlightenment, the other was to publicise [Kesey’s] new book, Sometimes a Great Notion” (Guardian). Moriarty and Sal went for freedom, Ken Kesey went for enlightenment. These were their motivations.

Motivation is “the general desire or willingness of someone to do something” (Merriam-Webster). What did they desire? Kesey wanted enlightenment and Dean and Sal wanted freedom. What were they willing to do? Travel across the country. Sal started out in New York and made his way to the West Coast in San Francisco where Dean was. He was seeking not only for new material to write as he was a writer but also wanted to be with Moriarty because “somehow in spite of our difference in character, he reminded me of some long-lost brother” (5). After having to waste every penny on transportation and hitchhiking, he finally meets Dean in Denver and he decides to take Sal out. He then goes partying with Dean and another friend. He later arrives in San Francisco and desperately seeks a job to which his an old college friend helps him with. He works as a guard in the shipyard barracks. After being tired of San Francisco and ruining his friendship with his college friend, he heads back to the East. He hitchhikes and eventually waits for a bus where he meets a gal. They hit it off and get intimate. Thinking that they’re in love, they attempt to hitchhike to New York with only thirteen dollars. He takes several jobs in Mexico and eventually is wired money from his aunt. He later realizes that on this trip, he only spoke to Moriarty for about five minutes. Although they barely spoke, Dean is the reason why Sal took on these adventures. Tom Wolfe tags along with the Merry Pranksters. They begin in California and are on their way to New York. In Northern California, the “Further” bus is pulled over by a state patrol officer. He lets them go while he tries to believe that they’re only part of the carnival, helping Kesey and the group feel invincible. They become sleep-deprived from the doses of drugs that they’ve been taking and one of the members begins to finally “lose” her mind. They make it to New Orleans, having escaped many police conflicts. In a “Blacks Only” segregated beach. The African-Americans later joined in, helping the group feel even more invincible. During this trip, another member loses her mind. They later arrive in New York and are disappointed. Kesey is then even further disappointed when he doesn’t get to meet with Timothy Leary, an advocate of drug use, so they head home. Along the way, they find people who are interested in joining them and the bus. Kesey sees this as the near future. The future including people who will become interested in their ideals. They befriend a gang by the name of “Hell’s Angels.” Each group respects the other and soon after, ministers become interested in Kesey and he speaks for them and a group of listeners. Soon after, in Berkeley, he also speaks for a Vietnam rally. A pregnant member heads back home and one of the members who had previously “lost” his mind decides to get help for his problems. During this time, Kesey makes the “Acid Test” in which “parties in which LSD-laced Kool-Aid was used to obtain a communal trip.” (Wikipedia) They hold several of these tests until Kesey is arrested in Mexico.

Both Sal and the Pranksters encountered a set of adventures throughout America. As part of the Beat Generation, Sal wasn’t afraid to seek for freedom through drugs and alcohol amongst other more unusual matters. As the leader of the Merry Pranksters, Kesey wanted to seek enlightenment for America by also using strange matters. The Beats, however, wanted for the American standard to change and allow a more fair view to rights involving drugs, sexuality, religion, race, amid others. The Pranksters enjoyed their LSD and relied on their privileges whenever someone “lost” their mind by being unable to handle the drugs and lack of sleep within the group. They felt invisible and seemed to care more for those that belonged within their group. As Wolfe put it in his book, “you’re either on the bus or off the bus” (96)

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