Yes, another '60s history. Like many of its kind, this one seems just a wee bit more meandering and less inherently compelling than it might like to think. Upon reflection, some question remains as to whether The Harvard Psychedelic Club even should be a book, as opposed to a yarn spun around a fire, a random unsolicited bus-stop conversation, or, you know, just one more spirit-breath blown across the quivering gooseflesh of the universe.
It helps that former Chronicle religion writer Don Lattin is both an optimist and a seasoned reporter. He writes with warmth and without pretension. (Well, maybe the occasional italicized Buffalo Springfield lyric thrown in for atmosphere might count as a certain kind of pretension.) And he seems genuinely inspired by the idea that a paradigm shift in American attitudes toward psychology, spirituality, and medicine began at the nation's oldest, richest, fanciest college some five decades ago, when four scholars ignited a gathering storm of counterculture by way of mind-bending chemicals. Innocently enough, they asked: What would happen if you gave this stuff to students? To prison inmates? To churchgoers? To all of mankind? Well, results would be mixed.
We know these men now as New Age workshop-circuit mainstay Ram Dass (the guru formerly known as Richard Alpert), hirsute holistic-lifestyle magnate Andrew Weil, world-religion expert Huston Smith, and the late acid advocate Timothy Leary, or Seeker, Healer, Teacher, and Trickster, as Lattin has them — capitalized, if you please. Their backstories have a fair share of arguable enlightenments, or at least amusements. As a younger lad, for instance, Weil worked up his bibliographic interests from precious J.D. Salinger stories to Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception, and wrote an undergraduate thesis on psychotropic nutmeg. He also is the man most responsible for getting Leary and Alpert kicked out of Harvard for their druggy experiments. The most responsible, that is, after Leary and Alpert themselves.
Lattin fondly revisits this and other definitive moments, such as the storied 1967 Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park, from which Leary issued the contentious call to “turn on, tune in, drop out.” (Later, Leary told Playboy that LSD cured gayness. You can't win them all.) And he digs up telling details, such as Allen Ginsberg complaining about the Chron's “HIPPIES RUN WILD” headline, then summing everything up for a TV reporter: “People are lonely. It's strange to be in a body.” Maybe only a poet could reduce a whole generation's questing essence into two succinct, enduring sentences.
As for a journalist, well, he at least has more sentences. But the stakes of Lattin's four loosely stitched profiles feel sometimes saggingly low, and that neatly packaged subtitle is a bit of a tease. He's too journalistically responsible to try getting away with a claim that these four guys alone killed off a whole decade. (You'd be safer saying Lee Harvey Oswald did that, but there's a whole new can of worms.) So instead he runs the risk — rather poignantly unfortunate, in a book ostensibly about expanded consciousness — of miring his tale in dutiful and diluting journalese.
Lattin's claim that his subjects “did nothing less than inspire a generation of Americans to redefine the nature of reality” is about as close as he comes to taking a position, and he seems to realize that might be a problem. “Perhaps the historical importance of Leary, Alpert, Weil, and Smith is not so much any particular vision,” he writes, “but the very process of envisioning.”
Um, far out, man. Say, maybe subsequent editions of The Harvard Psychedelic Club could be expanded, with a few tabs in the endpaper. Just to make sure we really get it.