Tuesday, May 4, 2010

(continuing from April) The Harvard Psychedelic Club, by Don Lattin

ISBN: 0061655937
Harper One

The real title of this book is a long one: The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America. It's a good book if you're into this sort of thing, easily readable and it raises a lot of questions for further exploration.

Lattin's central thesis is that these four men, "three brilliant scholars and one ambitious freshman," who were all together at Harvard University in the early 1960s, were able to transform not only their own lives but much of American culture as well, stemming from their involvement (or in one case, non-involvement) in a psychedelic drug research project started by Timothy Leary.  He notes that these people, collectively the Harvard Psychedelic club, "each in his own way" led Americans to think about themselves from an inner point of view regarding mind, body and spirit. And it all started in 1960, when Leary, on a summer vacation in Mexico with his son Jack, tried some psilocybin mushrooms known as "flesh of the gods" along with a bottle of beer.
The book goes on to sketch out the lives of these four men and their involvement with Leary and his mind-expanding research. Timothy Leary, whose slogan "turn on, tune in, drop out" would become a catchphrase for the counterculture movement of the 1960s, was a Harvard professor of psychology in 1960. Along with Richard Alpert, who had a PhD in psychology and did research into human consciousness (and who later went to India and was reborn as Ram Dass), he started the Harvard Psilocybin Project (which ultimately became the "Harvard Psychedelic Project as mescaline & LSD were introduced) at the university's Center for Personality Research, where participants would take controlled doses and report their experiences. Huston Smith (author of The World's Religions) was a friend and admirer of Aldous Huxley, whose mystical experiences with mescaline became the basis of his famous work The Doors of Perception. Smith met Leary through Huxley, and was talked into taking part in the psilocybin project because Leary wanted someone who knew "something about mysticism" and religion to experience the drug and then analyze the reports in terms of the mystical. The fourth member of the group, Andrew Weil, a student (now a well-known advocate of alternative medicine & wellness), tried to get involved in the Psychedelic Project by the time LSD was drug of choice in mind-expansion research, but was turned down due to his undergraduate status. Weil's roommate was befriended by Alpert and let into the program, and in revenge, Weil became a whistle blower and basically shut down the project and got Leary and Alpert ousted from Harvard. That's when everything really started, and when LSD and Leary started making their way out into the public, away from the confines of the ivied halls.

Lattin quickly traces these four people from their beginnings through the whole hippie and counterculture movement on into the present, and his book makes for really interesting reading for many reasons, not just because of the whole drug thing. Now here come the buts:
1)I'm still not sure why Huston Smith is included as a major player as a member of the Harvard Psychedelic Club.  He did have some early involvement in the psilocybin project, but wasn't so much known for his advocacy of mind-altering drugs but for interfaith understanding as a step toward peace in the world. Huston had actually begun to slowly disassociate himself from Leary some time later.
2) There were already movements afoot for changes away from the status quo going on already in the 1950s leading into the 1960s: poets and writers were already taking steps in moving toward nonconformity, the civil rights movement was already drawing young college students into action, and Jack Kerouac and other members of the  beat movement were looking for something new within themselves, urging others to follow. It doesn't seem just that Lattin would place Leary's ideas of consciousness expansion through the use of mind-altering drugs as the cornerstone of change from the 1950s to the 1960s.
3) While I understand that the author would have to interject some of Leary's autobiographical material into his work, my guess is that some of the  information gleaned from it was probably fabricated or at the very least, ramblings from a disturbed mind. Leary was probably so far gone in 1983 by the time the autobiography came out that it would be difficult to trust a lot of what he said. Let's just say he may be an unreliable narrator at some times.

Lattin's book on the whole is interesting, and it's a good read if you're interested in the psychedelic revolution and its proponents in the 1960s and the whole counterculture that existed and grew at the time. A lot of space is also given over to what happened as these people moved on in life as attitudes changed.  It is an extremely readable book and made me want to explore this time period a bit further, and any author that can pique my curiosity like that is okay by me.


  1. You know, I really don't know enough about this part of that era to sound intelligent, but I have to say that I agree with you on your but number 2. There were a lot of people that were already embracing vast changes and weren't spurred on by Leary or drugs.

    I have had long conversations with my parents, step parents and even my boyfriend (yes, there is an age gap in our relationship) about the 60's. None of them were into drugs, they were all about waiting for the draft lottery, going to college, marching for civil rights at UCLA, and for some, starting a family. Tuning out was never considered.

    I want to get my hands on this to learn another aspect of the era though.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Gwen. I missed that whole scene because I was way too young, but I've always been fascinated by the whole hippie/psychedelic thing. You might like this book. There's another one I'm going to read called "Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love and Its Quest to Spread Peace, Love, and Acid to the World" by Nicholas Schou that looks interesting too.


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