Ken Kesey’s Mobile Transcendentalism

Magic Trip, a new film by Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood, tells the story of novelist Ken Kesey‘s 1964 road trip across America in a painted bus with a troupe of fanciful hippies and legendary beatnik Neal Cassady at the wheel.

This bus trip was immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s 1968 bestseller Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which is also currently in production as a Gus Van Sant film (this will presumably come out near the same time as the long-awaited film of On The Road, which means two major Hollywood films featuring Neal Cassady’s driving skills will hit the screens at the same time). Magic Trip, a modest and straightforward documentary, has at least one claim to authenticity over the eventual Van Sant work: it presents the actual film footage produced by the camera-wielding hippies as they drove across the country in 1964.

The film gets off to a good start, emphasizing in the early scenes an important point that has sometimes been forgotten amidst all the psychedelic Wolfean hype. When Ken Kesey conceived this crazy trip, he was one of the most celebrated and promising young novelists in America, and the bus trip was initiated as an audacious literary experiment above all. It’s hard to exaggerate how much potential energy the young Stanford-educated novelist held in his hands after the success of his 1962 first novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The other hot writers of the moment were Philip Roth, John Updike, Norman Mailer and Joseph Heller, and Cuckoo’s Nest had placed Kesey directly in that class.

But something kept the Oregon kid from strutting around in a suit and embracing conventional literary stardom, and he would risk (and, ultimately, lose) his reputation on the set of adventures to follow. Magic Trip emphasizes the fact that Kesey’s second novel Sometimes a Great Notion was entering its pre-launch publicity phase just at the moment that Kesey decided to travel very noisily across America in a colorful bus; indeed, the bus trip was Kesey’s publicity push for his new novel.

The fact that Kesey must have envisioned his adventure as a literary gesture is often neglected, though it may be the most remarkable fact of all about his much-discussed Furthur/Acid Test scene (well, the fact that the Grateful Dead emerged from within this scene is remarkable too). I have no idea what exactly Kesey was thinking when he got his big idea for the bus trip (other than “let’s go have some fun”), but it’s clear that he was aiming for a big California-based American movement, a new Chautaqua, a mobile version of the previous century’s New England Transcendentalism.

Magic Trip sticks mostly to the script familiar to anyone who’s read Tom Wolfe’s book. There are LSD freakouts, Barry Goldwater jokes, visits to the home of young Larry McMurtry in Texas and an anti-climactic reunion between Neal Cassady and a morose Jack Kerouac at a New York City party. As always when recounting the Kesey/Electric Kool-Aid legend, the psychedelia aspect is a bit overstated in this film. I like to think that the psychedelic drugs were less central to the actual experience as envisioned by Kesey and his partner-in-crime Ken Babbs than they became in the Tom Wolfe legend, and I also suspect that the main appeal of all the LSD tripping for Kesey was not to explore the boundaries of consciousness so much as to induce chaos and fearful vulnerability among his fellow travelers, so as to allow him to wring the maximum emotional reaction from each player in his twisted tale.

Magic Trip is a satisfying retelling of the famous story, and I won’t be surprised if Gus Van Sant’s version turns out less satisfying, once it hits the screens. I do wish that Magic Trip told us more about Kesey’s later works and adventures, like Twister, a controversial play based on The Wizard of Oz that he developed gradually during the last phase of his life. How did Twister fit into the big picture of psychedelic West Coast transcendentalism? Maybe we’ll need yet another film, a third one, to someday explain this part of the legend.

8 Responses

  1. You have no idea what exactly
    You have no idea what exactly Kesey was thinking when he got his big idea for the bus trip? I think he knew he was on the cusp of an enormous cultural phenomenon and that he’d be crazy not to stay on it.

    You suspect that “the main appeal of . . . the LSD tripping for Kesey was not to explore the boundaries of consciousness so much as to induce chaos and fearful vulnerability among his fellow travelers . . .”? Having read the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test several times, as well as some independent study, I believe Kesey and his group were really exploring transcendental consciousness.

  2. Yeah, I’m fully aware ole Tom
    Yeah, I’m fully aware ole Tom was fully capable of yarning it up, but Ken’s record on the purpose of the tests seems pretty clear. Now the purpose of the trip seems certainly for publicity, but I think a certain element of it had to been “what a cool thing to do!” …with Neal as driver as the coup de grace – perfect.

    (I just re-read Charles Bukowski’s story of his meeting (and car trip) with Neal from the Beat Reader. Holygoof had some serious skills.)

    The Tests themselves seem to be his cusp, his hope of kickstarting a new way of thinking, living, caring. Didn’t last too long, though – in the end, people are still people.

  3. what a time it was….gas was
    what a time it was….gas was cheap and adventure was in the air….in ’63 my folks packed 3 little kids into a tempest and headed west…what an adventure it was thru the mysterious southwest and onto the promised land…it was a time for adventures……..
    Kesey and his band had the perfect guidebook in Hesse’s “a Journey to the East”…….can’t say that word enough…”adventure!”

  4. Hi Levi.
    While I admire your

    Hi Levi.
    While I admire your commtment and defence of the beat generaton’s best and founding members, I cannot sit idly by while you re-make history. Consider this statement:

    “The fact that Kesey must have envisioned his adventure as a literary gesture is often neglected, though it may be the most remarkable fact of all . . .”

    Levi, even an amateur knows this is tendentious tripe. Please, you are better than that! “must have envisioned . . .”—says who? You, Levi? please make the case, don’t ask me to assume it! You have made a tendentious claim, AND whined that it is not the common dogmatic sludge at the same time. Are there no limits?

    I admire and support your efforts to make this literature both currently relevant and significant to the contemporary reader, but you cannot do that effectively by misrepresenting the case!!!!

    The truth is the point!

    Lest anyone doubt, I believe in this man (Levi) and in what he is trying – in this blog – to do!!! But I must have my say as well: the beats were lost when they said “I”m out”. (That’s the problem with the Maynard G Crebbs – “work!”, WORK!!” – of this world. They’re “out”.) The prospect of an incarnation which will do little to revive what is really nothing more than a childish malaise is discomfiting. It is like contemporary politics: the powers that be will always find a way to do nothing, while they seem to be pushing forward.

    For my money, Tom Wolfe is the very essence of the “establishment”: and any movie based on his tripe is tainted by the same self-secure commitment to the staus quo that we witness in his novels. Where is Herbert Marcuse when we need him?

    Sorry, Levi, but this a case of a clash of Idols: You must choose: is it going to be the spirit of the beats, or the carcass of the Wolfe’s?


  5. Hey Kevin — well, I’m not
    Hey Kevin — well, I’m not sure I understand what exactly you’re objecting to. Are you saying that I’m falling for the “magic bus hype” (a la Tom Wolfe), that I’m being credulous? Are you saying that you find Kesey’s adventure unworthy of the kind treatment I’m giving it here?

    If that’s your argument, here’s my response. First, well, I don’t count Tom Wolfe among my favorites, but I have a ton of respect for his creativity and originality as a prose stylist. You must know that in the 70s he was considered the best of a new breed of experimental journalists, along with Hunter S. Thompson and Norman Mailer. Establishment? Yeah, I think the guy was practically a Reagan Republican at times, and I don’t connect with that side of him. But I do love it that a writer without a natural affinity for beatniks and hippies could write a book like “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”. That shows that he valued the story more than he valued his own attitudes about the story. He was no hippie, but he saw that he had the raw material for a hippie classic, and he ran with it. Good for him! This book aside, I don’t think he ever claimed to be anything but “establishment”, so I’m not going to blame him for being what he wanted to be.

    With that said, I will mention that I don’t read his other books. The last one I read was “Bonfire of the Vanities”, which I considered “eh”.

    Now, on to Ken Kesey — well, Kevin, I gather that you don’t respect him, but do you respect “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”? Have you read it? Have you seen that absolutely awesome movie based on it (the movie was, admittedly, even better than the book, but that’s no discredit to the book, it’s just a credit to the movie). If it were not for the proof of Kesey’s brilliance found in “Cuckoo’s Nest”, I might not venture the guess that anything Kesey did during that phase of his career must have been blessed with glorious literary awareness. But that book truly is something special. Do you disagree?

  6. Yeah, right on. I concur.
    Yeah, right on. I concur.
    Less malicious social destablization as lysergic motive; more, rather, they really were into going FURTHER!!!
    I witnessed a beautiful/inspiring rap Kesey shared at the U of O circa ’93 on the theme of being a warrior today. I wonder what the odds are that a transcript exists???

  7. google a youtube documentary:
    google a youtube documentary: kenkesey tripping – outstanding original footage including cassady walking away from the driver’s seat while the bus drives itself.

    met carolyn garcia (mountain girl) in 2008 – she said cassady introduced her to the pranksters. also that neal had this astonishing ability to pick up a conversation exactly where you left off even if six months had gone by.

    i had just finished reading The Original Scroll when we met, so of course, i gifted her with it. missed it after all these years so i got and listened to the audible last weekend.

  8. I think the meaning of what
    I think the meaning of what Kesey and the Pranksters was attempting to achieve is pretty much laid out in the book and that was an attempt of leading a different lifestyle based somewhat on the Beat lifestyle (kicks and transcendentalism or the serpent and the eagle). I think anyone who has been down the road of “hippy-ness” from a more intellectual approach can dig what they are saying, really got to live it to know it to some degree, can’t just intellectualize it with no actual experience. Those who lived through the ’50s can get the rejection of the “Father Knows Best” gig and thus the turning to the hippy movement which is still strongly in force. If you want to know without experience then OFOTCN is probably the best way to understand without knowing. Also to note, read both OFOTCN and SAGN and I found SAGN to be the superior book and OFOTCN to be far better than the movie, much like Kesey himself said, Nicholson really wasn’t the McMurphy from the novel, sorry but the book was a good bit better than the movie, not the other way around and that is because McMurphy was a far bigger character than Jack’s playing of him.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!