The Harvard Psychedelic Club Reviewed in NYT

The New York Times has reviewed a just released book on psychedelic research at Harvard University in the 1960s: 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. Authored by freelance journalist and religion writer, Don Lattin The Harvard Psychedelic Club’s title calls to mind Louis Menand’s 2001 book The Metaphysical Club, also about psychology at Harvard, though in an earlier period.

Lattin’s book details the exploits of Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, Andrew Weil and Huston Smith at Harvard in the early 1960s, as well as their lives after Harvard. As the NYT recounts,

In 1963 Leary and Mr. Alpert were kicked out of Harvard for their exploits, which included giving drugs to undergraduates. One of the men behind their expulsion was none other than Andrew Weil, still an undergraduate. Jealous at not being fully admitted into their world or, Mr. Lattin suggests, being given the best drugs, Mr. Weil helped engineer an exposé of Leary and Mr. Alpert in The Harvard Crimson. He took the pair down, Mr. Lattin writes, “with the zeal of a jilted lover.” The older men never fully forgave him.

Mr. Lattin tracks all four men as they go their separate ways, trailing stardust and grievances. Timothy Leary became, well, Timothy Leary, the Johnny Appleseed of the psychedelic age. Richard Alpert traveled to India, came back as Ram Dass and wrote the counterculture bible “Be Here Now.” Andrew Weil, with his bald head and Santa Claus beard, would become a benevolent alternative lifestyle guru, a man whose work combines Eastern and Western medical ideas. His empire now includes not just best-selling books and herbal supplements but lines of olive oil and cookware. Mr. Smith, the most serious academic of the group, became critical of Leary. He found Leary’s slogan — “Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out” — “too negative to command respect.”

Although the NYT review of The Harvard Psychedelic Club is largely favourable, the reviewer takes issue with some of Lattin’s stylistic decisions, including his decision to invent some of the dialogue that appears in the book. Despite the problematically concocted dialogue, the reviewer found the story engrossing.

As described on its dustjacket, The Harvard Psychedelic Club,

is the story of how three brilliant scholars and one ambitious freshman crossed paths in the early sixties at a Harvard-sponsored psychedelic-drug research project, transforming their lives and American culture and launching the mind/body/spirit movement that inspired the explosion of yoga classes, organic produce, and alternative medicine.

The four men came together in a time of upheaval and experimentation, and their exploration of an expanded consciousness set the stage for the social, spiritual, sexual, and psychological revolution of the 1960s. Timothy Leary would be the rebellious trickster, the premier proponent of the therapeutic and spiritual benefits of LSD, advising a generation to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” Richard Alpert would be the seeker, traveling to India and returning to America as Ram Dass, reborn as a spiritual leader with his “Be Here Now” mantra, inspiring a restless army of spiritual pilgrims. Huston Smith would be the teacher, practicing every world religion, introducing the Dalai Lama to the West, and educating generations of Americans to adopt a more tolerant, inclusive attitude toward other cultures’ beliefs. And young Andrew Weil would be the healer, becoming the undisputed leader of alternative medicine, devoting his life to the holistic reformation of the American health care system.

It was meant to be a time of joy, of peace, and of love, but behind the scenes lurked backstabbing, jealousy, and outright betrayal. In spite of their personal conflicts, the members of the Harvard Psychedelic Club would forever change the way Americans view religion and practice medicine, and the very way we look at body and soul.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young recently completed a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Surrey in the UK. She earned her doctorate in the History and Theory of Psychology at York University in 2014.