first look

This New Edition of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test Gives a Peek Into Tom Wolfe’s Writing Process

Original manuscript page, circa 1967, with doodles by Wolfe and margin notes by the typesetter. The chapter’s original title, “I Meet the Merry Pranksters,” was crossed out after Wolfe settled on the final one, “Black Shiny FBI Shoes.” Photo: Courtesy of Tom Wolfe

There’s been much chatter about how our current crazy moment compares to that great year of upheaval 1968. Well, the drugs are different nowadays, but The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is still around to cast its kaleidoscopic spell. First published during that wild annum, the book was read as a dispatch from the dissident margins. Now Tom Wolfe’s nonfiction account of the psychedelic high jinks of Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady, and all the rest of the Merry Pranksters feels like an almost impossibly optimistic beacon from a time when dreamers truly — and, as it turned out, falsely — believed they could create a lasting counterculture.

But as is made clear in a fascinating new edition of the book, Wolfe, who has just published a new work, The Kingdom of Speech, didn’t hitch a ride on the Pranksters’ famous bus, Further, and jot down what he saw. Amid pages of an abridged version of the original text, Taschen’s collector’s edition intersperses reproductions of parts of Wolfe’s previously unpublished annotated manuscript as well as then-contemporary photos by Lawrence Schiller and Ted Streshinsky that helped inspire the author. (You can see examples below.) The manuscript pages clearly show how Wolfe put a lot of meticulous effort into all that freewheeling prose — a sober approach to some seriously stoned subjects.

Acid Test Graduation, San Francisco, 1966. Photo: Courtesy of The Ted Streshinsky Photographic Archive; Bancroft Library; U.C. Berkeley
Dancing Pranksters, 1966. Photo: Lawrence Schiller/Polaris
The Further bus, San Francisco, October 1966. Photo: Courtesy of The Ted Streshinsky Photographic Archive; Bancroft Library; U.C. Berkeley

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test: Collector’s Edition will be available October 15.

*This article appears in the September 5, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.

A Look Into the New Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test