Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom By Andy Letcher
Originally published in 2006, Shroom: A cultural History of the magic mushroom is one of the best written secondary works of psychedelic literature available. It examines a traceable history through what we can know to be sure about the cultural use of psilocybin mushrooms, to what smacks of cultural story-telling, movement fantasy and manages to keep an impeccable perspective throughout.
Andy Letcher’s book is a testament to good research and quality writing that several other reviewers seemed to have blindly missed. Their main objection is that it’s ‘too academic’. Unfortunately, this is what is lacking from other social histories of psychedelics and its academic angle gives it an important air of authority. You’re presented with a realistic conception of psychedelic history, in regard to magic mushrooms, derived from the written historical evidence. The book is invaluable in this respect.
Several of the fantastical myths of ‘mushroom lore’ are dealt with. Not least that of Santa Claus being a thinly disguised mushroom, Alice in Wonderland fables and the great Eleusinian rite being a very tasty [sic] mushroom brew. In the past I’ve enjoyed these stories, gulp, perhaps I’ve even passed some of them on to other psychonauts but the truth is frankly dealt with by Letcher. The battle between non-fiction and fiction is omnipresent throughout the book and serves as a wonderful narrative guide.
Perhaps the most centrally important concept that Letcher uses in his analysis on this history of the magic mushroom was based on the idea that: “Different people, let alone different cultures, have quite clearly approached the same drug differently, and the common thread linking the disparate cultures in their relationship with drugs is more correctly an attitude of ambivalence.” [Letcher:2006:27]
This observation makes it quite clear that in investigating psychedelic literature one must always bare in mind the social backdrop and cultural ramifications of the time in which events and products took shape. Without this knowledge we are left thinking that the psychedelic experience, whether it be psilocybin, LSD-25 or DMT, is a constant; when, in fact, it acutely manifests the prevailing wisdom and anxiety of the time in which it was produced. The psychedelic experience – through the magic mushroom or otherwise – is a gateway, literary or otherwise, into the social.
It’s not often within the book that Letcher’s own voice strays away from his cultural critique of the magic mushroom and into a personal take. However, throughout the book’s presentation of research there is a concurrent environmental theme:
“Most of us spend our lives cocooned in human-created worlds, cities and suburbs where the other species with which we would ordinarily co-habit cannot prosper, or from which they are actively removed. We have become quite divorced from the rhythms and other inhabitants of the natural world.” [Letcher:2006:175]
And so it seems that from reading this book about the magic mushroom there is a central message that nearly all psilocybin, perhaps even all psychedelic, experiences teach. Opposed to being an epistemological vacuum, the experience teaches an embracing of nature, a transpersonal experience of our environment that gives one the opportunity to realise an active involvement in the processes of existence. Whether this is an acute realization of experience or merely an apparition of current zeitgeist presents an interesting and discursive point.
Letcher said of Carlos Castaneda’s first book: “Close reading of the text by a number of scholars has shown it be replete with factual errors, inconsistencies and narrative blunders.” [Letcher:2006:215] Whilst Letcher’s own social analysis takes the form of a comparison to anthropologist Michael Harner, who’s reputation hasn’t been called into question, he doesn’t reason why this text should first be accepted by the counterculture and later the Human Potential Movement, at the Esalan Institute. When treated outside the constraints of fiction/non-fiction and treated as a text that was accepted as representational by the psychedelic movement, one begins to see an important space of analysis, rather than just the fraudulent author.
Having said this, however, one sees the validity of Letcher’s research as objective and academic in his treatment of the late, great Terence McKenna. Whilst Letcher, in a distant and almost remorseful way, takes apart some of McKenna’s central ideas, like novelty theory and the stoned-ape theory, he retains the ability to quantify what is both good and bad, and indeed ambiguous, in McKenna’s work.
“He [McKenna] reinforced the idea that salvation is to be found, not through prayer or devotion or political agitator, social change, but through higher doses, taken more often. By insisting that genuine shamanism is based on psychedelic ingestion, he elevated psychedelic enthusiasts to the status of shamans.” [Letcher:2006:272]
From R. Gordon Wasson to underground newspapers to the Free Festival Movement, Letcher provides an insightful and challenging journey through the cultural history of the magic mushroom. I cannot recommend this book too much, a brilliant read that gives you both factual insight and realistic appraisal whilst never losing sight of the important position the psychedelic experience now rightfully enjoys in our society today.