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Literary Reviews, Literary Reviews: 1971-2000

Literary Review: ‘Storming Heaven’ by Jay Stevens

Originally published in 1987 ‘Storming Heaven – LSD and the American Dream’ by Jay Stevens is one of a number of heavyweight histories of LSD and American culture. The narrative non-fiction format makes the text very entertaining and, whilst not stinting on the details, it provides the reader with a simple and accessible presentation of what was a many-threaded and complex historical period.

Like all historical books that have LSD at their heart ‘Storming Heaven’ begins in Switzerland where in 1943, 5 years after the semi-synthetic was first developed, Albert Hofmann discovered its hallucinogenic properties. It was on the 19th of April that Hofmann became the first individual to intentionally consume LSD and the repercussions of this event are still being felt today. However, its most intense period of being a widespread social phenomena occurred in the U.S.A during the 1960s and it is this period the text concentrates on.

Bearing in mind the great division the drug caused in society between those who believed it a menace and those who deemed LSD to have value, Stevens mentions an anecdote well worth repeating. During animal testing of LSD-25 by Sandoz the following occurred: “One day Rothlin injected LSD into a lab chimp and then reintroduced the animal to its colony. Within minutes the place was in uproar. The chimp hadn’t acted crazy or strange, per se; instead it had blithely ignored all the little social niceties and regulations that govern chimp colony life.

In compiling the history Stevens certainly did his homework. He spoke to various key figures including Myron Stolaroff, Frank Barron, Gunther Weil, the Shulgins, Tim Scully and had such texts to work from as Ralph Metzner’s uncompleted autobiography and Oscar Janiger’s “astonishing archives.” Aside from the CIA’s MK-ULTRA program (which looked at LSD’s possible use as a mind-control drug and chemical weapon) it was through psychology and individuals like Janiger that LSD first started making its way into the popular consciousness.

Al Hubbard had introduced Janiger, along with Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley, to LSD and it is astonishing to think that “while Heard and Huxley had been searching for a substance that would open the door of the mind’s higher power, the Central Intelligence Agency had been looking for a mind control drug…” There began a widespread investigation, from many fields and people, to discover the value of the human-LSD relationship. One psychologist who had been working with psilocybin (the hallucinogenic ingredient in ‘magic mushrooms’) was Harvard professor Timothy Leary who was introduced to LSD in 1961.

Whilst Huxley and Heard were advocating a top-to-bottom introduction of LSD into society, turning on those in positions of power, Leary was to become the first popular evangelist. Beat poet Allen Ginsberg believed this newly discovered powerful tool, utilized as a method of spiritual awakening, could transform society and he laid this vision on Leary: “Sipping his hot milk, Leary realized that Huxley’s way was not his. ‘It was at this moment,’ he later wrote, ‘that we rejected Huxley’s elitist perspective and adopted the American open-to-the-public approach,; Ginsberg had awakened the rebel in Tim.” Leary turned from the medical to the spiritual and went on a crusade that many argue helped cause the outlawing of LSD.

However, the popular psychedelic movement was also coming from a different direction, one outside the confines of the intellectual circles. Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and a crew of other individuals drove across America in a psychedelically decorated bus named ‘Further’, turning on the nation. As Stevens notes: “In a sense, Kesey stood in relation to Leary as Leary did to Huxley; each represented a radicalization of the other’s perspective.” Through this combination of proselytizing from top and bottom American society gradually developed its psychedelic counterculture.

Stevens is very frank about how the new social phenomena, which had become a popular movement by the end of the 1960s, wasn’t the hippy love-in it is so often painted as. Haight-Ashbury, the central hippy community, during the summer of love: “Malnutrition, overcrowding, a few bad apples, paranoia, bad drugs, big egos, the absence of any leaders who were willing to call themselves leaders, the constant police harassment – there were dozens of reasons why it was going bad.” With Leary facing criminal charges, the death of Huxley, the banning of LSD and the media’s vilification thereof, the popular tide began to recede.

In conclusion Stevens pictures the counterculture as a will-to-change, and which was as dominating to the later half of the 20th century as the will-to-power was for the first half. He believes, that when everything is stripped back, it is this will-to-change that still remained and which came to categorize the period that gave birth to better civil rights, the environmental movement and an increasing social conscience – even if LSD itself had had its legal status removed.

Storming Heaven is a story of how LSD, a simple chemical when not consumed by a human, came to symbolize post-war America’s most active period of social change. The text is engagingly written, well-researched and an invaluable tool for understanding some of the the mechanisms of this will-to-change; not mention just being a thoroughly engaging story. Well worth the read.

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About Robert Dickins

Robert Dickins is a writer, author, and editor director of the Psychedelic Press UK

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