White Hand Society: The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg by Peter Conners
Originally published by City Lights in 2010 ‘White Hand Society: The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg’ is authored by Peter Conners. The book takes a refreshing look at psychedelia’s most culturally potent point of history to date. Conners has previously published a memoir entitled ‘Growing up Dead: The Hallucinated Confessions of a Teenage Deadhead’, the novella ‘Emily Ate the Wind’ and a collection of poetry called ‘Of Whiskey & Winter’.
A number of books have been published of late dealing more exclusively with Timothy Leary and his Harvard colleagues like Richard Alpert (now Ram Dass,) Ralph Metzner, Frank Barron and alike; however, by shifting the focus to Leary’s relationship with poet Allen Ginsberg, Conners has created a far wider historical-cultural context; indeed a wider countercultural context. The beauty of this, as we shall see, is to connect the psychedelic movement with some of the wider cultural shifts that had been developing since WW2. Not only, for example, does this perspective plug directly into the Beat generation but simultaneously into the political and social upheaval of the mid-to-late 1960s.
The book’s title White Hand Society is taken from the name Timothy Leary initially called his circle of drinking friends at Harvard. It is a measure of both the man and the prevailing climate that he should choose to name his groups (indeed, his psychedelic group post-Harvard went through a whole series of titles, which Conners tell us he meticulously kept new headed stationary for.) By doing this Leary was able to transform a loose collection of individuals into a more potent and coherent cultural force. This tribalism, if you will, set the stage for the counterculture with its multiplicity of emergent social groups; each loaded with their own symbologies and beliefs.
The potential of psilocybin, and other hallucinogens, provides the context for what becomes an enthralling and influential friendship between Leary and Ginsberg. In 1960 Allen Ginsberg was an established poet, avant-garde spokesman for the Beat generation and widely known personality. On the other hand, Timothy Leary was unknown outside of the psychology community, having gained some notoriety within from the publication of Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality (1957). But Leary was about to embark on research with the chemical psilocybin, which is the active hallucinogenic ingredient in ‘magic mushrooms’, and it was this drug-laced groundwork that would prove to be such an enigmatic springboard in both his life and the wider culture.
Having been given an introduction by Dr. Humphry Osmond, who famously supplied author Aldous Huxley with mescaline several years earlier, Allen Ginsberg, his lover Peter Orlovsky and his brother Lafcadio “shambled into Leary’s house in Newton Centre just like they shambled into everywhere: Beat” (Conners 75). Conners perfectly articulates this now legendary meeting by way of framing it as the sweeping entrance of Beat into the cosy, academic world of Harvard experimental psychology. It would be the beginning of Leary’s personal ascent (descent?) into counterculture law and legend.
In this now famous episode Ginsberg, whilst high on psilocybin pills supplied by Sandoz, got in touch with the phone operator, whom he informed that it was God speaking, in order to get hold of the likes of John F. Kennedy and Russian premier Khrushchev. Unfortunately this didn’t come to fruition but he did manage to speak with his friend and fellow Beat Jack Kerouac. The tone was set for a psychedelic revolution; a frenzy of popularisation and Leary was to be the leader of this movement. As Conners explores, it was Ginsberg’s address book, packed with the great and the good of the creative scenes across America, which unlocked the way forward for Leary. Soon many distinguished people were involved in the psilocybin project and the word was spreading – through mouth and through media. The scene was set for a psychedelic Sixties.
Whilst both Ginsberg and Leary stayed in contact throughout the Sixties and indeed it seems, throughout their lives, the trajectory of their own paths were not necessarily in tandem with one another. Ginsberg was still primarily a poet and an activist, helping to entwine the many emerging threads of the counterculture whilst Leary became something of a caricature of himself in the new guise of LSD ‘high priest’ or, at best, a figurehead in the psychedelic scene. This was startlingly apparent by an amazing addition to Conners’ book, the “Houseboat Summit” that a transcription of is included in full as an appendix (having first appeared in the San Francisco Oracle, issue #7.) Chaired by Zen philosopher Alan Watts, the meeting included Ginsberg, Leary and beat legend Gary Snyder. Conducted in 1967 it greatly reveals the schisms of the seven intervening years.
Nevertheless, during the time that Leary was imprisoned for cannabis offences, escaped, exiled and finally recaptured in the Seventies, Ginsberg remained a steadfast friend. Conners had access to many of the letters between the two for his research – fascinating they must be – and his prose narrative brings their relationship to life in a manner befitting their vital input to the decade. And whilst the letters, and his actions, seem to speak volumes of Ginsberg as an individual of great integrity and insight, Leary is left in the spectacular political web of his own misadventures, and bargaining away many of his friendships for his freedom. This culmination left the psychedelic movement in disarray for many years, even while many of the other counterculture threads affected great political change.
The White Hand Society is a truly exciting book in the sense that Conners has managed to bring forward the pulsing energy of those exciting times and textually reintegrate the feelings for a modern audience. And, on a personal note, I’ve always found Ginsberg and Leary’s individual stories fascinating but having them presented in conjunction not only makes a lot of sense, it makes a wonderful read. You can buy a copy of the book straight from City Lights here.