Don Lattin’s group biography 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 follows would-be gurus Leary, Weil, Smith, and Richard Alpert (later Ram Dass) from Ivy League psychedelic drug trials to the New Age lecture circuit. But the zonked-out subject matter is cut with flat, functional prose and sometimes jarring value judgments that sound as if they’re pasted in from another book. Had Lattin settled for regurgitating Leary’s autobiography Flashbacks, the whole exercise might have come off like a square describing a party he wasn’t invited to. Instead, Club skates by on the strength of the human drama at the story’s core: specifically, the untold story of Weil’s sensational Harvard Crimson exposés, and how they yanked Leary and Alpert out of academia and into middle America’s crosshairs.
Leary and co. didn’t tune in, turn on, and drop out overnight, though. Lattin—whose other books also examine the intersection of spirituality and counterculture—lovingly recounts stories of seminary students used as guinea pigs and desert peyote binges with Aldous Huxley. The book only amounts to a slim 225 pages, so cramming in the spiritual geneses of four people requires a little chronological shuffling, and the narrative sometimes lurches forward, only to double back when a character needs more filling-in.
Most of that attention is justifiably lavished on Leary himself. One minute likened to a “Native American trickster god,” the next praised for his considerable powers of arm-twisting—this is the man who stood without embarrassment in front of a banner that read “The reincarnation of Jesus Christ”—Leary comes away relatively unscathed in Club, even when he turns snitch on the members of The Weather Underground who engineered his prison escape.
This is more a matter of scope than Lattin playing favorites, however. For him, legacies trump rap sheets, and Club spends its closing chapters examining how much (or little) of our current cultural discussion is informed by these four men. Lattin implies that Leary’s grandstanding did as much to derail the psychedelic movement as it did to popularize it. Weil’s books planted the seeds for a now multi-billion dollar-alternative-medicine industry, and Alpert and Smith paved the way for the “spiritual, but not religious” movement that eventually found traction with Oprah viewers and college students alike. Taken together, these stories provide the psychedelic movement with context and continued relevance—important elements for a generation of readers trained to laugh at stock hippie characters and stoner epiphanies.