Friday, November 26, 2010

Review: Peter Conners' White Hand Society

A couple of weeks ago I received a review copy of Peter Conners' White Hand Society: The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary & Allen Ginsberg, recently published (2010) by City Lights Books in San Francisco. I just finished reading it cover-to-cover, and it was an enjoyable read.

Conners' prose is clear and engaging. Chapter 1, "Blakean Vision in Harlem," starts thus:
July 1948. Allen Ginsberg lay in bed reading William Blake. He was 23 years old, heartbroken and lonely (p. 11).

That concise paragraph puts forth quite a lot of detail, and, combined with the chapter title, helps the reader predict exactly where the author is headed: a look into Ginsberg's vision he believes he received directly from William Blake and which launched Ginsberg on the spiritual/poetic path we beat generation aficionados know so well. Ginsberg vowed that day to honor his vision throughout his entire life, and his eventual experimentation with hallucinogens likely assisted him in meeting that pledge.

Chapter 2, "A New Game," introduces us to 35-year-old Timothy Leary, living in Spain with his two children and trying to "put two marriages and an increasingly uncomfortable social and professional life behind him" (p. 22). Already fighting clinical depression, Leary experienced a day of intense physical symptoms - burning scalp, swollen face, water blisters on his face, etc. - which led to a psychological transformation he described as his "entire identity melting away" (p. 24). Two years later he took his first dose of hallucinogens, picking up where his first brush with transformative experience left him.

Starting from those parallel consciousness-raising experiences, Conners then weaves his way through the history of hallucinogenic drugs (especially LSD and psilocybin), their creators/makers (e.g., Albert Hofmann, Owsley Stanley), their proponents (e.g., Ken Kesey), and the evolving but sometimes strained relationship between Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg. Along the way are stories involving Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, William S. Burroughs, and other beat generation characters. We get to see the text of relevant letters written by Leary and Ginsberg, including a gem by Leary to musician Thelonius Monk in 1961 asking him to participate in his psychedelic mushroom research. We also get the background story of Leary's exciting escape from prison, aided by none other than the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers.

Throughout the book, Conners provides extensive details, but never to the expense of comprehension or reading enjoyment. One particularly important detail is the inclusion of the actual transcript from "The Houseboat Summit," an exchange between facilitator Alan Watts (on his boat the S.S. Vallejo), Leary, Ginsberg, and beat poet Gary Snyder (Japhy Ryder in The Dharma Bums). It's a prescient interchange of ideas about Leary's notion of "dropping out," with some of the best insights coming from Snyder's ecologically-focused perspective. (You can read it on-line here.)

This is an important addition to the literature on the beat generation, documenting the collaboration between two remarkable visionaries who took America on the ride of her life. If you're a beat generation fan, a hippie, a child of the 60s, or a fan of biographies, you'll be turned on by White Hand Society.

Click here to buy the book directly from City Lights.