The Beat Writers and the Psychedelic Movement


In their activities and writings in the late 1940s and ’50s the Beat writers – principally Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg – prefigured and influenced the Psychedelic Movement, which came into flowering a generation later. When those epoch-making cultural changes got underway in the ’60s, the Beats were naturally looked upon as mentor figures and elder statesmen, and Timothy Leary, who was of the same age group as them, was happy to recruit and induct them into the cause – through his Harvard program. This produced some unexpected and volatile results – Tim Leary got more than he bargained for – and the end product as regards the three major Beat writers was one spectacular success, one mixed case, and one spectacular failure.

It all started in New York in 1943, within the Columbia university scene where the Beats first hooked up. At the time Jack Kerouac was in his early twenties, and already saw himself as a writer. Bill Burroughs was older, in his late twenties, and was known as a raconteur and intellectual, and became a mentor figure to the group. Allen Ginsberg was the kid, still a teenager, and just enrolled at Columbia. There were other key people in the group, such as Lucien Carr, another student, and everybody became fictionalised in Kerouac’s novels – most notably On the Road.

At around this same time Burroughs first tried morphine and became an addict, so the events of his first novel Junkie run roughly concurrently to On the Road. In both books, which are strongly autobiographical, there are many references to recreational drug use, and they open a marvellous window onto pre-psychedelic bohemian life – exactly the kind of scene which would develop eventually into the hippie scene.

A few years later in 1946 Neal Cassady came to New York, met Kerouac and Ginsberg and the early Beat circle was just about complete. Cassady is another important figure in both the Beat and Psychedelic movements, and although he wasn’t a developed writer, he was a terrific character and a great improvisational talker. He undoubtedly influenced Kerouac and became his muse – and the lead character in On the Road – Dean Moriaty.

In that novel, drug use is referred to matter-of-factly, as a normal part of life, and as well as marijuana – called ‘tea’ or ‘weed’ – Benzedrine figures highly as a drug of choice in the ’40s and ’50s bohemian scene, and was then available legally in the form of inhalers.

Burroughs could be rightly termed one of the first ever ‘ayahuasca tourists’.

Burroughs describes Benzedrine use in Junkie, and Kerouac wrote the legendary first draft of On the Road in three weeks on a continuous roll of paper whilst high on the drug – and in many ways that act and its relentless speed-driven energy came to define the spirit of the ’50s scene much as Timothy Leary’s acid-inspired pronouncements defined the ’60s.

So Benzedrine and other amphetamines were the standout recreational drugs of the ’40s and ’50s, much as it was LSD in the ’60s and ’70s, and MDMA in the ’80s and ’90s. And the Beats, like many drug users, were pretty omnivorous when it came to experimenting – they all tried opiates, for example, but it was only Burroughs who became a confirmed addict.

As for psychedelics in this era, the only well-known about and readily available one – for Americans – was the peyote cactus. And they did try peyote early. Burroughs writes about it in Junkie. This was now the dawn of the 1950s, and he had fled to Mexico escaping US law enforcement after several busts. Now aged around thirty-six, he talks of ‘the younger generation’ of American hipsters living cheaply in Mexico.

And it was with these guys that Burroughs first tried peyote. Typically he felt sick and vomited, and the peyote clogged his throat. He compares the high to Benzedrine but with surreal undertones: ‘Everything I saw looked like a peyote plant,’ he says. But it wasn’t an earth-moving psychedelic experience for him – that was to come later.

The peyote episode was near the end of Junkie, which describes a journey, both geographical and experiential. And at the very end of the book, Burroughs sets up the next stage of the journey. And it’s fascinating from our point of view in the present here, to see what he was onto way back at the start of the 1950s. And it was nothing less than ayahuasca or yagé – though Burroughs missed the accent off the ‘e’ and called it ‘yage’.

And the subsequent book was The Yage Letters – which is a book of two halves, the first detailing Burroughs’s adventures in 1953 and the second Ginsberg’s in 1960.

Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs in later years (photographer unknown).

Now yagé was hardly known about in the West then – there were the writings of Richard Spruce and Lewis Lewin – but what really sparked Burroughs’ interest was the Columbian scientist Rafael Zerda Bayón and his experiments, and the fact he named the plant’s active ingredient ‘telepathine’. This was after he gave some to a soldier who had visions of his sister dying, which were later confirmed as accurate.

Burroughs was a total believer in the magical universe – he was into the occult, spells and divination –  so it was this aspect of yagé that attracted him – the telepathic – and by singling it out for entheogenic reasons he was way ahead of his time. Though at that time he still expressed it in hipster talk, so to speak. This is the final paragraph of Junkie:

Kick is seeing things from a special angle. Kick is momentary freedom from the claims of the ageing, cautious, nagging, frightened flesh. Maybe I will find in yage what I have been looking for in junk and weed and coke. Yage may be the final fix.

So Burroughs conducted several expeditions around South America. The first is described in the novel Queer, but that wasn’t successful, as he couldn’t find the right people to help him amongst the locals. But he returned in 1953 and this time he had a lucky break – an extraordinary coincidence you might say.

He went to Bogotá University to get some information, and there he just happened to meet another hugely important figure in the history of the Psychedelic Movement, and this was the botanist Richard Evans Schultes, the pioneer of ethnobotany and the number one authority on hallucinogenic plants in the Americas. Burroughs and Schultes were both Harvard men, almost contemporaries, so that played a part in them getting aquainted. Schultes told Burroughs what he knew about ayahuasca, how it’s prepared, and the tribal mythology surrounding its use. Later the two embarked on an expedition into the Putumayo where Burroughs finally had his definitive experiences of the brew.

Without Schultes, Burroughs would have remained clueless about how to proceed, as there was no precedent for what he was doing. In fact it puzzled Schultes himself as to why a Western writer who wasn’t a scientist should travel all this way just to sample a native drug. But of course now in our present age everybody’s doing it! And so Bill Burroughs could be rightly termed one of the first ever ‘ayahuasca tourists’.

Burroughs did eventually find what he was looking for in ayahuasca, though the path was rocky, involving one considerable overdose that left him legless and retching violently, and overcome with intense hallucinations. But as someone experienced in drug misadventure, he knew what to do and managed to bring himself down with barbiturates.

Another interesting fact is that from another brujo Burroughs discovered the correct formula for the ayahuasca brew, which includes chacruna, which functions as an MAO inhibitor, activating the DMT in the ayahuasca and essential for the proper experience. At the time not even Schultes knew this – but he took credit for it later.

Anyway, with this same brujo Burroughs had his breakthrough, life-changing trip, and concluded ayahuasca was every bit as special as he’d hoped. He said that it caused him to experience a new state of being, where he left behind ‘the entire structure of pragmatic, result-seeking, use-seeking, question-asking Western thought.’ So it was, indeed, ‘the final fix’.

The creative fruit of that experience can be found in Burroughs’ final Yage Letter, in his section of the book – and it also appears minimally edited in Naked Lunch. And the importance of ayahuasca as a catalyst to creative innovation in that book and his future cut-up novels cannot be overstated.

In Rimbaud’s famous words: that a poet must reach the unknown by means of a derangement of all the senses – which the Beats aspired to, it was ayahuasca as much as heroin or anything else that was responsible for this in Burroughs’ case.

Allen Ginsberg’s ayahuasca inspired drawing “The Vomiter” is featured in The Yage Letters.

As for The Yage Letters itself, it became a highly significant psychedelic text, effective introducing the next generation to the substance and its shamanic context, at the same time as information about LSD, mescaline and psilocybin was starting to circulate. In fact it was The Yage Letters that went on to inspire Terence and Dennis McKenna in their own journey to the Amazon and led to their book The Invisible Landscape. And Ralph Metzner has observed the importance of The Yage Letters in his writings on ayahuasca.

Moving onto Allen Ginsberg, he was very much the ‘kid’ of the original ’40s Beat scene, but he grew in stature and status through the ’50s. He became a leading figure in the San Francisco poetry renaissance, with his poem ‘Howl’ gaining fame as a seminal Beat work.  And as the ’60s progressed Ginsberg, unlike Bill Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, changed his appearance accordingly, adopting long hair and a bushy beard to become the hippy guru figure that loomed large in the developing countercultural scene.

Now Ginsberg was naturally predisposed towards cosmic visions – through reading William Blake; through having nitrous oxide at the dentists – so when he got the chance to try LSD in a mental research experiment, he was full of enthusiasm. His first trip was very positive, re-igniting his visionary perspective, and he went on to repeat the experience. In a letter he said, ‘This drug seems to automatically produce a mystical experience. Science is getting very hip.’

Shortly afterwards in 1960 Ginsberg undertook a six-month trip to South America, primarily to take ayahuasca, following in Burroughs’ footsteps and gathering the material for his half of The Yage Letters. His experiences were very profound, destabilizing and sometimes horrifying – ayahuasca took him far beyond the range of LSD. He confronted death, body-soul duality and the nature of God, but he developed a fear of madness and of entering a permanently changed universe from which he couldn’t escape. Ginsberg though was very tenacious in his belief in the larger transforming possibilities of psychedelics, and he had the chutzpah to take the bad trips along with the good and continue his quest.

The next step forward came when Ginsberg met Timothy Leary and participated in one of his Harvard psilocybin experiments, which was the beginning of a beautiful friendship and the most important point of fusion of the Beat and Psychedelic worlds. As for Ginsberg’s trip, it started shakily, with some of his ayahuasca fears returning, but then he reached the turning point.

Ginsberg and Leary decided that a series of well-established figures in the arts should be invited to try the drug as part of the research project.

After seeing a flash of light, another of his classic euphoric visions began to construct. He was overcome with a sense that the cosmos was waiting for a Messiah, and naturally enough he felt that the Messiah was him – as you do, of course. He came downstairs naked and declared himself ‘the Messiah’ to Leary and the others; then he and Leary began to mastermind the next stage of the psychedelic revolution.

Ginsberg and Leary decided that a series of well-established figures in the arts should be invited to try the drug as part of the research project. Such people would hopefully endorse it and give it wider publicity and respectability at the same time. They included painters and jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonius Monk. But top of the list was Ginsberg’s old friend and fellow Beat, Jack Kerouac.

So one might think that here was another epoch-making moment, a meeting of two big personalities, Leary and Kerouac – who was now famous as a result of On the Road – all crystallised in the beauty of a shared psilocybin experience. But it was not to be. By now Kerouac’s life was seriously off kilter and he’d become a raging alcoholic, and was known for going on marathon drinking binges of huge excess and also for drunken bad behaviour. As Ginsberg knew, he could be a complete loose cannon in a social situation.

Thanks to Leary’s writings, we have his views on all of the Beats, including first impressions, having met them when they were fully established figures, so that’s a useful perspective. And Leary’s view of Jack was that he was a scary guy. His opening gambit was to ask Leary what he was doing with a ‘communist faggot’ like Ginsberg and then to challenge Leary’s ‘psychedelic absolution’ with the notion of ‘Jesus Christ as saviour’. Of course Kerouac was drunk and enjoying baiting Leary, and he continued to rant away in bar-room fashion, which is hardly the right approach to a psilocybin session. Now Ginsberg was used to all this, and he was a Buddhist and forgiving of Kerouac’s bigoted reactionary side. But it was all new to Tim Leary and Kerouac’s drunken belligerence sent Leary off into a rare bad trip, where he became depressed and introspective.

And when the psilocybin took hold and displaced the alcohol, Kerouac too had a negative trip, becoming paranoid and regressing back to his stay in a Navy psychiatric ward and subsequent discharge from the service. His final revelation was: ‘Everybody is full of shit’.

But sometime later the two did have another trip together. After another series of crises, Kerouac was looking for an ‘antidote’ and he met Leary again, this time obtaining a dozen Psilocybe mexicana mushrooms from him, which he ate before accompanying Leary on a walk around the Lower East Side of New York. This trip was initially euphoric and Kerouac felt liberated from his current torments. But as is sometimes the case with psilocybin, too much clarity can become unbearable, and Kerouac had to face the truth that there was no ‘new life’ waiting for him around the next bend in the road – which was the message of his writing and the dream by which he’d coped with his troubles.

Ultimately Leary concluded that Kerouac couldn’t let go of his old-time Catholicism and embrace the tenets of the new age. He said that Kerouac ‘opened the neural doors to the future, looked ahead and didn’t see his place in it’ – which sums it up.

Jack Kerouac circa 1956. Photo by Tom Palumbo (via Wikipedia).

Coming back to Neal Cassady, Kerouac’s old buddy and muse for On the Road and other books, Cassady had, unlike Jack, embraced the psychedelic revolution. He’d done mushrooms in Oaxaca and peyote with the Navaho, and described psilocybin as ‘the Rolls Royce of dope’. And in much the same way as he’d naturally slipped into the Beat circle in the ’40s, he now teamed up with the next wave of madcap adventurers – Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters.

Kesey took the place in Cassady’s life that Kerouac had once occupied, and unsurprisingly Kerouac felt sidelined and disdainful about Neal in this new mode. Also in the same way as Cassady served as a ‘character’ for Kerouac, he also became one in Tom Wolfe’s book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test – the driver of the bus ‘Furthur’.

When the Pranksters came to New York, Cassady saw this as a great opportunity to introduce Kesey to Kerouac, and Kesey himself dearly wanted to meet the legend who’d penned On the Road. In their apartment the Pranksters were all high on dope and acid, and they’d draped American flags everywhere, and one was duly tied around Kerouac’s neck. Being reactionary, Kerouac didn’t like this gesture, considering it disrespectful, and he gave them a demonstration of how to fold the flag properly, his po-faced attitude obvious to all. He refused the offer of drugs, and when Kesey tried to cheer him up, he hardly reacted. The get-together wasn’t a success, and if anything it hardened Kerouac’s contempt for the new ‘acid generation’.

So, Kerouac was the failure of the Beat/Psychedelic induction process, Ginsberg was the success, and we now come back to Burroughs, who was the mixed case, going into a bit of tailspin after his pioneering work with yagé.

Leary contacted Burroughs by letter and he responded enthusiastically, saying his work had benefited measurably from the use of hallucinogens and agreeing to try psilocybin pills within the research project. But Burroughs’ first experience was not a success – it nauseated him and gave him disturbing visions of green boys with purple gills. He’d also been experimenting with DMT, injecting it like junk, saying the results were sometimes unpleasant but always interesting.

Shortly afterwards, in the summer of 1961, Leary brought psilocybin to a Beat gathering in Tangier that included Burroughs, Ginsberg and the writers Paul Bowles and Gregory Corso. Leary turned them all on with mostly positive results, but unfortunately Burroughs had another bad reaction. In High Priest Leary reported that Burroughs looked haggard and tense, almost collapsed against the wall, and he said, ‘I would like to sound a word of warning. I’m not feeling too well. I was struck by juxtaposition of purple fire mushroomed from the Pain Banks. Urgent Warning. I think I’ll stay here in shrivelling envelopes of larval flesh.’

Burroughs was in a weird psychic space at this time; his cut-up literary experiments had given him a skewed vision of reality and he saw conspiracy theories everywhere. Psilocybin, DMT, LSD and other laboratory psychedelics came to register on him as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. When he heard of CIA interest in the mind-controlling potential of acid, it only served to reinforce this viewpoint. Ultimately he favoured ayahuasca and the high-dose cannabis candy majoun.

However Burroughs did get to know Leary better, turning on again with him in London and then participating in the American Psychological Association symposium on psychedelic drugs in Manhattan. Burroughs then witnessed some of Leary’s experiments at Harvard, and his reaction was most disapproving. Burroughs had expected a more scientific approach to psychedelic research, using sensory deprivation tanks and brain-wave monitors; but instead he found tripped-out encounter sessions, involving endless theorising about universal love, enlightenment and game theory.

Afterwards Burroughs published an open letter denouncing the Harvard work, which left Leary mortified. So unlike Ginsberg, Burroughs showed a streak of conservatism towards the ‘peace and love’ aspect of the psychedelic movement, which can be seen in part as generational. He was by then in his late forties, middle aged, and perhaps had lost some of his enthusiasm for the shock of the new. His brush with psychedelics was similar in trajectory to Kerouac’s and also to that of another Leary subject, Arthur Koestler, who at the age of fifty-five found psilocybin an ordeal of rationality, offering ‘pressure-cooker mysticism’. Though Leary was deeply hurt by Burroughs’ reaction, he continued to admire him as a figure and their friendship was eventually repaired.

So Ginsberg and Leary’s projected merger of the Beat and psychedelic worlds didn’t run as smoothly as hoped, but nonetheless the interaction and cross-fertilisation that did take place was most fruitful, with Beat philosophy giving the new movement a strong sense of direction.

As for Ginsberg, he progressively positioned himself centre stage as the ’60 cultural revolution went into full swing, becoming one of its major movers and shakers, and an ambassador for Beat-mysticism to all, including the most famous. He rubbed shoulders with the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan and the Byrds whilst keeping up close involvement with Cassady, Kesey and Leary, helping gather support after Leary’s 1965 drugs bust.

Ginsberg was also very actively politically, campaigning for marijuana legalisation and taking up anti-capitalist and anti-war stances – a hot issue as the Vietnam conflict escalated. Tom Wolfe captures a snapshot of him at this time in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test:

Then Allen Ginsberg was in front of the microphone with finger cymbals on each hand, dancing around with a beard down to his belly and chanting Hindu chants into the microphone booming out over California, U.S.A., Hare Krishna hare Krishna

That image of Ginsberg was enshrined in world consciousness after he appeared at the 1967 Human Be-In in San Francisco, along with Leary, fellow Beat poet Gary Snyder, plus the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and an audience of thirty thousand. The media turned photos and cartoons of Ginsberg into emblems for the hippy movement, and he gained the distinction of becoming the one poet of which most everybody had heard, though far fewer actually read his work.

Though Bill Burroughs wasn’t anything like as publicly active as Ginsberg, he nevertheless also became an icon of the ’60s era. He too knew the Beatles and the Stones, and through his friendship with Paul McCartney he became immortalised as one of the figures on the Sgt. Pepper album cover, montaged next to Marylyn Monroe and below Fred Astaire. In fact Burroughs’ influence on the music scene was as profound as his influence on literature. He introduced David Bowie to the cut-up technique, gave names to bands such as Steely Dan and Soft Machine, and became an inspiration and godfather figure to Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Kurt Cobain and even Duran Duran!

If Ginsberg’s fame peaked in the late ’60s, Burroughs’ was more of a slow burn, consolidating through the ’70s and ’80s, when he was back living in America, and reaching a high in the ’90s, partly due to David Cronenberg’s film version of Naked Lunch, which made Burroughs, as played by Peter Weller, into an icon of Weird for a new generation.

So the legacy of the Beats extended through the psychedelic era and beyond, and all their books, apart from obscure publications, are still in print and widely read. Jack Kerouac’s early death only served to make him more of a legend, and his seductive weave of fact and fiction, mythologizing his famous friends before they became so, created a feedback loop of endless fascination. Much continues to be written about them and recent feature films have dramatised Beat life, such as On the RoadHowl and Kill Your Darlings. The pertinence of their activities and writings to today’s alternative scene is as strong as ever.

By Roger Keen

Posted on March 3, 2017

Roger Keen is a writer, filmmaker and film critic with a special interest in surrealism, counterculture and psychedelia.

Featured image: The Third Mind (detail, 1965) by William S. Burroughs & Brion Gysin.


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Burroughs, William, Allen Ginsberg and Oliver Harris. The Yage Letters Redux. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1963, 1975, 2006.

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Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York: Viking Press, 1957.

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Leary, Timothy. High Priest. New York: New American Library,1968.

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Miles, Barry. William S. Burroughs: A Life. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2014.

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Nicosia, Gerald. Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. New York: Grove, 1983.

Wolfe, Tom. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 1968.