Get our free newsletter
The beat authors were fond of compiling pseudo-Strunk & Whites for themselves with advice like, oh, “write always straight from soulspeak no punctuationstops without so much as a quaverthought for tomorrow.” In White Hand Society: The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary & Allen Ginsberg, Peter Conners takes a far more sober approach, combining strong archival research (especially in the Ginsberg archives at Stanford) with a narrative flair that animates, say, a lecture Leary made in Copenhagen into something out of Kinsey. Conners traces Leary’s progress from philandering West Coast researcher to psychedelic convert and Harvard lecturer alongside Allen Ginsberg’s progression from clean-shaven Blakean to hirsute Blakean. On the way, the two join forces to convince the Youth of the virtues of acid. (Spoiler alert: it was an easy sell.) The operating bargain, Conners convincingly argues, was that Ginsberg would lend his bohemian credibility and Leary his Ivy League connections to the psychedelic campaign. The problem with this bargain was that Leary’s legitimacy was tenuous at best and that Ginsberg was too full of quaverthoughts to manage his increasingly megalomaniacal con-man of a collaborator—one who, after being driven from the states, lapping up the hospitality of the Black Panthers in Algeria, and falling afoul of Eldridge Cleaver, turned informant to the feds. Of special note are the scenes in which Leary and his Harvard delegates take over prison blocks to trip with the prisoners (they bring jazz records and art supplies), as well as a letter from Jack Kerouac that serves, essentially, as a “debrief” of his first mushroom trip, which he experienced with Leary in Ginsberg’s Lower East Side apartment. But except for a handful of such worthy esoterica, a lot of White Hand’s history has known the light of day for some time. There is no shortage of beach reading for the amateur scholar of the homosocial history of the beat authors. Alongside a handful of indelible works—some, like Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and the early Hunter S. Thompson material, by authors effectively outside the canon—stand the serious critical and editorial contributions of Ann Charters, a plethora of pop histories, and the authors’ original output, itself so self-referential that related works of history have to break serious ground in order to avoid irrelevance. Add in the observation that Conners, like Ginsberg, effectively lets Leary off the hook for being a snake in priest’s clothing, and the book starts to feel a bit like a con.