I've been reading a lot of books about the 60's lately. On my to-read pile there are books by or about William Burroughs, Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg, Joyce Johnson, Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton. Most recently I've read I Have America Surrounded, by John Higgs, a biography of Timothy Leary. I'm not a huge fan of Leary's writings and theories, but he is an intruiging character.
The biography was a good read. First off, I love the title. It comes from an interview with Leary where he was asked to comment on Nixon's claim that he was the most dangerous man in America. Leary, who was dying at the time, replied, "Yes, it's true. I have America surrounded."
In The Polysyllabic Spree, Nick Hornby suggests should be a legal limit to the length of a biography. This book is perfect, coming in at just over three hundred pages. There was no messing around: by the end of the third chapter, Leary had been thrown out of the army and then out of Harvard. There were a few points where I'd perhaps have liked more detail, but the book concentrated on telling a great story. The contents page reflects this – there are some fantastic chapter titles.
For me, the best biographies are those that include a series of connected anecdotes and episodes, with hindsight putting them into perspective. This book includes some wonderful stories – like the time that the only LSD Leary had access to was dropped in a suitcase. The drug soaked into Richard Alpert's white linen suit meaning Leary and friends were "reduced to nibbling the suit when they wanted to trip". (Alpert's name was later borrowed for a character from Lost). Or the time when Leary was given a series of psychological papers to decide what category of prison he should be held in – papers he himself had devised.
There's also some interesting background information. I learned that the 007 codeword came from John Dee, magician and spymaster. The notes have a brief discussion of Dock Ellis, a
baseball player who pitched a
perfect no-hitter on LSD and there's a mention of R. Gordon Wasson, an ex-vice-president of JP Morgan. Wasson's hobby was, apparently 'ethnomycology', "the study of mushrooms in human society". He went to Mexico to investigate mushroom cults for Life magazine, a trip apparently funded by the CIA.
One thing I love about biographies is how they overlap. Leary gave psychedelic sessions for Burroughs and Ginsberg and was an associate and defence witness for Abbie Hoffman; there's also a weird moment, where Charles Manson criticises some
pro-violence statements that Leary made. But, for me, the most interesting episode was when Leary encountered Eldridge Cleaver. After escaping prison with the help of the weather underground, he fled America for Algeria. Apparently, after Algeria achieved independence, the country recognised 13 'liberation groups' rather than the countries they were resisting. This meant that the official representatives for the USA were the Black Panthers, under Eldridge Cleaver.
Like many 60's icons, Leary's post-60's legacy is more conflicted. He was finally captured by the American Government and was released after agreeing to assist the FBI with their investigation of the Weathermen. Although it was claimed Leary's co-operation was a pretence, and that nobody was arrested as a result, it was a dubious episode.
I Have America Surrounded was a good book – recommended. Next up: Steal this Dream, an oral biography of Annie Hoffman.If you want to follow what I'm up to, sign up to my mailing list