Review by Charles Demm, 2002
Leary, Timothy. Jail Notes. New York: Douglas Book Corporation, 1970. 154 pages.
This book is everything your mother warned you about, and the title gives the setting for a series of notes, letters, and musings by the ‘messiah’ of the new religious consciousness himself, Timothy Leary. This book is a first person account of the events following Leary’s arrest for drug possession in 1968; it includes jail-house writings, poems, missives, appeals from the defendant for bail, and other assorted court documents. Also included is a fascinating introduction by Allen Ginsberg, which may be the highlight of the entire book.
This book was written and published at the height of the culture wars that marked the late 1960’s and early 70’s. Jail Notes is without doubt an apologetic work promoting the free use, and religious potential of LSD, peyote and other entheogenic drugs. Leary, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, was the first teacher to ever be fired from the lofty Ivy League school for his predilections. In this book Leary proves himself also to be a fast learner in the literary style and thinking of the best of the beat poets and writers. This stream of consciousness style of writing must have been the ultimate in ‘cool’ among its devoted followers of the ‘beat’, and can prove maddening self-centered and pointless to those disinclined to the beats and the counter-culture they introduced to middle America. Included are the usual elegies to Kerouac and Coltrane, and if the reader ever explored this sub-culture the book will be of interest. But for those who found the beats more than annoying and the drug experiments of Pahnke and Huston Smith dangerous, this book will represents the sad turning point in American culture and the beginning of the decline of American values.
Ginsberg’s introduction is actually the piece in the book. It is written with the usual Ginsberg flair, but his essay reveals just how profound and serious the ‘war’ was between two alienated groups. The battle is depicted in mythic proportions: the ‘disciples of light’ (Leary’s community) versus the ‘disciples of darkness’ (the Establishment). Unfortunately, Ginsberg’s hopes for a new community called into being through the use of LSD seems to be dashed by Leary’s own use of the drug. Ginsberg, like many in this movement believed that LSD could act as a catalyst to save civilization from the crushing weight of technology and military force. But for all of Leary’s hipster language, in the end his recommends the freedom for individuals to drop out, take drugs and live in splendid isolation. More sad than ironic, Leary’s hopes came to fruition among many of the counter culture, than did Ginsberg’s.