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Storming Heaven
by Jay Stevens
Publisher:
The Atlantic Monthly Press 
Year:
1987 
ISBN:
006097172X 
Categories:
Book Reviews
Reviewed by JF, 6/24/2001

Jay Stevens’ history of LSD in the United States, Storming Heaven, is probably the most visible and well-regarded work on the subject. As such, it is rather unfortunate it is no better than it is. The subject is certainly a colorful one, filled with characters of proportions far more mythical than any others in recent memory. Fascinating, too, are the myriad conflicts over the place of LSD in society, leading up to its prohibition in the mid-1960s.

Yet Stevens’ work reads more like a bland college research paper than an insightful work of history. He has read all the obvious books and combined everything into a nice historical summary, as confirmed by a brief glance at his none-too-impressive bibliography. I’ve read many of the books he cites, and, given time, I could have produced Storming Heaven myself, probably in near-identical form—and unlike most similar claims, which are usually best read as reluctant praise for acts of brilliant simplicity, I mean this quite literally. His anecdotes are the obvious ones, often lifted with little modification from their original sources (his expropriations from Be Here Now border on plagiarism). None of the research is particularly original, none of the analysis is particularly insightful. This is unfortunate, as there are many issues in the history of LSD that have not yet been satisfactorily examined and unraveled. The social dynamic leading up to the prohibition of LSD is a fascinating one, filled with the colorful and contrasting influences of the media, of extemist advocates on both sides (Leary, Kesey, Linkletter), of America’s middle class families and their children, some of whom metamorphosed into the outraged activists and blissed-out hippies who turned the 1960s into such a memorably indendiary decade. Stevens, however, does not look much further than the tired “rebellious children of conformist parents” paradigm. The way Stevens ends the book is also quite annoying: Storming Heaven comes to a close as Leary is escaping from prison. A nice symbolic ending, but this is a work of history, not a novel. There is quite a lot of interesting material from the 1970s and 80s that Stevens completely ignores as a result of this, and the brief epilogue serves only to emphasize the omission.

While generally sympathetic towards the drug and its proponents, Stevens basically emerges as someone who doesn’t quite get it—Kesey’s magic bus proclaimed “Furthur”, not “Fuurther,” as Stevens renders it. He seems to be aiming for the energetic documentary style of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but he lacks the literay skill to successfully imitate it. Ultimately, Storming Heaven languishes in a comfortable mediocrity, but not in a totally pejorative sense. A summary, even a bland one, provides at least a place to start for those who know little or nothing about LSD beyond a smattering of sensationalistic headlines. It is my hope that Stevens has at least laid out a groundwork of basic facts to be built upon by other, more insightful histories.

3 Comments »

  1. This was the most captivating read on LSD I have found by far. I delightfully read it twice, and will probably read it a third time. As I read other books I do find that that Stevens has extracted quite a bit from other books often very litterly lifted info, which might be annoying for the LSD expert, but for 99.9% of the population this will be new material and even if it is old material it is woven and told in an engaging colorful way.
    For example I enjoyed Electric Coolaid Acid Test as a period peice capturing the energy and atmosphere, but I wasn’t as engaged nor learned anywhere near as much as I did for Storming Heaven.

    Comment by Kyle Hailey — 5/3/2005 @ 6:06 pm

  2. I agree, Jay Stevens’ book is an astounding interdisiplinary floor show. I read it every four years.

    David Louis Bell

    Comment by david loui bell — 7/15/2005 @ 1:19 am

  3. Hard to say why your review is so negative. Agreeing with another commenter, to me it’s the best distillation of that period of history and hardly a “bland college research paper.” I’m guessing he intentionally avoided being an advocate of LSD use. This may be, underneath it all, the crux of your problem with the book. You should also mention that he never criticized LSD use. The way you say he “lifted with little modification from their original sources” without revealing his notes, listed by chapter, in the back of the book, is a little misleading. He makes it plain that he referred to all those texts, as is expected of historical writers, but apparently he didn’t want write in a footnoted style. I, too, have read dozens of books on psychedelics and on the Sixties, and most are well researched and fairly well written. I think Storming Heaven is the best. The book is nothing short of brilliant.

    Comment by Ben Roesch — 3/9/2009 @ 10:47 am

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