Blog Post

Robert Stone 1937-2015: exploring the counterculture's limits

Stone by Dustin Cohen

Robert Stone, my teacher, died a few months back. Though he spent most of his life on the east coast, his origin story was intimately tied up with the west and Stanford University in particular. As a Stegner Fellow in the 1960s, Stone was a favorite of that program's namesake and founder, as well as a fellow traveler with one of its most renown graduates Ken Kesey. It seems right to make sure his passing is recognized in some way on this blog—a return, of sorts to the place that helped make him.

What I'll post is a small excerpt of a longer remembrance I posted in The New Republic about a month after his death:

On one level, Stone could be seen as a living connection to a lost world of hip. Born in 1937, he was in his twenties by the late ’50s: too young to be a Beat, too old to be a hippie. Stone belonged to neither generation, but was fully present when each made contact with popular culture and created what we think of as “The Sixties.” He had fond memories of listening to poets like Allen Ginsberg read at New York City's Seven Arts Café, where he met a waitress named Janice who would become his wife. But Stone’s bohemian bona fides did not end there. In the early ’60s, after receiving a fellowship to study creative writing at Stanford, he went west to a California that hadn’t yet grabbed the nation’s full attention. He described it is as a kind of Eden—“a garden without snakes”—and there he met and befriended Ken Kesey, author of the revered 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a figure whose real significance lay in how he took that book's anti-authoritarian posture into the world. Kesey’s “Acid Test” parties and cross-country trips on the "magic bus" further helped popularize psychedelic drugs and culture. Kesey’s clique, the Merry Pranksters, was soon mythologized in Tom Wolfe's 1968 book of reportage, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

 

For Baby Boomers, the question, "Were you on the bus?" became shorthand for determining if you had really participated in the ’60s cultural ferment. But here's the thing: Though Stone was a kind of proto-Prankster and included in accounts of their glory years, he was literally and metaphorically not fully on board… In a sense, by the time the Pranksters came along, Stone already had doubts about their Dionysian project and its echoes of his chaotic childhood: Its excesses had an attractive familiarity, but he was also repelled by an awareness of the ways these things can go horribly wrong.

 

And so, Stone’s final feeling on hip America was circumspect. Yes, he partook in the revels of the time—he'd readily admit to the good times, as well as subsequent issues with alcohol and drugs—but he also kept his distance. While the Pranksters drove cross-country, Stone “waited, with the wine-stained manuscript of my first novel, for the rendezvous in New York.” In 1968, when his clique broke into the mainstream, he expatriated with his young family to London for four years to establish his literary career, returning only for a spell in Hollywood to adapt that first book into a film for Paul Newman. When his peers’ ambitions expanded into politics, Stone did not join them in their stateside protests against Vietnam; instead, he visited that country as a loosely credentialed freelance reporter. While his contemporaries sought attention for what they were doing, Stone chased new experiences, banking what he saw. If he’d had a credo, I think it would be this: Play the long game; don’t sweat the zeitgeist.

I contribute to Arcade very rarely. (My last post was over a year ago about Lou Reed.) At the risk of making my appearances here solely of the memorial variety, I thought I'd share these thoughts of Stone, in the hopes that others might be inspired to look at his legacy anew.

I figure this academic community is one to whom he should matter most. As well as being an important contributor to my life and my path — you can glean a bit more of that in my full remembrance — he made a great contribution to American literature, to the expanding influence of California culture on the 21st century, and to many people's bookshelves.

Alec Hanley Bemis's picture
Alec Hanley Bemis lives in Brooklyn, NY but spends a lot of time in California. He obtained his B.A. in History from Yale University. His writing has appeared in LA Weekly, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Spin, AsthmaticKitty.com, the Los Angeles Times, and many other publications. In 2001, he co-founded Brassland, a record label that documents the work of a growing community of musicians, including The National and Nico Muhly. Currently he continues to run Brassland, consults for the UK-based music company All Tomorrow's Parties, co-manages The Dirty Projectors, and acts as general manager at Cantaloupe Music. In the past, he has taught in New York University's graduate journalism program, produced projects for the new media-design firm, Funny Garbage, and written for Faith Popcorn's BrainReserve.