Literature and Marijuana: Counter-Culture History Through the Years

Marijuana became a core topic for the American counter-culture movement, and, by appropriating elements from other movements, American counter-culture used marijuana to oppose society.

America's literary counter-culture movement began after the Mexican Revolution in 1910, when those to our South came northward, and, in turn, brought their natural relaxant with them: marijuana. Granted, the counter-culture had begun to start over in Europe long before America joined in on the fun. James Joyce had already kicked off the modernist movement with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a novel that deliberately broke every established rule of literature. 

But the American counter-culture birthed itself out of an embrace of that which society deemed illicit. With marijuana being associated with the foreigners moving northward into America, marijuana became a taboo. And that taboo became irresistible for writers to subvert.

Marijuana became a core topic for the American counter-culture movement, and, by appropriating elements from other movements, American counter-culture used marijuana to oppose society. 

Marijuana and Cultural Lines

Cultural appropriation and marijuana culture go hand-in-hand. Racist stereotypes that sprang up around the start of the Great Depression interlocked marijuana as something racial minorities did. This was but one of many racist attacks on minority groups by society to justify the racist  belief that white men held some sort of superiority over other ethnicities.

But how did they link the two? Again, Mexicans brought medicinal marijuana as a relaxant. The word marijuana itself is of Spanish origin. It quickly became a popular recreational drug among the ghettos of various cities.

As such, it became very popular in the Blues and Jazz subcultures. Being music that originated from the African-American community, it already had a reputation among society for being subversive. It went against every rule of society, with its chaotic and messy style. 

And a lot of blues and jazz musicians got high. A lot. Louis Armstrong, one of the most famous jazz musicians of all time, once released a song called "Muggles." It would be a few years before JK Rowling used the term as a name for nonmagic folk, so, at the time, Muggles was slang for marijuana.

Jazz and blues--subversive musical genres--would ultimately bleed into literature when the beatnik community appropriated Jazz Culture.

Mezz Mezzrow and Really the Blues

Mezz Mezzrow served as a forerunner to the beatnik movement. More famous for dealing pot than writing, Mezzrow was the top dealer of weed in Harlem. Many would refer to marijuana as "mezz" as a secret slang.

Mezzrow was an odd character. He would often insist that he was more African-American than white. When he was arrested for possessing over sixty joints, he insisted that, because he really was a black man, he should go to a segregated black prison.

Mezzrow was odd.

And also friends with Louise Armstrong, who remained among his most loyal clientele.

Mezzrow mainly stayed in the jazz scene, focusing on releasing records and the like. However, he did write an autobiography (co-written with Bernard Wolfe) called Really the Blues. In this book, Mezzrow recorded his experiences in appropriated African-American ebonics... stereotypical ebonics.

Due to his interactions with minority groups who bought his marijuana joints, Mezzrow genuinely felt his writing depicted a sincere portrayal of life in the ghetto. Sadly, he only captured the idea of the oppressed lifestyle these minority groups led. 

This depiction of a depiction influenced many young boys who had never actually experienced the jazz culture Mezzrow had been surrounded by. This led to them appropriating Mezzrow's lifestyle and philosophies as their own. In other words, it helped start the beatnik movement.

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The Beat Generation

Of course, the Beat Generation, as they preferred to be known, had more than just pot on the mind.

Beatniks saw society as a joyless, twisted establishment, and, thus, looked to Jazz to break free of the conformity. To break free of the joylessness. It was, in essence, a more overt, conscious counter-culture than even the jazz musicians' breaks from society.

Whereas jazz simply incorporated ideas that ran counter to society into their beliefs, the Beat Generation indulged in it. They took it all in deliberately. 

As jazz and marijuana were so directly intertwined, early cannabis culture did have a direct influence on the Beat Generation's culture.

And they expressed that culture through literature.

Howl

Beat Poetry became one of the big genres of the 50s. Beat Poetry attempted to bring academic literature to the street level, to blend what they perceived as academic intellect and relay it through the tangible reality of street life. Many poetry readings started up in jazz clubs and cafes where people would read their poetry aloud--often with jazz music accompaniment.

Many Beat Generation works proved highly successful. William S Burroughs's Naked Lunch presented a curious, anecdotal tale that drew from Burroughs's own life, hallucinations, and very poor life choices (never try to shoot an apple off your wife's head when you're both on heroine). Naked Lunch touches upon an important idea: the idea of a genius whose life is ruined due to his drug dependency, which, arguably, also expands his mind to the mechanisms of the universe. Much how the jazz singers beatniks found so inspiring used cannabis to open their minds.

Undeniably, the most important work produced by the Beat Generation is Allen Ginsberg's "Howl." Upon release, Allen Ginsberg was charged with spreading obscenity with his work--though the charges were ultimately dropped.

Ginsberg attempted to relay street life through his words in his own unique style. The first part of the poem depicts "the greatest minds of [his] generation," which includes jazz musicians and drug addicts, along with other derelicts and outsiders to mainstream society. As mentioned previously, jazz music and marijuana are two very intertwined subjects.

The seconds part of Ginsberg's poem focuses on a hallucination Ginsberg experienced while smoking peyote, depicting religious figures and demons. The implications to this and the counter-culture are explored in the poem's later parts.

"Howl" and the rest of Ginsberg's poetry, collected in a volume often referred to as Howl, is a product of the Beat Generation while also referring back to the ostracized cultures that led to the Beat Culture. While most beatnik poetry superficially focused on the aesthetic of the outsiders, Ginsberg's poetry captured the essence of both the outsider.

Both for better and for worse.

The poem opens with this cryptic, grim line.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection
to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

This is not the naive love that Mezzrow possessed, but a chaotic, grotesque depiction of a society of outsiders--of brilliance--driven to destructive ends because society decided that they could not function in society otherwise. The greatest minds--destroyed because society had no room.

So, instead, they look toward the heavens toward an ancient, heavenly connection.

The Beat Generation would go on to influence the later counter-culture movements in the sixties, but another work of literature would heavily influence the future hippie movement--and beyond. A work other than Howl, and, arguably, a more well-known one...

Counter-Culture Becomes Invaded by... Hobbits?

JRR Tolkien is not the first person you would think of when you hear cannabis culture, but it actually makes a whole lot of sense when you think about it.

Tolkien's Middle-Earth is a world inspired by humanity's past. Its races are inspired--if not completely uplifted from--the ancient past. Particularly Norse folklore. His world is one where nature is in direct opposition to invasive industry, where leisure and personal satisfaction are prioritized, and where races must band together despite their personal prejudices to combat the real evils of society.

It is, in short, counter-culture.

One noteworthy element of the hobbit lifestyle is the halfling's leaf, which is smoked in pipes by almost every character. Many of the hobbits admit that they enjoy eating, drinking, and smoking this weed. It is a major industry in the Shire, where hobbits dwell.

Never once is pipe weed shown to have any negative impact on the characters--in fact, the only character to deride the halfling's leaf is Saurman, who ultimately ends up having storages of it underneath his lair, Isengard. Also, Saruman is a force of industrialization, tears down the trees, and works with the Dark Lord Sauron.

In short, the only person who dislikes the pipe-weed is a man who represents industry.

The effects of pipe-weed in Tolkien's trilogy--and, indeed, in both The Hobbit and later The Silmarillion--are similar to marijuana.

Or, at least, that's how the American counter-culture movement interpreted it.

The book surged in popularity in the sixties due to this perceived link to the counter culture. The hippie movement turned the book into essential reading. Later on, bands like Led Zeppelin based entire songs off of the trilogy.

The reality, though, was that halfling's leaf is not marijuana. According to the book's prologue, it's a special variety of tobacco.

But the book's success, and, indeed, the corner stone of the entire high fantasy genre of literature, was kicked off by this perception of the books, as well as its anti-establishment mindset.

In other words, if not for marijuana--and the literary counter-culture it helped spawn--an Oxford professor's long-term mythology would have never inspired an entire modern genre of fiction.

So What?

The marijuana subculture in early America became intertwined with drug culture as a greater whole. This much is obvious. As seen in Howl and Naked Lunch, the cannabis influenced beatniks often saw people in the streets depending on drugs of all kinds. 

But the marijuana that influenced jazz musicians--as well as the halfling's leaf so many counter-culture members interpreted as marijuana--is presented as mostly harmless. Mainstream society derided it almost unanimously--from the racist stereotypes that spread about marijuana back in the early 20th Century and Saruman's dismissal of pipe-weed.

Which, in turn, widened the divide.

Tolkien may not have been a beatnik, but he represented the counter-culture quite strongly. His novel clearly opposes modern society's industry, and, thus, counters it with his epic fable. At the end of the novel, the Shire is obliterated by industrialization, which ends the tale with a melancholy reminder that this age of innocence will be overrun and forgotten.

The Beat Generation and the hippies that followed them--and, indeed, even modern counter-culture--feel that they stand as custodians to this lost, idyllic world. And all of it ties back to cannabis.

Society's treatment of marijuana led to it becoming a taboo, which led to similarly taboo jazz music to embrace it. In turn, the counter-culture embraced both jazz and marijuana as pillars to its anti-establishment movement. And so on, appropriating other literature and mindsets to further expand their objectives.

Tolkien didn't need to be writing about marijuana for his writing to be about marijuana.

Tolkien often spoke about his distaste for allegory, instead opting for his work to be applicable. 

“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

In this sense, he opened his work up to be taken on by the American counter-culture, which, in turn, led to the inspiration of countless other works. Cannabis became the root to counter-culture, and then pollinated itself with more of itself.

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Literature and Marijuana: Counter-Culture History Through the Years