1963 – Beat Generation Authors William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg Publish The Yage Letters.
In 1963, Beat Generation authors William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg published The Yage Letters, a collection of their correspondence and some notes Burroughs kept of his ayahuasca experiences. Most of the letters date back to 1953, when Burroughs set out on a seven-month-long expedition into the Amazon rainforest. His mission was to find yagé (ayahuasca), or what was once called “telepathine” due to its alleged telepathic properties; a fabled mind-expanding drug that local indigenous doctors would use to locate lost objects and souls.
Their writings can be placed within a broader lineage of early Western encounters with ayahuasca. Before Burroughs’ and Ginsberg’s ayahuasca letters, there were nineteenth century researchers such as the Ecuadorian geographer Manuel Villavicencio or the English botanist Richard Spruce, who both wrote about their personal ayahuasca experiences.
In his mid-twentieth century letters, Burroughs describes the incidents during his travels and his experiments with this “mystical drug” which he refers to as “the final fix.” Years later, Ginsberg reciprocated the correspondence with his own Amazon journey, beckoning for Burroughs’ counsel after run-ins with profound ayahuasca visions.
As anthropologist Graham St. John noted, Burroughs’ had a breakthrough experience with ayahuasca described as powerfully transformative, while concluding: “Yagé is the final kick and you are not the same after you have taken it. I mean literally.” However, St. John also noted:
“Reading this story, I gained the impression that, for Burroughs, yagé was mostly ineffectual, his expectations unmet. This set a contrast to Ginsberg, who, reporting his yagé experience to Burroughs from the region seven years later, depicted merger with “the Great Being” and his realization of the illusion of separate consciousness.”
Oliver Harris, Burroughs’ scholar, went back to the original manuscripts in order to compose a more detailed account, which was published in 2006 under the name of The Yage Letters Redux. This new edition contains previously unpublished correspondence between Burroughs and Ginsberg that sheds new light on their adventures, as well as an extended introduction by Harris himself, which unravels the history of the genesis of the letters and expounds on their cultural relevance.
In 1953, Burroughs recorded this film about ayahuasca in the Putamayo rainforest region of Colombia:
The global popularizing of ayahuasca didn’t really begin with Burrough’s and Ginsberg’s writing. Perhaps the early signs were there in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until the 1990s when a burst in scientific studies coincided with popular texts sharing tales and insights about ayahuasca. This would have to include the philosopher and wordsmith Terence McKenna touring the globe on speaking tours, and the wildly popular book by anthropologist Jeremy Narby entitled The Cosmic Serpent.
Burroughs, W., and Allen G. (1953). The Yage Letters. City Lights Books.
St. John, G. (2015). Mystery Schools in Hyperspace: A Cultural History of DMT. Berkley: Evolver Editions
Painting of Williams Burroughs in Header Image is by Richard Day.