FITZ HUGH LUDLOW - AN INTRODUCTION
At Union College in Schenectady, New York, in 1975, a 19 year old undergraduate majoring in economics, with a strong interest in recreational drugs and their effect on the mind - an interest common to students in the 1970's, though one already in decline - joined an organization known as the Kappa Alpha Society, the first Greek letter social fraternity in the country. Learning something of its history as part of the initiation requirement, he was introduced to an alumnus of the organization, Fitz Hugh Ludlow, class of 1856 at Union. Ludlow was still honored by the school as the author of the college alma mater, and of a peculiar book called The Hasheesh Eater, published in 1857. Reading the book, the undergraduate was delighted to find it a full detailed rendering of the twenty year old author's experiences, over a hundred years before, with the drug hashish, then legal and part the primitive pharmacopieia of the day as a treatment for lockjaw. The ornate prose of the book reflected a breadth of classical learning, but the student was equally struck by the Kappa Alpha members' emphasis on Ludlow's ties to Mark Twain. They asserted that Twain would publish nothing without Ludlow's review and approval. The undergraduate joined Kappa Alpha, and eventually graduated Union.
After graduation, the student found a copy of The Hasheesh Eater recently published by an organization called the Fitz Hugh Ludlow Memorial Library. This was even more intriguing. The book contained a significant amount of biographical material, quotes about Ludlow including a paean from Twain, and details of a varied and unusual career after the publication of the best selling The Hasheesh Eater.
A year later, the Union graduate came across a short story by Ludlow in a turn of the century anthology in the Denver Public Library. The discovery sparked the graduate to compile Ludlow's bibliography, a list which eventually grew to number some 130 items. Ludlow's career lasted only thirteen years before his death in 1870, a death attributed by some to opium addiction. The bibliography reflected a varied literary career as short story writer, journalist, music and drama critic, lay science writer, playwright and travel raconteur. His bread and butter was romance, formulaic stories and novels that were nevertheless laced with touches of dry wit and autobiography. A childlike whimsy seemed to bubble underneath the erudition, and surfaced in poems, drawings, and even a dramatic adaptation of Cinderella used to raise money for the Civil War wounded -- his various writings had evidently secured him a place among New York's high society.
Many of the short stories were published in the satiric journals of the Bohemian subculture that was just emerging, like Vanity Fair and the Saturday Press. Walt Whitman was a famous fellow reveler in the Pfaff's Restaurant coterie of fugitive journalists and ne'er do wells in pre-Civil War New York City. And yet this dissolute company was an odd counterpoint to Ludlow's most compelling stories, meditations that turned on religious themes, a preoccupation inherited from his Abolitionist preacher father. Even the hashish journeys were interpreted in a Christian as well as transcendentalist context.
The search unearthed another full length book, The Heart of the Continent. As a travel writer, Ludlow explored the far reaches of America, Florida in the South and California to the West.. His first hand reports of the Western frontier were used by the Smithsonian Institution and the Wells Fargo Company alike to further their interests in manifest destiny. This stagecoach trip across the Great Divide appeared to be the watershed of his life in many ways. The Civil War had interrupted his slowly maturing fiction-writing career, and his turn toward descriptive and scientific writing derailed the further crafting of his natural storytelling gits. Further, his partner on the Western trip, Albert Bierstadt, not only turned his great canvases of Rocky Mountain splendor into a millionaire's lifestyle, but contended as well for Ludlow's own wife. The Heart of the Continent, not published until months before the author's death, returned to print as one of a series of books of Americana in 1971, a hundred years after its first publication. It remains a comprehensive contemporary view of the American West at the very beginning of its exploitation. But like The Hasheesh Eater, it fell into obscurity with the author's death.
Ludlow's place in history puzzled the Union graduate. The Hasheesh Eater was published in the 1850's, the decade of Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Walden, and Leaves of Grass, "one of the most revitalizing periods of genius in American literature." (Horowitz, 1975.) It seemed to the young graduate, though only an English minor at school, that there clearly existed a substantial enough body of work to warrant a larger footnote in the history of literature. Yet it became apparent that academia had paid scant attention to Ludlow. A professor at Union assembled a short pamplet on the life of Ludlow, filled with biographical misinformation and a dim view of Ludlow's importance and propriety, perhaps not surprising in the staid 1950's. Three students had completed theses on Ludlow over the past 65 years, and only one of these even attempted analysis. Yet even in this meager consideration came one critical tribute to The Hasheesh Eater, from Cornell professor Morris Bishop: "This is a considerable literary achievement."
And so the investigation continued. The investigation included a visit to Michael Horowitz, an antiquarian bookseller and scholar of drug literature (also father of actress Winona Ryder, and friend of Timothy Leary, Winona's godfather.) Horowitz himself had come across The Hasheesh Eater in his bookselling rounds in the early 1960's, and was astonished to find a full length treatment of drug use of that age, and one that was not a diatribe against use of the drug. The Beatniks had discovered Ludlow, and passed on the knowledge to the Hippie generation, through publication of the book by Beat icon City Lights Books and in a broadside in 1960, alongside the works of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Jean Paul Sartre.
Excerpts and analyses of the book appeared in half a dozen books on the Sixties' drug scene, as well as in the Berkeley Barb, dean of the underground newspapers. Timothy Leary himself provided a benediction, while living in exile in Switzerland after a prison escape. Reflecting upon other famous exiles to Switzerland, he placed himself in "the alchemic-shaman tradition of Paracelsus, Ludlow and William James." (Ludlow died in Switzerland.)
Tracing Ludlow back further in time, the Union grad found that The Hasheesh Eater, after four editions prior to the Civil War, disappeared until a reprinting by a British publisher in 1903, with illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley. That edition caught the attention of two great eccentrics of the early twentieth century, Aleisteir Crowley and H.P. Lovecraft.
Crowley was a self styled adept in the occult arts, a member of the Golden Dawn group that once claimed poet W.B. Yeats for a memebr. Crowley's search for ceremonial magic techniques had led him to yoga and other Eastern practices. He was familiar with tales of hashish use when he came upon Ludlow's work. He reprinted large portions of it in his journal, The Equinox, and recommended its usefulness as a textbook. "The fact, never witnessed by me before, of a mind in that state being able to give its phenomena to another and philosophise about them calmly, afforded me the means of a most clear investigation."
H.P. Lovecraft, the writer of supernatural fiction, was once queried as to whether he'd read Ludlow's The Hasheesh Eater. He replied: "I possess it upon mine own shelves, and would not part with it for any inducement whatever." He went on to say that he had "frequently reread those phantasmagoria of exotic colour, which proved more of a stimulant to my own fancy than any vegetable alkaloid ever grown and distilled."
Ludlow and his best seller surfaced again in 1937 during the anti-marijuana crusade of Harry Anslinger, commisioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotcs. (Incidentally, marijuana was the name given to the plant by yellow journalists of the era to feed on racist fears - it was more commonly known as hemp.) Dr. Robert Walton of the University of Mississippi , at the request of the government, produced a sober analysis of the drug and included a lengthy discussion of The Hasheesh Eater, commending it as a sophisticated medical case history. D. Walton's conclusions about the dangers of pot were mixed (and even the AMA testified against criminalizing hemp) but Anslinger was uninterested in scientific debate, and led a campaign of misinformation and hysteria (immortalized in the film Reefer Madness) which resulted in marijuana being made illegal in 1938.
Walton's attention to Ludlow as medical commentator was prescient. Ludlow had published the first serious essay on opium addiction in America, and then helped edit a book, The Opium Habit, that contained Ludlow's suggested regimen for treating opium addiction, a regimen deriving from his own entanglement with the drug, and with years of struggle with alcoholism. The Opium Habitreturned to print in 1981 as one of the Arno Press' Addiction in America series, anticipating the recovery movement of the 1980's. Moreover, Ludlow's serial magazine novel The Household Angel also pioneered a view of alcohol as something other than a moral failing. Alas, The Household Angel was never published in book form. These two books lay forgotten for a hundred years, predictably perhaps, in view of twentieth century American views of drugs. It was apparently easier to treat such things as simply taboo until the effects of abuse became too great to ignore.
Ludlow's opium essay and follow-up book were influential with opium users and brought him enormous amounts of correspondence. He understood them in part because he understood the attraction, and was able to bring to bear a keen analytical mind and sympathetic heart to plans for treatment. He died before putting such plans in place, and in a weird turn of events was embroiled in the scheme of a snake oil salesman peddling an opium "cure".
The 1980's were sobering for the Union graduate. The backlash at what seemed an innocuous dalliance with marijuana was enormous in the Just Say No decade. Early in the decade, the graduate returned to visit Union, and found the school had instituted an annual event called Fitz Hugh Ludlow Day. One of its early themes was to have fun without drinking, and coincided with the raising of the drinking age from 18 to 21. Most of the students (with the exception of the Kappa Alpha members) had little acquaintance with or interest in Ludlow. Some of them were members of SADD, Students Against Drunk Driving, a stance unthinkable to hellraisers of earlier times. The ebb and flow of social attitudes toward altered states of consciousness seemed destined to continue, and perhaps The Hasheesh Eater is a barometer of these.
The curators of the Fitz Hugh Ludlow Memorial Libary, in storage since the 60's, have recently held discussions with the Albert Hofmann Foundation, one of a number of drug policy and consciousness study organizations that sprang up in seeming defiance of the War on Drugs, to find a new home for its collections. The Hasheesh Eater saw print once more in 1989, and was serialized in 1992 in a new magazine, Psychedelic Illuminations.
And as it appeared to him that Ludlow's place in American history will never permanently fade into obscurity, the Union graduate, class of 1978, thought it fitting to compile a biography, in hopes of shedding a little light on an unusual, but apparently very durable and very American man of letters, Fitz Hugh Ludlow.