Kesey, Kenneth Elton ("Ken")
KESEY, Kenneth Elton ("Ken")
(b. 17 September 1935 in La Junta, Colorado; d. 10 November 2001 in Eugene, Oregon), writer, farmer, filmmaker, and teacher whose primary novels, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) and Sometimes a Great Notion (1964), both of which championed the power of the individual over authoritarian repression, captured and reflected the counterculture spirit of the 1960s.
Kesey was the son of Fred A. Kesey and Geneve (Smith) Kesey, who were dairy farmers; he had one brother. In 1946, after Kesey's father was discharged from the navy, the family moved to Springfield, Oregon, where Fred Kesey established the Eugene Farmers Cooperative; it became the biggest dairy operation in the area, selling under the retail name Darigold. Kesey was an avid reader and was active in sports (particularly wrestling) and theater in high school; he was voted "most likely to succeed" by his graduating class at Springfield High School in 1953. Kesey attended the University of Oregon in Eugene, continuing his involvement in wrestling and acting. In 1956 he married his high school sweetheart, Faye Haxby; they had three children. After graduating with a B.A. in speech and communications in 1957, Kesey moved to Hollywood, where he pursued a career as an actor. He also wrote his first (un-published) novel, End of Autumn.
In 1959 Kesey entered a graduate writing program at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, on a Woodrow Wilson scholarship. At the suggestion of the psychology student Vik Lovell, he signed up for government-sponsored drug experiments at the Veterans Administration hospital in Menlo Park, where he was given LSD, among other psychedelics. He later took a job as a night attendant at the hospital's psychiatric ward, planning to use downtime on the job to complete a second unpublished novel, Zoo. Instead, his experiences with drugs and hospital work inspired the novel One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (dedicated to Lovell). Set in a mental hospital, the novel is narrated by a Native-American inmate, "Chief Broom" Bromden, who plays at being deaf and dumb to escape the horrors of his surroundings. He recounts the arrival of a new inmate, the free-spirited former marine Randle P. McMurphy, who gradually inspires the inmates—most of whom have committed themselves to the hospital voluntarily—to redis-cover their inner strength. This naturally flies in the face of the hospital's and, by extension, society's so-called proper social order, symbolized by McMurphy's chief adversary, the head nurse Ratched. In retaliation for McMurphy's attempts to reawaken the inmates' sense of individuality, Ratched arranges for McMurphy to have a lobotomy. Sickened at the sight of seeing his friend turned into a vegetable, Bromden smothers McMurphy and escapes from the hospital.
Cuckoo's Nest was highly acclaimed on its publication in 1962; the New York Times Book Review called it "a glittering parable of good and evil," while the New York Herald hailed it as "a first novel of special worth." Not every critic was so impressed; some felt that the writing style was uneven and too laden with symbolism, while others attacked what they saw as racist and sexist overtones. Overall, the reception to the book was positive. The theme of the individual (McMurphy) versus the state (the hospital/Nurse Ratched) resonated strongly with a burgeoning counter-culture, a new generation that saw itself as the successors to the beat generation of the 1950s (one of whose leading writers, Jack Kerouac, was a key influence on Kesey's work). In 1963 a theatrical version of Cuckoo's Nest debuted on Broadway, starring Kirk Douglas, but the play closed after a short run.
Before the publication of Cuckoo's Nest, Kesey had returned to Springfield to work on his brother's farm. He then moved to the logging town of Florence, Oregon, to gather material for his second book, Sometimes a Great Notion. After four months, he returned to Palo Alto and in 1963 moved to La Honda, California, where he finished the novel. The book, whose title was taken from the folk song refrain "Sometimes it seems a great notion / to jump in the river and drown," was published in 1964. Set in Oregon, the story concerns the conflict between a logging family, the Stampers, and their local union. Atypically, the union (and its national agent, Jonathan Draeger) is presented as the repressive force, ultimately brought down by Hank Stamper's stubborn stance as a strikebreaker. Another source of conflict is the struggle between Hank and his Yale-educated younger half brother, Lee; Kesey later explained that he viewed the brothers as representing two sides of himself. The novel was written in an elaborate and complex fashion, utilizing flashbacks and a constantly shifting point of view. This made it challenging to read, and as a result it was not as well received as Cuckoo's Nest. But Kesey was still regarded as a writer of great merit, and there was keen anticipation of what he would do next.
What he did was to sidestep writing in favor of the immediate life experience. He had maintained his interest in psychedelic drugs, "tripping" with his friends in La Honda. This loose-knit group, eventually dubbed the "Merry Pranksters," began hosting what they called "acid tests." These were large parties that featured light shows (events that featured all manner of colored lights projected onto the ceilings and walls), rock music by local bands like the Warlocks (soon to become the Grateful Dead), and LSD (which was not yet illegal) in abundance, frequently distributed in vats of Kool-Aid. The Pranksters then decided to take the acid tests on the road, and Kesey bought a 1939 International Harvester school bus for $1,500, which the Pranksters decorated in suitably psychedelic style. The destination sign on the front read "Furthur" (sic), and a sign on the back warned, "Caution: Weird Load."
The Pranksters traveled across the country, inadvertently wreaking havoc with their outrageous dress and copious drug use. Kerouac's sidekick Neil Cassady (immortalized as "Dean Moriarity" in Kerouac's 1957 novel On the Road) was taken on as the Pranksters' bus driver. During his escapades with the Pranksters, Kesey had a child with Carolyn Adams, a Prankster also known as "Mountain Girl," but he remained married to his wife. The trip, which was filmed for posterity, was chronicled in Thomas Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, published in 1968. By that time Kesey's immersion in the counterculture had led to considerable trouble with the authorities. He was arrested for marijuana possession in April 1965 and January 1966, and he fled to Mexico after the second arrest. He returned to the United States in October 1966 and was promptly arrested, eventually serving five months in the San Mateo County Jail and the San Mateo County Sheriff's Honor Camp. He wrote about his jail experiences in Cut the Motherfuckers Loose, which was published in The Last Whole Earth Catalogue (1971).
Kesey was released in November 1967, and the following year he sought refuge in Pleasant Hill, Oregon, where he bought a cattle farm. The move was intended to distance him as much from the Prankster tribe as from the authorities. Although he continued writing short stories and essays, he did not write another novel until 1992's Sailor Song. In 1969 Kesey went to London to work for Zapple Records, a short-lived label that was part of the Beatles' company, Apple Corporation, but the project ultimately fell apart. Back in the United States, Kesey declined the opportunity to accompany the remaining Pranksters to the last gasp for the 1960s counterculture, the Woodstock (New York) music festival in August 1969.
In 1971 the film version of Sometimes a Great Notion was released, directed by and starring the acclaimed actor Paul Newman; it received mixed reviews. Conversely, the film version of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, released in 1975, was a critical and commercial success, winning the top five Oscars for best picture, director, actor, actress, and screenplay. Ironically, the one person who did not like it was Kesey; he refused to see the film and filed suit against the filmmakers for breach of contract. The suit was settled the following year.
Kesey's notable post-1960s work includes Kesey's Garage Sale (1973), a collection of previously published articles and the autobiographical screenplay Over the Border; Demon Box (1986), a collection of articles about the successes and failures of the counterculture; Caverns (1990), a novel written collaboratively with students from his creative writing class, credited to the pseudonym O. U. Levon (an anagram for "University of Oregon novel"); The Further Inquiry (1990), an autobiographical screenplay about Kesey's Merry Prankster days; the novel Sailor Song (1992); and the novelLast Go Round (1994), co-written with Ken Babbs. Another novel, Seven Prayers by Grandma Whittier, was serialized in Kesey's magazine Spit in the Ocean (published in 1974). He also wrote two children's books, Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear (1990) and The Sea Lion: A Story of the Cliff People (1991).
Kesey was diagnosed with liver cancer in October 2001 and underwent surgery in Eugene, Oregon, that same month. Complications arose, and he died at age sixty-six; he was buried at his Pleasant Hill farm. During his lifetime Kesey received a Distinguished Service Award from the State of Oregon in 1978, the Western Literature Association Award for distinguished achievement in writing in 1988, and the Los Angeles Times Robert Kirsh Award in 1991.
A leading figure of the 1960s counterculture, Kesey's work served as a bridge between the beat movement of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s. The humor and love of the human spirit expressed in his writings gave his work a universal appeal, even to those not involved in (or born too late to experience) the counterculture.
A general biography is Stephen L. Tanner, Ken Kesey (1983). A chronology of Kesey's life through 1989 is available in M. Gilbert Porter, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest: Rising to Heroism (1989). Books on Kesey's Merry Prankster exploits include Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) and Paul Perry, On the Bus: The Complete Guide to the Legendary Trip of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and the Birth of the Counterculture (1990). Obituaries are in the New York Times (11 Nov. 2001) and People (26 Nov. 2001).
Gillian G. Gaar