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A transitional figure linking the Beat generation of the 1950s with the counterculture movement of the 1960s, Kesey is best known for his first novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962).
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Years in the Country
Ken Elton Kesey was born in La Junta, Colorado, on September 17, 1935, to dairy farmers Fred A. and Geneva Smith Kesey. As a boy, Kesey learned to do farm chores, to appreciate country ways and rural values, and to feed his imagination on comic books and the adventure stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Zane Grey, after whom he would name his own first son. After a stint in the navy during World War II, Fred Kesey moved his family to Springfield, Oregon. There Ken and his younger brother, Joe (known as Chuck), fished in the clear streams and hunted in the lush forests of the Willamette Valley and the Cascade Mountains. At Springfield High School, Kesey boxed, wrestled, played guard on the football team, and was voted ”most likely to succeed” by his graduating class. At the University of Oregon in Eugene, he was a speech and drama major, an Olympic-class wrestler, an actor, an aspiring playwright, and a popular member of Beta Theta Pi fraternity. In his junior year, Kesey married Faye Haxby, his high-school sweetheart. He graduated in 1957 with a bachelor’s degree in speech and communications. James B. Hall, a professor of creative writing, was a mentor for Kesey at Oregon.
After graduation, Kesey worked for a year, played some bit parts in Hollywood films, and completed his first novel, End of Autumn, an unpublished story about college athletics. He entered the graduate writing program at Stanford University on a Woodrow Wilson fellowship for the academic year 1958-1959, studying under Malcolm Cowley, Wallace Stegner, Richard Scow-croft, and Frank O’Connor. Kesey’s friends and fellow writing students during his time at Stanford included Wendell Berry, Larry McMurtry, Ernest J. Gaines, Tillie Olsen, and Peter Beagle. Kesey’s house on Perry Lane in the town of Stanford became a gathering place for this extraordinary group of young writers.
In 1959, at the suggestion of Vik Lovell, a psychology graduate student, Kesey volunteered for government drug experiments with LSD and other hallucinogenic substances. In the summer of 1960, Kesey completed a novel called Zoo, also unpublished, about bohemian life in San Francisco’s North Beach community. In 1961, he took a night job as a psychiatric aide in the Veterans Administration hospital at Menlo Park, California. His experiences with drugs and mental patients helped to prepare Kesey for the writing of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the novel that quickly established him as a strong new voice in American fiction. The narrator is a patient in a mental ward, a half-breed Columbia Gorge Indian called Chief ”Broom” Bromden, who feigns deafness and dumbness to avoid human interaction and withdraws into a cerebral fog when life in the ward becomes too painful.
Popular response to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was mainly positive, because many felt that the book illustrated in compelling detail the sources of social tension in America that led to the activism of the 1960s. The previous decade had been marked by a national fear of communism, expressed in the ”McCarthy Era,” a period in which many people who were viewed as outsiders, or potential communists, were treated with hostility and even brought before Congress in a series of infamous hearings presided over by Senator Joseph McCarthy. By the end of the 1950s young people, like the leaders of the Beat Generation, began to take a stand against the status quo and started what is now known as the counterculture movement. It was also during this time that a shift in attitude towards the mentally ill took place, and drug therapy began to replace electroshock therapy and psychosurgery.
Following publication of the book, Kesey moved to Florence on the Oregon coast to continue research for his next novel, Sometimes a Great Notion (1964), a story of the logging industry in the Pacific Northwest. There he rode with the local loggers to and from the woods in the crew trucks, called “crummies,” and socialized with the townspeople and loggers in the local bars, learning the lore and the lingo he needed for his book. After four months, Kesey returned briefly to Perry Lane and then, when Perry Lane was bought by a developer, to La Honda, California, where he completed his logging novel in 1963 and established a base of operations for the friends and rock-music enthusiasts who became the Merry Pranksters.
Communal Living, Social Engineering, and Drug Use
After moving to La Honda, Kesey bought a 1939 International Harvester school bus, which he and the other Merry Pranksters used to make a cross-country trip coinciding with the publication of Sometimes a Great Notion. The revelers recorded the trip on forty hours of film called simply ”The Movie.” The movie was often the centerpiece of Prankster presentations known as ”acid tests,” communal high jinks with LSD that fueled the hippie movement in America. Kesey continued to experiment with communal living and drugs. The drug use entangled him in two arrests on possession charges, extended court proceedings, and, ultimately, a five-month jail term. He was released in November 1967.
A Shift towards Stability
After the hectic period following the release of Sometimes a Great Notion and culminating in his jail term, Kesey moved with his family to his brother’s farm in Pleasant Hill, Oregon, eventually buying his own farm there. From March to June 1969 Kesey took his family to live in London, where he worked with the Beatles’ Apple Records in an unsuccessful project to record authors reading from their own works. Upon his return to the farm at Pleasant Hill he refused to join the Pranksters on their trip to the Woodstock rock festival in August. They went without him, but when they returned they found a sign Kesey had erected in his driveway, stating simply and irrevocably, ”No.” This sign marked both the disbanding of the Pranksters and the beginning of a period of relative stability in Kesey’s life.
For the twenty years between 1969 and 1989, Kesey was erratically productive, but more interested in film, autobiography, little-magazine publication, and environmental activism than in conventional fiction. The movie version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was released in late 1975. Although it was a popular success and won five Academy Awards, Kesey—who was hired and then fired as screenwriter—refused at first to see the film and sued for breach of contract, collecting a small out-of-court settlement.
The next few years were often difficult ones for Kesey, both professionally and personally. Tragedy struck in 1984 when his younger son, Jed, a wrestler like his father, was killed in a highway accident while on a University of Oregon wrestling-team trip. The death hit Kesey very hard. As a hedge against a similar future disaster, Kesey donated a large new traveling van to the University of Oregon wrestling team. In August of 1986, Viking published Kesey’s Demon Box, consisting mostly of previously published material. The dedication is ”To Jed / across the river / riding point.”
A Bold Experiment Lures Kesey Back to Writing
In 1989-1990, over the course of three academic terms, Kesey and thirteen graduate students in the creative writing program at the University of Oregon wrote, rewrote, and presented a completed novel to Viking Penguin. The work was published as Caverns, by O. U. Levon (an anagram for ”U. O. novel”). Set in 1934, the novel follows convicted murderer Dr. Charles Loach as he leads an expedition of colorful characters in search of important archaeological caves in the badlands of the West. A bizarre and interesting tale, the novel is mainly significant as a bold pedagogical experiment. More important, it also drew Kesey back to the writing of fiction.
Kesey wrote two novels during the 1990s. In Sailor Song (1992), his first novel since Sometimes a Great Notion, Kesey explored a time in the twenty-first century when human misuse of the environment produces predictable results. His next novel, Last Go Round (1994), is a tribute to the roundup and the cowboy tradition it represents, especially as embodied by the historical figures of George Fletcher, a famous black bronco rider; Jackson Sundown, a Nez Perce Indian and rodeo champion; and Jonathan E. Lee Spain, a seventeen-year-old cowboy from Tennessee.
The Merry Pranksters Reunite In 1994, Kesey and other members of the Merry Pranksters reunited to tour the country once more, this time performing a musical written by Kesey about the millennium entitled Twister: A Ritual Reality.
Kesey spent the end of his life with Faye, his devoted wife for more than forty years, living close to the livestock and the land on their seventy-five acre farm in Pleasant Hill, about an hour’s drive from Eugene, Oregon. Over the course of their marriage they raised children: sons Zane and Jed, daughter Shannon, and Kesey’s daughter out of wedlock, Sunshine. In 1997, Kesey suffered a stroke. He died on November 10, 2001, after undergoing surgery to remove a tumor on his liver. He was sixty-six years old.
Works in Literary Context
Most of Kesey’s fiction focuses on alienated and nonconformist individuals who attempt, through love, hope, rebellion, and humor, to overcome their limitations and to retain their sanity and self-respect. Kesey was influenced by many authors including Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, William Faulkner, and Friedrich Nietzsche, among others.
Dehumanization in Modern Society
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest examines the disturbing effects of dehumanization in modern society. The novel’s message is that people have become things. Society, the Combine, has become an intimidating force for consumerism and conformity. The Combine and Big Nurse are presented as the enemies in the novel, but they are only symptoms of the malady, not the cause of it. The real enemy, Kesey shows, is the failure of self-reliance growing out of fear. McMurphy discovers that most of the men in the ward are there voluntarily; in succumbing to the pressure of powerful institutional forces the inmates have given permission for their own victimization. Confronted by the complexity of the world and their own incapacities, they have consigned themselves to passive and inglorious escape. Fearing disorder, Big Nurse has devoted her life to control for its own sake, becoming a servant of the system and a tyrant over the men in the cuckoo’s nest, both a victim and a victimizer.
The most prominent theme in Kesey’s fiction is the idea of human redemption as seen in the hero from the traditional American Western. In Kesey’s arrangement of forces around this figure, it is always clear what the author is for and against. He is against determinism, whether in the form of historical pattern, natural or environmental circumstance, or social pressure. He is against technology, especially the kind that leads to dehumanization, displacement, and despoliation. He is against the heedless depletion of natural resources. He is against oppression and mindless conformity. He is for freedom, dignity, friendship, love, sex, laughter, music, clean air, pure water, fair play, and good stories. Again and again in Kesey’s work this character stands tall to validate the concept of redemptive heroism, to demonstrate that what is best in the human spirit can, if properly nourished, overcome what is worst.
Ken Kesey and his work have influenced writers such as Lester Bangs, Hunter S. Thompson, and Chuck Palahniuk, and songwriters such as Jerry Garcia and Paul McCartney.
Works in Critical Context
Ken Kesey’s reputation as a writer depends mainly on his first two novels, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion, both of which are significant imaginative and artistic achievements. In contrast to his work that followed, these novels were well received and continue to generate scholarly attention.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Reviews of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest were largely positive and enthusiastic, but some were mixed, and a few were negative. Rose Geld observes in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review that ”undoubtedly there will be controversy over some material in Ken Kesey’s novel but there can be none about his talent.” A reviewer for Time admired Kesey’s power and humor, characterizing his book as ”a strong, warm story about the nature of human good and evil, despite the macabre setting.” W. J. Smith, writing in Commonweal, calls Kesey ”a rough diamond” but chides him for vitiating the ”real horror and significance” in the book by ”some quite misplaced slapstick.” A reviewer for The New Yorker dismissed the book as ”an almost novel, made up largely of symbols and a rapid shuffle of black-and-white vignettes.”
- Carnes, Bruce. Ken Kesey. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1974.
- Leeds, Barry H. Ken Kesey. New York: Unger, 1981.
- Perry, Paul. On the Bus: The Complete Guide to the Legendary Trip of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and the Birth of the Counterculture. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1990.
- Porter, M. Gilbert. The Art of Grit: Ken Kesey’s Fiction. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1982.
- –. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Rising to Heroism. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Tanner, Stephen L. Ken Kesey. Boston: Twayne, 1983.
- –. ”The Western American Context of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Biographies of Books, edited by James Barbour and Tom Quirk. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1996, pp. 291-320. Wolf, Tom. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. New York: Bantam Books, 1968.
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