Ken Kesey

From New World Encyclopedia

Ken Kesey
Born September 17 1935(1935-09-17)
La Junta, Colorado
Died November 10 2001 (aged 66)
Pleasant Hill, Oregon
Occupation Novelist, short story writer, essayist
Nationality United States
Genres Beat, Postmodernism
Literary movement Merry Pranksters
Notable work(s) One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Influences Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, William Faulkner, Friedrich Nietzsche, William Shakespeare, William S. Burroughs, Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain
Influenced Jerry Garcia, Lester Bangs, Hunter S. Thompson, Chuck Palahniuk, Paul McCartney

Kenneth Elton Kesey (September 17, 1935 – November 10, 2001) was an American author, best known for his major novels, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion, and as a counter-cultural figure who, some consider a link between the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s. "I was too young to be a beatnik, and too old to be a hippie," Kesey said in a 1999 interview with Robert K. Elder.

Kesey's experience as a test subject for experiments with mind-altering drugs at a Veterans Administration hospital at Menlo Park, California led to his first great literary success, with the counter-cultural tour de force, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. Despite the success of Cuckoo's Nest, his next work, Sometimes a Great Notion, is generally considered by literary critics as his most important work. His innovative use of the first-person narrative was an important contribution to twentieth century novelist technique.

Early life

Ken Kesey was born in La Junta, Colorado to Frederick A. Kesey and Geneva Smith Kesey who were both dairy farmers.[1] In 1946, the family moved to Springfield, Oregon.[2] A champion wrestler in both high school and college, he graduated from Springfield High School in 1953.[2]

In 1956 while attending college at the University of Oregon in neighboring Eugene, Kesey eloped with his high-school sweetheart, Norma "Faye" Haxby, whom he met while in seventh grade.[2] They had three children, Jed, Zane, and Shannon. Kesey had another child, Sunshine, in 1966 with fellow Merry Prankster Carolyn Adams.[3]

Kesey attended the University of Oregon's School of Journalism, where he received a degree in speech and communication in 1957, where he was also a brother of Beta Theta Pi. He was awarded a Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship in 1958 to enroll in the creative writing program at Stanford University, which he did the following year.[2] While at Stanford, he studied under Wallace Stegner and began the manuscript that would become One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Experimentation with psychoactive drugs

At Stanford in 1959, Kesey volunteered to take part in a CIA-financed study named Project MKULTRA at the Menlo Park Veterans Hospital. The project studied the effects of psychoactive drugs, particularly LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, cocaine, AMT, and DMT.[2] Kesey wrote many detailed accounts of his experiences with these drugs, both during the Project MKULTRA study and in the years of private experimentation that followed. His role as a medical guinea pig inspired Kesey to write One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1962. The success of this book, as well as the sale of his residence at Stanford, allowed him to move to La Honda, California, in the mountains south of San Francisco. He frequently entertained friends and many others with parties he called "Acid Tests" involving music (such as Kesey's favorite band, The Warlocks, later known as the Grateful Dead), black lights, fluorescent paint, strobes and other "psychedelic" effects, and, of course, LSD. These parties were noted in some of Allen Ginsberg's poems and are also described in numerous accounts of 1960s counter-culture, such as Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs and Freewheelin Frank, Secretary of the Hell's Angels by Frank Reynolds. Ken Kesey was also purported to have experimented with LSD with Ringo Starr in 1965, perhaps influencing the set up for their future performances in the UK.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

In 1959, Kesey wrote a novel called Zoo, which was about the beatniks living in the North Beach community of San Francisco. The novel was never published. He wrote another novel in 1960 called End of Autumn which was about a young man who leaves his working class family after he gets a scholarship to an Ivy League school. This novel is also unpublished. However, Kesey started writing another novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

The novel is set in an Oregon asylum, and serves as a study of the institutional process and the human mind. The novel was written in 1959, although it wasn't published until 1962. The novel was such a success that it was later adapted into a 1975 film, which won numerous Academy Awards. Although the novel was controversial when it was released due to the fact that it contained much sexual content, it later became known as a classic American novel.

TIME Magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.[4]

The story was adapted into a Broadway play by Dale Wasserman in 1963.

The book's epigraph is:

…one flew east, one flew west,
One flew over the cuckoo's nest.


One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was a direct product of Kesey's time working the graveyard shift as an orderly at a mental health facility in Menlo Park, California. Not only did he speak to the patients and witness the workings of the institution, he received electroconvulsive therapy and took psychoactive drugs (notably LSD, psilocybin, mescaline and DMT).


One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest introduced the world to the fictional character called Nurse Ratched. She is an example of the coercive nature of conformity. Although she does not normally resort to conventionally harsh discipline, her actions are portrayed as more insidious than those of a conventional prison administrator because their subtlety prevents her prisoners from understanding that they are being controlled at all. Chief Bromden, the novel's half-Native American narrator, who has been in the mental hospital since the end of World War II, sees a comparison between the hospital administration and the damming of the wild Columbia River at Celilo Falls, where his Native American ancestors hunted, and in the broader conformity of post-war American consumer society. The novel's critique of the mental ward as an instrument of oppression echoed the 1960s concerns about conformity found in the theories of those like French intellectual Michel Foucault. Foucault argued that invisible forms of discipline oppressed individuals on a broad societal scale, encouraging them to censor aspects of themselves and their actions. The novel also subtly critiques the emasculation of men in society particularly in the character of Billy Bibbit, the stuttering acute who is domineered by both Nurse Ratched and his mother.

Merry Pranksters

In 1964, when the publication of his second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion required his presence in New York, Kesey, Neal Cassady, and others in a group of friends they called the "Merry Pranksters" took a cross-country trip in a school bus nicknamed "Furthur."[5] This trip, described in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (and later in Kesey's own screenplay "The Further Inquiry") was the group's attempt to create art out of everyday life. In New York, Cassady introduced Kesey to Jack Kerouac and to Allen Ginsberg, who in turn introduced them to Timothy Leary. Sometimes a Great Notion was made into a 1971 film starring Paul Newman, which was nominated for two Academy Awards, and in 1972 was the first film shown by the new television network HBO, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

Legal trouble

Kesey was arrested for possession of marijuana in 1965. In an attempt to mislead police, he faked suicide by having friends leave his truck on a cliffside road near Eureka, along with a suicide note that read, "Ocean, Ocean I'll beat you in the end." Kesey fled to Mexico in the back of a friend's car. When he returned to the United States eight months later, Kesey was arrested and sent to the San Mateo County jail in Redwood City, California, for five months. On his release, he moved back to the family farm in Pleasant Hill, Oregon, in the Willamette Valley, where he spent the rest of his life. He wrote many articles, books (mostly collections of his articles), and short stories during that time.


In 1994 he toured with members of the Merry Pranksters performing a musical play he wrote about the millennium called Twister: A Ritual Reality. Many old and new friends and family showed up to support the Pranksters on this tour that took them from Seattle's Bumbershoot, all along the West Coast including a sold out two-night run at The Fillmore in San Francisco to Boulder, Colorado, where they coaxed (or pranked) the Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg into performing with them. Kesey, always a friend to musicians since his days of the Acid Test, enlisted the band Jambay, one of the original bands of the jam band genre, to be his "pit orchestra." Jambay played an acoustic set before each Twister performance and an electric set after each show.

Final years

Kesey mainly kept to his home life in Pleasant Hill, preferring to make artistic contributions on the Internet, or holding ritualistic revivals in the spirit of the Acid Test. He occasionally made appearances at rock concerts and festivals, bringing the second bus "Furthur2" and various Merry Pranksters with him. In the official Grateful Dead DVD release The Closing of Winterland (2003), which documents the monumental New Year's 1978 concert, Kesey is featured in a between-set interview. More notably, he appeared at the Hog Farm Family Pig-Nic Festival (organized by Woodstock MC Wavy Gravy, in Laytonville, California), where they mock-canonized a very ill but still quite aware Timothy Leary atop "Further2." He also performed on stage with Jambay at the Pig-Nic, playing a few songs from Twister with members of the original cast.

In 1984, Kesey's son Jed, a wrestler for the University of Oregon, was killed on the way to a wrestling tournament when the team's bald-tired van crashed. This deeply affected Kesey, who later said Jed was a victim of conservative, anti-government policy that starved the team of proper funding. There is a memorial dedicated to Jed on the top of Mount Pisgah, which is near the Keseys' home in Pleasant Hill. In a Grateful Dead Halloween concert just days after Bill Graham died in a helicopter crash, Kesey appeared on stage in a tuxedo to deliver a eulogy, mentioning that Graham had paid for Jed's mountain-top memorial.

His last major work was an essay for Rolling Stone magazine calling for peace in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

In 1997, health problems began to take their toll on Kesey, starting with a stroke that year. After developing diabetes, he then needed surgery to remove a tumor on his liver October 25, 2001. Ken Kesey never recovered from the operation and died on November 10, 2001, at the age of 66.[2]


Kesey's works are somewhat dated now, as the political and social turmoil of the 1960s provided much of the context in which Kesey's works gained such popularity. Nevertheless, he remained a popular counter-cultural figure until the end of his life.

In June 2001, Kesey was invited and accepted as the keynote speaker at the annual commencement of The Evergreen State College. A film was made by Neal Cassady about Kesey's life, starring Tate Donovan as Cassady, and Chris Bauer as Kesey.


Some of Kesey's better-known works include:[6]

  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962, novel)
  • Genesis West: Volume Five (1963, magazine article)
  • Sometimes a Great Notion (1964, novel)
  • Kesey's Garage Sale (1973, collection of essays and short stories)
  • Demon Box (1986, collection of short stories)
  • Caverns (1989, novel)
  • The Further Inquiry (1990, screenplay)
  • Sailor Song (1992, novel)
  • Last Go Round (1994, novel, written with Ken Babbs)
  • Twister (1994, play)
  • Kesey's Jail Journal (2003, collection of essays)


  1. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, November 11, 2001, "Ken Kesey, Author of 'Cuckoo's Nest,' Who Defined the Psychedelic Era, Dies at 66." The New York Times Retrieved December 16, 2008.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Jeff Baker November 11, 2001. "All times a great artist, Ken Kesey is dead at age 66." The Oregonian A1.
  3. Cynthia Robins,Kesey's friends gather in tribute, 2001-12-07. Retrieved December 16, 2008.
  4. TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to Retrieved December 27, 2008.
  5. NMAH | Signboard, Pass the Acid Test Retrieved December 16, 2008.
  6. Martin Blank, Selected Bibliography for Ken Kesey. Literary Kicks accessdate December 16, 2008

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External links

All links retrieved October 5, 2022.


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