Study Guide

Ken Kesey

Ken Kesey Biography

Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

ph_0111226255-Kesey.jpgKen Kesey Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Ken Kesey was born September 17, 1935, in La Junta, Colorado, the son of Fred A. Kesey and Geneva Smith Kesey, cooperative dairy farmers, both Baptists, both from farming/ranching families that valued self-reliance. His grandmother, the model for the spunky character Grandma Whittier, taught him a love of down-home yarns, tall tales, and biblical stories, while his strong-willed father communicated his love of the outdoors and of physical competition (hunting, fishing, arm wrestling). Kesey’s father described his son affectionately as always trying “to unscrew the unscrutable.” An avid reader and filmgoer, the young Kesey took John Wayne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Zane Grey as his models (later naming a son Zane) and toyed with magic, ventriloquism, and hypnotism.

Kesey’s Springfield, Oregon, high school class voted him most likely to succeed. He played football as a freshman at the University of Oregon in Eugene before receiving a scholarship as the outstanding college wrestler in the Northwest. He majored in speech and communications, acted in a number of campus theater productions, joined Beta Theta Pi and got caught up in the fraternity scene, and spent summers in Hollywood trying out for parts in films. He tried his hand at short stories about his college experiences, and after graduation worked on a novel about college athletics. On May 10, 1956, he married his friend since seventh grade, Faye Haxby, with whom he had two sons and a daughter (a fourth child, Sunshine, was born to Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Adams).

After graduating with a B.A. in 1957, he received a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to study creative writing at Stanford University, but he continued his sports activities, wrestling at the San Francisco Olympic Club and almost making the Olympic team in 1960. (The Selective Service classified him as 4F, or undraftable, as a result of a wrestling shoulder injury.) In the meantime, at Stanford, he became fast friends with fellow creative writing students Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone, and Ken Babbs. His professors included Wallace Stegner, Richard Scowcroft, and Malcolm Cowley.

At Stanford, Kesey was exposed to a radical perspective that turned his life around and led to a bohemian existence of wife swapping and marijuana smoking, leadership in the psychedelic counterculture movement, and trouble with the law. He grew a beard, took up the guitar and folk songs, and became a trendsetter. Kesey predated Timothy Leary in using lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and experimenting with other hallucinogens. A 1959 Saxton Trust Fund Fellowship motivated him to write about his Stanford and North Beach experiences in the unpublished novel “Zoo,” which describes both rootless bohemian life and a loosely autobiographical father-son conflict over responsibility. The same year, Kesey volunteered for drug experiments (with LSD, peyote, psilocybin, mescaline, and so forth) at the Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital in Menlo Park, California. Later, he became a night attendant in the VA psychiatric ward, an experience that inspired One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962). Kesey claims that a Native American image came to him in one of his late-night peyote visions at the hospital. Kesey’s Stanford professor Cowley encouraged his writing of that book and critiqued his draft; Kesey always said that Cowley taught him how good a writer he could be.

In June, 1961, Kesey moved back to Oregon to research Sometimes a Great...

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Ken Kesey Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Ken Kesey, like his hero Neal Cassady, linked the 1950’s Beats with the 1960’s hippies, to glorify marginalized nonconformists and to denigrate organized systems that browbeat individuals to ensure conformity. Kesey transforms the local and the particular into the universal, so that the insane asylum of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the logging town of Sometimes a Great Notion, and the courtroom of The Further Inquiry become microcosms of the conflicts and trends of American society. His fiction demonstrates the importance of individualism and rebellion to social health, contrasting those traits with repression and dehumanizing institutions. Kesey captures the contradictions of America—its idealism and cynicism and the opposition of nature and technology, rural and urban, individual and community, the uninhibited and the repressed, the anarchical and the orthodox.

Ken Kesey Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Ken Elton Kesey was born in La Junta, Colorado, on September 17, 1935, to Fred A. and Geneva Smith Kesey. Kesey’s father shrewdly foresaw that the West Coast would be ideal for business ventures, and he moved his family to Springfield, Oregon, where he founded the Eugene Farmers Cooperative, the largest and most successful dairy cooperative in the Willamette Valley. The father taught his sons, Ken and Joe—the latter being called Chuck—how to wrestle, box, hunt, fish, and swim, and how to float the Willamette and McKenzie rivers on inner-tube rafts.

After attending the Springfield public schools and being voted most likely to succeed, Kesey enrolled in the University of Oregon at Eugene. In 1956, he married his high school sweetheart, Faye Haxby. During his undergraduate years, Kesey was an adept actor and seriously considered pursuing that career. He was also a champion wrestler in the 174-pound division and almost qualified for the Olympics. He received his bachelor of arts degree in 1957 and wrote End of Autumn, an unpublished novel about college athletics. In 1958, he enrolled in the graduate school at Stanford University on a creative-writing scholarship and studied under Malcolm Cowley, Wallace Stegner, Frank O’Connor, and James B. Hall.

During Kesey’s graduate-school years, two important things occurred that would influence his life and writing. The first occurred when he moved his family into one of the cottages on Perry Lane, then the bohemian quarters of Stanford. He met other writers, including McMurtry, Kenneth Babbs, Robert Stone, and Cassady. The second event was that Kesey met Vic Lovell, to whom he would dedicate One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Lovell not only introduced Kesey to Freudian psychology but also told Kesey about the drug experiments at the veterans’ hospital, nearby in Menlo Park, California. In 1960, Kesey volunteered, earned twenty dollars per session, and discovered mind-expanding drugs that included Ditran, IT-290, and LSD. Kesey thus experienced LSD two years before Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert began their experiment at Harvard. Lovell also suggested that Kesey become a night attendant on the Menlo Park Veterans Hospital psychiatric ward so that he could concentrate on his writing. While a night aide, Kesey completed Zoo, an unpublished novel about San Francisco’s North Beach. Kesey became intensely interested, however, in the patients and their life on the ward, and he began writing One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest during the summer of 1960 and completed it in the spring of 1961. More important, as a volunteer and an aide, Kesey stole all types of drugs—especially LSD—which he distributed to his Perry Lane friends.

In June, 1961, Kesey moved his family to Springfield, Oregon, to help his brother start the Springfield Creamery and to save money for researching his next novel. Having saved enough money, the Kesey family moved to Florence, Oregon, fifty miles west of Springfield, and Kesey began gathering material for Sometimes a Great Notion. His research included riding in the pickup trucks, called “crummies,” that bussed the loggers to and from the logging sites. At night, Kesey frequented the bars where the loggers drank, talked, and relaxed.

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest was published in 1962 and was critically acclaimed. In the late spring of 1962, the Kesey family returned to Perry Lane, and Kesey then began writing his second novel. He also renewed his drug experiments. When a developer bought the Perry Lane area for a housing development, Kesey purchased a home and land in La Honda, California, and invited a dozen or so of his closest Perry Lane friends to join him so that they could continue their drug experiments. This group would eventually become Kesey’s famous Merry Pranksters or the Day-Glo Crazies.

Sometimes a Great Notion was scheduled for...

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Ken Kesey Biography (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Ken Kesey created a bridge between the 1950’s Beat generation and the 1960’s hippie movement. He wrote other works of fiction and nonfiction, but none rivaled the success of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Few contemporary works have been so influential. Kesey attended creative writing classes while working nights as a psychiatric attendant at a Veterans Administration hospital, where he volunteered as a research subject to take such drugs as LSD-25, psilocybin, and mescaline. These experiences influenced his writing of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and his legendary bus trip with the Merry Pranksters.

In San Francisco, the bohemian lifestyle of the Beat generation was giving way to a more...

(The entire section is 423 words.)

Ken Kesey Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Ken Elton Kesey (KEE-zee) was one of the most important writers of American fiction of the 1960’s. He was born in La Junta, Colorado, a small farming town in the plains of that state, to Fred A. Kesey and his wife, Geneva Smith Kesey. In 1946, the family moved to rural Oregon, where Kesey remained for most of his life, except for a few years he spent in California in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. In 1956, Kesey married Faye Haxby, whom he had known since childhood. In 1957, he graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in speech and communication, and in 1960 he completed a two-year creative writing program at Stanford University. Considerably more influential upon Kesey and his work than his formal education,...

(The entire section is 973 words.)

Ken Kesey Biography (Novels for Students)

Ken Kesey was bom in 1935 in LaJunta, Colorado. The family moved to Springfield, Oregon, where he attended public school before attending and...

(The entire section is 372 words.)