Ken Kesey Essay - Kesey, Ken (Vol. 1)

Kesey, Ken (Vol. 1)

Kesey, Ken 1935–

American novelist, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Although first published in 1962, Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest still enjoys a wide readership. Kesey's "hippy" reputation and the book's unusual expression of anti-Establishment themes, ranging from rebellion against conformity to pastoral retreat, would explain its current popular appeal. The critics' response to the book is less understandable. A warm reception by reviewers has been followed by relatively little critical interest. The book deserves more attention as an imaginative expression of a moral position congenial to an important segment of the American population and as a noteworthy use of Popular culture in a serious novel….

Kesey's mode of simplification voices a moral vision rooted in clearcut opposition between Good and Evil, between natural man and society, between an older mode of existence honoring masculine physical life and a modern day machine culture inimical to it, between the Indian fishing village and the hydroelectric dam. Modern society standardizes men and straitjackets its misfits; it causes the illness which it quarantines. The spiritual residue of the American Old West opposes the machine culture; but the West, as such, is doomed like McMurphy. For Kesey, Popular culture's hardened simplicity of detail expresses continuing American values and problems, etched deeply in the American consciousness. Modern machine culture is the most recent manifestation of society's threat to the individual, perhaps the most threatening….

Kesey believes in the comic strip world in spite of himself. This is the moral ground on which critical faultfinding must begin. Kesey has not avoided the dangers of a simplistic aesthetic despite his attempts to complicate it. He forgets that the comic strip world is not an answer to life, but an escape from it. The reader finds Kesey entering that world too uncritically in defense of the Good.

Terry G. Sherwood, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and the Comic Strip," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XIII, No. 1, 1971, pp. 96-109.