Study Guide

Ken Kesey

Ken Kesey Essay - Kesey, Ken (Vol. 184)

Kesey, Ken (Vol. 184)

Introduction

Ken Kesey 1935-2001

(Full name Ken Elton Kesey; has also written under the pseudonym O. U. Levon) American novelist, short story writer, essayist, poet, screenwriter, journalist, editor, playwright, and children's writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Kesey's career through 2002. See also, Ken Kesey Criticism and CLC, Volumes 3, 6, and 11.

Often regarded as a transitional figure who linked the Beat Generation of the 1950s with the hippie movement of the 1960s, Kesey began his literary career with the best-selling and critically acclaimed novel One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962). Typical of Kesey's fiction, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest focuses on marginalized or nonconformist individuals. These outcasts try to overcome the stigma of their social status and retain their self-respect by opening their consciousnesses to the pleasures of sensuous experience and rejecting the manipulations of a technologically oriented society. In addition, his writings routinely feature inventive symbolism, archetypal characters, and esoteric philosophies derived from Eastern and Native American religions, mysticism, and the occult. Kesey was also an early proponent of the West Coast psychedelic movement from its inception. In the mid-1960s, he founded a group known as the Merry Pranksters, who dedicated themselves to the quest for heightened self-awareness and new forms of expression induced by psychoactive drugs, particularly LSD. Although most critics have recognized One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest as a masterpiece of contemporary American literature, Kesey's subsequent works have attained neither the popularity nor the critical acclaim of his first novel.

Biographical Information

Kesey was born on September 17, 1935, in La Junta, Colorado. He attended primary school in Springfield, Oregon, where his family ran a cooperative dairy farm. As an undergraduate at the University of Oregon, Kesey actively participated in fraternities, drama, and wrestling. During his senior year, he married Faye Haxby, with whom he had four children. After earning his B.A. in 1957, Kesey considered pursuing professional acting and wrote the unpublished novel End of Autumn before starting graduate study in creative writing at Stanford University in 1958. While at Stanford, Kesey befriended fellow students Larry McMurtry and Robert Stone and studied under such notable literary critics as Wallace Stegner, Richard Scowcroft, Malcolm Cowley, and Frank O'Connor. Meanwhile, Kesey became involved in the counterculture movement that developed in the Perry Lane area of Stanford, which was modeled after San Francisco's North Beach, the center of the Beat movement. During this period, he also volunteered for government drug experiments, particularly those involving LSD, at the Veteran's Administration Hospital in Menlo Park, California. The hospital eventually hired Kesey as an aide in the psychiatric ward where he sometimes wrote while taking peyote during his night shifts. His experiences with both drug use and hospital work became the basis for his first published novel, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, a critical and popular success. By the 1970s, the novel was one of the most frequently taught contemporary texts at American universities. In 1963 Kesey bought a mountain home in La Honda, California, which soon became home to the Merry Pranksters and the center of the LSD-fueled psychedelic movement. The following year, Kesey completed Sometimes a Great Notion (1964), which inspired the Merry Pranksters to make their notorious bus trip to New York City for the novel's initial release. They documented the event with more than forty hours of film that became known as “the movie.” The film was often screened during their so-called “acid tests,” the defining social events of the hippie movement which Tom Wolfe famously chronicled in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). In 1965 Kesey was arrested for possession of marijuana but, to avoid prosecution, fled to Mexico, where he made a declaration that he was giving up writing to live his life as though it were literature. Kesey later served five months in the San Mateo County Jail and was released in November 1967. After the death of his mentor and friend Neal Cassady in 1968, Kesey bought a seventy-five acre farm in Pleasant Hill, Oregon, which remained his primary residence until his death. He briefly lived in London in 1969, where he worked with Apple Records on a failed project to record writers reading their own works. When he returned to the United States, Kesey disbanded the Merry Pranksters and turned away from their lifestyle and drug-use. In 1970 the film adaptation of Sometimes a Great Notion premiered, and Kesey produced the unreleased children's film Atlantis Rising. During the early 1970s, Kesey gradually returned to literary endeavors, editing The Last Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog (1971) with journalist Paul Krassner and publishing Ken Kesey's Garage Sale (1973). During the mid-1970s, Kesey wrote six editions of his periodical Spit in the Ocean (1974-1980) and contributed a series of “dispatches” from Egypt to Rolling Stone magazine. Milos Forman directed the film adaptation of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1975, which won five Academy Awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, including best picture and best director. In 2000, when the American Film Institute complied its list of the top 100 films of all time, Cuckoo's Nest was ranked as number twenty. However, Kesey refused to attend the premiere of Cuckoo's Nest until the producers agreed to settle a breach of contract lawsuit and famously stated that he had never seen the film as a result. From 1975 until 1986, Kesey wrote little except for a few articles for such magazines as Esquire and Running. In 1984 Kesey's son Jeb was killed in an accident, and Kesey subsequently dedicated the collection Demon Box (1986) to his memory. He joined the faculty of the creative writing program at the University of Oregon in 1989, where he conducted a three-term graduate seminar that collectively wrote and published a novel within a single year—Caverns (1989). In the early 1990s, Kesey wrote two children's books, Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear (1990) and The Sea Lion: A Story of the Sea Cliff People (1991), before he published Sailor Song (1992), his first novel in nearly twenty years. Kesey died on November 10, 2001, in Eugene, Oregon, due to complications following surgery for liver cancer.

Major Works

Set in a psychiatric facility in the northwestern United States, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest is narrated from the perspective of Chief Bromden, a large, schizophrenic American Indian of mixed native and European ancestry. Bromden feigns being deaf and mute to avoid being “worked on” by the hospital staff, particularly the enforcer guards who he refers to as the “Combine,” a term suggesting both the threshing machine and an agency of normative control. As the novel opens, Bromden views life in the hospital ward as a humorless cartoon fraught with human misery, and his observations of the real world are initially rendered in paranoid terms. For instance, his acute awareness of the staff's desire to control all aspects of the patient's lives leads him to fantasize that the staff mechanically manipulates the patients via electronic circuitry behind the hospital's walls. Bromden's theories are challenged by the arrival of Randle Patrick McMurphy, a swaggering ex-Marine, gambler, and braggart, who describes himself as “a good old red, white, and blue hundred-percent American con-man.” McMurphy is immediately identified as a nonconformist by his fellow patients, including Harding, an effeminate intellectual who feels emasculated by his spiteful wife, and Billy Bibbit, an adolescent whose self-image depends on the approval of his domineering mother. McMurphy shows his fellow patients the value of laughter as both a source of sanity and a weapon against repression. Consequently, he engages in a comic power struggle with “Big Nurse” Ratched, an efficient administrator of institutionalized conformity, who demeans and manipulates the patients into attacking one another in the name of “therapy” in order to retain control. At first, McMurphy unsuccessfully tries to abide by Ratched's rules, but he later organizes an unapproved fishing trip and a wild party in the ward where Billy loses his virginity to a prostitute. The next morning, McMurphy attempts to escape, and Ratched threatens to inform Billy's mother about her son's promiscuity. Unable to live with his mother's disapproval, Billy commits suicide. As a result, McMurphy physically attacks Ratched, who subsequently orders restraints and a lobotomy for McMurphy to show the remaining patients that resistance is futile. The incident undeniably affects Bromden, causing him to smother the lobotomized McMurphy to death in order to both deprive Ratched of her victory and to accept responsibility for his and the other patients's complicity in McMurphy's downfall. One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest concludes with Bromden escaping from the hospital and making his way to Canada as a sane individual.

Kesey's second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, is considered more complex in scope and style than Cuckoo's Nest. Set in the logging town of Waconda, a region on the Oregon coast that had a high suicide rate in the early 1960s, the story recounts the relationship between Hank Stamper, an individualistic logger who defies his neighbors and union organizers by working during a strike, and his half-brother Lee, who wants to seduce Hank's wife to avenge a sexual encounter that he witnessed as a boy between Hank and Lee's biological mother. Despite their capacities for reckless self-indulgence, the brothers come to realize their helplessness and interdependence when Hank's personal rebellion fails and Lee's revenge proves unfulfilling. Presented in the grandiose, mock-epic style of Marvel comic books, Ken Kesey's Garage Sale gathers magazine articles, interviews, and satiric essays written by Kesey and others, including Paul Krassner and Allen Ginsberg. The collection also includes an original screenplay by Kesey, Over the Border, an animated psychodrama based on his flight to Mexico. Balancing Kesey's nostalgia for the mirth of the 1960s with an awareness of the hazards of the countercultural lifestyle, Demon Box presents a selection of Kesey's previously published short stories, articles, essays, and interviews written during the 1970s and 1980s. The work includes Kesey's “dispatches” from Egypt for Rolling Stone, articles on cattle raising (“Abdul and Ebenezer”) and the Beijing marathon (“Running into the Great Wall”), and an elegy for Cassady (“The Day after Superman Died”). Many of the pieces in the collection are narrated by a character named Devlin Deboree, who is often seen as Kesey's alter-ego. Published the same year as On the Bus, Paul Berry and Ken Babbs's account of the Merry Pranksters' 1964 bus trip, The Further Inquiry (1990) offers Kesey's own retrospective on the Merry Prankster years along with an extensive photo album and a mock-trial screenplay that pits a prosecutor named Chest against the testimony of various Pranksters, whom Devlin Deboree defends.

Set in the Ozark Mountains, Kesey's first children's book, Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear, follows a wily squirrel who decides to stop the bullying of a tyrannous bear and thereby makes the homes of the others animals safe once more. The action of Sailor Song is set in a future world where a series of long-predicted ecological disasters have finally occurred. The novel chronicles life in Kuniak, a run-down Alaskan fishing village inhabited by refugees, transients, and natives who have somehow escaped the pollution, sterility, and demoralization that plagues the rest of the planet. The protagonist is Ike Sallas, a celebrated local hero and a retired eco-terrorist, who confronts Nicholas Levertov, a former convict and popular filmmaker. Levertov intends to exploit Kuniak's safety and comfort by turning the village into a tourist attraction, but his intentions divide the citizens into two factions—one group desires the expected financial windfall from the tourism, while the other wants to leave Kuniak untouched. In the end, however, neither party claims victory as an ecological apocalypse interrupts everyone's plans and dreams. Twister: A Ritual Reality in Four Quarters (1993), Kesey's only play, is a technologically experimental drama which combines numerous references to L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz with a satiric take on popular culture and the modern media. Last Go Round (1994), Kesey's final novel, marks a thematic departure from his previous works and represents a tribute to the cowboy tradition of the roundup. Based on a story Kesey's father told him about the historical 1911 Pendelton Roundup, which involved an African American bronco rider, an older Native American, and a boy from Tennessee all competing for the title of World Champion All Round Cowboy of the West, Kesey's novel re-imagines the men's pursuit of the silver saddle trophy. Although the boy wins the prize, his victory is colored by racial insinuations of a more contemporary era. Ken Kesey's Jail Journal was published posthumously in 2003, collecting Kesey's diary entries written during his incarceration in 1967.

Critical Reception

One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest has been a critical success since its initial publication, and its popularity has grown throughout the years. The book has been particularly popular on college campuses where diverse disciplines have adopted the text into their curricula and plumbed its rich variety of contexts. Consequently, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest has been subjected to a wide range of critical interpretations. Scholars have variously perceived the novel as a biblical parable, a Western romance in the American tradition, and a story about freedom from institutionalized repression. Other critics have argued that Kesey's writings carry forward the American literary traditions of the Transcendentalists and the Beats as well as the frontier humor and vernacular style established by Mark Twain and developed by American comic books and cartoons. Some reviewers have objected to the novel's negative portrayals of African Americans and women, but other commentators have asserted that the work's apparent racist and sexist outlook is affected by who the reader identifies as the novel's protagonist—Bromden or McMurphy. While the majority of academics has favored Bromden, maintaining that his unbalanced perspective functions as a distorted reaction to dehumanizing social realities, several have argued on behalf of McMurphy, contending that his brash behavior and language represent his means to freedom from repression and false propriety. The debate about the novel's true protagonist has escalated since the release of the film adaptation, which is narrated from McMurphy's perspective rather than Bromden's, but the cinematic version has also occasioned comparisons with the original text on several fronts. Although many scholars have expressed dismay at Kesey's refusal to develop his writing beyond the early promise of his first novel, some have afforded Kesey's subsequent works a modest reception, particularly his novels. While certain critics have lauded Sometimes a Great Notion for its regional accuracy and stylistic complexity, his last two novels—Sailor Song and Last Go Round—have generated scant interest among scholars. Despite the shadow cast by One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest on Kesey's career, many reviewers have also accorded some value to Kesey's other contributions to American literature, including his original and engaging treatment of American traditions, his skillful construction of anecdotes to reveal the spiritual depth of his heroes, and his insights on human nature that illuminate his principal themes of freedom and the moral responsibility of imagination. Besides his literary accomplishments, observers have also regarded Kesey's impact on contemporary American culture for both better and worse, usually citing his own oft-stated preference to “rather live a novel than write one.”

Principal Works

One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (novel) 1962

Sometimes a Great Notion (novel) 1964

The Last Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog [editor and contributor; with Paul Krassner] (essays and prose) 1971

Ken Kesey's Garage Sale (essays, interviews, journalism, and screenplay) 1973

Demon Box (short stories, essays, and poetry) 1986

*Caverns [as O. U. Levon] (novel) 1989

The Further Inquiry [photographs by Ron Bevirt] (screenplay and prose) 1990

Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear [illustrations by Barry Moser] (juvenilia) 1990...

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Criticism

Michael M. Boardman (essay date fall 1979)

SOURCE: Boardman, Michael M. “One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest: Rhetoric and Vision.” Journal of Narrative Technique 9, no. 3 (fall 1979): 171-83.

[In the following essay, Boardman characterizes One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest as a formal tragedy, focusing on the thematic significance of sacrifice as a variant of the tragic experience.]

Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest illustrates well the difficulties of writing a successful tragic action in the modern world. In large part, the problem stems from what David Daiches long ago termed “the breakdown of the implicit agreement between author and readers about what was significant in...

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Thomas Scally (essay date autumn 1982)

SOURCE: Scally, Thomas. “Origin and Authority: An Analysis of the Relation between Anonymity and Authorship in Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.Dalhousie Review 62, no. 3 (autumn 1982): 355-73.

[In the following essay, Scally analyzes Chief Bromden's narration in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest in terms of the truth of its meaning rather than the facts of its events.]

I. ABSTRACTION

It is at least curious that an inquiry should take the beginning as its end, the display of the origin as its purpose. This already suggests that one cannot begin at the beginning but rather only achieves the beginning as a sort of...

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Elaine B. Safer (essay date summer 1983)

SOURCE: Safer, Elaine B. “The Absurd Quest and Black Humor in Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion.Critique 24, no. 4 (summer 1983): 228-40.

[In the following essay, Safer delineates the absurdist perspective and black humor tone of Sometimes a Great Notion.]

Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) has been acclaimed as a premier example of black humor literature, while Sometimes a Great Notion (1963) has received relatively little critical attention, most of it negative. Commentators have faulted Kesey's second novel for having “quirky and hallucinatory” images, characters who engage in a “self-defeating struggle,”...

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Janet Larson (essay date summer 1984)

SOURCE: Larson, Janet. “Stories Sacred and Profane: Narrative in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.Religion and Literature 16, no. 2 (summer 1984): 25-42.

[In the following essay, Larson traces the dialectical and dialogical implications of the narrative in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.]

In his “wry codicil” to the “Definition of Man” which opens Language as Symbolic Action, Kenneth Burke observes that this symbol-using, symbol-misusing animal is “rotten with perfection.” Goaded by Aristotle's principle of entelechy to make plans for our own completion—plans that could extend with “perfect logic” to our complete extinction...

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Peter L. Hays (essay date summer 1988)

SOURCE: Hays, Peter L. “Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and Dante's La Vita Nuova.Explicator 46, no. 4 (summer 1988): 49-50.

[In the following essay, Hays identifies the significance of an allusion to Dante Alighieri's La Vita Nuova at the end of part three of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.]

Ken Kesey ends part three of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest by having Randle Patrick McMurphy lead twelve disciples over the water, inspiring them with his life and energy. At the conclusion of the section, Kesey has McMurphy confess his basic philosophy, his underlying reason for committing himself (pun intended) to the welfare of his...

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Chris Goodrich (essay date 15 June 1990)

SOURCE: Goodrich, Chris. “On the Bus with Kesey, Viking and Thunder's Mouth.” Publishers Weekly 237, no. 24 (15 June 1990): 34-5.

[In the following essay, Goodrich recounts the circumstances surrounding the publication of Kesey's The Further Inquiry and Paul Perry and Ken Babbs's On the Bus, which both commemorate the Merry Pranksters's transcontinental bus trip in 1964.]

The entire country was in for a long, strange trip in 1964 when Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters left for New York City from La Honda, Calif., aboard a psychedelically painted school bus driven by “Cowboy Neal” Cassady and bearing a destination sign reading...

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Charles Bowden (review date 21 October 1990)

SOURCE: Bowden, Charles. “The Magic Bus.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (21 October 1990): 1, 7.

[In the following review, Bowden contrasts Kesey's recollections in The Further Inquiry with those of Paul Perry and Ken Babbs in On the Bus.]

There was a bus.

You were either on the bus or off the bus.

In the summer of 1964, Ken Kesey and some friends boarded a 1939 International Harvester school bus named Furthur or Further (the spelling varied). The sides screamed with swirls of bright paint, a style soon to be called psychedelic; the back sported a deck and motorcycle, and a turret punched through the roof. The vehicle was...

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George J. Searles (review date 14 January 1991)

SOURCE: Searles, George J. “On the Road Again.” New Leader 74, no. 1 (14 January 1991): 20-1.

[In the following review, Searles contrasts the content and style of The Further Inquiry with On the Bus, commenting that On the Bus “surpasses Kesey's effort in virtually all respects.”]

From all appearances, Ken Kesey is a hot item again. During the past year, Viking has released three Kesey-related titles, and more are on the way. Last summer, the Eugene (Oregon) Ballet Company staged an adaptation of his Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear. In October, Kesey read that Ozark fable over National Public Radio.

...

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Brooke K. Horvath (review date summer 1991)

SOURCE: Horvath, Brooke K. Review of The Further Inquiry, by Ken Kesey. Review of Contemporary Fiction 11, no. 2 (summer 1991): 252-53.

[In the following review, Horvath describes The Further Inquiry as an “unambitious offering” in comparison to Kesey's other works but concedes that the book is nonetheless “provocative.”]

Perhaps, like so many others, Ken Kesey was derailed by his own early success. Certainly everything since One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion, though interesting, has seemed to ask not to be compared to those first two books. Kesey's Garage Sale and Demon Box...

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Charles Perry (review date 30 August 1992)

SOURCE: Perry, Charles. “Far North by Northwest.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (30 August 1992): 3, 8.

[In the following review, Perry criticizes the themes, characterization, and style of Sailor Song.]

Eighteen years ago, I was Ken Kesey's interpreter/guide on an expedition to the Great Pyramid. When we weren't poking around for mysteries in the Egyptian sands, I was hoping he'd tell stories about his Acid Test days in 1965 and 1966. Kesey, though, wanted to discuss Proust and Hemingway and Turgenev.

Big surprise. Of all the people who talked about the Death of the Novel in the '60s, he had seemed most in earnest. After all, this was the guy...

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Joe Chidley (review date 7 September 1992)

SOURCE: Chidley, Joe. “A War for the Future.” Maclean's 105, no. 36 (7 September 1992): 50.

[In the following review, Chidley outlines the plot of Sailor Song, praising the novel's vision and insight.]

Ken Kesey has had a long break between novels—28 years. After two successes while he was in his 20s, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) and Sometimes a Great Notion (1964), Kesey went on to become America's itinerant wild man, founding the so-called Merry Pranksters club and touring the United States in a revamped school bus. When journalist Tom Wolfe made that LSD-fuelled trip the subject of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in 1968,...

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George J. Searles (review date 7 September 1992)

SOURCE: Searles, George J. “As the Flag Unravels.” New Leader 75, no. 11 (7 September 1992): 20-1.

[In the following review, Searles assesses the literary achievement of Sailor Song within the context of Kesey's career.]

It has been quite a while since One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) and Sometimes a Great Notion (1964) established Ken Kesey as an important American writer. Nevertheless, his long-awaited third novel [Sailor Song] proves he is still deserving of his reputation.

Set in the early 21st century, this big, teeming book takes as its locus the fictitious Alaskan fishing village of Kuinak, somewhere north...

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Roger Rosenblatt (review date 26 October 1992)

SOURCE: Rosenblatt, Roger. “The Acid Test.” New Republic 207, no. 18 (26 October 1992): 41-3.

[In the following review, Rosenblatt discounts Kesey's credibility as a “writer-writer” in Sailor Song, labelling Kesey instead as a “culture-writer,” which, Rosenblatt believes, compromises the novel's relevance for future generations.]

A moment in Tom Wolfe's [sic] On the Bus comes rushing like a flaming flamingo: Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters are noising across America in their stupid, drug-fueled, day-glo, mantra-rapping, strobe-lit 1939 International Harvester school bus, when they pull up in Houston at the home of Larry McMurtry, who shyly...

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Ken Kesey and Robert Faggen (interview date 1992-1993)

SOURCE: Kesey, Ken, and Robert Faggen. “Ken Kesey: The Art of Fiction CXXVI.” Paris Review 35, no. 130 (spring 1994): 58-94.

[In the following interview, originally conducted during several visits between 1992 and 1993, Kesey discusses his literary influences, his relationship with the Beat writers, the effects of drugs on his writings, the cultural influence of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, the nature of evil and terror in America, and popular American culture.]

Ken Kesey was born in Colorado in 1935. His father, a rancher and outdoorsman, moved the family to Oregon in 1943. Kesey attended the University of Oregon, where he became a champion wrestler....

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Stephen L. Tanner (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Tanner, Stephen L. “Kesey's Cuckoo's Nest and the Varieties of American Humor.” Thalia 13, nos. 1-2 (1993): 3-10.

[In the following essay, Tanner correlates the humor of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest to certain distinctive patterns in the tradition of American humor, focusing on parallels between nineteenth-century frontier humor and the urban technological society of mid-twentieth-century America.]

Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) has enjoyed remarkable success. It is a widely acclaimed and popular-selling novel; a dramatic version starring Kirk Douglas appeared on Broadway and has been revived on college campuses;...

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Tom Shone (review date 23 July 1993)

SOURCE: Shone, Tom. “Going Cuckoo.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4712 (23 July 1993): 19.

[In the following review, Shone assesses the plot, style, and themes of Sailor Song, commenting that Kesey's prose has the “bounce of a piece of verbal pop art.”]

Asked how he lost all of his teeth, a character in Ken Kesey's new novel [Sailor Song] replies, “Would you like to know one at a time?” The response is typical of a book in which characters trail enigmatic and eccentric prehistories like ticker-tape streamers, and whose names are soaked in home-brewed mythology: Alice the Angry Alert, Billy the Squid, and the book's reluctant hero, Ike Sallas,...

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Michael D. C. Drout (essay date August 1993)

SOURCE: Drout, Michael D. C. “Hoisting the Arm of Defiance: Beowulfian Elements in Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion.Western American Literature 28, no. 2 (August 1993): 131-41.

[In the following essay, Drout investigates the thematic and stylistic relationships between Sometimes a Great Notion and the medieval epic Beowulf, interpreting the former as a representation of a contemporary heroic archetype rather than an existentialist “absurd quest.”]

Although Ken Kesey is possessed of a modern sensibility and is strongly influenced by the philosophy of existentialism, he fashions Hank Stamper, the protagonist of Sometimes a Great...

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John Zubizarreta (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Zubizarreta, John. “The Disparity of Point of View in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.Literature/Film Quarterly 22, no. 1 (1994): 62-9.

[In the following essay, Zubizarreta examines the treatment of Randle Patrick McMurphy's heroism in both the novel and the film One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, contrasting the experimental narrative perspective of the novel with the plot structure of the film.]

Ken Kesey's novel One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest is probably best known by its movie version, in which Jack Nicholson plays the rowdy, sexually bold outlaw who opposes at every chance the dispassionate, prudish, authoritarian nurse of a...

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Elena Semino and Kate Swindlehurst (essay date spring 1996)

SOURCE: Semino, Elena, and Kate Swindlehurst. “Metaphor and Mind Style in Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.Style 30, no. 1 (spring 1996): 143-66.

[In the following essay, Semino and Swindlehurst focus on the metaphors that inform Chief Bromden's worldview in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, asserting that the character's idiosyncrasies lead to both his mental and physical liberation.]

1. INTRODUCTION

Roger Fowler coined the term “mind style” in 1977 to describe the phenomenon in which the language of a text projects a characteristic world view, a particular way of perceiving and making sense of the world. In...

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Paul Nastu (essay date fall 1997)

SOURCE: Nastu, Paul. “Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.Explicator 56, no. 1 (fall 1997): 48-50.

[In the following essay, Nastu explores the relationship between One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and the visual and thematic elements of American animated cartoons.]

Critics such as Leslie Fiedler and Terry Sherwood have discussed Ken Kesey's use of “comic strip principles” and “pop culture” in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (Sherwood 382), but no critic has yet noted the visual and thematic elements of American animated cartoons which the novel seems to borrow. Sherwood points out that “Kesey's references to comic strip materials...

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Bennett Tracy Huffman (essay date fall 2000)

SOURCE: Huffman, Bennett Tracy. “Twister: Ken Kesey's Multimedia Theatre.” Modern Drama 43, no. 3 (fall 2000): 453-60.

[In the following essay, Huffman outlines Kesey's attempts to incorporate technology in Twister to create a new dramatic environment, positing that the play redefines the boundaries between traditional dramatic conventions and new textualities as the vanguard of contemporary cultural politics.]

In 1993, following a Grateful Dead concert in Eugene, Oregon, Ken Kesey held the world premiere of Twister: A Ritual Reality in Four Quarters Plus Overtime If Necessary at the National Guard Armory. A play structured loosely around the characters from L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, since its inception Twister has seen manifestations and utilized technologies in a wide variety of media, including text, costuming, music, lighting, lasers, projection of puppet silhouettes, still and video images, pyrotechnics, hypermedia, e-mail, and computerized edited video. In the play each of the major characters faces turn-of-the-twenty-first-century crises in the world today: The Hungry Wind, The Lonely Virus, and The Restless Earth, which deal, respectively, with tornadoes and hurricanes that bring famine, AIDS and other plagues, and earthquakes, all of which Kesey cites as being on the rise. Kesey is trying to revolutionize theatre through the co-opting of ritual, and, through the use of new technologies he hopes to re-encode the customs of theatre within which Twister is invariably presented. For Kesey, theatre is neither solely ritual nor completely drama in a traditional sense: he unerringly challenges the view of theatre's obsolescence and brings forth a critical element to today's new communication channels (Kesey, personal interview). Kesey's use of technology attempts to create a dramatic arena never seen before and actually redefines the boundaries between drama and new textualities as the vanguard of contemporary cultural politics.

Twister is Kesey's most recent publication, a theatrical play, his first ever published, released by Key-Z Productions as a set containing the ninety-nine-page text and a two-hour video of the play that Kesey spent four years editing from footage of the fifteen performances he produced between August 1993 and September 1997.1 During Kesey's Acid Test period, a four-year span in which he developed a series of early performance art experiments, he performed with a group of friends who called themselves the Merry Pranksters. The cast of Twister includes Kesey himself as Oz, Merry Pranksters Ken Babbs as both Thor and Frankenstein and George Walker as the Tinman, as well as occasional appearances by figures such as Allen Ginsberg as Rabbi Judah Buddha Whitman and Huey Lewis as Elvis.2 Essentially a rock musical, with a score performed by Jambay, Twister employs a great deal of technical gadgetry in its production, much of which Kesey and the Pranksters developed in the 1960s. Some of the evolution of Twister and its reception by audiences has been in the realm of new media, including a Web page, e-mail, and video. The final video product was edited over a four-year period on computers originally lent to Kesey by George Lucas, director and producer of the Star Wars films.

In the introduction to the text of Twister, which is also posted on Kesey's Web page, Kesey discusses some of the experiences that inspired him to produce the play.3 He says he “began to notice something different in some of the faces on the evening news, in particular the faces of disaster victims” (2). Disasters are for Kesey spaces of high drama. He describes people coming together when confronted with adversity in storms, and floods, and earthquakes: “strong faces of all colors, ages, and castes, all united in a mutual effort.” What Kesey finds in these faces is an expression of “Strength and Sanity” in the face of disaster (3). He goes on to describe a journey to tornado-torn Fort Wayne, Texas, with writer friend Larry McMurtry, in which they drive to see “the devastation a twister can leave” (6). The devastation is a woundedness in the survivors of natural catastrophes. Kesey describes a town in which the people are overwhelmed by the disaster and occasionally unable to rise to the challenge of survival. He says, “It had been months since the tornado but the citizens were still dizzy. Divorces had doubled; crime was down by a half. Pregnancies were soaring and so were suicides” (7). The tornado apparently disorients people in such a way that their priorities become radically altered. Kesey says that despite the disorientation of the citizenry, their voices expressed “sanity and strength—and dignity” (8)—all the elements necessary for survival. Ultimately, Twister promotes flexibility and adaptability, compassion, and hope as responses to world problems. These are not actual solutions to any of the problems explored in the play; there is no call for an end to the destruction of rain forests, no cry for a cure for AIDS, but, rather, actions of honour with which to get through difficult times. At the very end of the Twister video, Jambay sings, “Hard times need strong rituals.” Twister attempts to be a strong ritual that will evoke strength, sanity, and dignity for people to survive difficulties.

Twister is an example of postmodern drama that, as we have seen, employs modern technology to create a complex technical stage environment. Twister also illustrates a highly literary postmodernism in its text. One of the major influences on the concept of Twister is the 1986 BBC production of Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective (Kesey, personal interview). In The Singing Detective, the postmodern cutting and fading between fictional worlds, real-time experience, hallucinations, and memories is all channelled through the point-of-view character. In Twister there are multiple levels present, but no central character through whom we have these worlds interpreted. Dorothy is the closest thing to a main character in the play, but we do not really see the action of the play through her eyes.

The text of Twister, initially written by Kesey, was revised heavily by the collective group of actors in the process of rehearsals, both at Kesey's home and at theatrical venues on the road. Twister's costuming is elaborate and professional in appearance; especially good is George Walker's Tinman, complete with a lighted and beating heart, a quart of gear oil suspended above his shoulder like a plasma canister, and smoke puffing up from his funnel hat. The stage lighting is complex in that it had to consider the multiple projections of the puppet silhouettes of the talking crows, still images, and video images, all of which requires its own projector and thus its own space on the scrim backdrop. Each of the three types of projections requires its own station backstage, which caused some extremely crowded situations at different venues on the road. The liquid crystal video projector used was originally lent to Kesey by filmmaker Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy; My Own Private Idaho; Good Will Hunting). The play also makes use of a laser, at one point, to introduce the Angel Gloria.

The pyrotechnics employed in the play are primarily used for Thor's weather map; a large sheet of metal connected to an electrical battery. Thor explains the world's increase of extreme weather patterns, using a steel rod as a pointer. When the rod comes into contact with the map, sparks fly. Attached to the map are various firecrackers, sparklers, and pinwheels, which Thor sets off by immersing them in enough sparks from the pointer. A flash bomb is used for the appearance of Dorothy behind the scrim backdrop in the first act, and green smoke is employed in association with the Wizard of Oz himself.

All of the technology described thus far—the music, lights, flashing images, and crackling fire—works to overwhelm the senses of the audience. The overthrow of the senses is a technique Kesey employs in order to give the ritualistic aspects of the play the greatest possible impact upon the audience. Bertolt Brecht identified two impulses in modern Epic drama—one to amuse, the other to instruct (130); Twister attempts to do both, and, through a polysemous contextualization, to be of epic proportions. One reason that Kesey chose to produce a play rather than write a novel of Twister was to take advantage of the immediacy of amusement and instruction inherent in the dramatic form. Brecht wrote of Piscator's experiments with theatre that they “began by causing complete theatrical chaos” (130). Kesey, sensing this about the modern stage, though probably not specifically instructed by Brecht's writings, suggests that the synthesis of responses to the “end times” before us should be that “[i]t has to be chaotic” (Twister 86). Thus the play ends with a cacophony of all the musical numbers from the play being performed simultaneously, in order to symbolize a positive, assertive political chaos.

One of the essential elements of Twister is that it attempts to break beyond theatre and into ritual. Kesey has said that

[m]agic is seeing something that extends beyond the visible. … Ritual is necessary for us to know anything. … A ritual has to be a little dangerous. … The rituals we are trying to put together, we don't know what they are, but we feel the hunger for them … Everywhere I go, I feel the hunger for people wanting to be a part of a ritual.

(Interview with Rick and Fenex)

Kesey is trying to revolutionize theatre by co-opting ritual. Part of the ritual magic he tries to create is through the chaotic overwhelming of the senses, much as a tribal feeling among the participants of the Acid Tests would be achieved by overwhelming the senses through the use of drugs. Kesey is not the first writer to attempt this, though he is one of very few contemporary novelists who have turned to writing for the stage. The theatre of the absurd, the theatre of cruelty, the plays of Bertolt Brecht, and even Shakespeare's dramatic works—in fact, any theatre of importance in the last 400 years—has tried to co-opt ritual in order to revolutionize theatre. And, naturally, Western theatre comes out of a classical Greek tradition in which ritual and theatre were indivisibly linked. According to J. L. Styan, Jean Genet's ritual theatre adopted and altered forms so “that his stage should mirror the true reality, and tried to dissolve the aesthetic barrier which separates play and audience by shaking the very supports that make it work, its conventions” (156). Kesey's technique for shaking up the theatrical supports in Twister is less symbolic than Genet's, more direct, because Kesey actually wants the house and the stage to become one. This unification is not always achieved, since the environment within which Twister is invariably presented places the audience inexplicably into theatre's coded world from the moment of entering the theatre or purchasing a ticket; this is on a discursive peak very distant from that of any ritual with which the audience can identify. Until Twister can be performed in a venue where the stage literally descends to the level of the gallery, eliminating the physical distinction between stage and audience, most audiences will continue to remain in their seats.

Just as Kesey's initial interest in performance art in the 1960s was conceived as a response to what he called “material madness,” Twister tries to be politically instructive in an overly commodified culture, outside traditionally ritualistic environments like churches or movie theatres. At the climax of the play, the Angel Gloria appears on stage, and her first words are “Be amazed” (89). It is amazement that seals lessons in Kesey's theatre, and it is this kind of magic amazement that Kesey sees as being at the peak of performance art. Kesey's need to perform fills a void he felt in publishing novels, where the feedback is slanted mostly through critics. In order to maximize his interaction with the audience, his theatre demands their participation.

One of the ways in which the play attempted to seed the audience with participants was through education on Kesey's Web page. As people began to read about the play in advance of attending a performance, theatregoers began e-mailing Kesey, volunteering to participate. There are three specific roles written into the script for these recruits, one for each of the three acts: Spinners (dancers), Shouters (singers), and Boomers (drummers). On 24 March 1998, when asked about the success of involving audiences of Twister in participating over the course of the fifteen performances of the play, Kesey wrote, “With every show [of Twister] the audience got more and more into it [being part of the play]. We got better at luring them in, but I think it was the E-mail that made the difference. We were reachin them and teachin 'em” (e-mail). The presence of audience members who were instantly willing to stand up and participate in the drama helped to encourage a greater number of spectators to walk up on stage when invited, towards the end of the play, by Oz. In the video, there are moments not in the text when characters directly address the audience in engagement; for example, Dorothy says “Get into it, guys” when the audience fails to “get” or respond to a joke. This kind of direct confrontation is designed to shake the audience out of their complacency.

Called a “Ritual Reality,” Twister plays upon an ever-changing possibility of what the play virtually is. The projected video at the opening of the play includes footage of the actors backstage and outside the theatre, presenting the actors themselves as characters playing characters. The actors are famous people, to varying degrees, so their presentation in the video represents a scale of persona from, for instance, Kesey as self, to Kesey as counterculture hero, to Kesey as actor, to Kesey as character. Some of the preliminary images are of Kesey and other actors and famous personalities outside the play, such as Mountain Girl,4 on the bus, which brings in a whole other counterculture context. Just as the play tries to bring the audience into the play, it also tries to bring itself into the “real world.” At one point in the playtext, Kesey himself, who plays Oz, speaks as himself, playing with the distinction between character, actor, and author. The video images at the end of the play include a medley of footage from Kesey ventures outside of Twister, including a bonfire night at Kesey's farm as early as 1989, the 1992 Field Trip, and the 1994 Hog Farm pig-nic with Timothy Leary and Wavy Gravy, as well as a string of cultural icons ranging from Hells Angels and Mad Max to geishas and old “Biddies” (95-96). Dorothy is played by an unknown actress who, in the text, refers to her four abortions; in an obvious reference to Judy Garland, who played Dorothy in the Hollywood film, Oz refers to her drinking problems (22-23).

The play makes reference to many cultural icons and figures, among them Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robertson, Jim Morrison, John Dillinger, Archie Bunker, O. J. Simpson, the Grateful Dead, Republicans, soap operas, Beautyrest, Samsonite, Nike, Birkenstocks, Prozac, Madison Square Garden, the Smithsonian Institute, the Department of Environmental Quality, Waco's Branch Davidians, FedEx, and Bosnia. The Borg from Star Trek: The Next Generation are referred to three times during the play. The science-fictionized flavour of the entire play complicates the action because, unlike the Wizard of Oz film, the play explains no envelope of objective reality. In a sense, the video clips from the beginning and end of the play that include the actors in other contexts make objective reality itself the envelope. The shotgun effect of the cultural references creates a commercial media environment in which the audience has tuned in to a band where all stations seem to converge. The first act opens and closes with the image of the television colour bars test pattern, making the play, on one level, a television broadcast.

Twister is made deceptively subtle by weaving between the positions of ritual and virtual reality. The contexts in which the play refers to itself include an ever-changing range from the original Wizard of Oz film to an Oz sequel, a theatre, a television station called OZTV, a hospital, a sports arena, an airport, a university classroom, a computer virtual reality, and “reality” itself.

The first instance of postmodern self-reflexivity occurs when Oz tells Dorothy that “We have quite an impressive line-up waiting in the wings to assist you tonight” (20). This comment reinforces the theatricality of the play. Much later, Dorothy breaks up a fight between Frankenstein and Elvis by saying, “You can butt heads later backstage” (84). A third of the way through the play, Dorothy addresses the audience directly, a postmodern trope that has its roots in the habits of Shakespeare and some of his predecessors, but which is distinct from Renaissance drama: “We're all persuaded, right? (she leads the audience)” (37). Here Dorothy reinforces the stage presence of the play, whereas earlier she has textualized the setting: “I don't think I was shanghaied into this script to solve your inner-city situation” (35). Here the action is rhetorically shifted, literally, “into” the text itself, so that the play is virtually taking place on the page, though it is as likely to be viewed on stage or in video format as it is to be read. At the same time, by using contemporary urban language, Kesey invokes the political aspects of the real world.

One of the most effective and quick blurrings of these contexts, or levels, in which the play is working occurs when the Tinman explains his dilemma: “No, it was my heart, my foolish heart. It loves not wisely but too much. And too many. Then again it might have come in through my modem—I network a lot. And I have shared my oilcan a time or two” (52). Like the Scarecrow, who says earlier in the play that he should have asked Oz for a mind instead of a brain (35), the Tinman has a heart, but, like most hearts, it is unwise. In obvious reference to AIDS, which is named only once in the play, the Tinman's language takes the audience quickly through a romantic/sexual context, to a virtual-reality computer context (in which the virus the Tinman has is an electronic one), to an implied academic/business world networked social virus (such as Legionnaires' Disease, years ago), to drugs (the shared oilcan symbolizing, obviously, shared hypodermic needles). This effective mixing of metaphoric contexts is one of the most literarily interesting elements of the play.

The character Legba, the African god of rhythm, says he joins the play because he was “clicking through the channels, y'know, when I click across this flick” (61). Here the play becomes itself a process of channel surfing, with the myriad media images inserted in the video images projected on screen and the verbal invocation of cultural icons as media bites in a televised context. Dorothy refers to herself as a kind of Gibsonesque cyborg5 or a computer game character when she berates Oz for her situation in the play:

You drag me out of a warm bed and toss me in this snake-pit without so much as even a pardon me ma'am, and then you blindside my dog with a cheap fiddle then you download my memory with enough nightmares to last me the sleep of eternity.

(70)

Toto has been genetically altered, in the play's initial tornado sequence, so that he is a hybrid between a dog and a violin. Dorothy's downloaded memory infuses all reality in the play with the potential for virtuality.

Poking fun at so many things, and so much aware of its own textuality, as we have seen, Twister does not fail to include poststructuralist theory in its cultural critique. Near the end of the play, Dorothy says, “It's time we deconstructed this Crazy Carousal, don't you think?” (82). In this way the play itself is also inviting criticism from the “real world,” as well as criticizing itself.

The weakest part of the play is the story the narrator tells about King Otto the Bloody of Germany at the turn of the year AD 1000.6 Elsewhere in the play there are chilling moments of technical surprise, as when Dorothy first sees the enormous faces of Oz and Glenda projected on the scrim backdrop, for example, or the beginning of Act Three, which starts with the sealing of a coffin, seen from the inside. The play uses humour often, and, though often the humour falls flat, it is also infectious, as the particular frames of reference are constructed through the play's process. The tone of the play grows on its audience. Although it will probably not seem funny out of context, the part that made me laugh out loud while reading the play came when Dorothy tries to guess what the Tinman's mumbled “Own a long” means: “A longboat for a quick escape? Am I getting warm? A longbow? The long arm of the law? A longlegged long pig from Long Island?” (58). This wordplay is what Kesey uses both most and least effectively. The best musical number is the Z to A litany of viruses running rampant in the world today, delivered in Act Two by Glenda and the Tinman to the tune of “If I Only Had a Brain.” There is also a humorous dance routine with Dorothy and Frankenstein in Act Three.

The world premiere of the video film of Twister was presented in Springfield, Oregon, on 11 April 1998.

Notes

  1. Twister was intended for publication by Penguin, but the author and the publishing company had a falling-out. Instead, Kesey's son, Zane, has published it, and it is available online from <http://www.key-z.com/=.

  2. There is some confusion concerning Lewis's performance in Twister. He played the part of Elvis in the first production of the play in 1993, despite being listed as playing “himself.” Simon Babbs played Elvis in subsequent performances of the play.

  3. References to Kesey's introduction to Twister are to the printed version.

  4. Mountain Girl, a.k.a. Carolyn Adams, joined the Merry Pranksters in 1964. Becoming Kesey's lover, she gave birth to their daughter, Sunshine, in 1966. Mountain Girl was later married to Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia for more than a decade. In 1996, after Garcia's death, she moved to Eugene, Oregon, where she lives today.

  5. William Gibson is commonly considered the founder of a branch of science fiction writing known as “cyber punk,” which takes as one of its main themes the manipulation of human and animal biology through technological means. Gibson's novels include Neuromancer, Mona Lisa Overdrive, Johnny Mnemonic, and All Tomorrow's Parties.

  6. Kesey published this section in the New Yorker as “Otto the Bloody.”

Works Cited

Baum, L. Frank. The Wizard of Oz. 1900. New York: Rand McNally, 1956.

Brecht, Bertolt. “On Experimental Theatre.” Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. Trans. John Millet. 1964. London: Methuen, 1965. 130-35.

Kesey, Ken. E-mail to author. 24 Mar. 1998.

———. Interview with Matthew Rick and Mary Jane Fenex. 21 Jan. 1993.

———. “Otto the Bloody.” New Yorker 28 Dec. 1998-4 Jan. 1999: 58-60.

———. Personal Interview. 24 Aug. 1998.

———. Twister: A Ritual Reality in Three Quarters Plus Overtime If Necessary. Eugene, OR: Key-Z Productions, 1999.

———. Key-Z Productions. Twister: A Musical Catastrophe. 1999. 25 Jan. 2001 <http://www.key-z.com/=.

———. Web page. 25 Jan. 2001 <http://www.intrepidtrips.com/=.

———, dir. Twister: A Ritual Reality. Screenplay by Kesey. Perf. Kesey, Ken Babbs, George Walker, and Karen McCormick. Key-Z Productions, 1998.

Potter, Dennis, screenplay. The Singing Detective. Dir. Jon Amiel. BBC/Austral. Broadcasting Corp., 1986.

Styan, J. L. Modern Drama in Theory and Practice. Vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981.

Douglas Brinkley (essay date 18 November 2001)

SOURCE: Brinkley, Douglas. “A Final Word from the Last Merry Prankster.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (18 November 2001): 7.

[In the following essay, Brinkley assesses the cultural impact of Kesey's life and writings on American society within the context of the events of September 11, 2001.]

The Willamette Valley was still blanketed in a misty predawn darkness when the horrendous news hit an Oregon dairy farmer named Ken Kesey, author of such enduring fictional classics as One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion: Suicidal terrorists had attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing more than 4,300 people....

(The entire section is 1387 words.)

Randall Sullivan (essay date 27 December 2001-3 January 2002)

SOURCE: Sullivan, Randall. “And We Bid You Good Night.” Rolling Stone, nos. 885-886 (27 December 2001-3 January 2002): 62, 144.

[In the following essay, Sullivan reports on the events of Kesey's memorial service.]

“Who the hell was ever from Oregon?” some unnamed sophisticate asks in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Ken Kesey was—and proud of it. Kesey's memorial service in Eugene on November 14th was a testament to how essential a man can be not only to his time but also to his place.

The people—more than 1,000—who overfilled the old McDonald Theater were themselves evidence of how broadly Kesey had penetrated the...

(The entire section is 1711 words.)

David Bowman (essay date March-April 2002)

SOURCE: Bowman, David. “Still Crazy after All These Years.” Book (March-April 2002): 34-5.

[In the following essay, Bowman summarizes the highlights of Kesey's literary career.]

On November 10 last year, Ken Kesey, the leader of the Merry Pranksters, pulled what might be his greatest gag: dying just before the fortieth anniversary of his 1962 classic, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. The novel, which was just republished in a new, anniversary edition, is a 300-page battle of wills between iconoclast Randle Patrick McMurphy and Nurse Ratched (“Big Nurse”), the tyrant in charge of the asylum where McMurphy is feigning insanity in order to beat jail time....

(The entire section is 949 words.)