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, 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...
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