Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1426
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 Notion (1964). Later, with money earned from One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he bought La Honda, a mountain home near Palo Alto that became the base of operations of the Merry Pranksters, whose 1964 cross-country ride in a psychedelic 1939 International Harvester school bus and the street theater “Happenings” associated with it inspired hippies worldwide. More than forty hours of film documenting what has become known as “The Movie” remain a touchstone of the 1960’s psychedelic experience. In 1965, Kesey hosted an extended party for the Hell’s Angels at La Honda that inspired an Allen Ginsberg poem.
Early in 1966, having been arrested twice for possession of marijuana (one judge called him a “tarnished Galahad”), Kesey fled to Mexico to avoid a harsh sentence but was shocked by the poverty and the anti-Americanism that he experienced there. After six months despairing of himself as reduced from “prizewinning scholar” to expatriate “dopefiend,” as his poem introducing Demon Box (1986) declares, he vowed to give up writing and instead live his life as though it were literature. He surrendered in San Francisco and spent five months in the San Mateo County jail and then the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Honor Camp. Released in November, 1967, and overcome by the death of his friend and inspiration, Neal Cassady, Kesey settled on a seventy-five-acre farm in Pleasant Hill, Oregon, where he turned away the Merry Pranksters and devoted himself to his family, his farm, and, to only a minor degree, his writing for the rest of his life. Commitment to family and community became his overriding concerns, as he became active in Oregonian environmental programs.
After his announced shift from literature to life, he did not complete another work of major consequence. He spent a short time in London in 1969, recording writers reading their own works for Apple Records, but the project failed. When the film adaptation of Sometimes a Great Notion was released in 1970, Kesey also produced an unreleased children’s film Atlantis Rising. In 1971, he coedited with Paul Krassner The Last Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog, and contributed to it short pieces of his own. After that, Kesey published Spit in the Ocean magazine and a series of sketches, essays, travelogues, and film scripts, most of them autobiographical, some published in Rolling Stone magazine, others in Esquire and Running Press. He also won a medal in a state tournament for wrestling coaches in the forty-two-to-fifty age group. Kesey’s Garage Sale (1973), which models its style on that of Marvel comic books, includes essays by Krassner and Ginsberg, among others, as well as “Over the Border,” Kesey’s psychodrama about hiding out in Mexico. Demon Box—dedicated to Kesey’s son Jeb, who died in a 1984 school bus accident, and narrated by Kesey’s alter ego, Devlin Deboree—covers a number of personal experiences: “Tyranny Man over the Border” describes Kesey’s time on the run in Mexico, “The Search for the Secret Pyramid” reflects on his 1974-1975 trip to Egypt for Rolling Stone, “Finding Doctor Fung” resulted from his coverage of the Beijing Marathon in China, and the elegiac “The Day After Superman Died” confronts the hard truths of Cassady’s death. Kesey’s descriptions of farming and farm animals (cattle raising in “Abdul and Ebenezer”) are particularly notable, for his devotion to his farm and farm activities make his descriptions ring true. Like his own heroes of the land, Kesey devoted himself to his farm, saying, “They’ll have to get me off [the land where my son is buried] with a bulldozer.” In 1988 Kesey received the Western Literature Association annual award for Distinguished Achievement in Writing.
In The Further Inquiry (1990) Kesey revisited the 1960’s and Cassady, while the novel Caverns, published the same year under the collective pseudonym O. U. Levon, was the collaborative effort of Kesey and thirteen students in a University of Oregon creative-writing class. The summer of 1990 the Eugene (Oregon) Ballet Company adapted to the stage Kesey’s just published children’s book Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear, an Ozark fable, and in October Kesey read that story over National Public Radio. Another’s children book (The Sea Lion) was published in 1991. Kesey received the Los Angeles Times’ Robert Kirsh Award that year for his literary achievements. Kesey’s final literary efforts include Sailor Song (1992), an apocalyptic science-fiction tale of a future plagued by ecological disasters (particularly global warming), depressed Alaskan Eskimo fisherfolk coping badly with pollution, and an eco-terrorist and a local entrepreneur at odds; Last Go Round (1994), a tall-tale recounting of a legendary African American bronco buster and the racism he faced in the 1911 Pendleton Round Up; and, posthumously, Kesey’s Jail Journal (2003), a replay of his jail experiences. His play Twister (1994), which premiered following a Grateful Dead concert, further explored the global disaster theme. Shortly after the fortieth anniversary republication of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and following surgery for liver cancer, Kesey died at Sacred Heart hospital in Eugene, Oregon, on November 10, 2001. He was sixty-six years old. One thousand people attended his funeral, held in a local theater; appropriately, he was laid to rest in a psychedelic coffin and former Merry Prankster Ken Babbs gave one of the eulogies. Kesey’s manuscripts and papers are collected at the University of Oregon.
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