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 He received his bachelor of arts degree in 1957 and wrote End of Autumn, an unpublished novel about college athletics.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 While a night aide, Kesey completed Zoo, an unpublished novel about San Francisco’s North Beach.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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