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.
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 After earning his B.A. in 1957, Kesey considered pursuing professional acting and wrote the unpublished novel End of Autumn before starting graduate study in creative writing at Stanford University in 1958.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.
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.
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.”