Discussion Topics

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Choose three images from a Ken Kesey novel and explain what they suggest, what they add to an understanding of character, conflict, or situation.

What is the effect of telling One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest through the confused, schizophrenic musings of the supposedly deaf-and-dumb Native American Chief Bromden, a “chronic” committed to an insane asylum for life?

Select two or more background details about McMurphy (for example, his Red Chinese prison camp experience, the white whales on his shorts) and explain what they reveal about him.

List techniques or strategies used by McMurphy against Big Nurse. Then list tools or strategies used by Big Nurse against McMurphy. What differences do you notice between them? How are these differences significant to Kesey’s message?

The endings of Kesey’s novels often leave readers feeling uncomfortable. Pick a novel and explain whether the ending is hopeful or pessimistic and why you think so. Why does Kesey end his novel the way he does? What effect does he hope to create in his readers?

Although Kesey describes the brothers in Sometimes a Great Notion as opposites, he also sees them as parts of himself. In what ways are Hank and Lee different? Behind those differences, what qualities do they share?

Find an example of black humor, anecdote, tall tale, cinematic technique, or comic book technique in Kesey’s writing. Identify which term applies to the example, how it applies, and what Kesey achieves by using it.

Other literary forms

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In 1971, Ken Kesey (KEE-zee) was asked by Stewart Brand, the editor of The Last Whole Earth Catalog, to edit The Last Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog. Somewhat reluctant, Kesey agreed, but only if Paul Krassner would be the coeditor. Krassner accepted. It took almost two months to write, edit, and lay out the five-hundred-page final issue, which contained the best selections from previous issues as well as some new writings by Kesey. The final issue had a total press run of 100,000 copies and is now out of print.

The Viking Press and Intrepid Trips jointly published Kesey’s Garage Sale (1973), a volume based on an American phenomenon: the rummage, yard, or garage sale. The book is a miscellany of essays, poetry, letters, drawings, interviews, prose fiction, and a film script. Although much of the writing was Kesey’s, “Hot Item Number 4: Miscellaneous Section with Guest Leftovers” contained a letter by Neal Cassady and poems by Allen Ginsberg and Hugh Romney. Kesey’s “Who Flew Over What,” “Over the Border,” and “Tools from My Chest” supply interesting insights into Kesey’s beliefs and personality, and more important, they supplement the biographical details in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), an informative biographical account of Kesey’s Merry Pranksters exploits.

In “Who Flew Over What,” Kesey answers some of the most common questions about One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He admitted that he wrote the novel while working as a night attendant at the Menlo Park Veterans Hospital, that he wrote part of it while under the influence of drugs, and that Randle Patrick McMurphy, the protagonist, was a fictional character “inspired by the tragic longing of the real men” on the ward. Kesey included not only his only sketches of McMurphy but also interesting facts and insights into his job and actual life on the ward.

“Over the Border” is an innovative film script based on Kesey’s second arrest, his flight to Mexico, the arrival of his family and some of the Merry Pranksters, their sojourn in Mexico, and the decision to return to the United States. The characters are...

(This entire section contains 620 words.)

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easily recognizable: Devlin and Betsy Deboree are Kesey and his wife, Faye; Sir Speed Houlihan is Neal Cassady; Claude and Blanch Muddle are Ken Babbs and his wife, Anita; the Animal Friends are the Merry Pranksters; and Behema is Carolyn Adams. The script contains examples of Kesey’s writing techniques, especially as he switches from scene to scene, as he describes the annual land-crab migration, and as he narrates Deboree’s encounter with the Lizard, afederales prison guard. Augmenting Wolfe’s biographical account, the script also reveals Kesey’s altered attitudes toward drugs as a means of changing society.

Another interesting section is “Tools from My Chest,” parts of which were published originally in either The Last Whole Earth Catalog or The Last Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog. These “tools” were figuratively those persons and things that had an impact on Kesey’s own life and beliefs and, ultimately, on his writings. Kesey commented on such things as the Bible, the I Ching, mantras, the North Star, alcohol, and flowers; about such writers as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner (Kesey’s declared favorite), Larry McMurtry, and William S. Burroughs; about radicals such as Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver; and about entertainers such as Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, Jefferson Airplane, and the Beatles. Finally, there are two powerfully written parables about Devlin Deboree.

Another miscellany, Demon Box, was published in 1986, and in 1990, Kesey and thirteen of his students published a collaborative novel, Caverns, under the pseudonym O. U. Levon. The Further Inquiry, also published in 1990, recounts the Merry Pranksters’ 1964 cross-country bus trip and memorializes Cassady.


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Writer Tom Wolfe remarked that Ken Kesey was one of the most charismatic men he had ever met, and others have likewise commented upon Kesey’s charisma. In fact, social critics affirmed that there were two important leaders of the 1960’s counterculture revolution: Timothy Leary and his devotees on the East Coast and Kesey and his Merry Pranksters on the West Coast. Leary and his “Learyites” took themselves seriously, advocated passively dropping out of society, and rejected much that was American, especially American gadgetry. In contrast, Kesey and his Merry Pranksters were pro-America, were more interested in the spontaneous fun of the twentieth century “neorenaissance,” and took LSD not to become societal dropouts but rather to lead society to new frontiers of social communality.

As a novelist, Kesey achieved both notoriety and distinction as a major voice of his generation, yet some critics argue that his achievement goes further. They point to his complex characters, rollicking humor, and creative manipulation of point of view as Kesey’s enduring contribution to American literature.


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Kesey, Ken. “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”: Text and Criticism. Edited by John C. Pratt. New York: Viking, 1973. Contains the text of the novel, related materials, and a selection of early critical responses to the novel, together with a brief bibliography.

Perry, Paul. On the Bus: The Complete Guide to the Legendary Trip of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and the Birth of the Counter Culture. New York: Thunder Mouth Press, 1990.

Porter, M. Gilbert. The Art of Grit: Ken Kesey’s Fiction. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982. In this first full-length study of Kesey, Porter penetrates Kesey’s drug-culture image to reveal his accomplishments as an author in the traditional “American mold of optimism and heroism.” A highly regarded critical study that offers an astute commentary on Kesey’s fiction.

Searles, George J., ed. A Casebook on Ken Kesey’s “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992. A collection of critical articles, most originally published in the 1970’s. Also includes a MAD magazine satire of the film and a bibliography.

Sherwood, Terry G. “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the Comic Strip.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 13, no. 1 (1971): 97-109. Sherwood explores Kesey’s references to popular culture, particularly comic strip materials, which are not just “casual grace notes but clear indications of his artistic stance.” Contains some appreciative criticism but faults Kesey for his belief in the escapist world of the comic strip and his oversimplification of moral dilemmas.

Tanner, Stephen L. Ken Kesey. Boston: Twayne, 1983. This study affirms Kesey as a significant writer and a leader of a cultural movement despite his scant output. Presents some biographical details of Kesey’s early years and accomplishments, followed by a critical study of major works. Gives particular attention to One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion. Selected bibliography is provided.

Vogler, Thomas A. “Ken Kesey.” In Contemporary Novelists, edited by James Vinson. London: St. James Press, 1976. Describes Kesey’s work as “Richly north-western and regional in quality.” Presents some critical appraisal of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion. Also refers to The Last Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog, for which Kesey wrote numerous reviews and articles.

Wolfe, Tom. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968. A notable work in its own right. Wolfe confers on Kesey the charismatic leadership of a cultural movement. Provides important background information on Kesey, the Merry Pranksters, and the milieu of psychedelic experimentation.

Zubizarreta, John. “The Disparity of Point of View in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Literature Film Quarterly 22 (Spring, 1994): 62-69. Contrasts the kinds of comedy produced by film’s realistic third-person point of view and the novel’s surrealistic, highly unreliable, and ironic first-person point of view. Bibliography.


Critical Essays