Ken Kesey (September 17, 1935 – November 10, 2001) was an American author. Not very prolific throughout his life, he was probably best known as the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and as a cultural icon who some consider a link between the "beat generation" of the 1950s and the "hippies" of the 1960s.
Born in La Junta, Colorado, he spent much of his youth in the Pacific Northwest. There he married Faye Haxby, with whom he had three children, Jed, Zane and Shannon. He attended the University of Oregon, where he received a degree in speech and communication and was an Olympic-caliber wrestler. He was awarded a Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship in 1958; he moved to Palo Alto, California to enroll in the creative writing program at Stanford University.
At Stanford in 1959, he volunteered to take part in a study at the Menlo Park Veterans Hospital on the effects of psychoactive drugs such as LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, and IT-290 (AMT). He wrote many detailed descriptions of his experience with these drugs, both during the study and in his own experimentation. It was at this time he wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which caught the attention of many, including "beat" poet Neal Cassady, who had accompanied Jack Kerouac on the trip described in Kerouac's On the Road.
With the commercial success of his first novel in 1962, Kesey moved to La Honda, in the mountains outside of San Francisco. He frequently entertained friends with parties he called "Acid Tests" involving music (such as Kesey's favorite band, The Warlocks, later known as the Grateful Dead), black lights, fluorescent paint, strobes, and other "psychedelic" effects, and of course LSD (often slipped surreptitiously into a punch).
When the publication of his second novel Sometimes a Great Notion in 1964 required his presence in New York, Kesey, Cassady, and others in a group of friends they called the "Merry Pranksters" took a cross-country trip in a school bus nicknamed Furthur. This trip, described in Tom Wolfe's book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (and later in Kesey's own screenplay "The Further Inquiry") included many stops along the way for audience-participation acid tests, now including raps by Cassady. In New York, Cassady introduced Kesey to Kerouac and to Allen Ginsberg, who in turn introduced them to Timothy Leary.
Kesey and some of the pranksters fled to Mexico when LSD was made illegal, renaming their bus Furthur in an intentionally feeble attempt at disguise. When the bus returned to the U.S. for an Acid Test Graduation, Kesey and some of his companions were arrested for possession of marijuana.
After his release from jail, he moved with his family back to the family farm in Pleasant Hill, Oregon in the Willamette Valley, where he was to spend the rest of his life. He wrote many articles, smaller books (mostly collections of his articles), and short stories during that time.
Miscellaneous facts and events
Sometimes a Great Notion was made into a 1971 film starring Paul Newman; it was nominated for two Academy Awards and in 1972 was the first film shown in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania on a new television network called HBO.
In 1975, Milos Forman directed a screen adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest starring Jack Nicholson which won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Between 1974 and 1981 he self-published six issues of a literary magazine called Spit in the Ocean.
Kesey won the Robert Kirsch Award in 1991, recognizing him for a body of work written in or about the American West. His third major novel, Sailor Song, was published in 1992.
Kesey died on November 10, 2001, following liver cancer surgery.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. New York: Viking. 1962 (40th anniversary edition ISBN 0670030589; paperback ISBN 0142000744).
Sometimes a Great Notion. New York: Viking. 1964 (reprint ISBN 0140045295).
- Kesey's Garage Sale . New York: Viking. 1972.
- Demon Box . New York: Penguin. 1986.
- Caverns (written with his University of Oregon creative writing class under the collaborative pseudonym "O. U. Levon"). New York: Penguin. 1990.
- The Further Inquiry (screenplay). New York: Viking. 1990.
Sailor Song . New York: Viking Penguin. 1992. ISBN 014013974
- Last Go Round (with Ken Babbs). New York: Viking. 1994.
- "Twister" (play) . New York: Viking. 1999.
In the 1990s Kesey published the children's books Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear (ISBN 067081136X) which was included on the 1991 Library of Congress list of suggested children's books, and The Sea Lion: A Story of the Sea Cliff People (ISBN 0670839167).
Last updated: 08-07-2005 21:53:51