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Ken Kesey

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Title: Ken Kesey  
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Subject: Counterculture of the 1960s, Sometimes a Great Notion (film), The Closing of Winterland, Springfield, Oregon, History of lysergic acid diethylamide
Collection: 1935 Births, 2001 Deaths, 20Th-Century American Novelists, American Activists, American Essayists, American Male Novelists, American Male Short Story Writers, American Short Story Writers, Beat Generation Writers, Cancer Deaths in Oregon, Counterculture Festivals Activists, Counterculture of the 1960S, Deaths from Liver Cancer, Drug Policy Reform Activists, Male Essayists, Male Short Story Writers, Oregon Ducks Wrestlers, People from Otero County, Colorado, People from Springfield, Oregon, People Who Faked Their Own Death, Postmodern Writers, Pranksters, Psychedelic Drug Advocates, University of Oregon Alumni, Writers from California, Writers from Oregon
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Ken Kesey

Ken Kesey
Ken Kesey at 1984 Miami Book Fair International
Born Kenneth Elton Kesey
(1935-09-17)September 17, 1935
La Junta, Colorado, United States
Died November 10, 2001(2001-11-10) (aged 66)
Eugene, Oregon, U.S.[1][2]
Occupation Novelist, short story writer, essayist, poet
Nationality American
Genre Beat, postmodernism
Literary movement Merry Pranksters
Notable work

Kenneth Elton "Ken" Kesey (; September 17, 1935 – November 10, 2001) was an American author, best known for his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962)[1] and as a countercultural figure who considered himself a link between the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s. "I was too young to be a beatnik, and too old to be a hippie," Kesey said in a 1999 interview with Robert K. Elder.[3]


  • Early life 1
  • Experimentation with psychoactive drugs 2
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest 3
  • Merry Pranksters 4
  • Legal trouble 5
  • Death of son 6
  • Twister 7
  • Final years 8
    • Death 8.1
  • In popular culture 9
  • Works 10
  • Footnotes 11
  • References 12
  • Further reading 13
  • External links 14

Early life

Ken Kesey was born in La Junta, Colorado, to dairy farmers Geneva (Smith) and Frederick A. Kesey.[1] In 1946, the family moved to Springfield, Oregon.[2] Kesey was a champion wrestler in both high school and college in the 174 pound weight division, and he almost qualified to be on the Olympic team until a serious shoulder injury stopped his wrestling career. He graduated from Springfield High School in 1953.[2] An avid reader and filmgoer, the young Kesey took John Wayne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Zane Grey as his role models (later naming a son Zane) and toyed with magic, ventriloquism, and hypnotism.[4]

In 1956, while attending college at the University of Oregon in neighboring Eugene, Oregon, Kesey eloped with his high-school sweetheart, Norma "Faye" Haxby, whom he had met in seventh grade.[2] They had three children, Jed, Zane, and Shannon; Kesey had another child, Sunshine, in 1966 with fellow Merry Prankster Carolyn "Mountain Girl" Adams.[5]

A brother of Beta Theta Pi, Kesey graduated from the University of Oregon's School of Journalism with a degree in speech and communication in 1957. After a brief sojourn as a struggling actor in Los Angeles, he was awarded the highly selective Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship in 1958. Maverick literary critic Leslie Fiedler successfully importuned the regional fellowship committee to select the "rough-hewn" Kesey alongside more traditional grantees from Reed College and other elite institutions.[6] Because he lacked the prerequisites to work toward a master's degree in English, Kesey elected to enroll in the non-degree creative writing program at Stanford University that fall, where he would develop lifelong friendships with Ken Babbs, Larry McMurtry, Wendell Berry, Ed McClanahan, Gurney Norman, and Robert Stone.[2] While at Stanford, Kesey resided on Perry Lane (a historically bohemian enclave adjacent to the university golf course) and clashed with program director Wallace Stegner; according to Stone, Stegner "saw Kesey... as a threat to civilization and intellectualism and sobriety" and rejected Kesey's Stegner Fellowship applications for the 1959–60 and 1960–61 terms.[7] Nevertheless, Kesey received the $2,000 Harper-Saxton Prize for his first novel in progress (the oft-rejected Zoo) and continued to audit the graduate writing seminar through 1960 (taught that year by Frank O'Connor and the more congenial Malcolm Cowley) as he began the manuscript that would become One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Experimentation with psychoactive drugs

At the instigation of Perry Lane neighbor and Stanford psychology graduate student Vik Lovell, an acquaintance of Richard Alpert and Allen Ginsberg, Kesey volunteered to take part in a CIA-financed study under the aegis of Project MKULTRA, a highly secret military program, at the Menlo Park Veterans Hospital[8] where he worked as a night aide.[9] The project studied the effects of psychoactive drugs, particularly LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, cocaine, aMT, and DMT on people.[2] Kesey wrote many detailed accounts of his experiences with these drugs, both during the study and in the years of private experimentation that followed. Kesey's role as a medical guinea pig, as well as his stint working at the state veterans' hospital, inspired him to write One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The success of this book, as well as the demolition of the Perry Lane cabins in August 1963, allowed him to move to a log house at 7940 La Honda Road in La Honda, California, fifteen miles south of Perry Lane.[10] He frequently entertained friends and many others 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. These parties were noted in some of Ginsberg's poems and are also described in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, as well as Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs by Hunter S. Thompson and Freewheelin Frank, Secretary of the Hell's Angels by Frank Reynolds.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

In 1959, Kesey wrote Zoo, a novel about the beatniks living in the North Beach community of San Francisco, but it was never published. In 1960, he wrote End of Autumn, about a young man who leaves his working-class family after he gets a scholarship to an Ivy League school, also unpublished.

The inspiration for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest came while working on the night shift (with Gordon Lish) at the Menlo Park Veterans' Hospital. There, Kesey often spent time talking to the patients, sometimes under the influence of the hallucinogenic drugs with which he had volunteered to experiment. Kesey did not believe that these patients were insane, but rather that society had pushed them out because they did not fit the conventional ideas of how people were supposed to act and behave. Published under the guidance of Cowley in 1962, the novel was an immediate success; in 1963, it was adapted into a successful stage play by Dale Wasserman, and in 1975, Miloš Forman directed a screen adaptation, which won the "Big Five" Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Louise Fletcher), Best Director (Forman) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Lawrence Hauben, Bo Goldman).

Kesey originally was involved in creating the film, but left two weeks into production. He claimed never to have seen the movie because of a dispute over the $20,000 he was initially paid for the film rights. Kesey loathed the fact that, unlike the book, the film was not narrated by the Chief Bromden character, and he disagreed with Jack Nicholson's being cast as Randle McMurphy (he wanted Gene Hackman). Despite this, Faye Kesey has stated that Ken was generally supportive of the film and pleased that it was made.[11]

Merry Pranksters

When the publication of his second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion in 1964, required his presence in New York, Kesey, Neal Cassady, and others in a group of friends they called the "Merry Pranksters" took a cross-country trip in a school bus nicknamed "Further".[12] This trip, described in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (and later in Kesey's own screenplay "The Further Inquiry") was the group's attempt to create art out of everyday life. After the bus trip, the Pranksters threw parties they called Acid Tests around the San Francisco Bay Area from 1965 to 1966. Many of the Pranksters lived at Kesey's residence in La Honda. In New York, Cassady introduced Kesey to Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who then turned them on to Timothy Leary. Sometimes a Great Notion inspired a 1970 film starring and directed by Paul Newman; it was nominated for two Academy Awards, and in 1972 was the first film shown by the new television network HBO, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

Legal trouble

Kesey was arrested for possession of marijuana in 1965. In an attempt to mislead police, he faked suicide by having friends leave his truck on a cliffside road near Eureka, along with an elaborate suicide note, written by the Pranksters. Kesey fled to Mexico in the back of a friend's car. When he returned to the United States eight months later, Kesey was arrested and sent to the San Mateo County jail in Redwood City, California, for five months where he was introduced to a highly recommended San Francisco lawyer, Richard Potack, who specialized in marijuana cultivation. On his release, he moved back to the family farm in Pleasant Hill, Oregon, in the Willamette Valley, where he spent the rest of his life.[13] He wrote many articles, books (mostly collections of his articles), and short stories during that time.

Death of son

In 1984, Kesey's 20-year-old son Jed, a wrestler for the University of Oregon, suffered severe head injuries in a vehicle accident on the way to a tournament;[14] after he was declared brain-dead two days later his parents gave permission for his organs to be harvested.[15] Jed's death deeply affected Kesey, who later called Jed a victim of conservative policies that had starved the team of funding. At a Grateful Dead concert soon after the death of promoter Bill Graham, Kesey delivered a eulogy, mentioning that Graham had donated $1,000 toward a memorial to Jed atop Mount Pisgah, near the Keseys' home in Pleasant Hill.[16]


In 1994, he toured with members of the Merry Pranksters performing a musical play he wrote about the millennium called Twister: A Ritual Reality. Many old and new friends and family showed up to support the Pranksters on this tour that took them from Seattle's Bumbershoot, all along the West Coast including a sold out two-night run at The Fillmore in San Francisco to Boulder, Colorado, where they coaxed (or pranked) the Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg into performing with them.

Final years

Statue of Ken Kesey in Eugene, Oregon

Kesey mainly kept to his home life in Pleasant Hill, preferring to make artistic contributions on the Internet or holding ritualistic revivals in the spirit of the Acid Test. In the official Grateful Dead DVD release The Closing of Winterland (2003) documenting the monumental New Year's 1978/1979 concert at the Winterland Arena in San Francisco, Kesey is featured in a between-set interview.

On August 14, 1997, Kesey and his Pranksters attended a Phish concert in Darien Lake, New York. Kesey and the Pranksters appeared onstage with the band and performed a dance-trance-jam session involving several characters from The Wizard of Oz and Frankenstein.

In June 2001, Kesey was invited and accepted as the keynote speaker at the annual commencement of The Evergreen State College. His last major work was an essay for Rolling Stone magazine calling for peace in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.


Kesey was diagnosed with diabetes in 1992. In 1997, health problems began to weaken him, starting with a stroke that year.[2] On October 25, 2001 Kesey had surgery on his liver to remove a tumor.[2] He did not recover from that operation and died of complications on November 10, 2001, age 66.[2]

In popular culture


Some of Kesey's better-known works include:[17]


  1. ^ a b c Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. "Ken Kesey, Author of 'Cuckoo's Nest,' Who Defined the Psychedelic Era, Dies at 66". The New York Times (November 11, 2001). Retrieved on February 21, 2008.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Baker, Jeff (November 11, 2001). "All times a great artist, Ken Kesey is dead at age 66". The Oregonian. pp. A1. 
  3. ^ "Down on the peacock farm".  
  4. ^ Macdonald, Gina, and Andrew Macdonald. "Ken Kesey." Magill’s Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition (2007): Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. Web. Nov 8. 2010.
  5. ^ Robins, Cynthia (2001-12-07). "Kesey's friends gather in tribute". 
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ Menlo Park Division - VA Palo Alto Health Care System
  9. ^ Reilly, Edward C. "Ken Kesey." Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Second Revised Edition (2000): EBSCO. Web. Nov 10. 2010.
  10. ^ Perry Ave, West Menlo Park, CA 94025 to 7940 La Honda Rd, La Honda, CA 94020 - Google Maps
  11. ^
  12. ^ NMAH | Signboard, Pass the Acid Test
  13. ^ Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher (November 11, 2001). "Ken Kesey, Author of 'Cuckoo's Nest,' Who Defined the Psychedelic Era, Dies at 66". The New York Times. 
  14. ^ ",4202199 Crash takes second life".
  15. ^
  16. ^ "". Track 18.
  17. ^ Martin, Blank (unspecified). "Selected Bibliography for Ken Kesey".  


  • Charters, Ann, ed. (2003). The Portable Beat Reader. New York: Penguin Books.  
  • McNally, Dennis (2002). A Long Strange Trip: the Inside History of the Grateful Dead. Broadway Books.  
  • Owen, Tim (November 10, 2001). "Remembering Ken Kesey". Cosmik Debris Magazine. Retrieved 2007-10-26. 
  • Swirski, Peter (2011). "You're Not in Canada until You Can Hear the Loons Crying or Voting, People's Power and Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest". American Utopia and Social Engineering in Literature, Social Thought, and Political History. New York: Routledge. 

Further reading

  • Robert Faggen (Spring 1994). "Ken Kesey, The Art of Fiction No. 136". The Paris Review. 

External links

  • Official website
  • Works by or about Ken Kesey in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
  • Works by Ken Kesey at Open Library
  • Bruce Carnes, Ken Kesey, Western Writers Series Digital Editions at Boise State University
  • Ken Kesey at the Beat Museum
  • Ken Kesey at the Beat Page
  • Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters
  • Ken Kesey at Find a Grave
  • Ken Kesey's letter about Jed's death
  • Article on Ken Kesey lecture at Virginia Commonwealth University, Feb. 20, 1990
  • Ken Kesey Documentary produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting
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