Ken Kesey

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Ken Kesey, a prolific writer throughout his life, was probably best known as the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and as a cultural icon who some consider something of a link between the "beat generation" of the 1950s and the "hippies" of the 1960s.

Born September 17, 1935, 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. It was when he moved to Palo Alto, California to enroll in the creative writing program at Stanford University (for which he had received a Woodrow Wilson fellowship) that he first started to gain attention as a writer.

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 amphetamine IT-290. 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 Cuckoo, which caught the attention of many, including "beat" poet Neal Cassady, who had accompaned 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 loud rock music (usually Kesey's favorite band, The Warlocks, who later became the Grateful Dead), black lights, fluoresent 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 of their own in an International Harvester schoolbus named "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. He was later arrested for possession of marijuana when he returned, and after his release moved with his family back to Oregon. He did not release his third major novel, Sailor Song, until 1992, but he wrote many articles, smaller books (mostly collections of his articles), and short stories during that time.

Without Kesey's permission or involvement, Milos Forman directed a screen adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest starring Jack Nicholson in 1975, which won the academy award for best picture.

Kesey died on November 10, 2001, following cancer surgery on his liver.

Major Works

  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. New York: Viking. 1962.
  • Sometimes a Great Notion. New York: Viking. 1964.
  • Kesey's Garage Sale. New York: Viking. 1972.
  • Demon Box. New York: Penguin. 1986.
  • Caverns (under the pseudonym "O. U. Levon" with Bob Blucher, et al.). New York: Penguin. 1990.
  • "The Further Inquiry" (screenplay). New York: Viking. 1990.
  • Sailor Song. New York: Viking Penguin. 1992.
  • Last Go Round (with Ken Babbs). New York: Viking. 1994.
  • "Twister" (play). New York: Viking. 1999.