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Ken (Elton) Kesey (1935-2001)


American writer, who gained world fame with his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962, filmed 1975). In the 1960s, Kesey became a counterculture hero and a guru of psychedelic drugs with Timothy Leary. Kesey has been called the Pied Piper, who changed the beat generation into the hippie movement.

"I think McMurphy knew better than we did that our tough looks were all show, because he still wasn't able to get a real laugh out of anybody. Maybe he couldn't understand why we weren't able to laugh yet, but he knew you can't really be strong until you see a funny side to things. In fact, he worked so hard of pointing out the funny side of things that I was wondering a little if maybe he was blind to the other side, if maybe he wasn't able to see what it was that parched laughter deep inside your stomach." (from One Flew Over Cuckoo's Nest)

Ken Kesey was born in La Junta, Colorado, the son of Fred A. Kesey and Geneva Jolley.  When he was still a child, he moved with his family to Eugene, Oregon. Kesey's father worked in the creamery business, in which he was eventually successful after founding the Eugene Farmers Cooperative. Kesey spent his early years hunting, fishing, swimming; he learned to box and wrestle, and he was a star football player. He studied at the University of Oregon, where he acted in college plays. On graduating he won a scholarship to Stanford University. Kesey soon dropped out, joined the counterculture movement, and began experimenting with drugs. In 1956 he married his school sweetheart, Faye Haxby.

Kesey attended a course led by the novelist Wallace Stegner at the Stanford Creative Writing Program. "Neither Wally nor I thought he had a particularly important talent," said Richard Scowcroft, who taught at Stanford. "Wally said to me once he was sort of a fairly talented illiterate." Kesey's first work was an unpublished novel, Zoo, about the beatniks of the North Beach community in San Francisco. Stegner's other students included Malcolm Cowley, Tillie Olsen, Larry McMurtry, and Peter Beagle. Cowley remembered Kesey as looking "stolid and self-assured", he had the build of a football halfback and "a neck like the stump of a Douglas fir." (Wallace Stegner and the American West by Philip L. Fradkin, 2008, p. 132)

Tom Wolfe has described in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) Kesey and his friends, called the Merry Pranksters, as they travelled the country and used all kinds of hallucinogens. Wolfe compared somewhat mockingly Kesey to the figures of the world's great religions. Their bus, called Further - actually written "Furthur" on the vehicle - was painted in Day-Glo colors. In California Kesey's friends served LSD-laced Kool-Aid to members of their parties.

At a Veterans' Administration hospital in Menlo Park, California, Kesey was paid as a volunteer experimental subject, taking mind-altering drugs on Tuesdays and reporting their effects. The supersecret project, called MK-ULTRA, was organized by CIA. Kesey got $20 a week. Some of the drugs, which included magic mushroom capsules, mescaline, amphetamines, and LSD, he took to his home. These experiences - and a vision of an Indian sweeping there the floor - formed the background for One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, set in a mental hospital. While writing the book, and continuing in the footsteps of such writers as Thomas De Quincy (Confessions of an English Opium Eater, 1821), Aldous Huxley (The Doors of Perception, 1954), and William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch, 1959), Kesey took peyote and his favorite, LSD. With his new, increased perception, Kesey felt being "dimensional", explaining in his words, "I saw that everything that you see from this position, if you're also able to see it from over here, you've got two views of it."

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is narrated by Chief Bromden, a paranoid schizophrenic, who is six feet, eight inches tall, a half-American Indian. He lets people think he is a deaf mute. Into his world enters the petty criminal and prankster Randall Patrick McMurphy with his efforts to change the bureaucratic system of the institution, ruled by Big Nurse Ratched, a female Big Brother. McMurphy is an involuntary and anarchic patient - the others are there more or less voluntarily. The conflict between Nurse Ratched and McMurphy becomes a battle of totalitarianism and anarchistic freedom. McMurphy plans to escape but after a wild party he is given a frontal lobotomy. Bromden smothers his zombie-like friend with a pillow and escapes towards Canada. The book suggests that the really dangerous mental cases are those in positions of authority.

The film adaptation of the book gained a huge success. Kirk Douglas had bought the right to Kesey's novel; he played the role of McMurphy on Broadway in an adaptation by Dale Wasserman. It ran for 82 performances at the Cort Theater during the 1963-64 season. When he failed to interest a studio in the project, he finally turned the package over to his son Michael. Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman refused to take the role of Murphy. The film was made in one wing of the Oregon State Hospital. Several actual patients of the hospital played extras. The major change was that while the novel was narrated by Chief Bromden, the film was shot more objectively - Bromden is also the only patient who escapes the hospital. "But Forman does his best to minimize Kesey's misogynist undertones. By making all the characters more fully rounded, he reduces the polarization of good and evil that leaves the novel open to these charges, avoiding the novel's tendency to turn McMurphy into a hero or Christ figure." (from Novels into Film by John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welsh, 1997) When the film won five Academy Awards, Kesey was barely mentioned during the award ceremonies, and he made known his unhappiness with the film. He did not like Jack Nicholson, or the script, and sued the producers.

"This guy's scamp who knows he's irresistible to women and, in reality, he expects Nurse Ratched to be seduced by him... This is his tragic flaw. This is why he ultimately fails. I discussed this with Louise - I discussed it only with her. That's what I felt was actually happening with that character. It was one long, unsuccessful seduction which the guy was so pathologically sure of." (Jack Nicholson about McMurphy in Jack Nicholson, the Unauthorised Biography by Barbara & Scott Siegel, 1990)

Kesey's next novel, Sometimes a Great Notion (1964), came out two years later and was also made into a film, this time directed by Paul Newman. The story was set in a logging community and centered on two brothers and their bitter rivalry in the family. Hank Stamper is a raw and aggressive man of nature, and his opponent is Draeger, a union official attempting to force local loggers into conformity. Hank's half-brother, the introspective Lee, chooses to retreat into intellectualism instead of action. After the work, Kesey gave up publishing novels. He formed a band of "Merrie Pranksters", set up a commune in La Honda, California, bought an old school bus, and toured America and Mexico with his friends, among them Neal Cassady, Kerouac's travel companion. Dressed in a jester's outfit, Kesey was the chief prankster.

In 1965 Kesey was arrested for possession of marijuana. He fled to Mexico, where he faked an unconvincing suicide and then returned to the United States, serving a five-month prison sentence at the San Mateo County Jail. After this tumultuous period he bought farm in Pleasant Hill, Oregon, settled down with his wife to raise their four children, and taught a graduate writing seminar at the University of Oregon. In the early 1970s Kesey returned to writing and published Kesey's Garage Sale (1973). His later works include the children's book Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear  (1990) and Sailor Song (1992), a futuristic tale about an Alaskan fishing village and Hollywood film crew. Last Go Around  (1994), Kesey's final book, was an account of a famous Oregon rodeo written in the form of pulp fiction. Kesey died of complications after surgery for liver cancer on November 10, 2001 in Eugene, Oregon.

For further reading: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe (1968); "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest": The Text and Criticism, ed. by C.J. Pratt (1977); Kesey, ed. by M. Strelow (1977); Ken Kesey by Barry H. Leeds (1981); The Art of Grit by M. Gilbert Porter (1982); Ken Kesey by Stephen L. Tanner (1983); One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Gilbert Porter (1989); On the Bus by Ken Babbs (1989); Ken Kesey by Stephen L. Tanner (1990); St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, ed. by Tom Pendergast and Sara Pendergast (1999); Acid Christ: Ken Kesey, LSD and the Politics of Ecstasy by Mark Christensen (2011)

Selected works:

  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, 1962
    - Yksi lensi yli käenpesän (suom. Risto Lehmusoksa, 1974)
    - Film adaptations: 1975, prod. Fantasy Films, screenplay Lawrence Hauben, Bo Goldman, dir. by Milos Forman, starring Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Will Sampson. "I think the reason this picture has always had a youth cult is that until the end it has all the elements of later comic youth films in which fun-loving and belligerent young rebels/students play pranks that cause the leaders of their institutions to have anxiety attacks." (Danny Peary in Guide For the Film Fanatic, 1986); Toestanden, 1976, prod. Ministerie van CRM, Nederlandse Omroepstichting (NOS), dir. Thijs Chanowski
  • Sometimes a Great Notion, 1964
    - Joskus tekee mieli 1-2 (suom. Risto Lehmusoksa, 1977-78)
    - Film adaptation: 1971, prod. Newman-Foreman Company, Universal Pictures, screenplay John Gay, dir. by Paul Newman, screenplay by John Gay, starring Paul Newman, Henry Fonda, Lee Remick, Michael Sarrazin. GB title: Never Give an Inch. Academy Award nomination: song 'All His Children' by Henry Mancini, lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman.
  • The Last Whole Earth Catalog, 1971 (contributor)
  • The Last Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog, 1971 (editor and contributor, with Paul Krassner)
  • Kesey's Garage Sale, 1973 (compiler and contributor)
  • Seven Prayers by Grandma Whittier, 1974-79
  • Kesey, 1977 (edited by Michael Strelow and the staff of the Northwest review)
  • Demon Box, 1986
  • Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear, 1988 (illustrated by Barry Moser)
  • The Further Inquiry, 1990 (with R. Bevirt)
  • Caverns, 1990 (written under the pseudonym O.U. Levon with creative writing students)
  • The Sea Lion: A Story of the Sea Cliff People, 1991 (illustrated by Neil Waldman) 
  • Sailor Song, 1992
  • Last Go Round , 1994 (with Ken Babbs)
  • Kesey’s Jail Journal: Cut the M************ Loose, 2003 (introduction by Ed McClanahan)

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