Ken Kesey, Novelist and Hero of 1960s Counterculture

Author Became Icon of the Hippie Movement

Photograph of author Ken Kesey in the 1960s
Ken Kesey in the 1960s.

Getty Images 

Ken Kesey was an American writer who attained fame with his first novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. He helped define the 1960s as both an innovative author and a flamboyant catalyst of the hippie movement.

Fast Facts: Ken Kesey

  • Born: September 17, 1935, in La Junta, Colorado
  • Died: November 10, 2001 in Eugene, Oregon
  • Parents: Frederick A. Kesey and Geneva Smith
  • Spouse: Norma Faye Haxby
  • Children: Zane, Jed, Sunshine, and Shannon
  • Education: University of Oregon and Stanford University
  • Most Important Published Works: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), Sometimes a Great Notion (1964).
  • Known For: In addition to being an influential author, he was the leader of the Merry Pranksters and helped launch the 1960s counterculture and hippie movement.

Early Life

Ken Kesey was born September 17, 1935, in La Junta, Colorado. His parents were farmers, and after his father served in World War II, the family moved to Springfield, Oregon. Growing up, Kesey spent much of his time in the outdoors, fishing, hunting, and camping with his father and brothers. He also became involved in sports, especially high school football and wrestling, exhibiting a fierce drive to succeed.

He picked up a love of storytelling from his maternal grandmother and a love of reading from his father. As a child he read typical fare for American boys at the time, including western tales by Zane Grey and the Tarzan books of Edgar Rice Burroughs. He also became an ardent fan of comic books.

Attending the University of Oregon, Kesey studied journalism and communications. He excelled as a collegiate wrestler as well as at writing. After graduating from college in 1957, he won a scholarship to a prestigious writing program at Stanford University.

Kesey married his high school girlfriend, Fay Haxby, in 1956. The couple moved to California for Kesey to attend Stanford and fell into a lively crowd of artists and writers. Classmates of Kesey included writers Robert Stone and Larry McMurtry. Kesey, with his outgoing and competitive personality, was often the center of attention and the Kesey house in a neighborhood called Perry Lane became a popular gathering place for literary discussions and parties.

The atmosphere at Stanford was inspiring. Teachers in the writing program included authors Frank O'Connor, Wallace Stegner, and Malcolm Cowley. Kesey learned to experiment with his prose. He wrote a novel, Zoo, which was based on the bohemian residents of San Francisco. The novel was never published, but it was an important learning process for Kesey.

To make extra money while in graduate school, Kesey became a paid subject in experiments studying the effects of drugs on the human mind. As part of the US Army studies, he was given psychedelic drugs, including lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), and instructed to report on its effects. After ingesting the drugs and experiencing profound effects, Kesey's writing was transformed, as was his personality. He became fascinated with the potential of psychoactive chemicals, and began experimenting with other substances.

Success and Rebellion

While working a part-time job as an attendant in a mental ward, Kesey was inspired to write what became his breakthrough novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, published in 1962.

One night, while taking peyote and observing patients in the mental ward, Kesey conceived the story of the inmates in a prison mental hospital. The narrator of his novel, the Native American Chief Broom, sees the world through a mental haze influenced by Kesey's drug experiences. The protagonist, McMurphy, has feigned mental illness to avoid laboring on a prison work farm. Once inside the asylum, he finds himself subverting the rules imposed by the institution's rigid authority figure, Nurse Ratched. McMurphy became a classic American rebel character.

A teacher from Stanford, Malcolm Cowley, had given him editorial advice, and with Cowley's guidance Kesey turned undisciplined prose, some of it written while under the influence of psychedelics, into a powerful novel.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was published to positive reviews and Kesey's career seemed assured. He wrote a another novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, the story of an Oregon logging family. It wasn't as successful, but by the time it was published Kesey had essentially moved beyond mere writing. The theme of rebellion vs. conformity became a central theme in both his writing and his life.

The Merry Pranksters

By 1964 he had gathered a collection of eccentric friends, dubbed the Merry Pranksters, who experimented with psychedelic drugs and multi-media art projects. That year, Kesey and the Pranksters traveled across America, from the West Coast to New York City, on a garishly painted converted school bus they named "Further." (The name was originally misspelled as "Furthur," and appears that way in some accounts.)

Dressed in colorful patterned clothes, a few years before hippie fashion became widely known, they naturally attracted stares. That was the point. Kesey and his friends, which included Neal Cassady, the prototype for Dean Moriarity in Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road, delighted in shocking people.

photograph of Further, the Merry Pranksters Bus
Merry Pranksters on Further, their fabled bus, in San Franciso, 1965. Getty Images

Kesey had brought along a supply of LSD, which was still legal. When the bus was pulled over by the police on several occasions, the Pranksters explained they were filmmakers. The drug culture that would scandalize America was still a few years in the future, and the cops seemed to shrug off the Pranksters as something akin to eccentric circus performers.

An official from the Smithsonian was quoted as saying it "was not a typical bus," adding "Its historical context is important for what it meant to the literary world of a certain generation." The original bus, the article noted, was at that time rusting away in an Oregon field. It never was acquired by the Smithsonian, though Kesey at times pranked reporters into believing he was preparing to drive it cross-country and present it to the museum.

The Acid Tests

Back on the West Coast in 1965, Kesey and the Pranksters organized a series of parties they called The Acid Tests. The events featured the ingestion of LSD, bizarre films and slide shows, and free-form rock music by a local band, which soon began calling itself the Grateful Dead. The events became notorious, as did a party at Kesey's ranch in La Honda, California, which was attended by other counterculture heroes, including poet Allen Ginsberg and journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

Kesey became the heroic main character of journalist Tom Wolfe's deeply reported chronicle of the San Francisco hippie scene, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. The Wolfe book solidified Kesey's reputation as a leader of the burgeoning counterculture. And the basic pattern of the acid tests, exuberant parties with rampant drug use, rock music, and light shows, set a pattern which became standard in rock concerts for years.

Kesey was arrested for possession of marijuana and briefly fled to Mexico to avoid going to jail. When he returned, he was sentenced to six months on a prison farm. Once released he backed off from active involvement in hippie adventures, settled with his wife and children in Oregon, and joined his relatives in the dairy business.

Author Ken Kesey at a lectern in 1991
Author Ken Kesey at a 1991 public reading. Getty Images 

When the film of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest became a hit in 1975, Kesey objected to how it had been adapted. However, the film was wildly successful, sweeping the 1976 Oscars with five awards, including Best Picture. Despite Kesey's refusal to even watch the film, it propelled him from his quiet life on an Oregon farm back into the public eye.

Over time he began writing and publishing again. His later novels were not as successful as his first one, but he regularly attracted a devoted following at public appearances. As something of a hippie elder statesman, Kesey continued to write and give speeches until his death.

Ken Kesey died in Eugene, Oregon, on November 10, 2001. His obituary in The New York Times called him the "Pied Piper of the hippie era" and a "magnetic leader" who had been a bridge between the Beat writers of the 1950s and the cultural movement that began in San Francisco in the mid-1960s and spread across the world.

Sources:

  • Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. "Ken Kesey, Author of 'Cuckoo's Nest,' Who Defined the Psychedelic Era, Dies at 66." New York Times, 11 November 2001, p. 46.
  • "Kesey, Ken." Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of American Literature, vol. 2, Gale, 2009, pp. 878-881. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Kesey, Ken." The Sixties in America Reference Library, edited by Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast, vol. 2: Biographies, UXL, 2005, pp. 118-126. Gale Virtual Reference Library.