Ken Kesey Biography


Personal Background

Ken Kesey most often is characterized as the literary figure who bridged the Beat movement of the 1950s with the 1960s counterculture. This reputation springs from his literary themes of rebellion against societally imposed repression, which links him with the Beats, and his personal experiences as a volunteer in the U. S. government's experiments with psychotropic and hallucinogenic drugs. These latter experiences, coupled with his penchant for communal living and rock music, ensure his status as a preeminent spokesperson for the 1960s counterculture.

Kesey was born in La Junta, Colorado, in 1935. While he was still a child, he moved to Oregon with his family. After receiving his bachelor's degree from the University of Oregon in 1957, Kesey enrolled in the creative writing program at Stanford University. It was during his student tenure at Stanford that Kesey volunteered as an active participant in the testing of the psychotropic LSD and the hallucinogens mescaline (derived from the mescal or peyote cactus) and psilocybin (mushrooms) at the Veterans' Administration Hospital.

Kesey believed that the perception-altering LSD (in contrast to the actual hallucinogenic qualities of mescaline and psilocybin) was a tool useful for transcending rational consciousness and attaining a higher level of consciousness. Aside from Timothy Leary, whom Kesey met briefly during the Further Tour recounted in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, no person was a more vocal proponent for the use of LSD during the 1960s.

Kesey's interest in altered consciousness led him to accept a position in a mental hospital. While the job allowed him ample opportunity to write uninterrupted, it also introduced him to several individuals who would serve as models for characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Kesey also ingested LSD (called "tripping") while interviewing the patients in order to gain insight into their altered perceptions of the world. He even convinced a friend to administer electroshock therapy to ensure an accurate depiction in his novel.

Cuckoo's Nest conveys Kesey's interest in altered consciousness, particularly in the voice of the narrator, Chief Bromden. The paranoid sections of the novel where Chief discusses his belief that the hospital where he stays is actually an emasculating factory for a larger Combine that represses individuality were largely written while Kesey was under the influence of mind-altering substances.

Following the publication of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Kesey formed The Merry Pranksters, a group that included Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac's friend and inspiration for the character Dean Moriarty in the Beat novel On the Road. The Merry Pranksters were best known for conducting Acid Tests, which featured live music performed by the nascent Grateful Dead, psychedelic light shows, and the ingesting copious amounts of LSD 25 (lysergic acid diethylamide), a synthetic psychotropic drug that distorts perceptions and often creates an intense and lengthy euphoric experience. The Merry Pranksters also traveled across the United States in an old school bus they named "Further."

The success of his novel enabled Kesey to purchase a farm outside La Honda, California. His and the Merry Pranksters' increasingly public experiments with LSD led to legal investigations into their activities. His continued taunting of U.S. drug enforcement policies led him to flee to Mexico to avoid prosecution and then return to face imprisonment.

Upon his release, he returned to his family's farm in Oregon, where he raised four children with his wife, whom he married in 1957.

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

Career Highlights

Besides One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Kesey went on to write Sometimes a Great Notion (published by Viking in 1964), Kesey's Garage Sale (published by Viking in 1973), The Day After Superman Died (published by Lord John Press in 1980), Demon Box (published by Viking in 1986), The Further Inquiry (published by Viking in 1990), Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear (published by Viking in 1990), The Sea Lion (published by Viking in 1991), Sailor Song (published by Viking in 1992), and Last Round Up, with Ken Babbs, (published by Viking in 1994).

Despite the publication of other works, including the novel Sometimes a Great Notion, which became the film Never Give an Inch with Paul Newman and Henry Fonda, Kesey never recaptured the success of his first novel. In the late 1990s, he gathered several surviving members of the Merry Pranksters and drove across the United States in a new version of the bus Further.