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Ken (Elton) Kesey Biography

Nationality: American. Born: La Junta, Colorado, 1935. Education: A high school in Springfield, Oregon; University of Oregon, Eugene, B.A. 1957; Stanford University, California (Woodrow Wilson fellow), 1958-59. Career: Ward attendant in mental hospital, Menlo Park, California; president, Intrepid Trips film company, 1964. Since 1974 publisher, Spit in the Ocean magazine, Pleasant Hill, Oregon. Served prison term for marijuana possession, 1967. Awards: Saxton Memorial Trust award, 1959.



One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. New York, Viking Press, 1962;London, Methuen, 1963.

Sometimes a Great Notion. New York, Viking Press, 1964; London, Methuen, 1966.

Demon Box. New York, Viking, and London, Methuen, 1986.

Caverns, with others. New York, Viking, 1990.

The Further Inquiry. New York, Viking, 1990.

Sailor Song. New York, Viking, 1992; London, Black Swan, 1993.

Last Go Round, with Ken Babbs. New York, Viking, 1994.

Short Stories

The Day Superman Died. Northridge, California, Lord John Press, 1980.

Uncollected Short Stories

"The First Sunday in October," in Northwest Review (Seattle), Fall 1957.

"McMurphy and the Machine," in Stanford Short Stories 1962, edited by Wallace Stegner and Richard Scowcroft. Stanford, California, Stanford University Press, 1962.

"Letters from Mexico," in Ararat (New York), Autumn 1967.

"Excerpts from Kesey's Jail Diary," in Ramparts (Berkeley, California), November 1967.

"Correspondence," in Tri-Quarterly (Evanston, Illinois), Spring 1970.

"Once a Great Nation," in Argus (College Park, Maryland), April 1970.

"Dear Good Dr. Timothy," in Augur (Eugene, Oregon), 19 November 1970.

"Cut the Motherfuckers Loose," in The Last Whole Earth Catalog. San Francisco, Straight Arrow, 1971.

"The Bible," "Dawgs," "The I Ching," "Mantras," "Tools from My Chest," in The Last Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog-The Realist (New York), March-April 1971.

"Over the Border," in Oui (Chicago), April 1973.

"'Seven Prayers' by Grandma Whittier," in Spit in the Ocean 1-5 (Pleasant Hill, Oregon), 1974-79.


Kesey's Garage Sale (miscellany; includes screenplay Over the Border). New York, Viking Press, 1973.

Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear (for children). New York, Viking, 1990.

The Sea Lion: A Story of the Sea Cliff People (for children). NewYork, Viking, 1991.


Manuscript Collections:

University of Oregon, Eugene.

Critical Studies:

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe, New York, Farrar Straus, 1968, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969; Ken Kesey by Bruce Carnes, Boise, Idaho, Boise State College, 1974; "Ken Kesey Issue" of Northwest Review (Eugene, Oregon), vol. 16, nos. 1-2, 1977; Ken Kesey by Barry H. Leeds, New York, Ungar, 1981; The Art of Grit: Ken Kesey's Fiction, Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1982, and One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest: Rising to Heroism, Boston, Twayne, 1989, both by M. Gilbert Porter; Ken Kesey by Stephen L. Tanner, Boston, Twayne, 1983; On the Bus: The Legendary Trip of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters by Ken Babbs, photographs by Rob Bivert, New York, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1989, London, Plexus, 1991.

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Ken Kesey's celebrity and critical reputation were instantly established with the publication of his first two novels. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was a widely popular commercial success as a novel and was also successful in its adaptations for stage and screen. Sometimes a Great Notion was initially received with some critical reservations. Seen as an ambitious but not altogether satisfying attempt to enter the rank of great American novels, it has since received more favorable attention from the academic critics, though it has not found a secure place in the established canon of contemporary American literature. After finishing it, Kesey announced a shift from "literature" to "life," and achieved a great deal of public notoriety in the process of making the change. He was frequently public news during the late 1960s, forming a band of "Merry Pranksters" (reported on at length in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) who attempted to live life as a work of comic fiction. His arrest and conviction for marijuana possession made still more news and provided experiences that he would frequently exploit in his writing. Stray and often occasional pieces of a miscellaneous nature were published in countercultural venues during the late 1960s and early 1970s, suggesting that perhaps a new project was in the works, and some of these were assembled in Kesey's Garage Sale, an apt title for a collection of miscellaneous items. In 1986 a more ambitious collection was assembled for Demon Box, a series of largely autobiographical pieces that continued to look back in time to the historical period of Kesey's public notoriety. The volume is loosely united by a first-person narrator whose name, Devlin Deboree (pronounced debris), hints at a devil-may-care attitude towards social and artistic conventions, and at the disorganized, self-consciously problematic value of his observations.

Both of Kesey's early novels are richly northwestern and regional in setting and atmosphere, with a strong sense of the incursion of the white man on the Indian's land and way of life. The emphasis is a bit one-sided in Cuckoo's Nest, which is set in a mental institution and has for its stream-of-consciousness narrator a "dumb" (thought to be deaf, but in fact choosing not to speak) Indian nick-named Chief, whose father was the last chief of his tribe. The novel can be read as an allegory of how the invaders have been driven to subjugate the Native Americans because they are a reminder of what must be sacrificed in the process of western civilization and its discontents, and an exploration of the power struggle between a desire to be free and the fearful consequences of that freedom. Most of the characters confined in the institution could leave if they wished; but their fear of the outside is more intense than their hatred of the inside, until the raucous protagonist McMurphy comes along to inspire their lapsed self-confidence and zest for life. Recognizable as a tragicomic parodic microcosm of the world we all live in, the book captures and reflects the reality of a Walt Disney world, as perceived through the eyes of the "Big Chief" who used to be on the bright red covers of the writing tablets of children all over the United States, but who is now pretending to be a vegetable in a nut house. What he sees is "Like a cartoon world, where the figures are flat and outlined in black, jerking through some kind of goofy story that might be real funny if it weren't for the cartoon figures being real guys …" The comic-book quality has lent itself nicely to dramatic production, as have the compactness and wild humor of the novel. These qualities also tempt one to allegorize, but at the same time mock the attempt as absurd, for the work is not itself allegorical. It is a report on the way people choose to see themselves and their world in allegorical or comic-book fashion. The reality of the villain, "Big Nurse," is as exaggerated by the characters who fear and hate her as it is by the novelist. It is their insecurity and weakness that feed her power and make her "big," while the institution, with its equipment and routines, becomes the pretext for sociological and cultural myths pushed to an exaggerated but all-too-plausible extreme. The prefrontal lobotomy performed on McMurphy at the end is any operation on or treatment of or way of seeing a man designed to limit him for his own sake, to protect him from his own human nature. The Big Nurse is that spirit which loves the "idea" of man so much it can't allow individual men to exist.

Sometimes a Great Notion was Kesey's stab at writing the great American novel in a Faulknerian mode, and it deserves more attention than can be given it here. Like an Absalom, Absalom! set in Oregon, intensely regional, with elaborate and intricately complex narrative structure (flashbacks, shifts of point of view), the work demands several readings. With such attention, what at first seem like gratuitous confusions and exploitations of narrative technique begin to emerge as the necessary supports for a novelistic structure which commands respect even though it fails in the end to achieve its full potential. In this novel Kesey aimed high, and he came impressively close to his target. The publication two decades later of Demon Box produces the effect of a long-deferred anti-climax. Lingering colloquially and nostalgically over his acquaintances and escapades in the 1960s and 1970s, in a deliberately naive reportage style, this work often succeeds in capturing the colloquial idiom of prison life or Hell's Angels banter, but it does little to enhance Kesey's reputation as an innovative writer of the first rank. As if aware of this critical judgment, Kesey deliberately prefaced the book with a poem called "TARNISHED GALAHAD—what the judge called him at his trial, " two lines of which ask and answer the significant question:

Tarnished Galahad—did your sword get rusted?

Tarnished Galahad—there's no better name!

—Thomas A. Vogler

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