Outside Link: | Psychedelic 60s: Ken Kesey & the Merry Pranksters |

Page Links: | Primary Works | Selected Bibliography 1980-Present | MLA Style Citation of this Web Page |

A Brief Biography by Michael P. Hunter

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Source: npr.org

Primary Works

One flew over the cuckoo's nest, a novel. NY: Viking P, 1962. PS3561 .E667 05

Sometimes a great notion, a novel. NY: Viking P, 1964. PS3561 .E667 S6

Kesey's garage sale. NY: Viking P, 1973. PS3561 E667 G3

Demon box. NY: Viking, 1986. PS3561 .E667 D7

Sailor song. NY: Viking, 1992. PS3561 .E667 S25

One flew over the cuckoo's nest: a play in two acts. by Dale Wasserman; from the novel by Ken Kesey. NY: S. French, 2000. PS3573 .A797 O5

Selected Bibliography 1980-Present

Bataille, Gretchen M. ed. Native American Representations: First Encounters, Distorted Images, and Literary Appropriations. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2001.

Dodgson, Rick. It's All a Kind of Magic: The Young Ken Kesey. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 2013.

Horan, Richard. Seeds: One Man's Serendipitious Journey to Find the Trees That Inspired Famous American Writers from Faulkner to Kerouac, Welty to Wharton. NY: Harper Perennial, 2011.

Leeds, Barry H. Ken Kesey. NY: F. Ungar Pub. Co., 1981. PS3561 E667 Z75

Porter, M. Gilbert. One flew over the cuckoo's nest: rising to heroism. Boston: Twayne, 1989. PS3561 .E667 O537

Safer, Elaine B. The Contemporary American Comic Epic: The Novels of Barth, Pynchon, Gaddis, and Kesey. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1988.

Searles, George J. ed. A Casebook on Ken Kesey's One flew over the cuckoo's nest. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1992. PS3561 .E667 O533

Silvers, Robert B. and Barbara Epstein. ed. The Company They Kept: Writers on Unforgettable Friendships. NY: New York Review Books, 2006.

Tanner, Stephen L. Ken Kesey. Twayne, 1983. PS3561 .E667 Z88

| Top | A Brief Biography by Michael P. Hunter May 28, 2014

Biography of Kenneth Elton Kesey

Pen Name: Ken Kesey
Born: 1935
Died: 2001
Nationality: American
Most Notable Works: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), Sometimes a Great Notion (1964)
Related Authors: Jack Kerouac, J. G. Ballard, Angela Carter, Jean Genet, William Gibson, Alan Moore, Kathy Acker, William S. Burroughs

The Times

The 1960s were contentious and uncertain times: the Vietnam War and draft-card-burning hippies, the Cuban missile crisis and "All You Need is Love", lynchings in the south and men walking on the moon, the president shot, his brother shot, Martin Luther King, Jr. shot, the Grateful Dead, Woodstock, love, peace, sex, drugs. Ken Kesey's writing inspired and was inspired by the times.

Early Years

Kesey was raised in a Christian home, a farm in Pleasant Hill, Oregon. His mother, Geneva Jolly, said of his early years, "He was different from the beginning. He had a mind of his own. He was always full of life." Ken and his younger brother Chuck Kesey put on magic acts. "They did a lot of magic; they appeared at schools, at McDonald Theater matinee on Saturdays. He would hypnotize Chuck." [1] Ken Kesey's father insisted his sons become involved in sports. Kesey became a champion wrestler almost qualifying for the Olympic team.[2] He was voted most likely to succeed in high school.[3][4] Kesey said:

"What I always wanted to be was a magician... My real upbringing when I was a teenager was doing magic shows, all over the state, with my father and brothers. Doing magic, you not only have to be able to do a trick, you have to have a little story line to go with it. And writing is essentially a trick." [5]


Kesey graduated from University of Oregon's School of Journalism with a degree in speech and communication in 1957. In the following year he attended a non-degree creative writing program at Stanford University.

"My feeling about Kesey was that he was capable of doing the worst and best writing of anyone in the class. And he couldn't tell the difference," Stegner, his Stanford professor, said. "Stegner saw Kesey and what he represented as a threat to civilization and intellectualism and sobriety." [6]

Menlo Park and The Cuckoo's Nest

While at Stanford, Kesey volunteered for hallucinogenic drug tests at the Veteran's Hospital in Menlo Park, near San Francisco. The tests were secretly funded by the CIA.[7] The drugs the CIA studied for mind-control, Kesey believed to be mind-expanding. These drugs included LSD, peyote, mescaline, Ditran and others. Kesey recounted:

"[The scientists] didn't have the guts to do it themselves, so they hired students. 'Hey, we found this room. Would you please go inside and let us know what's going on in there?' When we came back out, they took one look at us and said, 'Whatever they do, don't let them go back in that room!'" [8]

After the official ending of the drug experiment, Kesey accepted a night job as an orderly on the Melo Park psychiatric ward. Keys came with the job and "with access to the various medicines, Kesey would often write under the influence of drugs." [9]

Kesey's intimate experience with a psychiatric ward and drug-induced alternative consciousness inspired his most famous work, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Viking Press & Signet Books, 1962. It was an immediate success.[9] The first-person narrative from the perspective of a patient is "highly subjective and often hallucinatory - that gives Cuckoo's Nest its metaphoric richness, its peculiar horror, and ultimately its emotional force." [9] A patient, Chief Bromden, opens the novel with this surreal passage:

They're out there.

Black boys in white suits up before me to commit sex acts in the hall and get it mopped up before I can catch them.

They're mopping when I come out the dorm, all three of them sulky and hating everything, the time of day, the place they're at here, the people they got to work around. When they hate like this, better if they don't see me. I creep along the wall quiet as dust in my canvas shoes, but they got special sensitive equipment detects my fear and they all look up, all three at once, eyes glittering out of the black faces like the hard glitter of radio tubes out of the back of an old radio.[10]

Another patient on the ward, "McMurphy is not merely up against the Big Nurse and her ward, but against all the controlling aspects of society, which molds its conformists into dull mechanical robots for the Combine." [5]

Though Cuckoo's Nest has been part of some high school English literature courses, it has also been banned in schools due to graphic depictions of violence, sex, and drugs. School boards have been sued and at North Freemont High School, St. Anthony, Idaho the teacher who assigned it was fired.[11]

Sometimes a Great Notion

Sometimes a Great Notion was Kesey's second published novel, Viking Press, 1964. Though it never reached the fame of Cuckoo's Nest, many scholars consider it his magnum opus. The six-hundred page novel is about a strike in a small lumber town on the Oregon coast. It is more realistic and yet more experimental with multiple first persons and superimposed time frames. This allowed Kesey to closely examine multiple characters who don't communicate well with each other.[8][12]

The rain had let up and leveled out to its usual winter-long pace ... not so much a rain as a dreamy smear of blue-gray that wipes over the land instead of falling on it, making patient spectral shades of the tree trunks and a pathic, placid, and cordial sighing sound all along the broad river. A friendly sound, even. It was nothing fearful after all. The same old rain, and, if not welcomed, at least accepted an old gray aunt who came to visit every winter and stayed till spring. You learn to live with her. You learn to reconcile yourself to the little inconveniences and not get annoyed. You remember she is seldom angry or vicious and nothing to get in a stew about, and if she is a bore and stays overlong you can train yourself not to notice her, or at least not to stew about her.[13]

Many readers are enthusiastic about Kesey's description of Oregon, his creative metaphors, and character development but complain that it is long-winded, rambling, and incoherent. And yet, despite difficulties this novel presents, readers tend to agree it's worth the struggle.[14] Literary critic Scott MacFarlane said in his book The Hippie Narrative, "Great Notion is of lasting importance, in part, for its structural innovations and, in part, for the insight it provides into the evolving cultural mindset of the '60s." [15]

"Writers," Kesey told a reporter, "are trapped by artificial rules. We are trapped in syntax. We are ruled by an imaginary teacher with a red ball-point pen who will brand us with an A-minus for the slightest infraction of the rules." [16]

LSD: Introspection Tool

Drugs played a role not just in Kesey's personal life but also in his writing. Kesey himself admitted to taking peyote before writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.[17][1]

"When people ask me about LSD, I always make a point of telling them you can have the shit scared out of you with LSD because it exposes something, something hollow. Let's say you have been getting on your knees and bowing and worshipping; suddenly, you take LSD and you look and there's just a hole, there's nothing there. The Catholic Church fills this hole with candles and flowers and litanies and opulence. The Protestant Church fills it with hand-wringing and pumped-up squeezing emotions because they can't afford the flowers and the candles. The Jews fill this hole with weeping and browbeating and beseeching of the sky: How long, how long are you gonna treat us like this? The Muslims fill it with rigidity and guns and a militant ethos. But all of us know that's not what is supposed to be in that hole. After I had been at Stanford two years, I was into LSD. I began to see that the books I thought were the true accounting books - my grades, how I'd done in other schools, how I'd performed at jobs, whether I had paid off my car or not - were not at all the true books. There were other books that were being kept, real books. In those real books is the real accounting of your life." [5]

Merry Pranksters go Furthur

Kesey had a following of friends and family collectively known as the Merry Pranksters.[18] After the publication of Sometimes a Great Notion, Kesey bought a 1939 Harvester International school bus with his money from Cuckoo's Nest, painted it with psychedelic day-glow paint, and named it "Furthur".[19] Kesey and his Merry Pranksters embarked on a historic month-long trip from La Honda, California to the 1964 World's Fair in New York City.

The Merry Pranksters performed street theater and took part in group LSD sessions. Outrageously dressed, antic and idealistic, the group offered a living blueprint for the San Francisco hippie culture that would reach its apotheosis in the 1967 Summer of Love and spread quickly across the country. Some have said that Kesey (with a little help from the Beatles) and his bus, christened "Further," invented the '60s.[20][21]

"The bus was a physical manifestation of a psychedelic trip." [22] Kesey explained the purpose of the trip: "What we hoped was that we could stop the coming end of the world." [20]

In 1965 he faked his own suicide to escape arrest for using marijuana, and fled to Mexico. He was arrested when he returned to the States and spent five months in jail.[23][24]

Kesey said, "We're the John Waynes of LSD. We've done all the right stuff: we didn't hit our wives, we didn't molest kids, we tried to keep the land well, we're nice to dogs and at some point that's going to have to count." [17]

The bus fell into disrepair by the late '60s and was abandoned behind the family farm in what was called the "swamp".

Final Years

Kesey wrote other books, some for kids, and plays. None received the monumental acclaim of his first two books. Kesey died in 2001 from surgical complications. He was buried on the family farm next to his son Jed[1] "Dad says, you only get one ticket on this ride," his son Zane said, "There's no sense in sitting and watching the ride go by." [1]


After numerous complaints from Kesey fans, the family in 2005, helped by Merry Pranksters and devoted fans, chained Further to a tractor to pull it free from its thirty-five-year-long rest among the blackberries. It's day-glow paint given way to ferns and moss, it for all the world appeared as a ghost rising from the grave. The bus was donated to the Further down The Road Foundation to be restored.[22][25]


  1. Oregon Experience: Ken Kesey, contains many interviews with family members of the author http://watch.opb.org/video/2365155734/
  2. http://kenkeseyman.weebly.com/fun-facts.html
  3. http://www.gradesaver.com/author/ken-kesey/
  4. Kesey talks about his life and exhibits his fashion sensibility: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pacbkF1KWCI
  5. http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Ken_Kesey#The_Paris_Review_interview_.281994.29
  6. Rick Dodgson, It's All a Kind of Magic: The Young Ken Kesey (Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2013), 75.
  7. The CIA project was called MKULTRA. Kesey was paid $75 per session. https://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Project_MKULTRA.html
  8. https://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=38411
  9. Barbara Tepa Lupack, Insanity as Redemption in Contemporary American Fiction: Inmates Running the Asylum (St. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1951), 64-66.
  10. Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (New York, NY: Viking Press & Signet Books, 1962), 3.
  11. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One_Flew_Over_the_Cuckoo%27s_Nest_(novel)#Controversy
  12. http://themerrypranksterhimself.blogspot.com/2013/05/kesey-uses-innovative-style.html
  13. Ken Kesey, Sometimes a Great Notion (New York, NY: Viking Press, 1964), 339.
  14. The 772 reviews at Good Reads ranked Sometimes a Great Notion 4.22 out of 5 stars. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/529626.Sometimes_a_Great_Notion
  15. Scott MacFarlane, The Hippie Narrative: A Literary Perspective on the Counterculture (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2007), 53.
  16. Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967), 153.
  17. http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst/webpages4/archives/olv5n2.html
  18. The members of the Merry Pranksters included: Ken Babbs, Carolyn "Mountain Girl" Garcia, and Neal Cassady. Stewart Brand, Paul Foster, the Grateful Dead, Del Close (then a lighting designer for the Grateful Dead), Wavy Gravy, Paul Krassner, and "Kentucky Fab Five" writers Ed McClanahan and Gurney Norman (who overlapped with Kesey and Babbs as creative writing graduate students at Stanford University) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merry_Pranksters
  19. The bus itself became a celebrity. It inspired other painted vehicles from the Partridge Family's bus to Scooby-Doo's Mystery Machine. See an account here: http://blog.hemmings.com/index.php/tag/partridge-family/
  20. Owen Edwards, "Magical Mystery Tour," The Smithsonian.com, June 2004. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/magical-mystery-tour-2807514/?no-ist=
  21. LSD first became illegal in California in 1966. http://www.furthurdowntheroad.org/index.php/history/furthur-the-bus-then-now/
  22. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_Kesey
  23. Tony Ortega, "Kesey Reappears, Is Jailed in California," The Village Voice, October 27, 1966. http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/2010/01/clip_job_kesey_1.php
  24. YouTube has four videos on the resurrection of the bus: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNQKwCKlthw

MLA Style Citation of this Web Page

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 10: Ken Kesey." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL: http://www.paulreuben.website/pal/chap10/kesey.html (provide page date or date of your login).

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