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Ken Kesey

OPB | Jan. 3, 2014 2:30 p.m. | Updated: Jan. 21, 2014 12:18 p.m.

Ken Kesey (1935–2001) is one of the best-known authors to ever emerge from Oregon. He wrote his two most-acclaimed novels, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) and Sometimes a Great Notion (1964), when still in his twenties.

But while his early literary success shoved Kesey into the public spotlight, his colorful and spirited lifestyle would keep him there. As his biographer Robert Faggen suggests, “maybe Kesey did not conceive of having a career as a writer as being the most important thing that he could do.”

Kesey’s parents grew up in the South, and he and his younger brother Chuck were born in Colorado. After World War II, the young family moved to Springfield, Oregon, where Fred Kesey found work — and a career — in the creamery business. (Kesey’s brother would stay in the business. Chuck and his wife Sue still own the Springfield Creamery, home of Nancy’s Yogurt products.)

Kesey showed few early signs of becoming a renowned author. In his youth, he just wanted to be on stage. According to his wife Faye, who had also been his high-school sweetheart, “He himself wanted to be an actor and his writing was primarily to write parts for himself.” After graduating from the University of Oregon in 1957, Kesey and Faye even went to Hollywood in hopes of breaking him into the movie business. But that was not to be.

They moved to Palo Alto, California. He entered the famed graduate writing program at Stanford University, where he studied alongside other future literary superstars — Robert Stone, Wendell Berry, Peter Beagle, Larry McMurtry and more. Challenged and inspired in this environment, Kesey made great strides forward in his writing skills.

Kesey first encountered LSD and other “psychedelics” in 1959, as a participant in a government-sponsored clinical drug trial. He went on to embrace the “new way to think” that the drugs seemed to represent. He began to share his experiences — and some of the drugs — with other people in the university community.

He wrote Cuckoo’s Nest and Great Notion in quick succession. Then in 1964, he and his friends, the “Merry Pranksters,” made what would become a legendary cross-country bus trip. They returned to produce a series of boldly-different social events, the Acid Tests. Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test recounted all of this, and propelled Kesey and the Pranksters to celebrity status.

The 1960s became a time of “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll,” and the news media gave Kesey much of the credit. They anointed him “a founding father of the ‘60s counterculture,” though Kesey would claim to have only ridden the wave that brought the changes.

By the year 1967 and the “Summer of Love,” Kesey and his family had already moved back to a small farm in Oregon. Ken Kesey would forge through his remaining 30-some years as a writer, actor, farmer, family man and all-around character. He kept his Prankster friends and his zany ways.  And he always pursued life with a purpose, as his son Zane explains, “… to get up and do something that makes today different than yesterday.”

Oregon Experience offers a fresh look at this tie-dyed-in-the-wool Oregonian. “Ken Kesey” presents rare interviews with Kesey family members, including his son Zane, daughter Sunshine, granddaughter Kate Smith, widow Faye Kesey McMurtry and his 97-year-old mother Geneva Jolley. Additionally, several authors weigh in on Kesey’s writings and antics: Michael Strelow, professor of literature at Willamette University; Robert Faggen, professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College and Kesey’s biographer; and Ken Babbs, a Kesey friend, writer and lifelong Merry Prankster.

Resources

Books
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Viking, 1962.
Sometimes a Great Notion, Viking, 1964.
Kesey’s Garage Sale, Viking, 1973.
Kesey, Northwest Review of Books, 1977 (Edited by Michael Strelow).
Demon Box, Viking, 1986.
The Further Inquiry, Viking, 1990.
Caverns (by O.U. Levon).
(Kesey’s U of O class’s group writing project) Penguin, 1990.
Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear, Viking 1990.
The Sea Lion, Viking, 1991.
Sailor Song, Viking, 1992.
Last Go Round, (with Ken Babbs), Viking, 1994.
Kesey’s Jail Journal, Penguin Group/Viking, 2003.
Many of Kesey’s fellow students at the graduate creative writing program at Stanford (1958–60) went on to become famous authors. At least two wrote about Kesey and his exploits:
Robert Stone, Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties, 2008.
Ed McClanahan, Famous People I Have Known, 2003.

Websites

Long and extensive Kesey bibliography
Kesey’s essay about the 1998 shootings at Thurston High School
A speech at the University of Virginia
A 2008 German-made documentary “Edge City - The Story of Merry Pranksters”
A 1996 performance of Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear (accompanied by the band Jambay)
Zane Kesey’s YouTube channel
A 1989 Fresh Air interview with Ken Kesey

A Robert Stone Fresh Air interview from 2011

Tom Wolfe: Chronicling Counterculture’s ‘Acid Test’. Original interview from Oct 29th, 1987

Kesey’s longtime friend and neighbor Ken Babbs runs two websites that focus on Prankster news and other Kesey-related topics:
http://www.skypilotclub.com
http://www.intrepidtrips.com

 

Funding Provided By:
Robert D. and Marcia H. Randall Fund for Lifelong Learning
Oregon Cultural Trust
Clark Foundation
Roundhouse Foundation

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OREGON EXPERIENCE is a co-production of Oregon Public Broadcasting and the Oregon Historical Society.