Ken (Elton) Kesey

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From: Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography(Vol. 6: Broadening Views, 1968-1988. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography; Critical essay
Length: 5,179 words

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About this Person
Born: September 17, 1935 in La Junta, Colorado, United States
Died: November 10, 2001 in Eugene, Oregon, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Writer
Other Names: Kesey, Ken Elton; Levon, O.U.



  • One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (New York: Viking, 1962; London: Methuen, 1963).
  • Sometimes a Great Notion (New York: Viking, 1964; London: Methuen, 1966).
  • Kesey's Garage Sale, by Kesey and others (New York: Viking/Intrepid Trips, 1973).
  • Kesey, edited by Michael Strelow (Eugene, Oreg.: Northwest Review Books, 1977).
  • The Day after Superman Died (Northridge, Cal.: Lord John Press, 1980).
  • Demon Box (New York: Viking, 1986).
  • The Further Inquiry (New York: Viking, 1990).
  • Caverns, by Kesey and others, as O. U. Levon (New York: Penguin, 1990).
  • Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear (New York: Viking, 1990).
  • The Sea Lion: A Story of the Sea Cliff People (New York: Viking, 1991).
  • Sailor Song (New York: Viking, 1992).
  • Last Go Round: A Dime Western, by Kesey and Ken Babbs (New York: Viking, 1994).


  • Whole Earth Catalog, March 1971 Supplement, edited by Kesey and Paul Krassner.
  • Best of "The Realist": The Sixties' Most Outrageously Irreverent Magazine, edited by Paul Krassner, with an introduction by Kesey (Philadelphia: Running Press, 1984).


[This entry was updated by Laura M. Zaidman (University of South Carolina, Sumter) from her update in the Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, volume 6, of the entry by Stephen L. Tanner (University of Idaho) in DLB 2: American Novelists Since World War II, and the entry by Ann Charters (University of Connecticut) in DLB 16: The Beats: Literary Bohemians in Postwar America.]

A writer who came of age on the West Coast during the late 1950s, Ken Kesey has been profoundly influenced by the Beats both in his life and in his work. Strictly speaking, he is not a Beat writer in his early books, although he admired Jack Kerouac and claims the influence of Kerouac, John Clellon Holmes , and William S. Burroughs on his prose style. Kesey is a pivotal figure between the Beats and the Hippies, the leader and chief chronicler of the activities of his associates, the Merry Pranksters, a group of friends including Neal Cassady who helped Kesey originate the "acid tests" that popularized the use of the drug LSD in psychedelic mixed-media "happenings" in California in the 1960s. As the leader of the Merry Pranksters, described by one newspaperman as a "day-glo guerrilla squad for the LSD revolution in California," he turned from writing to search for new forms of expression induced by drugs--forms of expression in which there would be no separation between himself and the audience; it would be all one experience, with the senses opened wide. Tom Wolfe 's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) chronicles this search and the escapades of the Merry Pranksters.

Kesey was born on 17 September 1935 in La Junta, Colorado, to Fred and Geneva Smith Kesey. He attended public schools in Springfield, Oregon, where his father had moved to establish a dairy cooperative. He graduated from the University of Oregon, where he was involved in fraternities, drama, and athletics--as a champion wrestler he barely missed qualifying for the Olympics. He married his high school sweetheart, Faye Haxby, on 20 May 1956, and they had four children: Shannon, Zane, Jed, and Sunshine. After graduating from college, he worked for a year, toyed with the idea of being a movie actor, wrote an unpublished novel about college athletics, "End of Autumn," and then in 1958 began graduate work in creative writing at Stanford, studying with Wallace Stegner , Malcolm Cowley , Richard Scowcraft, and Frank O'Connor .

Kesey completed another unpublished novel, "Zoo," which deals with San Francisco's North Beach, before he began writing One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest in the summer of 1960. About this time he was introduced to drugs, specifically LSD, as a paid volunteer for government drug experiments conducted at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Menlo Park, California. Soon afterward he took a job as aide in that hospital. Both the experience with drugs and the hospital work provided material for his novel, some of which he wrote during his night shifts, and, according to Kesey, some of it under the influence of peyote.

One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) was a critical success from the beginning. Its popularity, particularly among college students, has grown steadily, with paperback sales soaring into the millions. The 1975 film adaptation, starring Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher, has had wide appeal. Its apparent message is that people need to get in touch with their world, to open the doors of perception, to enjoy spontaneous sensuous experience, and to resist the manipulative forces of a technological society.

The novel describes how a section of a mental hospital controlled efficiently by Miss Ratched, known as Big Nurse, is disrupted by the arrival of Randle Patrick McMurphy, an exuberant, fast-talking hustler fresh from a prison work farm. The story is told from the point of view of a large, schizophrenic Indian named Bromden, an inmate pretending to be deaf and mute as a defense against a society to which he cannot adapt. McMurphy, through his irrepressible energy and laughter, helps the patients, particularly Bromden, find the self-confidence and courage to rebel against the sterile, mechanistic, manipulative forces represented by Big Nurse. McMurphy is sacrificed in the process. Allusions and motifs from the Gospels, blended with those from comic books and popular culture, lend a mythic quality to the conflict between Good and Evil, with McMurphy as hero. More specifically, the forces of nature, spontaneity, motion, and freedom struggle against those of static, technological control--contemporary American society's "Combine."

The tightly organized plot consists of four symmetrical parts linked by consistent patterns of imagery associated with the opposition of nature and the machine. A central theme is the power of laughter as a source of vitality and sanity. Bromden acknowledges that McMurphy taught him "you have to laugh at the things that hurt you just to keep yourself in balance, just to keep the world from running you plumb crazy." When McMurphy has finally produced spontaneous and uninhibited laughter among his fellow inmates, his purpose as hero or savior is essentially complete. The kind of salvation he brings about is most clearly seen in Bromden's recovering his ability to sense with pleasure the natural world once again. Before McMurphy came, he lived in a numbing, hallucinated fog that he imagined was produced by machines in the hospital.

Some readers see antifeminism as an important theme in the novel. Big Nurse is certainly a personification of some negative aspects of our society, and she is just the principal figure among several domineering and manipulating females. One of the characters complains about "the juggernaut of modern matriarchy." It can reasonably be argued, however, that Kesey's attack is not directed against women per se but against the perversion of the feminine. Big Nurse's ample breasts, tightly bound within a starched uniform, symbolically suggest human warmth, tenderness, and generosity stifled by cold, sterile, technological efficiency. And the suppression or perversion of the natural in Big Nurse corresponds to a similar situation in American society: nature and the personal perverted by misguided technology and the impersonal. From this point of view, Kesey's attitude toward the feminine is as positive as his attitude toward nature.

McMurphy's refreshing vitality has been much admired and his flamboyant rebellion against repressive, depersonalizing forces in modern life is appealing, but some critics believe Kesey's treatment of moral problems is somewhat sentimentalized and oversimplified. One critic suggests that he enters the comic-strip world of superheroes and arch villains too uncritically in defense of the Good. Another points out that self-assertion and freedom are good, but they cannot be attained in any meaningful way simply by casting off inhibitions.

After finishing One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest in June 1961, Kesey returned to the logging country of Oregon and began gathering material for Sometimes a Great Notion (1964). On mornings and evenings he rode in pickup trucks taking loggers to and from camps. At nights he visited bars where loggers went. After about four months of this, he returned to Stanford to write. In the summer of 1963 he moved to a mountain home in La Honda, fifteen miles from Palo Alto, which became the headquarters for the Merry Pranksters, and there he completed the novel.

In Sometimes a Great Notion a logging family defies a labor union, and thereby the whole community they live in, by continuing their logging operations during a strike. Within the family, Hank Stamper is in conflict with his half-brother, Lee, a bookish college student who has been living in the East. As a child, Lee witnessed his mother having sex with Hank, and this has disturbed him emotionally. Lee returns to avenge himself by seducing Hank's wife. In the end both brothers come to understand themselves better. Kesey has disclosed that in writing this novel he wanted to find out "which side of me really is: the woodsy, logger side--complete with homespun homilies and crackerbarrel corniness, a valid side of me that I like--or its opposition. The two Stamper brothers in the novel are each one of the ways I think I am."

Despite its stylistic and psychological complexity, this novel treats an essentially simple theme: the ability of the self-reliant individual to prevail over awesome antagonistic forces. Hank Stamper, like Randle McMurphy, is big, lusty, and physically and personally vibrant. He, too, has a quarrel with civilization. Each is a version of a heroic type associated with the American frontier: the man who cherishes the freedom of life close to nature, responsible to no one but himself, considering social cooperation a weakness, possessing an indomitable will to maintain his independence. Hank resembles the classic Western hero, and the oral tales sprinkled through the novel reinforce this nineteenth-century Western link. Ostensibly, Hank acts as a strikebreaker to save the family business, but obviously it is not the business but the independence it represents that is important to him. In order to protect his independence and the natural existence that is its source, he will defy all the usual assumptions of contemporary society. Getting the logs down the river to the company is his consuming passion, and to succeed he must overcome such obstacles as union opposition, growing hostility in the community, bad weather, death in the family, and a half brother intent on settling a grudge against him. Although Hank succeeds, the cost of his victory is high.

Sometimes a Great Notion, a large and ambitious novel, has some of the flavor of William Faulkner , whose fiction Kesey greatly admired. In a way reminiscent of Faulkner's Light in August (1932), Kesey's novel begins near the moment of climax, then shifts to the past, gradually revealing through childhood experiences and family relationships the psychological makeup of the main characters. Abandoning conventional narrative chronology, he moves forward and backward in time, giving the reader, piece by piece, the information necessary for understanding characters, plot, and theme. Point of view is handled with similar freedom. Both Hank and Lee narrate in the first person in sections throughout the novel. The third-person point of view relates family history going back to 1898 and reveals the thoughts of such characters as the union leaders. Often shifts in point of view are abrupt, sometimes occurring more than once in a single paragraph. Frequently Kesey uses the device of presenting several incidents widely separated in space as simultaneous action. These techniques, while interesting and often effective, make considerable demands upon the reader. Despite remarkable triumphs in language, the novel is somewhat strained and meandering, its experimental style at times difficult. Although it has sold well, it has achieved neither the enthusiastic praise nor the wide attention given to One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.

In the summer of 1964 Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, dressed in outrageous costumes and transported in a bus painted fantastically with day-glo paint, traveled to New York for the publication of Sometimes a Great Notion. They shot more than forty hours of film of themselves during this trip. This film came to be known as "The Movie" and was later used frequently at Prankster-sponsored drug and music presentations--the so-called "acid tests."

In 1965 Kesey was arrested for possession of marijuana. A year of hearings and court appearances followed, resulting in his conviction. Early in 1966 he fled to Mexico to avoid prosecution, but he returned after about six months and was arrested. Eventually he served sentences totaling about five months in the San Mateo County Jail and later at the San Mateo County Sheriff's Honor Camp. He was released in November 1967.

In 1968 he moved to a farm in Pleasant Hills, Oregon, where he has remained. At the time of his arrest he expressed the intention of giving up writing in favor of more "electrical forms." "I'd rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph," he explained. But later his interests returned to writing. When asked in 1971 if he had once believed writing to be an old-fashioned and artificial occupation, he replied, "I was counting on the millenium. Now I guess I'm tired of waiting."

Kesey's personal revolt during the 1960s with the Pranksters is most vividly documented in Kesey's Garage Sale (1973), a joint production of the Viking Press and Intrepid Trips, an informal association of Kesey and his friends Ken Babbs, Paul Foster, and Kenneth Barnes. The book collects material still in the Prankster Archives at Kesey's farm in Oregon. Five large cardboard boxes of materials (including the holograph notes and various drafts of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion) were deposited at the University of Oregon, but articles and interviews dating from Kesey's later involvement with the Pranksters were gathered into Kesey's Garage Sale and presented with mock-seriousness in the book as an attempt to clear the clutter of the archives. As Kenneth Barnes states in the preface to the volume, "Every jeweled fragment of penultimate worth must be isolated from its mass of surrounding effluvia and made available to the inquisitive ponderings of a curious and exceedingly penetrating audience."

The tone of the book is given as much by the "acidophilic artisticizing" of its illustrator Paul Foster as it is by the satiric texts. Words are less important, in fact, than images in Kesey's Garage Sale: the table of contents is lettered and drawn in comic-book style, and the subsequent pages have illustrations, photomontages, and typographic design in the tradition of the layout of the earliest Beat literary magazines like Beatitude, later developed more completely in the visual effects of Steward Brand's Whole Earth Catalog. Kesey had edited a supplement issue of the Catalog in 1971 with Paul Krassner of the Realist magazine, and their collaborative efforts reappear in Kesey's Garage Sale. Here Kesey pays tribute to books and people who influenced his life: the Bible, the I Ching, Martin Buber, Malcolm X, Ernest Hemingway , Faulkner, Burroughs, Timothy Leary , the Beatles, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, among others. Kesey's Garage Sale could in fact be deposited in a time capsule as a record of the chaotic influences that shaped the "revolutionary consciousness" of the 1960s. The collection also includes the screenplay Over the Border, in which Kesey immortalizes the heroic character of Neal Cassady , who had died in 1968.

Kesey opens the prologue to Over the Border with "the dramatic narrative of an Orson Wellesian Voice in the Sky" announcing the theme that will be explored in the work:

Once upon a time a young man of American background thought he had discovered the Great Secret, the Skeleton Key to the Cosmos, the Absolute Answer to the Age-Old Question asked by every Wizard and Alchemist and Mystic that ever peered curiously into the Perplexing Heavens, by every Doctor and Scientist and Explorer that ever wondered about the Winding Ways of this world, by every Philosopher and Holyman and Politician that ever listened for the Mysterious Song beneath the beat of the Human Heart ... the answer to "What Makes It All Go?"

In burlesqued comic-book style, Over the Border dramatizes Kesey's search for the answer to the question, "What Makes It All Go?" After experiences with LSD and marijuana, his autobiographical hero Devin Deboree (rhymes with "debris") believes he is in contact with the primeval energy source of creation, but he realizes that there is a question beyond "What Makes It All Go?"--"How Do I Drive It?" In the answer lies nothing less than the means to a "Full Revolution." Thus the screenplay portrays Deboree's quest to gain control or "drive" the elemental energy fields like lightning surrounding the planet earth. The unexpected appearance in his life of the San Francisco police, however, who want to send Deboree to jail for smoking marijuana on the roof of an apartment building, makes necessary the quick trip to Mexico, where his Prankster friends join him. After several comic adventures--and close calls with Mexican police and jail--they participate in an LSD session that almost ends in tragedy when Deboree's small son nearly drowns. This brush with death brings the hero to a realization that he is a victim of his own pride, when he understands that there is a "third inevitable question" beyond the first two: "How do I get off?" The end of the screenplay a short time later brings back the "Voice in the Sky" with the didactic announcement that "this troupe's departure doesn't end our course. This was only a demonstration of ways not to fly...."

Over the Border can be read as a morality play conceived in the modern form of a psychedelic comic-book film scenario, with line drawings on every page representing the action dramatized in the text. The characters are based on "real life people" given comical names like "Sir Speed" Houlihan (Cassady) and transformed into cartoon figures by Kesey's exaggeration of personal characteristics and idiosyncratic speech patterns; yet just beneath the surface, under the high-camp fun and games, lies an unmistakably serious investigation, proceeding as if Kesey were evaluating his life with the Pranksters and his involvement with hallucinogenic drugs. When Deboree is ready to leave Mexico and turn north to face his responsibilities in America, he is a changed man. As one of the characters describes him, "He amped out on too much something; I don't know whether it was psychedelics, electronics or heroics."

Kesey decided that the answer to the riddle was that Cassady's life "was the yoga of a man driven to the cliff-edge by the grassfire of an entire nation's burning material madness. Rather than be consumed by this burn he jumped, choosing to sort things out in the fast-flying but smogfree moments of a life with no retreat. In this commitment he placed himself irrevocably beyond category. Once, when asked why he wouldn't at least try to be cool, he said, 'Me trying to be cool would be like James Joyce trying to write like Herb Gold.'"

Kesey's renewed interest in writing has been accompanied by a turning away from drugs. He once believed that drugs like LSD could open wonderful, mind-expanding experiences. Though he might not have given up that belief entirely, he has lost interest in deliberate experimenting. "There are dues," he admits, and "even if it were safe and sanctioned we just don't have the right." "The biggest thing I've learned on dope," he said in 1970, "is that there are forces beyond human understanding that are influencing our lives." His hope and fascination now seem to be the mystique of the land, the cycles of nature, and farming for awareness, not money. He has been active in arousing public interest and participation in planning for Oregon's growth.

Since 1974 Kesey has edited a magazine called Spit in the Ocean, based in Eugene, Oregon. Portions of a novel in progress, "Seven Prayers by Grandma Whittier," appeared both in this magazine and in a collection, Kesey (1977). The central character of Over the Border, Devlin Deboree, appears here in a secondary role. The point of view is that of an eighty-six-year-old grandmother, a spry, self-reliant Christian woman whose compassion and understanding are brought to bear upon some unusual aspects of contemporary American society.

Demon Box (1986), somewhat like Kesey's Garage Sale, is a disorganized miscellany of previously published essays, short stories, and articles, with a few new pieces. Instead of being the "long rambling novel about cattle raising" that Kesey described in Esquire (March 1976), it is a rambling anthology of works about the legacy of the 1960s. Again using the thinly disguised autobiographical narrator Deboree, Kesey reflects on past experiences, still searching for the Merry Pranksters' vitality and freedom. His writing style has been compared to the free-association prose of the New Journalism.

Essays on Egypt and China explore the complex relationships between Americans and foreigners, but the focus remains primarily on West Coast counterculture lifestyle. He pays homage to Cassady ("The Day after Superman Died") and to John Lennon ("Now We Know How Many Holes It Takes to Fill the Albert Hall"), and he recounts his own downfall after being arrested for marijuana possession and staying at the San Mateo County Jail and Honor Camp. "The Last Time the Angels Came Up" recalls a visit to Kesey's farm by bikers, complete with obscenities. The title essay, "The Demon Box," depicts the changes endured by the "tarnished Galahad" on his quest for the meaning of life. Alter-ego Deboree believes in the hot-tub Gestalt Realization ("the hottest therapy in the Bay Area") of the German psychiatrist Dr. Klaus Woofner and his theory that the angst of modern civilization is a fear of "running empty" like a demon in a box, governed by the laws of thermodynamics. Ten years later Deboree (like Kesey) is running dry, unable to write an acceptable movie script for One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. He attends a convention of psychiatric superintendents at Walt Disney World and hears Woofner, this time attacking psychedelic drugs as means to control the demons of modern life. Deboree's two-day drunken stupor in Fantasyland is his way of avoiding reality, perhaps, as he battles the demon entropy. Kesey suggests that the superego accepts pleasant thoughts and dismisses the unpleasant, resulting in the entropic decline of modern consciousness. Demon Box represents Kesey's quest for that energy of madness that catapulted him to fame in the 1960s. The Book-of-the-Month Club and Quality Paperback Book Club selected Demon Box as an alternate selection in August 1986.

In The Further Inquiry (1990), a screenplay, Kesey reflects on the Merry Prankster years through a mock trial which pits prosecutor Chest against the Pranksters. Deirdre English suggests in The New York Times Book Review (9 December 1990) that Kesey "is at once confessing to the damage done and asking for equal consideration of the righteous fun the Pranksters wreaked." Although English acknowledges that "uptight" America desperately needed the Pranksters' "all-out excitement, spontaneity and spoofing" and their "astoundingly successful communal exorcism of the stifling spirits of the '50s' conformity," she rejects Kesey's plea for acquittal of guilt for the group's wanton use of "sex, drugs, and rebellious play." A more accurate description of these destructive activities is detailed in Paul Perry and Ken Babbs's On the Bus: The Complete Guide to the Legendary Trip of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and the Birth of the Counterculture (1990).

Caverns (1990) is a mystery novel written by Kesey and thirteen creative-writing graduate students using the joint pseudonym O. U. Levon, an anagram for "University of Oregon novel." The story begins in 1934 when an itinerant evangelist named Loach discovers a cave. Decorated with archetypal drawings that challenge concepts about American archaeology and Western religion, this cavern later becomes the focus of Loach's quest for rediscovery. According to Alfred Bendixen in The New York Times Book Review (21 January 1990), Kesey combines the adventures of Indiana Jones with the cosmic spirit and multiple perspectives of Geoffrey Chaucer 's Canterbury Tales; the work serves as a revolutionary model for teaching creative writing, particularly stressing the need for "an individual voice, fully realized characters and a clear sense of time and place." However, Madison Smartt Bell suggests in the Voice Literary Supplement (February 1990) that the effort misses its mark and is more like "an uneven day" at a jazz workshop, with Kesey's solo performances the strongest and most recognizable. In a 1989 Rolling Stone interview, Kesey himself compares the novel-writing process to both jazz and surfing: "like jazz--where you're singing, where suddenly the voice is going forward and you're riding it, you're surfing on top of it. That is the art of writing.... It's as hard to find it as it is to teach somebody to find it." This project enabled Kesey to overcome the writer's block he faced trying to work on his novel Sailor Song (1992) after his son Jed's death in 1984.

Before completing Sailor Song, however, Kesey ventured into new territory: writing children's books. In Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear (1990), illustrated by well-known artist Barry Moser, good overcomes evil when a small squirrel stops a bullying bear's reign of terror, thus making the Ozark Mountains safe once again for the animals. A Publishers Weekly reviewer calls this tall tale a perfect vehicle for Kesey's "quirky vision and his freewheeling use of language--his dialogue crackles, his forceful images and metaphors tumble one after another in an inexorable rush." The Sea Lion: A Story of the Sea Cliff People (1991), another book for juveniles, followed, without attracting much critical attention.

Sailor Song finally appeared nearly three decades after Kesey's acclaimed novels of the 1960s. Ike Sallas, the protagonist, was a famous "ecoterrorist" before moving to an Alaskan fishing village. Although he tries hard to disengage himself from society, he returns to activism when he discovers the evil intent of a Hollywood film company which is there making a movie from a children's book. Rallying the townspeople against the sinister ways of Hollywood seems futile until an environmental disaster changes the landscape. This tale "veers dizzily between comedy and nightmare ... [and is] as profane, exuberant, and brimming with life as a whole collection of old sea ballads," states Lawrence Rungren in Library Journal (August 1992). Kesey maintains his literary reputation for long narrative passages and carefully crafted detail, Rungren asserts. While George J. Searles of the New Leader (7 September 1992) appreciates this vintage Kesey style of "purposeful foolery, flooding the narrative with farcical incongruities, crude asides, wacky in-jokes, and countless allusions to literary classics and popular culture," he warns that this book is not for everyone. Indeed, in the 26 October 1992 New Republic, reviewer Roger Rosenblatt criticizes Kesey's lack of discipline and calls Sailor Song "plotless and idealess and pointless in its overflow of parables, anecdotes, and caricatures." Donald E. Westlake also blasts the book inThe New York Times Book Review (23 August 1992) as being incoherent from beginning to apocalyptic end.

Last Go Round: A Dime Western (1994), cowritten with Ken Babbs, depicts Johnathan E. Lee Spain, an old man from Tennessee, returning to the small eastern Oregon town of Pendleton to see a rodeo and recalling how he won the first Round Up in 1911 with the help of George Fletcher, a black rodeo legend, and Jackson Sundown, a Nez Percé Indian. Other well-known, colorful characters of the era include William "Buffalo Bill" Cody and wrestler Frank Gotch, who attempt to rig the rodeo competition; Parson Montanic, hell-raiser turned preacher; Prairie Rose Henderson, rodeo cowgirl; and John Muir , noted naturalist. Again, mixed reviews show that some critics admire Kesey's innovative, engaging style while others find his creative fictional techniques annoying. In the 15 April 1994 Booklist Benjamin Segedin places the story in Mark Twain 's tall-tale tradition, for Kesey embellishes the campfire tales about real-life events and people his father told him as a child. "Ribald and folksy, the book captures the Old West multicultural milieu ... crowded with cowboys, Indians, and tourists," observes Segedin. On the other hand, in The New York Times Book Review (10 July 1994) Janet Burroway notes that while the "pulp-thin plot" and "excess of episode, inflated atmosphere and wonders of prowess" fit the formula of the dime Western, they provide little insight beyond paying homage to the genre.

Kesey has called himself a "parabolist," which means, he says, "that I am not a reporter. I don't ask my reader to believe characters or situations exist anyplace other than in our minds--and there's a possibility for such existence in his mind and in my mind." He believes that "passing off what-might-be-true as fiction" is a better vocation than "passing off what-is-quite-possibly fiction as truth." He has also said that "A single Batmancomic book is more honest than a whole volume of Time magazines." He does not discount the value of reporting reality but suggests: "A writer must practice lying for a long time before he can trust himself with anything so delicate as the truth." But he is a parabolist in another sense also. His writing and interviews are filled with little anecdotes or parables. Narrative is for him the natural and spontaneous vehicle for concepts. His insights come not as abstract ideas but radiate from story and anecdote. Similarly, he loves the type of down-home tale characteristic of the American frontier.

At the center of Kesey's imaginative vision is the American cultural hero, particularly as revealed in popular art forms. Patterns in his novels suggest popular myths in folk tales, Westerns, and comic strips. He explicitly alludes to heroes such as Paul Bunyan, the Lone Ranger, and Captain Marvel. This fascination is perhaps a manifestation of Kesey's preoccupation with transcendence. His experimentation with drugs, interest in psychic phenomena, use of the I Ching, dabbling in Eastern religions, more recent focus on the Bible, a 1975 trip to Egypt in search of the occult Hidden Pyramid--all such characteristic behavior suggests a transcendental quest, an intense faith in infinite possibility for the individual person. His tendency toward mysticism, his distrust of political movements and revolution, and his attraction to nature, simplicity, self-reliance, and freedom all link his vision to that of the New England Transcendentalists. Kesey well deserves recognition for his strongly individualist works portraying the distinctly American counterculture.


The University of Oregon has manuscript drafts and the final manuscript of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, manuscript drafts of various published and unpublished works, and notebooks and recordings by Kesey.




  • David Weddle, "Ken Kesey's Eclectic Writing Acid Test," Rolling Stone (5 October 1989): 119-120+.
  • Robert Faggen, "Ken Kesey: The Art of Fiction CXXVI," Paris Review, 130 (Spring 1994): 58-94.


  • Joseph Weixlman, "Ken Kesey: A Bibliography," Western American Literature, 10 (November 1975): 219-231.


  • Chip Brown, "Ken Kesey Kisses No Ass," Esquire, 118 (September 1992): 158--162+.
  • Bruce Carnes, Ken Kesey (Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1974).
  • Robert Forrey, "Ken Kesey's Psychopathic Savior: A Rejoinder," Modern Fiction Studies, 21 (Summer 1975): 222-230.
  • Paul Krassner, Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut: Misadventures in the Counter-Culture (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993).
  • Barry H. Leeds, "Theme and Technique in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest," Connecticut Review, 7 (April 1974): 35-50.
  • Robert Lipsyte, "Alone with Ken Kesey Talk Turns to Buses," New York Times, 29 November 1991, p. 14.
  • Fred Madden, "Sanity and Responsibility: Big Chief as Narrator and Executioner," Modern Fiction Studies, 32 (Summer 1986): 203-217.
  • Irving Malin, "Ken Kesey: One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest," Critique, 5 (Fall 1962): 81-84.
  • Terence Martin, "One Flew over the Cucko's Nest and the High Cost of Living," Modern Fiction Studies, 19 (Spring 1973): 43-55.
  • Ed McClanahan, "Ken Kesey's Latest Trip," Esquire, 115 (February 1991): 26.
  • Liz McMillen, "Ken Kesey Weaves His Magic Spell, Turns Graduate Students of Creative Writing at U. of Oregon into Published Novelists," Chronicle of Higher Education, 17 January 1990, pp. A15, A22-23.
  • Paul Perry and Ken Babbs, On the Bus: The Complete Guide to the Legendary Trip of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and the Birth of the Counterculture, edited by Michael Schwartz and Neil Ortenberg (New York: Thunder's Mouth, 1990).
  • M. Gilbert Porter, The Art of Grit: Ken Kesey's Fiction (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982).
  • Porter, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest: Rising to Heroism (New York: Twayne, 1989).
  • John Clark Pratt, ed., One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest: Text and Criticism (New York: Viking, 1973).
  • John Riley, "Bio: Novelist Ken Kesey Has Flown the 'Cuckoo's Nest' and Given Up Tripping for Farming," People, 5 (22 March 1976): 25-28.
  • George J. Searles, ed., A Casebook on Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992).
  • Joel Selvin, Summer of Love: The Inside Story of LSD, Rock & Roll, Free Love and High Times in the Wild West (New York: Dutton, 1994).
  • Janet R. Sutherland, "A Defense of Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest," English Journal, 61 (January 1972): 28-31.
  • Stephen L. Tanner, Ken Kesey (Boston: Twayne, 1983).
  • Peter O. Whitmer, Aquarius Revisited: Seven Who Created the Sixties Counterculture (New York: Macmillan, 1987).
  • Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1968).


Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1200008078