Ken Kesey

Ken Kesey passed away on November 10, 2001 at the age of 66, of complications following surgery for a tumor on his liver.

The following biographical sketch was written by Jason Reott several months before Kesey’s death.

Ken Kesey

Ken Kesey on his tractor - Photograph © 2001 by Patrice Mackey - www.chefjuke.com
Perhaps Ken Kesey is best known for his work One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a novel symbolizing the corruption of freedoms in America, but a generation or more has been influenced more by “Further,” the bus on which the Kesey and the Merry Pranksters traveled the country in search for expansion.

The sixties’ flower power and psychedelia are direct descendants of Kesey and his group. While the government was trying to “lobotomize” its citizenry, Kesey and the Pranksters sought to liberate and expand them through crystallized perception and broadened horizons.

As a graduate student at Stanford, Kesey was a volunteer for a government research group designed to determine the effects of LSD and other psychotropic drugs, which were legal at the time. Once introduced to the effects of hallucinogens, Kesey designed parties themed around music and visually disorienting stimuli, also known as the Acid Tests. Famous participants in these gatherings were Neal Cassady, Hunter S. Thompson, the Hells Angels, and members of the Grateful Dead.

Can You Pass the Acid Test? posterTouring the country in 1964, the Merry Pranksters made mischief and introduced the new, wild lifestyle to the teen culture, and formed what would become a movement of peace, love and drug use, on a scale never seen before. As driver of the bus, Neal Cassady took the Merry Pranksters to New York, where Kesey met Allen Ginsberg (who took immediately to the chaotic bunch) and Timothy Leary (another LSD legend, who took no interest in the group).

Kesey filmed much of this period, but it was Tom Wolfe who wrote about it in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a document of his time spent with the Merry Pranksters near the end of their ride. Soon, the US Government banned the substances and the Merry Pranksters became outlaws. Kesey fled to Mexico to avoid prosecution, and was arrested for possession of marijuana when the gang returned for another go in 1966.

In addition to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey’s works include Sometimes A Great Notion, the publication of which was the reason for the original cross-country trip to New York. In retrospect, Kesey is the Golden Gate Bridge connecting the Beats in City Lights to the Hippies in Haight-Ashbury.

© copyright 2001, Jason Reott

Publications

Some of Ken Kesey’s major publications are:

  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1962
  • Sometimes a Great Notion, 1964
  • Kesey’s Garage Sale, 1973
  • Demon Box, 1986
  • The Further Inquiry, 1990
  • Last Round Up, 1994. with Ken Babbs
  • Kesey’s Jail Journal, 2003

Kesey-related websites

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About Denise Enck

Denise is a writer and editor of Empty Mirror. She has edited several literary magazines and her work has been published online and in print since the 1980s.