Northwest Schools of Literature: Commentary

6. Ken Kesey 1935–2001

Aside from a few years spent in an adventuresome academic fellowship at Stanford University and a raucous cross-country bus trip to the 1964 New York World’s Fair, Ken Kesey is geographically associated with southwestern Oregon and a dairy farm near the university town of Eugene, to which Kesey’s father moved his family when Kesey and his brother were young boys. Kesey spent his childhood and adolescence as a religious and temperate wrestler and magician who took a college major in communications. He drank his first liquor during his honeymoon and he didn’t take the drugs he became famous for until he was paid to take them in governmentally supervised tests at the Veterans’ Administration Hospital in Menlo Park, California. A connecting link between the Beat 1950’s and the florid 1960’s, Kesey was both a Woodrow Wilson and a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University when his mind-blowing job-on-the-side required him to be locked in a small room while administered drugs took over, and, following the chemical reactions, be asked questions by Stanford scientists. When that job finished, Kesey next went to work as a nurse’s aide on the same hospital unit where he had been a research subject and where the hospital’s physicians had turned to interests other than truth drugs and their hallucinogenic effects. But the doctors left their old experimental pills and potions in their drawers and cabinets where Kesey saw fit to take the drugs home to his now mythic neighborhood on Perry Lane, a Bohemian community near Stanford University where Kesey’s LSD-laced punch bowl parties helped start a national search for inner truth via drugs, tie-dyed T-shirts, and improvisational rock and roll. Kesey’s most visible event was his 1964 bus trip from Palo Alto to the New York World’s Fair. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road traveling buddy, Neal Cassady, drove the bus; Tom Wolfe chronicled the journey in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968); and the passengers played music on the bus roof, tangled on mattresses in the fuselage, and jested to road-side citizens who must have been confounded by the not-yet legendary pranksters. Kesey said of the trip, “What we hoped was that we could stop the coming end of the world” (“What a Trip” 2002).

Critic Leslie A. Fiedler says, “Everywhere in Kesey…the influence of comics and, especially, comic books is clearly perceptible, in the mythology as well as in the style;…the images and archetypal stories which underlie his fables are…the adventures of Captain Marvel and Captain Marvel, Jr., those new-style Supermen who, sometime just after World War II, took over the fantasy of the young….One might, indeed, have imagined Kesey ending up as a comic book writer, but…he has preferred to live his comic strip rather than write or even draw it” (Fiedler quoted in Kesey 1973: 378-79). The western novelist Larry McMurtry says, “In the [1940’s], my only access to the classics would have been through the always pallid Classic Comics” (McMurtry 1999: 44). In a modern world whose weapons could instantly destroy a whole army of Achilles and Ulysses, saviors are rightly called superheroes and are found in comic books.

Kesey’s protagonists in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), set in an Oregon mental hospital, are two tragic-comic, wild males who are up against Big Nurse, a powerful, technologically equipped female. The two males are a white one and a red one, a rowdy Randall McMurphy and the huge Indian Bromden, whose name is his white mother’s but whose broken spirit is his Native father’s—his father who once was a Columbia River fisherman at Celilo Falls before he fell to the control of a white wife and the great “combine” symbolized in the book by the Columbia River dams and by the medical establishment that administers psychotropic chemicals and lobotomies to any mental patient who gets some courage. Cuckoo’s Nest is driven by the great binaries of sane and insane, male and female, free and captive. Kesey wrote the book while in the soup of his academic fellowship and his side job of taking LSD and other drugs for the U.S. Government.

It’s good to remember that Kesey was nearly Olympian himself. He was an athlete of supreme ability, a wrestler. In The Electric Acid Kool-Aid Test, the journalist Tom Wolfe describes him: “He is standing up with his arms folded over his chest and his eyes focused in the distance, i.e., the wall. He has thick wrists and big forearms, and the way he has them folded makes them look gigantic. He looks taller than he really is, maybe because of his neck. He has a big neck with a pair of sternocleido-mastoid muscles that rise up out of the prison workshirt like a couple of dock ropes. His jaw and chin are massive. He looks a little like Paul Newman, except that he is more muscular, has thicker skin, and he has tight blond curls boiling up around his head. His hair is almost gone on top, but somehow that goes all right with his big neck and general wrestler's build. Then he smiles slightly. It's curious, he doesn't have a line in his face. After all the chasing and hassling—he looks like the third week at the Sauna Spa; serene, as I say" (Wolfe 1999: 7). The novelist Robert Stone, who in 1963 was a Stegner Fellow with Kesey at Stanford University, says: “He really seemed capable of making anything happen. It was beyond writing—although to me, writing was just about all there was….If American Literature ever had a favorite son, distilled from the native grain, it was Kesey” (Stone 2004: 71-72).

Kesey’s second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, came out in 1964, and some report he wrote it on amphetamines. If that’s so, Kesey had enormous gifts. The book takes its time. One detects no frenzy in the tale of the Stamper family and its hardheaded patriarch and his two sons—one his father’s model and the other a vengeful, bookish outsider. The 600-page novel is told by multiple narrators and has been praised by critics as a work of genius. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do that again,” Kesey told Stanford Magazine (“What a Trip” 2002). After this novel, Kesey wrote over the years some lesser books, published during his life and posthumously.

Ken Kesey holds his own among Northwesterners known for writing under the influence. From James Swan to Raymond Carver, alcohol had its say, though Carver, at any rate, said alcohol was his personal and literary nemesis. On the side of intemperance, Kesey and La Conner’s Tom Robbins (Another Roadside Attraction [1971], Still Life With Woodpecker [1980], Even Cowgirls Get the Blues [1976], and others) spun legends of what’s to be said for distorting the scenery and its human populi. Robbins credits his skewed sentences to Northwestern mushrooms; after a while, Kesey was not choosy. Following his California initiation, he was more looped than linear. In his introduction to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he describes his conversion to chemicals. “I grabbed that handle. Legally too, I might add. Almost patriotically, in fact.” “Eight o’clock every Tuesday morning I showed up … ready to roll. The doctor deposited me in a little room on his ward, dealt me a couple of pills or a shot or a little glass of bitter juice, then locked the door.” “You get visions through whatever gate you’re granted” (Kesey 2003: vi).

In spite of all this, Kesey’s childhood Christianity and later spiritual-literary education were his interior guides through the psychedelic world he helped create. In a 1992 interview with Todd Brendan Fahey, Kesey said his chemical visions were always informed by spiritual instruction: “We had read a certain amount of Oriental literature, and we had read Hesse, and we had a spiritual underpinning of knowing the Bible and knowing the Bhagavad Gita, knowing the Judeo traditions. And that gives you stars to sail by. And without those stars, just thrown into chaos, a lot of people are lost” (Kesey cited in “The Far Gone Interview”). On November 10, 2001, Kesey died at home in Oregon of liver cancer.


Kesey, Ken. “The Far Gone Interview.”, 1992.

Ken Kesey. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, ed. John Clark Pratt. 1962; New York: Penguin Books, 1977.

Larry McMurty. Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. New York: Touchstone Books, 1999.

Robert Stone. “The Prince of Possibilities.” The New Yorker 80 (June 14-21, 2004): 70-89.

“What a Trip,” Stanford Magazine

Tom Wolfe. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. 1968. New York: Bantam Books, 1999.

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