As a cultural and literary figure, Ken Kesey stands exactly at the midpoint between the Beats of the 50’s and the Hippies of the 60’s. He was born on Sept 17, 1935 in La Junta, Colorado and grew up in the Pacific Northwest. An unusually confident and charismatic young man, he enrolled in a prestigious creative writing program at Stanford University and began tearing the place up almost upon arrival. A small counterculture that formed around him in Palo Alto turned into a nationwide counterculture whose effects are still being measured to this day.
In creating the Acid Test scene that helped crystallize the image of the northern California Hippie, Kesey borrowed quite consciously from Jack Kerouac — in fact, he went on the road with Neal Cassady, and if that’s not borrowing from Kerouac I don’t know what is. But there were several differences to Kesey’s 60’s version of the Great Trip Across America:
- They drove a psychedelic bus named Furthur instead of a big old Hudson or a borrowed Cadillac
- They preferred LSD to liquor
- They treated women as equals instead of sex objects (most of the time)
- They danced to The Warlocks (soon to change their name to the Grateful Dead) instead of grooving on jazz and shouting ‘GO!’
Kesey did not write about this scene as it was taking place, but journalist Tom Wolfe did in ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’. Kesey did write two acclaimed and important novels, the powerful ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ in which a modern psychiatric ward becomes a metaphor for oppressive American society, and ‘Sometimes A Great Notion.’ Interestingly, these books are not the least bit psychedelic, though their intentions are without a doubt cosmic.
Kesey later published ‘The Further Inquiry,’ a screenplay with many photos from the bus trip and a mostly incomprehensible plot in which Kesey, Cassady and others must testify at some sort of supernatural trial. Other later works by Kesey include a satirical performance piece based on ‘The Wizard of Oz’ called ‘Twister’ and the wacky allegorical novel ‘Sailor Song,’ which features environmental crises, a Kesey-like middle-aged writer, and a rock band called the Dreadful Great.
At the end of his life, Ken Kesey lived in Pleasant Hill, Oregon with his wife Faye, and continued to participate in occasional escapades with Ken Babbs and other long-term partners in crime. He died of complications following surgery for liver cancer — an earthbound death for the Intrepid Traveler — on November 10, 2001.
Marty Blank produced an excellent and extensive Kesey bibliography.
Here are some tributes to Kesey posted after the news of his death.