This Day In Literary History
On September 17th, 1935, the legendary American writer Ken Kesey was born in La Junta, Colorado. His parents, who were dairy farmers, moved the family to Springfield, Oregon, when he was eleven. Kesey attended Springfield High School, where he excelled at academics and became a champion wrestler.
In 1956, while attending the University of Oregon in Eugene, (where he also won wrestling championships) Kesey married his high school sweetheart, Norma "Faye" Haxby, whom he had first met in seventh grade. She would bear him three children.
A year after they married, Kesey received a degree in speech and communication from the University of Oregon's School of Journalism. In 1958, he was awarded a Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship grant to enroll in the creative writing program at Stanford University, which he did.
During his time at Stanford, Kesey volunteered to participate in Project MKULTRA at the Menlo Park Veterans' Hopital. Funded by the CIA, the project was a study of the effects of psychoactive drugs such as LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline on the human mind.
(The study of hallucinogens was actually just one part of Project MKULTRA, a collaboration between the CIA and the U.S. Army Biological Warfare Laboratories. The main goal of the notorious project was to study and develop methods of mind control during the Cold War.)
Kesey would later write many accounts of his experiences with psychoactive drugs, both during Project MKULTRA and in private experimentation. His role as a guinea pig for the government project and his interaction with the patients at the veterans' hospital would serve as the inspiration for his classic debut novel.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, published in 1962, was narrated by a mental patient - a docile half-Indian giant known as Chief, who pretends to be a deaf-mute. He tells the story of Randle Patrick McMurphy, an amiable transferee from a prison work farm.
Convicted on a battery charge, McMurphy feigns insanity in order to serve out the remainder of his sentence in a mental hospital. With no real medical authority in charge, the ward is run by "the Big Nurse," Nurse Ratched - a sadistic tyrant who rules with an iron fist and three strong young orderlies.
McMurphy constantly antagonizes Nurse Ratched with his rebellious attitude and disruptive behavior, which includes running poker games, making comments about her figure, and inciting his fellow patients to exercise their rights by voting to watch the World Series on TV.
McMurphy inspires Chief to open up to him and the big Indian reveals that he can hear and talk. The two men team up to challenge Nurse Ratched's authority and are later forced to endure electroshock therapy.
The horrific treatments do nothing to temper McMurphy's rebellious nature, as he smuggles in liquor and prostitutes for his fellow patients. After Nurse Ratched's mental cruelty provokes a young patient to commit suicide, McMurphy attacks her and tries to strangle her. He is sent to the Disturbed Ward.
Nurse Ratched recovers from her injuries but loses her voice - her most effective weapon for keeping the patients in line. McMurphy is lobotomized and left in a vegetative state, a condition that will surely frighten and demoralize the patients.
Not wanting his friend to serve as a horrifying example of what happens when you challenge authority, Chief smothers McMurphy with a pillow so he can die with dignity, robbing Nurse Ratched of her victory. Then he escapes from the hospital and returns to his tribal land.
Time magazine would include One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest in its list of the 100 Best English Language Novels From 1925 To 2005. It was adapted as a Broadway play by Dale Wasserman in 1963 and as an acclaimed feature film in 1975.
Directed by Milos Forman and starring Jack Nicholson as Randle Patrick McMurphy, Will Sampson as Chief, and Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched, the movie swept the Oscars, winning Academy Awards for Best Actor, (Nicholson) Best Actress, (Fletcher) Best Director (Forman), Best Picture, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Ken Kesey's second novel, Sometimes A Great Notion, published in 1964, has been compared to William Faulkner's novel, Absalom, Absalom! Set in the fictional Pacific Northwest logging town of Wakonda, Oregon, the novel tells the story of the Stampers.
The Stampers are an irascible family that owns and operates a logging company. After the invention and introduction of the chainsaw to the logging industry, the union loggers in Wakonda go on strike, demanding the same pay for shorter working hours due to a decreasing need for labor.
Since the Stamper family's logging company is non-union, they decide to keep working and supply the local mill with all the lumber that the union workers would have supplied, had they not gone out on strike.
The novel explores the details and ramifications of this fateful decision, no doubt the result of half-crazed old patriarch Henry Stamper's philosophy of "never give a inch," which has defined the Stamper family and its relationship with the town.
While more steeped in realism than Kesey's first novel, Sometimes A Great Notion is also more experimental, with alternating first-person narratives. A masterpiece of Northwestern American literature, it was adapted as an acclaimed feature film in 1970, directed by Paul Newman, who also starred as Henry Stamper.
Following the publication of Sometimes A Great Notion in 1964, Ken Kesey had to go to New York City for a promotional appearance. So, he planned a cross country road trip with some friends, including Beat icon Neal Cassady and legendary poet Allen Ginsberg.
Also along for the ride were counterculture icon Wavy Gravy (in his trademark jester's cap), Stewart Brand, Paul Krassner, and others. Calling themselves the Merry Pranksters, they drove to New York in an old school bus painted with psychedelic colors that they nicknamed Furthur.
When he returned to California, Kesey gave a series of famous psychedelic parties he called Acid Tests. Held in venues decorated with fluorescent paint, the Acid Tests featured light shows, music, and plenty of LSD.
The main house band for these events was a then little known jam band called The Grateful Dead. Tom Wolfe would write about the Acid Tests in his 1968 book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, so called because the LSD would be dispensed in sugar cubes added to cups of Kool-Aid.
In 1965, after being arrested for possession of marijuana, Kesey faked his own death to trick the police, then fled to Mexico. When he came back to the United States eight months later, he was caught and sentenced to five months at the San Mateo County Jail.
After serving his time, Kesey moved back to his family farm in Pleasant Hill, Oregon, where he stayed for the rest of his life and continued to write. He published three more novels, Caverns (1989), Sailor Song (1992), and Last Go Round (1994). He also published a short story collection, Demon Box (1986), and two collections of essays.
Ken Kesey's last major work was an essay published in Rolling Stone magazine, where he called for peace following the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. He died of complications from liver cancer surgery in November of 2001 at the age of 66.
Quote Of The Day
"Listen, wait, and be patient. Every shaman knows you have to deal with the fire that's in your audience's eye." - Ken Kesey
Today's video features Ken Kesey speaking at the University of Virginia. Enjoy!
Friday, September 17, 2021
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