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Experiencing Ken Kesey

It was a trip across the United States in a painted school bus known as “Furthur” that saw the beginning of the decade of the hippie. Beginning in 1964, Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters travelled across the country, promoting Kesey’s new book Sometimes A Great Notion, in a journey that inspired Tom Wolfe’s book, Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Kesey spent much of his life in Oregon and has stamped an indelible mark across its rugged frontier.

Acid Tests

Ken Elton Kesey was born Sept. 17, 1935, in La Junta, Colorado. Kesey moved to Springfield, Oregon in 1946, and upon graduation, attended the University of Oregon. He graduated from University of Oregon’s School of Journalism with a degree in speech and communication in 1957. Awarded the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship, Kesey was accepted to Stanford University, though he lacked the prerequisites for a Master’s degree and so had to enroll in a non-degree creative writing program. Kesey would settle on his farm in Eugene, Oregon, where he continued to write and lecture around the country. In 1992, Kesey was diagnosed with diabetes. And on Oct. 25, 2001, Kesey had an operation on his liver that removed a tumor, though he never fully recovered. He died on Nov 10 at 66 years of age.

Oregon became a large part of Kesey’s life. His most noted novel, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, was set in an Oregon psychiatric hospital. The Oregon Country Fair, a staple of the Willamette Valley since its inception in 1969, was helped established by and sustained by Kesey. A reproduction of his bus “Furthur” is on display at the fair’s campgrounds. A statue of Kesey can be seen in Eugene.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

Kesey volunteered in 1960 as a night aide at the Menlo Park Veterans Hospital for the CIA-financed study, Project MKUltra. MKUltra was a US Military program used to research and experiment on behavioral engineering of humans using psychoactive drugs like LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, cocaine, aMT, and DMT. Notes made by Kesey during his time at the hospital, who himself was experimented on by the researchers of Project MKUltra, and his interactions with the patients would inspire Kesey to write One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

Kesey published this novel in 1962, and it became an instant success. It was turned into a play in 1963, and in 1975, Milos Forman directed the screen adaptation of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. The movie won five Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Louise Fletcher), Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Reporting dissatisfaction with the adaptation, Kesey left after only two weeks in to the project and claimed to have never seen the movie.

Flush with the financial success of both the novel as well as the play of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey purchased a log house in La Honda, California, where he hosted regular parties and events which he called, “Acid Tests.” Kesey had the band The Warlocks, who would be better known later as The Grateful Dead, play shows under fluorescent paint and black lights. These parties would be memorialized in the poems of Allen Ginsberg, as well as in Hunter S. Thompson’s novel, Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gang.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is one of America’s most highly challenged and banned book, with charges like from residents in Strongsville, Ohio who sued the local Board of Education citing that the novel was “pornographic,” and “glorifies criminal activity, has a tendency to corrupt juveniles, and contains descriptions of bestiality, bizarre violence, and torture, dismemberment, death, and human elimination.”

The novel follows the anti-hero McMurphy, who rather than serve time a in prison on a battery and gambling charge, opts to spend his sentence in a psychiatric ward, as he combats institutional oppression and its effects on not only his own individuality, but the individuality of the fellow patients. The novel is narrated by Chief Bromden, a gigantic half-Native American thought to be deaf and mute. Bromden refers to this institutional oppression, and its indifferent authority figures, as The Combine. The book calls into question the idea of the mental institution as comparable to the American prison system in its often invisible form of oppression. Kesey believed that these oppressive forces could be seen in a much broader scale upon the American society, encouraging self-censorship of aspects and actions of an individual.

Ken Kesey was a strong believer in the rights of the individual, and of the power capable by them. Kesey dedicated himself to living and to experiencing life. And for Kesey, writing was just a part of life.


Cooper Malin | The Broadside

(Contact: cmalin@cocc.edu)




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