Ken Kesey

Ken Kesey was an American countercultural novelist and essayist, particularly associated with the 1960s and the social changes of that period. He is generally considered to be a writer that bridged the gap between the Beat generation of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s, influencing many writers that followed him.

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Table of contents

    Content warning: mentions of drug use.

    Ken Kesey: biography

    Ken Kesey's Biography
    Birth:17th September 1935
    Death:10th November 2001
    Father:Frederick A. Kesey
    Mother:Geneva Smith
    Spouse/Partners:Norma 'Faye' Haxby
    Cause of death:Complications after a liver surgery to remove a tumor
    Famous Works:
    • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
    • Sometimes a Great Notion
    Literary Period:Postmodernism, countercultural

    Ken Kesey was born on 17th September 1935 in La Junta, Colorado. His parents were dairy farmers. When he was eleven, his family moved to Springfield, Oregon in 1946, where his parents set up an organisation called Eugene Farmers Collective. He was raised Baptist.

    Kesey had a typically 'All-American' childhood in which he and his brother Joe enjoyed rugged outdoors pursuits such as fishing and hunting, as well as sports such as wrestling, boxing, football and racing. He was a star wrestler in high school, and almost qualified for the Olympic team, but was prevented from doing so by a shoulder injury.

    He was an intelligent and accomplished youth, with a keen interest in the dramatic arts, and also won an acting award in high school, decorated sets, and wrote and performed skits.

    Ken Kesey: Life before fame

    Kesey enrolled in the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, eventually graduating in 1957 with a B.A. in speech and communication. He was as active in college life as he had been in high school; a member of the fraternity Beta Theta Pi, he also continued to participate in theatrical and sporting societies and won another acting award. To this day, he is still ranked in the top ten at the Oregon Wrestling Society. In May 1956, Kesey married Faye Haxby, his childhood sweetheart. They stayed married for his whole life and had three children.

    His degree involved studying screenwriting and writing for plays. He became disenchanted with this as his studies progressed, opting to take literature classes from James T. Hall in his second year. Hall broadened Kesey’s reading tastes and instilled in him an interest in becoming a writer. He soon published his first short story, 'First Sunday of September', and enrolled in the non-degree programme in Stanford University’s Creative Writing Centre in 1958, assisted by a grant from the Woodrow Wilson fellowship.

    In a way, Kesey was a slightly contradictory figure, especially during his early life. Sitting awkwardly between sports, literature, wrestling, and drama, he was both counter-cultural and All-American – an artistic jock. This foreshadows his later career – too young for the beatniks, too old for the hippies.

    The Beat movement (also known as the Beat Generation) originated in the United States in the 1950s. It was a cultural and literary movement that centred mostly around American writers in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City. They were called beatniks. The beatniks were free-thinkers, who were opposed to the conventions of the time, and expressed more radical ideas which included experimenting with drugs. The Beat movement is considered to be one of the most influential contemporary countercultures.

    Some beatniks that you might know of include Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

    The Hippie movement is a counterculture movement that started in the United States in the 1960s and became increasingly popular in other countries. Members of the Hippie movement – hippies – are in opposition to the norms and values of Western middle-class society. Hippie characteristics include living an environmentally-friendly lifestyle, both men and women wearing their hair long, wearing colourful clothes, and communal accommodation.

    At Stanford, Kesey befriended a number of other writers and became interested in the Beat movement. He wrote two unpublished novels – one about a college football athlete that loses interest in the game, and one entitled Zoo that dealt with the Nearby North Beach beat scene.

    This was a period of evolution for Kesey, during which he encountered many new attitudes and ways of living, including polyamorous relationships and cannabis use. His most significant transformative period was when he became a volunteer in secret experiments at the nearby Menlo Park Veterans’ Hospital.

    These experiments, which were funded by the CIA (the US Central Intelligence Agency) and were part of the top-secret Project MK-ULTRA, involved testing the effects of various psychoactive drugs, including LSD, mescaline, and DMT. This period was hugely influential for Kesey and created a profound shift in his worldview, soon leading to his own consciousness-expanding experimentation with psychedelic substances.

    Soon after this, he began working the night shift as an aide at the hospital. His experience here, both as an employee and a guinea pig, inspired him to write his most famous work – One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1962).

    Ken Kesey: Life after fame

    Published in 1962, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was an immediate success. It was adapted into a stage play by Dale Wasserman, which was the version that eventually became the basis for the Hollywood film adaptation of the story, starring Jack Nicholson.

    Using the money earned from the publication of the novel, Kesey was able to buy a house in La Honda, California, an idyllic town in the Santa Cruz Mountains, not far from the Stanford campus.

    Kesey published his second novel, Sometimes A Great Notion, in 1964. He became immersed in the psychedelic counterculture of the 1960s, organising parties called ‘Acid Tests’ at his house. Guests took LSD and listened to music played by his friends, The Grateful Dead, surrounded by strobe lights and psychedelic artwork. These 'Acid Tests' were immortalised in Tom Wolfe’s novel The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), and were also written about in poems by the famous Beat poet Allen Ginsberg.

    Ken Kesey, Portrait, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Ken Kesey is an American author best known for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

    In 1964, Kesey took a cross-country trip in an old school bus with a group of other countercultural figures and artists that called themselves ‘The Merry Pranksters’. This group included Neal Cassady, the famous Beat icon who had been the inspiration for one of the main characters of Jack Kerouac’s seminal novel On The Road (1957). They painted the bus in psychedelic, swirling patterns and colours, and gave it the name ‘Further.’ This trip became a mythic event in the 1960s counterculture. Neal Cassady drove the bus, and they installed a tape player and speakers. At this time, LSD was still legal, and the bus and 'Acid Tests' became extremely influential elements in the spread of psychedelic culture in America, inspiring many young people to embrace these radical new ideas.

    In 1965, Kesey was arrested for possession of marijuana. He then fled to Mexico, evading the police until 1966, when he was sentenced to six months in prison. After he had served his sentence, he returned to his family’s farm in Oregon, where he remained for much of the rest of his life.

    Ken Kesey's cause of death

    Ken Kesey died on November 10th 2011 at the age of 66. For some years he had been suffering from different health problems. The cause of his death was complications after a surgery he undertook to remove his liver tumour.

    Ken Kesey’s literary style

    Kesey has a straightforward, concise style. He uses techniques like stream-of-consciousness narration.

    Stream-of-consciousness narration is a type of narration that attempts to show the reader what the character is thinking through an internal monologue.

    This is a technique popularised by Modernist authors like Virginia Woolf and also used by the Beats. Beatnik author Jack Kerouac’s novel On The Road (1957) is also written using a stream-of-consciousness style.

    One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is narrated by Chief Bromden.

    Modernism was the dominant literary and cultural movement of the early 20th century, following the First World War. However, we could argue that Kesey’s style is also Postmodern.

    Modernism is a cultural movement in literature, theatre and art that started in Europe in the 20th century. It developed as a break away from the established art forms.

    Postmodernism is a movement that arose post-1945. The literary movement depicts fragmented worldviews with no inherent truth, and questions binary notions such as gender, self/other, and history/fiction.

    Kesey considered himself, and is generally considered to be, a link between the Beat generation and the psychedelic hippie counterculture of the later 1960s.

    Ken Kesey: notable works

    Ken Kesey's best known works are One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Sometimes a Great Notion, and Sailor Song.

    One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962)

    Kesey’s most seminal work, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, deals with the patients resident in a mental hospital, and their experiences under the reign of the domineering Nurse Ratched. It is a book about freedom that questions the definitions of sanity.

    Sometimes a Great Notion (1964)

    Sometimes a Great Notion – Kesey’s second novel – is a complex, lengthy work, dealing with the fortunes of an Oregon logging family. It was met with mixed reviews upon its release, but later became regarded as a masterpiece. It deals with huge themes against the dramatic backdrop of the scenery of the Pacific Northwest.

    Sailor Song (1992)

    Sailor Song is set in the near future that is depicted as almost dystopian. The events of the novel take place in a small Alaskan town called Kuinak. Kuinak is so far away from the rest of civilisation that, in many ways, it doesn't face the environmental and other issues that have arisen around the world. That is until a big film studio decides to shoot a blockbuster film based on local books.

    Ken Kesey: common themes

    We can look at Kesey as an archetypal American author. He was interested in themes such as freedom, individualism, heroism, and questioning authority. In this way, he is comparable to archetypically American authors such as Ernest Hemingway or Jack Kerouac.


    In Kesey's works, the characters are confined in some way or another and they look for a way out. Freedom is presented as something that is always worth pursuing. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the protagonist McMurphy feels trapped inside the asylum and seeks the freedom that is outside of it. However, some of the other patients feel freer in the asylum than they ever did in the outside world. Inside the asylum itself, Nurse Ratched limits their freedom with her way of running things that resemble an authoritarian regime.


    In seeking freedom, Kesey's characters often show individuality. In Sometimes a Great Notion, the union loggers go on strike but the main characters of the novel, the Stampers, decide to keep their logging business open. Similarly, in Sailor Song, while most of the town of Kuinak falls for the promises of the film crew, the main character Sallas is not afraid to share his unpopular opinions and stand against the status quo. Kesey argues that keeping our integrity as individuals is more important than fitting in to society.

    10 facts about Ken Kesey

    1. In high school, Ken Kesey was intrigued by hypnotism and ventriloquism.

    2. While working as an aide in the Menlo Park Veterans' Hospital between 1958 and 1961, Kesey spent time talking to the inmates at the hospital, sometimes while under the influence of drugs. He came to the realisation that the inmates were not insane, but that society had ostracised them because they did not fit into the accepted mould.

    3. Kesey named his son Zane after author Zane Grey.

    4. Kesey had a daughter named Sunshine, out of wedlock. His wife, Faye, not only knew of this but even gave her permission.

    5. Kesey took part in the making of the 1975 film based on his book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but he left the production after only two weeks.

    6. Before he went to university to study, Kesey spent a summer in Hollywood trying to find small acting roles. Although he was unsuccessful, he found the experience inspiring and memorable.

    7. In 1994, Kesey and the ‘Merry Pranksters’ toured with the musical play Twister: A Ritual Reality.

    8. Before his death in 2001, Kesey wrote an essay for the Rolling Stones magazine. In the essay, he was calling for peace after 9/11 (the September 11 attacks).

    9. Kesey's son, Jed, was only 20 years old when he died in an accident, in 1984.

    10. Ken Kesey's full name is Kenneth Elton Kesey.

    Ken Kesey - Key takeaways

    • Ken Kesey was an American novelist and essayist. He was born on September 17th 1935. He died on November 10th 2011.
    • Kesey was an important countercultural figure that knew and influenced many significant figures of the psychedelic 1960s, including The Grateful Dead, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady.
    • One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) is his best-known work.
    • Kesey became famous for throwing LSD parties known as 'Acid Tests', and for driving across the USA in a school bus with 'the Merry Pranksters', a group of artists and friends.
    • Common themes in Kesey's works are freedom and individualism.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Ken Kesey

    How did Ken Kesey die?

    The cause of Ken Kesey's death was complications after a surgery he undertook to remove his liver tumor.

    What is Ken Kesey known for?

    Ken Kesey is best-known for his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962). 

    He is famous for being a key figure in the American counterculture movement - he is generally considered to be a writer that bridged the gap between the Beat generation of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s. 

    Kesey is also known for throwing LSD parties known as 'Acid Tests'.

    What inspired Kesey to write One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962)?

    Kesey was inspired to write One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) after volunteering in secret experiments and then working as an aide in the Menlo Park Veterans' Hospital, between 1958 and 1961.

    What did Ken Kesey study in college?

    In college, Ken Kesey studied speech and communication.

    What kind of works did Ken Kesey write?

    Ken Kesey wrote novels and essays. His most notable works are the novels One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), Sometimes a Great Notion (1964), and Sailor Song (1992).

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Nurse Ratched is the antagonist in...

    Which of these is NOT one of the main themes in Ken Kesey's works?

    Ken Kesey's wife is...


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