Ken Kesey

By: Anthony Miller
September 17, 2014


Before KEN KESEY (1935–2001) became a celebrated writer, he was a championship wrestler, and he understood both activities much the same way: Grappling with the redistribution of energy. Writing for Kesey was an athletic performance, as much a test of will as intellect. He was a dominant force in the creative writing program at Stanford where he studied as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow with Wallace Stegner and Malcolm Cowley. Kesey worked on a novel about San Francisco’s North Beach called Zoo but abandoned it and found his tribe not among the Beats but a band of Merry Pranksters. He transmuted his time working as an orderly at Menlo Park Veterans Administration hospital and participating in their psychotropic drug trials into his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) and the hallucinogenic rituals over which he presided known as the Acid Tests. Cuckoo’s Nest introduced the antic anti-authoritarian Randle Patrick McMurphy through the eyes of the aphasic Chief Bromden (whose voice Kesey said came to him in a peyote vision). Sometimes a Great Notion (1964) told a more ambitious American tale in which Hank and Leland Stamper also represented divergent aspects of the author’s personality. Kesey devoted less energy to writing as he voyaged aboard the psychedelic vessel Furthur, a multicolored International Harvester school bus. It was left to writers like Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test to harness the narrative energy of the scene. Kesey later published Demon Box (1986), an autobiographical short-story collection where he confronts the specter of entropy, and a third novel, Sailor Song (1992). On and off the page, Kesey’s world involved intricate relays of energy — personal, social, psychic. One of the great Promethean spirits of the counterculture, Kesey fulminated against restraint and spurred others on, eternally itinerant, beatifically defiant.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: William Carlos Williams, Yuji Naka, Edgar Ulmer.

READ MORE about members of the Anti-Anti-Utopian Generation (1934-43).


HiLo Heroes, Literature