Today in Literary History – November 10, 2001 – Ken Kesey dies

Novelist Ken Kesey, who the New York Times called “the Pied Piper of the psychedelic era,” died on November 10, 2001.

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He was best known for his novels One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest (1962) and Sometimes a Great Notion (1964) both of which were made into movies. The film version of Cukoo’s Nest became an iconic metaphor for 1960s America’s spirit of rebellion against conformity.

Kesey was also famous as the leader of a hodge-podge of hippies, LSD promoters and peace activists in the 1960s, known as The Merry Pranksters.

He had also been a part of the Beat Generation and is generally considered as the main link between the Beats and the hippy movement.

He was also the hero of Thomas Wolfe’s 1968 “non-fiction novel”  The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which detailed in Wolfe’s particularly stylized way Kesey and The Pranksters LSD parties and travels in the Magic Bus, also known as “Further.”

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Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouc’s partner from the real-life road trip behind On the Road was the bus’s driver. They even drove Further to Washington and New York for anti-war protests.

Along with Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg and the Grateful Dead (“the Acid Test’s House Band”) Kesey staged “happenings” called “Acid Tests” with psychedelic strobe lighting, music and Kool-Aid laced with LSD. For most of the participants it was their first exposure to the drug and many people were given LSD unawares.

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I didn’t start reading Kesey until after I had read Thomas Wolfe’s book and seen Milos Foreman’s film version of Cukoo’s Nest. I found Sometimes a Great Notion a bit hard going, overlong and sentimental. I enjoyed Cukoo’s Nest as a political metaphor but was bothered by its dismissal of the reality of mental illness, a view that is more strident in the novel than in the movie.

Kesey wrote Cukoo’s Nest after his time working as an orderly on a mental ward at a Veterans Hospital where he often went to work high on acid or mescaline. He developed some very controversial views about mental illness during this time.

Kesey went on to become a well-respected creative writing teacher at The University of Oregon. He continued to write but never again reached his early success.

He suffered many health problems in the last decade of his life: diabetes, a stroke and liver cancer. He was 66 when he died.

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