Ken Elton Kesey (KEE-zee) was one of the most important writers of American fiction of the 1960’s. He was born in La Junta, Colorado, a small farming town in the plains of that state, to Fred A. Kesey and his wife, Geneva Smith Kesey. In 1946, the family moved to rural Oregon, where Kesey remained for most of his life, except for a few years he spent in California in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. In 1956, Kesey married Faye Haxby, whom he had known since childhood. In 1957, he graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in speech and communication, and in 1960 he completed a two-year creative writing program at Stanford University. Considerably more influential upon Kesey and his work than his formal education, however, were the writer’s lived experiences. He was an athletic boy and young man, and he seriously participated in wrestling (he almost qualified for the U.S. Olympic team in 1960) and loved outdoor activities of all types. For a time, he tried to become an actor and worked in Hollywood on film sets. Kesey experimented with drugs, and in 1960 he participated in a drug-testing program conducted by the government. His work in a hospital psychiatric ward perhaps proved most influential of all Kesey’s experiences. Finally, his familiarity with the cultures and lands of the Pacific Northwest is well documented in much of his writing.
One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey’s first published novel (his first novel, entitled “Zoo,” remains unpublished), is his best-known work. The novel was an instant success on college campuses and was acclaimed both by popular reviewers and by the literary establishment. The three main characters of the novel–R. P. McMurphy, Chief Bromden, and Big Nurse are not merely memorable characters from fiction but also characterize the turbulence of the 1960’s, and they immediately became a part of American popular culture. The novel received much critical attention, in the form of book-length studies, articles, and dissertations. It was later produced as a film that captured the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1975.
Sometimes a Great Notion, published two years later and detailing the exploits of mountain loggers in Oregon, is in many respects superior to One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest; its reception and study lagged behind that of the earlier work, however, primarily because Sometimes a Great Notion is thought to be too provincial and too long.
On the surface, these two novels are markedly different from each other. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is set in a mental ward in California; Sometimes a Great Notion is set in the great outdoors of western Oregon. The first novel is short, the second long. The characters in the mental ward are readily definable as archetypes, whereas those in the logging community are localized caricatures. The plot of the first work centers on an external conflict; in the second work, all dramatic tension is internal to the two main characters, the Stamper brothers. In one book, the meaning is clearly universal; in the other, it is individualized. Yet both Kesey’s novels address the ideas of sanity and insanity, the definition of individuality as determined by sex (in terms of both gender and activity), the use of drugs, and the conflict between the individual and societal institutions.
In the “cuckoo’s nest” (the mental ward of the novel), the insane are classified into three groups: the Acute, the Chronics, and the Vegetables. It is clear that Big Nurse herself is a Chronic, as are the Stamper brothers in Sometimes a Great Notion; there is no distinction between the sane and the insane, and the theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl G. Jung are subordinate to what McMurphy calls the “pecking order.” Identity is determined either by sexual activity or by the frustration in its absence; this is the case for Nurse Ratched and Billy in the first novel and for all the Stampers (especially Viv) in the later work. The use of drugs in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is Orwellian and in the second novel it is personalized, but in neither work does Kesey suggest that drugs can solve human dilemmas. Similarly, the institution in both novels triumphs over the individual: Big Nurse lobotomizes McMurphy, and the logging company “stamps out” the Stamper brothers. In the struggle between the sexes, women are consistently seen as secondary, disposable necessities: No one is attracted to Big Nurse, and Vivian Stamper is last seen leaving town on a bus while the two brothers battle with each other and the logging company. In both novels, Kesey reveals a brooding wrath at the inexplicable forces that are stronger than the human beings they rule and that cause all lives to be enmeshed in the most absurd of circumstances. Kesey describes this situation in a fashion that can be described as comic, but there is no humor and little real laughter involved.
Kesey’s Garage Sale and Demon Box are collections of short stories, journalism, journal entries, poems, and autobiographical ramblings; both can be explained as products of the 1960’s. Apart from the novels and these collections, Kesey for many years published little, choosing instead to devote himself to his family and to his farm in Oregon. In the 1990’s, Kesey began to write again in the attempt, as he himself explained it, “get back on the bus.” The Alaskan novel Sailor Song is a departure from his earlier style, as are the children’s books and the multimedia play with music, Twister. Whatever the critical response to these later works, however, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion are sufficiently remarkable achievements to establish Kesey as a major figure in twentieth century American literature. He died in 2001 from complications following surgery for liver cancer.