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Ken Kesey (1935–2001)

Author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

30+ Works 29,447 Members 357 Reviews 84 Favorited

About the Author

Ken Kesey, September 17, 1935 - November 10, 2001 Kenneth Elton "Ken" Kesey was born in Colorado on September 17, 1935. He graduated from the University of Oregon, and published two full-length novels that helped to give him a cult following. "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1962) owes much to show more Kesey's own experience as a ward attendant at the Menlo Park Veterans' Hospital. This exciting first novel was told from the point of view of a half-Indian man who thinks of himself as the Big Chief pictured on the writing tablets of everybody's school days looking out at the other inmates in a Disneylike world. Its portrayal of the doomed but heroic rebel McMurphy stood for a particular kind of American individualism. The book was adapted into a successful stage play by Dale Wasserman, and in 1975, Milos Forman directed a screen adaptation, which won the "Big Five" Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Louise Fletcher), Best Director (Forman) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Lawrence Hauben, Bo Goldman). Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion (1964) is a long, complex novel that troubled many of his earlier readers. Kesey's most recent novel was Demon Box (1987); although it was somewhat well received, it was still compared unfavorably to his earlier works. His last major work was an essay for Rolling Stone magazine calling for peace in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. On October 25, 2001, Kesey had surgery on his liver to remove a tumor. He died of complications from the surgery on November 10, 2001. He was 66. (Bowker Author Biography) show less

Works by Ken Kesey

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) 24,299 copies
Sometimes a Great Notion (1964) 2,819 copies
Sailor Song (1992) 631 copies
Demon Box (1986) 560 copies
The Further Inquiry (1990) 120 copies
Kesey's Garage Sale (1973) 113 copies
Kesey's Jail Journal (2003) 110 copies
Kesey (1977) 31 copies

Associated Works

The Portable Beat Reader (Viking Portable Library) (1992) — Contributor — 1,468 copies
The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry (1999) — Contributor — 599 copies
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest [1975 film] (1975) — Author — 573 copies
The Portable Sixties Reader (2002) — Contributor — 330 copies
The Dylan Companion: A Collection of Essential Writing About Bob Dylan (1990) — Contributor, some editions — 96 copies
Caverns: A Novel (1990) — Introduction — 43 copies
Sorcerers: A Collection of Fantasy Art (1978) — Foreword — 19 copies
Wonders: Writings and Drawings for the Child in Us All (1980) — Contributor — 18 copies
Cutting Edges: Young American Fiction for the 70's (1973) — Contributor — 8 copies
Northwest Review: Fall, 1957 — Contributor — 2 copies


1001 (113) 1001 books (106) 1960s (164) 20th century (249) America (65) American (299) American fiction (94) American literature (500) anthology (257) beat (241) Beat Generation (109) classic (452) classics (464) counterculture (80) drama (68) essays (71) favorites (82) fiction (3,081) insanity (108) Ken Kesey (98) literature (468) made into movie (87) mental health (140) mental hospital (81) mental illness (456) mental institution (62) movie (81) non-fiction (85) novel (512) Oregon (198) own (138) paperback (76) poetry (341) psychiatry (89) psychology (261) read (367) short stories (69) to-read (1,457) unread (154) USA (147)

Common Knowledge

Legal name
Kesey, Kenneth Elton
Date of death
Burial location
Kesey family farm, Eugene, Oregon, USA
La Junta, Colorado, USA
Place of death
Pleasant Hill, Oregon, USA
Places of residence
Springfield, Oregon, USA
Pleasant Hill, Oregon, USA
University of Oregon
Stanford University
hospital orderly
U.S. Veterans Administration
Awards and honors
Robert Kirsch Award (1991)
Western Literature Association's Distinguished Achievement Award (1988)
Short biography
Kenneth Elton Kesey (September 17, 1935 – November 10, 2001) was an American novelist, essayist, and countercultural figure. He considered himself a link between the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s.

Kesey was born in La Junta, Colorado, and grew up in Springfield, Oregon, graduating from the University of Oregon in 1957. He began writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1960 following the completion of a graduate fellowship in creative writing at Stanford University; the novel was an immediate commercial and critical success when published two years later. During this period, Kesey participated in government studies involving hallucinogenic drugs (including mescaline and LSD) to supplement his income.

Following the publication of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, he moved to nearby La Honda, California, and began hosting happenings with former colleagues from Stanford, miscellaneous bohemian and literary figures (most notably Neal Cassady), and other friends collectively known as the Merry Pranksters; these parties, known as Acid Tests, integrated the consumption of LSD with multimedia performances. He mentored the Grateful Dead (the de facto "house band" of the Acid Tests) throughout their incipience and continued to exert a profound influence upon the group throughout their long career.



Group Read, March 2020: Sometimes a Great Notion in 1001 Books to read before you die (March 2020)


I remember this as engrossing and memorable as an adolescent.
sfj2 | 297 other reviews | Apr 28, 2024 |
This feels like Kesey’s “Great American Novel” and he considered it his masterpiece, but while I liked it, I think “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” should hold that honor. It’s remarkable to me that the subject of the novel was a labor dispute between loggers in the rugged forest of Oregon, gritty and not the kind of stuff that generally takes one’s breath away, considering the author would soon be leading his “Merry Pranksters” across the country in a bus, and would become a leading figure in the psychedelic movement. While I admire Kesey taking the road less travelled in his life, it’s a shame that he didn’t write more books, as his talent is certainly on display here.

At over 700 dense pages, this book is quite a tome, and if its style throws you off early on, stick with it. Kesey experiments with a technique of switching between perspectives rapidly, sometimes within a sentence, which can be a little disorienting, particularly as the story is being filled in. Ironically, in contrast to this style and the fluidity with which he wields it, he’s at his best with the level of realism in his dialogue, which invariably seems natural and unforced, and the level of detail in his description of the surroundings.

There are two central conflicts in the story, the primary of which is a logging family’s stubborn refusal to join others in a strike, and their attempt to go it alone amidst the rancor of their community. Interestingly, Kesey doesn’t choose sides in describing this struggle, satirizing both union leaders as well as the rugged individuals who disregard the strike, which may have been a part of why initial reactions to the book were mixed. The other conflict is within the family, with the younger son returning from college harboring a secret grudge against his brother, and plotting to have an affair with his wife.

There are topical references scattered in here, such as an allusion to the threat of nuclear war, the love the hip had for jazz music, or popular figures like Alan Watts, but this story mostly feels timeless, and intentionally so. There is something primal in the emotions in play, and it builds to moments of fantastic tension towards the end.

At the same, the book probably could have done with some editing, as it gets rather elongated (bizarrely, including 60 pages between 602 and 662 where a main character goes missing entirely). Worse yet, the female characters are terribly under-developed across the board, which was a serious detractor. As a warning, there are also bits of mild racism, such as the use of N-word between white workers, comments like “what other Caucasian ever moved with that slack-limbed indolence?” and the minor character of “Indian Jenny,” a prostitute who is more of a stereotype than anything else. Aside from the ridiculously terse updates for her throughout the novel, Kesey writes of her expression that it never changes, and is “somewhere between blunt ferocity and brute pathos.” (ugh)

All in all, however, it’s certainly a good book, and one that feels like it should be better known.
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1 vote
gbill | 44 other reviews | Apr 11, 2024 |
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is now a new all-time favourite. Harrowing and heart-breaking, brilliantly written and thought-provoking I savoured every delicious word with frequent pauses to process and absorb.

Nurse Ratched runs her ward in the Oregon state mental hospital like a well-oiled machine. She controls the Acutes and the Chronics, the Walkers, Wheelers and Vegetables with an iron-clad fist and a rigid daily routine until Randle Patrick McMurphy rocks up, committed by the state from the Pendleton Farm for Correction on the grounds of insanity orchestrated by the man himself hoping for a cushier number. A self-professed con artist and gambler he immediately ups the ante betting he can deal the cards that will crack Big Nurse’s poker face.

The characterisation is sublime: Mack, the user and hustler, womaniser and disruptor with his red hair and big arms, cap, grin and swagger; manipulative and sadistic Miz Ratched preceded by her bolster bosom and wicker basket with her trepidatious, hand-picked minions bobbing along behind her and half Indian giant Chief Bromden, our befogged, paranoid and seemingly deaf and mute narrator sprang into life, burrowed into my brain and held me in thrall. There’ll always be a special place in my heart for stuttering, man-child Billy Bibbit.

Nurse Ratched has sedation and seclusion, the Disturbed Ward and the Shock Shop, therapeutic adjustment and surgical reconditioning at her fingertips to emasculate, subjugate and humiliate her charges. McMurphy has charisma and joie de vivre, playing the system and playing the fool, provocation and intimidation up his sleeve to sever the puppet master’s strings and transform his colony of timid little rabbits into a pack of teeth baring wolves.

Images from the film only served to enhance my overall reading experience. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. One of a kind!
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geraldine_croft | 297 other reviews | Mar 30, 2024 |
#362 in our old book database. Not rated.
villemezbrown | 297 other reviews | Feb 25, 2024 |


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