Ken Kesey was born in 1935 in La Junta, Colorado and grew up in Oregon. After being elected the boy most likely to succeed by his high school class, Kesey enrolled in the University of Oregon, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1957. Soon after, he was awarded a fellowship to a creative writing program at Stanford University. While he was there, he became a volunteer in a program to test the effects of new drugs at the local Veterans Administration hospital. During this time, he discovered the drug LSD and became interested in studying alternative methods of perception. He soon took a job in a mental institution, where he spoke extensively to the patients.
Kesey’s most famous novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is based largely on his experiences with mental patients. The novel, published in 1962, was an immediate success. With his newfound wealth, Kesey purchased a farm in California, where he and his friends experimented heavily with LSD. He believed that using LSD to achieve altered states of mind could improve society.
In 1964, after the publication of his second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, Kesey led a group of friends called the Merry Pranksters on a road trip across the United States in a bus they named Furthur. The participants included Neil Cassady, who had also participated in the 1950s version of this trip with Jack Kerouac and company (chronicled in On the Road). The trip involved massive consumption of LSD and numerous subversive adventures. The exploits of the Merry Pranksters are detailed in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. This book became a must-read for the hippie generation, and much of the generation’s slang and philosophy comes directly from its pages.
Kesey’s high profile as an LSD guru in the midst of the public’s growing hysteria against it and other drugs attracted the attention of legal authorities. Kesey fled to Mexico after he was caught trying to flush some marijuana down a toilet. When he returned to the United States, he was arrested and sent to jail for several months. After his release, he left California for Oregon, where he lived and wrote until his death in 2001.