Daniel Keyes was born in 1927 in Brooklyn, New York. After working as a merchant seaman, he attended Brooklyn College, where he earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He went on to become a fiction editor at Marvel Science Fiction and also worked as a high school teacher for developmentally disabled adults. Having periodically published science-fiction stories since the early 1950s, Keyes drew on his experience in the classroom and his love of science fiction to compose a short story called “Flowers for Algernon” in 1959.
The story, about a mentally retarded man whose IQ is tripled as the result of an experimental operation, was widely acclaimed and enormously popular. The story received one of science fiction’s highest honors, the Hugo Award, for best story of the year in 1959. In 1961, a successful television adaptation, The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon, starred Cliff Robertson as Charlie. Still interested in the character of Charlie and the ideas contained in the short story, Keyes set out to enlarge “Flowers for Algernon” into a full-length novel. The result, published in 1966, won the Nebula Award—science fiction’s other highest honor—for best novel of the year and expanded dramatically on the popularity of the short story. In 1968, the novel version was adapted again, this time for a feature film called Charly. Cliff Robertson reprised his role as Charlie Gordon and won an Academy Award for his performance. The story has since been adapted many times in many media, notably in 1978 as a short-lived Broadway musical, Charlie and Algernon, and as a television drama in 2000 starring Matthew Modine.
The novel version of Flowers for Algernon was the high point of Daniel Keyes’s career, and it remains by far his most popular and most acclaimed work, having been consistently in print for nearly forty years. Keyes has not been a prolific author; since his success with Flowers for Algernon, he has written only three more novels and three works of journalism exploring true crime cases. Like Flowers for Algernon, both his fiction and nonfiction are primarily focused on the extraordinary complexities of the human mind. One book of journalism, The Minds of Billy Milligan, tells the true story of a convicted murderer with multiple personality disorder who claimed to embody twenty-four different personae. In 2000, Keyes published a book called Algernon, Charlie, and I: A Writer’s Journey, chronicling his relationship with his most famous story, from his first inspiration to write it to his reflections on its continuing success decades later.
The widespread and enduring interest in Flowers for Algernon is a testament to the depth and originality of its premise. Many people wonder how their lives would be affected by becoming more, or less, intelligent, and Keyes gives us a glimpse into what such a journey might be like. Though Keyes’s background is in science fiction and the novel undoubtedly belongs to that genre, it also transcends the limitations of the genre. Whereas many -science-fiction writers alienate mainstream readers by focusing on technology and the inhuman aspects of the worlds they create, Keyes uses science fiction as a springboard for an exploration of universal human themes such as the nature of intellect, the nature of emotion, and how the two interact.
Though Flowers for Algernon depends on science fiction to drive its plot—no intelligence-enhancing surgery has yet been attempted or realized—its characters and situations are quite ordinary. The characters are New York City scientists, teachers, bakers, and barbers, not the space rangers and galactic swashbucklers often associated with science fiction. Indeed, Keyes utilizes science fiction’s potential for philosophical inquiry and its capacity to explore the extremes of human nature by imagining an altered version of the world. However, he combines these aspects of science fiction with realistic characters in a realistic environment, creating a work that has enthralled both people who are indifferent to science fiction and avid fans of the genre.