Ken Kesey was born in 1935 in La Junta, Colorado. He grew up in Oregon and returned there to teach until his death in November 2001. After being elected the boy most likely to succeed by his high school class, Kesey enrolled in the University of Oregon. He married in 1956, a year before receiving his bachelor’s degree. Afterward, he won 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 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 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is based largely on his experiences with mental patients. Through the conflict between Nurse Ratched and Randle Patrick McMurphy, the novel explores the themes of individuality and rebellion against conformity, ideas that were widely discussed at a time when the United States was committed to opposing communism and totalitarian regimes around the world. However, Kesey’s approach, directing criticism at American institutions themselves, was revolutionary in a way that would find greater expression during the sixties. 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 soon became the focus of a growing drug cult. He believed that using LSD to achieve altered states of mind could improve society. 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.
In 1964, Kesey led a group of friends called the Merry Pranksters on a road trip across the United States in a bus named Furthur. The participants included Neil Cassady, who had also participated in the 1950s version of this trip with Jack Kerouac and company. 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.
Dale Wasserman adapted One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest into a play version that ran on Broadway in 1963, with Kirk Douglas in the leading role. In 1975, a movie version was released without Kesey’s permission, directed by Milos Forman. It was extremely successful, though quite different from the novel. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards and swept the five major categories. As a result, for many people familiar with the film version, Randle McMurphy will forever be associated with Jack Nicholson, the famous actor who portrayed him.