Ken Kesey was born on Sept 17, 1935 in La Junta, Colorado and grew up on a farm in Oregon. He attended the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1957. He also dabbled in acting. But the significant moment in his life came in 1959, after he had enrolled in the creative writing program at Stanford University. He volunteered to be a subject in experiments with newly discovered hallucinogenic drugs, including LSD. This was at the psychiatric hospital at Menlo, Calif., where he worked a night shift. This experience was the origin of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), which was Kesey’s first novel. Kesey felt that the patients in the hospital were not insane, but society had pushed them out because they did not fit conventional ideas of how people were supposed to be. He spent much time talking to the patients, sometimes when he was himself under the influence of mind-altering drugs.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest remains the novel for which Kesey is best known. The rebellion against social conformity that it promoted struck a chord with the countercultural college students of the 1960s. The novel was made into an Academy award-winning film, directed by Milos Forman.
Kesey wrote another novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, and he and a group of friends, dubbed the Merry Pranksters, drove from San Francisco to New York in a luridly painted bus. The trip was recreated in Tom Wolfe’s novel The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Widely known for his prominent role in the growing popularity of “recreational” drugs in the 1960s, Kesey spent six months in Mexico to avoid imprisonment for possession of marijuana. Then he gave himself up and served five months in prison.
Kesey wrote screenplays, short stories and children’s books, as well as another novel, Sailor Song. He returned to the University of Oregon in 1990 to teach writing.
He died of cancer in 2001.