Ken Kesey Biography

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Author/Context

Ken Kesey was born on September 17, 1935, to Fred A. and Generva Kesey. He was lived in Oregon with his father's parents while his father served in the Navy during the war, and this was where he spent the majority of his youth. Kesey referred to his father as a big, rebellious man, cast in the mold of John Wayne and the American cowboy. It is possible to see Kesey's interest in the myth of the hero at a young age, as well as hints of the Cuckoo's Nest's central character in his father's bold nature. Kesey's experience with his father on the river and in the woods influenced both Cuckoo's Nest, and Kesey's other major novel, Sometimes a Great Notion. He was raised Baptist, and his mother's family was staunchly religious.

Kesey went to college at the University of Oregon, and graduated in 1957. In college, he participated in nearly every activity available, including wrestling, drama, and writing. After graduating, he got a job writing for television and radion

A great deal of Kesey's inspiration for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was taken from Kesey's work at the Veteran's Hospital in Menlo Park. He was at first a paid participant in government testing of various drugs. His natural intelligence, and interest in new experiences, made him ideally suited for the task. After the testing was completed, Kesey stayed on at the hospital as an aide. His creation of the character Randle Patrick McMurphy was inspired by the longing he found in a great number of the men there. Kesey also drew on his drug experiences in order to create the vivid hallucinations Chief Bromden, the novel's narrator, experiences over the course of the novel.

When One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was published in 1963, it was an instant critical and popular success. College students especially enjoyed the novel, with its rebellious and subversive themes and humorous objections to the ideas of conformity. Critics responded with a wide variety of interpretations, seeing McMurphy as a representation of the Fisher King, or the basic structure of the novel itself akin to that of dramatic tragedy. Some faulted it for it's over the top bravadoism and the crudity of its central character. For the most part, however, reactions were positive. Lex et Scienta, a magazine of the International Academy of Law and Science, devoted an entire 100-page double issue to the book, describing it as "a cornucopia of source material from disciplines so numerous and varied as to challenge the mind and imagination." (Tanner, p.19) The novel was adapted into a stage play, and eventually a screen version, which won five Academy Awards and gave Jack Nicholson one of his most memorable roles as McMurphy.. The novel remains popular today, with its theme of the individual versus society, and the need to remain in touch with one's self. The two central characters, McMurphy and the Big Nurse, have entered into the mythology of American culture.


Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. First published 1962: Signet edition 1986, New York.

Porter, M. Gilbert. The Art of Grit: Kesey's Fiction. Literary Frontiers edition: University of Missouri Press, 1982.

Tanner, Stephen L. Ken Kesey. Indiana University, Indiana.1983.

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