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Notable Oregonians: Ken Kesey - Writer

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Ken Kesey

Ken Kesey, 1935-2001

Ken Kesey, was born on September 17, 1935 in La Junta, Colorado. He moved with his family in 1946 to Springfield, Oregon, where he spent several years on the family farm. During high school and later in college, Kesey was a champion wrestler, setting long-standing state records in Oregon.

 

He graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in speech and communications. He also received a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to enroll in the creative writing program at Stanford. While at Stanford, he participated in experiences involving hallucinogenic chemicals at the psychology department to earn extra money. These chemicals included psilocybin, mescaline and LSD. It was this experience that fundamentally altered Kesey, personally and professionally.

 

Kesey published One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1962. The novel was an immediate critical and popular success. It was adapted into a successful stage play and a 1975 film. Sometimes a Great Notion, published in 1964, dealt with the conflicts between West Coast individualism and East Coast intellectualism. It also was adapted into a film.

 

In 1964, Kesey and his friends, who had become known as the Merry Pranksters, bought a 1939 International Harvest school bus and drove to New York to see the World's Fair. He recruited Neal Cassady from Jack Kerouac's On the Road to drive the bus, and filmed a significant portion of the journey. Kesey would later show clips from the trip to chemically altered audiences at his parties.

 

Kesey and his Merry Pranksters became notorious for their "Acid Tests" and use of LSD and other drugs. His exploits with the Merry Pranksters during this period formed the basis for a best-selling book by Tom Wolfe called The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. When the government made LSD illegal, Kesey and the Pranksters fled to Mexico. When he returned to the United States for a final performance, he was arrested on a marijuana charge.

 

Upon his release from jail, Kesey moved to a farm in Pleasant Hill, Oregon in 1965. He did not publish his third novel, Sailor Song, until 1992, but did write numerous shorter works and compilations during the decades after Sometimes a Great Notion.

 

Kesey died of complications following cancer surgery in Eugene, Oregon on November 10, 2001 at the age of 66.

 

(Sources: GradeSaver | Books and Writers) Revised 1/2013

 

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