Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and an icon of Sixties counter-culture, died yesterday at the age of 66. He had been suffering from liver cancer.
After a roller-coaster life that propelled him from student wrestling to experimentation with psychedelic drugs to fame as a novelist and leader of the Merry Pranksters, Kesey wound up on a commune-style farm in central Oregon, where he continued to be a heroic figure to the political and environmental protest movements of the US west coast. He died at a hospital in Eugene, Oregon, surrounded by his family and friends.
"He passed away peacefully in his sleep," a nursing supervisor at Sacred Heart Medical Center told reporters.
It was as a creative writing student in the late 1950s, first at the University of Oregon and then at Stanford, near the San Francisco Bay, that Kesey's radical anti-establishment consciousness began to form. The seminal moment came when he participated in clinical experiments with LSD at Stanford as a way of earning extra money.
The experience turned out to be the beginning of a long flirtation between the counter-cultural movement and mind-altering drugs. Kesey was later directly responsible for turning the Grateful Dead on to LSD, and within a few years – thanks to both Kesey and Timothy Leary – the drug was an essential part of the sex-drugs-and-rock'n'roll ethos that defined the student uprisings of 1968 and opposition to the Vietnam war.
In 1962, Kesey wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest while high on acid. The novel, even more than the Oscar-winning film that was made 13 years later, used the metaphor of a mental institution to analyse the breakdown of authority in society and the arbitrary cruelty of a system that determines who is normal and who is insane.
The book was based, in part, on Kesey's experiences working at a Veterans' Administration hospital just off the Stanford campus in Palo Alto.
Two years later, Kesey published his second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion. It is less well known – although it too was filmed, with Henry Fonda and Paul Newman in the lead roles – but has enjoyed an even more solid critical reputation over the years. Focusing on a group of independent loggers in the Oregon woods, the book is about power structures as well as the balance between nature and human need.
The year Sometimes a Great Notion was published, Kesey and his band of followers, the Merry Pranksters, set off on a legendary cross-country trip in an old school bus painted in wild psychedelic colours. The trip itself, which featured Jack Kerouac's old hero Neal Cassady at the wheel, was in turn eclipsed by Tom Wolfe's classic account of it and its place in the counter-culture. Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which came out in 1968, sealed Kesey's reputation for life – even though he did not publish another novel until the early 1990s and largely withdrew from public view.Reuse content