If you’ve heard of Ken Kesey but don’t know a lot about his life, chances are you’ve read his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962). Just a few years ago, the novel celebrated its 50th anniversary, more than 10 years after its author passed away. As an article* in NPR explained of the book, it “would make its author a literary celebrity, inspire a movie that won the Best Picture Oscar, and help change the way we think about mental health institutions.” The novel depicted a group of patients in an Oregon mental health hospital. The narrative arose out of Kesey’s own experiences as a nurse’s aide in a hospital psychiatric ward in Northern California.
Yet there’s a lot more to know about Kesey than simply his role in creating one of the most widely read novels of the second half of the twentieth century. Since today is the anniversary of his birthday, we wanted to provide you with some more information about the famous novelist. Read on to discover five interesting facts about Ken Kesey.
1. Kesey had a bus named “Furthur.”
Not only did Kesey have a bus named “Furthur,” but that bus also took him, along with many other notable names, across the United States. To be sure, as an article** in NPR explains, the vehicle “carried Kesey and the Merry Pranksters on the 1964 trip immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” a novel published in 1968. In a New York Times obituary*** written upon the novelist’s death in 2001, Kesey was described as “the hero of Tom Wolfe’s nonfiction book about psychedelic drugs.” In addition to Kesey and Wolfe, the bus also played an important role—albeit in a tangential way—in the fiction of Jack Kerouac. Indeed, Neal Cassady actually drove the bus! Neal Cassady is now best remembered, perhaps, as the inspiration for Kerouac’s protagonist in On the Road (1957).
2. Kesey and his wife raised their four children on his family’s farm in Oregon.
Kesey grew up with parents who ran a working dairy farm in Pleasant Hill, and he raised cattle and sheep there with his wife and their kids, Shannon, Zane, and Jed.
3. Kesey studied fiction as a writing fellow at Wallace Stegner’s program at Stanford University.Yes, Kesey had formal training as a fiction writer. But he didn’t always get along with Wallace Stegner, the founder of the creative writing program who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972. In an early 1990s interview**** in The Paris Review, Kesey described Stegner—whom he called “Wally”—as having a “dislike of what I was doing.” He went on to explain that, “It was just that we were on different sides of the fence. When the Pranksters got together and headed off on a bus to deal with the future of our synapses, we knew that Wally didn’t like what we were doing and that was good enough for us.”
4. Kesey was sentenced to jail time for drug possession in the mid-1960s.
In 1966, Kesey spent about six months in jail in Redwood City, California for possession of narcotics, according to the New York Times obituary.
5. Kesey’s widow is now married to Larry McMurtry.
After Kesey’s death, his widow, Faye Kesey, married the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Larry McMurtry in his hometown of Archer City, Texas. The two married in 2011. McMurtry’s ties to the Kesey family went back much farther, however. McMurtry and Kesey had been classmates in Wallace Stegner’s Stanford writing program.
To celebrate Ken Kesey’s birthday this month, why not pick up a copy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or a copy of the author’s second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion (1964)?