Throughout American Literature, there are hundreds of authors who have left their imprint on society by writing socially significant novels. Their intriguing styles and methods of conveying themes are undisputed, but the question of what inspires them is still debated and analyzed. A novel can be powerful, provocative, and profound, and can leave a lasting impression. This impression creates a curiosity throughout the public. This curiosity is about the mind who crafted such an intricate story. Readers wonder what could have possibly influenced these authors, or what could have happened in their lives to inspire such a lasting milestone on the face of literature. Ken Kesey is an author whose themes and characters are mirrored through his personal, early life. Kesey’s most significant projects, One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest and Sometimes A Great Notion contain diverse characters, and the events are incommensurable, but his constant theme of rebellion and nonconformity is invariably present. Kesey’s early experiences with psychoactive drugs and his involvement with the “Merry Pranksters” inspired him to write novels whose themes and characters exemplify individualism, rebellion, and the negative effects that a stringent society has on human beings.
Ken Kesey took part in many different careers throughout his life, including a farmer, artist, and a night attendant at a psychiatric ward. During his childhood he earned a great respect for nature, and a fascination with illusion and magic, which he practiced throughout his high school years. As he developed his trademark style which was influenced by transcendentalist ideas, his love for cinema, and the satire of Mark Twain, he engaged in activities that would be essential in inspiring him to write his novels. Kesey’s college years were where he had his first experiences with drugs. He enrolled in a creative writing course in Stanford University in the late fifties and early sixties, right around the birth of counterculture in the United States. Kesey dedicated One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest to a friend named Vie Lovell, who explained that Kesey had many encounters with a group at Stanford called Perry Lane. Lovell explained that Perry Lane “pioneered what have since become the hallmarks of hippie culture: LSD and other psychedelics too numerous to mention, body painting, light shows and mixed media presentations, total aestheticism, be-ins, exotic costumes, strobe lights, sexual mayhem, freakouts and the deification of psychoticism, eastern mysticism, and the rebirth of hair.” It was Lovell who suggested that Kesey participate in a CIA funded drug study on LSD. Kesey accepted, and the experience proved to be a turning point in his life, further broadening his drug use.
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Soon afterward, Kesey joined the hippie oriented “Merry Pranksters”, a group who toured the United States when experimental drug use was exploding throughout. Their goal was to liberate citizens from the government through enhanced crystallized perception and broadened horizons. Throughout his early life, Kesey constantly looked for thrills, and when he found one, he tried to top it: “I went from this into ventriloquism (and even had a show on TV), and from ventriloquism into hypnotism. And from hypnotism into dope. But it’s always been the same trip, the same kind of search.” Kesey’s early life was wild one, as he searched for more ways to entertain himself and heighten his consciousness.
One Flew Over The Cuckoos Net, Kesey’s first novel, followed protagonist Randle McMurphy and his attempts at liberating patients at a psychiatric ward. The story is narrated by Chief Bromden, a patient, who describes the ward as a combine. Bromden constantly refers to the combine as an oppressive machine, and uses mechanical imagery to describe the events that take place and people who reside there. McMurphy eventually succeeds in stripping Nurse Ratched, the head nurse who serves as an authoritative figure, of her power over the other patients. McMurphy’s rebellion against the mechanical workings of the all-powerful mental hospital can mirrored once again in Kesey’s second novel, Sometimes A Great Notion. Hank, Henry and Leland Stamper, and the rest of the Stamper family are residents in the logging town of Wakonda. When the town goes broke, they decide to cease productivity in the form of a strike. The Stamper’s are the only ones that refuse, and as a result much conflict arises, including a dangerous conflict between the Stamper brothers.
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Once Kesey’s life and works are looked at, it is easy to analyze and connect different aspects. In his novels, the protagonists are strong and gritty, always competing with the pressure to conform to the normal standard. His early career as a night attendant at a psychiatric ward obviously played a large part in his writing One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest. According to Kesey, the voice of the highly effective, but delusional Chief Bromden came one day at the ward, when Kesey consumed a large amount peyote, the Native-American hallucinogenic drug. It was then that he wrote the first three pages, and those pages remain virtually unedited and untouched. Even more connections can be derived from the rebellious tendencies that Kesey developed by being a leader of the “Merry Pranksters”. Randal McMurphy in many ways can be seen as a reincarnation of Kesey on paper. The way Kesey traveled the world, freeing teenagers from the oppressive government, is in direct relation to McMurphy’s freeing of the mental patients from the strong grip that Nurse Ratched and the combine had on them. It is obvious that the combine is a symbol of strongly structured government, something that Kesey constantly attacks or satirizes in his novels. The settings and characters are obviously inspired by Kesey’s childhood, which he spent outdoors and on fishing trips with his father. Kesey felt fishing was a thing that free men did, and it made him feel liberated, as can be seen in One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest when McMurphy took the inmates on a fishing trip in a step to liberate them.
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Kesey’s childhood and fascination with the outdoors are also illustrated through the setting of Sometimes a Great Notion. In order to write the novel, Kesey took a residence in northern Oregon, in a small logging community, the exact setting of Sometimes A Great Notion. Once again, this story weaves a path of rebellion and nonconformity for the Stamper family. Both fishing and hunting are portrayed in the novel, once again referring back to Kesey’s childhood. However, The more important aspect of Sometimes A Great Notion, is the relationship between the Stamper brothers, which symbolizes Kesey’s inner conflicts. Hank, much like Randle McMurphy, is bombarded with the weaknesses of the surrounding characters, as Kesey’s strong beliefs about self-reliance are once again revealed. From his early childhood Kesey always had two sides to him, an athletic, down-home side, and an intellectual, rebellious and artistic side. Kesey struggled with these two sides his whole life, even in the days leading up to his death he was quoted: “I want to find out which side of me really is, the woodsy logger side, complete with homespun homilies and cracker-barrel corniness-a valid side of me that I like-or its opposition.” The conflict between these personalities became more obvious in his college years, and each of the Stamper brothers personifies one side, Hank being the more athletic and Leland being the intellectual.
Many authors base their themes and characters on their own experiences and conflicts. Ken Kesey is no exception as not only are his inner feelings portrayed through his novels, but his young and wild life also served as an abundant source for his story telling. More importantly, his experiences with now illegal drugs and other stimulants might seem harsh and damaging at first, but they inspired him to write extremely meaningful novels. These novels are culturally significant, and are read in classrooms all over the world today.