Begin with class brainstorm on the Sixties… Ken Kesey is forever connected with everything that we think of when we think of the 1960s. When we learn about his life we also hear a lot about a very particular period in our history. The background is of the Bay Bridge because much of Kesey’s life unfolded in the Bay Area.
For the guy who would grow up to become a countercultural hero and icon… very “straight-arrow”, all-American kid…
However… in some early foreshadowing of his empathy for the outsider - at college in Oregon he remained involved in sports, but also discovered a love of acting and the theatre. This quote shows an experience of one of the ways that society tries to keep us “inside the lines”; inside of pre-determined expectations… Keep this theme in mind as we read the book.
Another quote from a Kesey biography describes the changes that Kesey went through upon moving to the San Francisco Area to pursue graduate studies at Stanford. Bohemian originally referred to a native of Bohemia, also known as gypsies, who lived outside of the bounds of conventional society, and has come to mean anyone or anything that is un-conventional, free-spirited (often writers & artists). In this case the Perry Lane neighborhood was known for “wine drinking, pot-smoking, and wife-swapping”.
Howl & Naked Lunch both the focus of obscenity trials (new movie Howl). Once these two works were put on trial for obscenity and won their cases, the doors were opened toward the publication of works on almost any subject: this was the beginning of the end of censorship of literature in the United States.
Sketches like these which appear in some versions of the novel were done by Kesey of patients on the ward during his time working there. Kesey often spent time talking to the patients, sometimes under the influence of the hallucinogenic drugs with which he had volunteered to experiment. He formulated his belief that these patients were NOT insane - rather that society had pushed them out because they did not fit the conventional ideas of how people were supposed to act and behave. It has even been reported that he voluntarily underwent electroshock therapy in order to deepen his understanding.
Chief Bromden is the narrator of the book. We learn that his grandmother sang this song to him when he was young. Cuckoo’s nest iof course is a way of referring to a mental hospital (“loony bin”…), we call crazy people “cuckoo”, etc. To “fly over a cuckoo’s nest” is to go too far, to get yourself in trouble, which is also a theme we will see with tragic outcome in the book.
Writer Hunter S. Thompson remembered La Honda as &quot;the world capital of madness. There were no rules, fear was unknown and sleep was out of the question.&quot; While Kesey and others had their families, they simultaneously experimented with all types of drugs, and every night seemed to bring a blowout party with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, the Hells Angels, and the weirdest outliers of San Francisco.
In 1964 the publication of Kesey's second novel Sometimes a Great Notion demanded his presence in New York and the Pranksters conceived of their now legendary journey across the country on a psychedelic school bus, smoking marijuana, and dropping acid along the way. Further (purposefully misspelled “furthur”) on the front was a one-word poem inspiring the pranksters to keep going both literally in miles driven, and figuratively in their boundary-pushing, consciousness-expanding mission. On the back was painted “Caution - Weird Load”, a play on “wide load”. “You’re either on the bus or off the bus” began as code for the phenomenon of at least one prankster going missing after each stop for gas or food along the way, and evolved to the well known and enduring metaphor “On the Bus”, meaning you are part of a group phenomenon or consciousness. Tom Wolfe immortalized the trip in his ground-breaking book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Kesey, The Pranksters, their experimentation with psychedelic drugs, outrageous dress, rock & roll music and communal living, their denial of conformity and conventionality, and their trip on the magic bus are still seen as the roots of the Hippie movement that exploded on the world stage later in the sixties. Kesey considered himself to have been a link between the two generations. The anti-war and civil rights movements both reflected the same rejection of accepted authority and social order that Kesey represented in his life and in his writing, and which we will see as a theme of Cuckoo’s Nest.
Ken Kesey & The Cuckoo’s Nest in Context
All-American Youth <ul><li>Born in 1935 </li></ul><ul><li>Grew up in rural Oregon </li></ul><ul><li>Love of the outdoors - fishing & hunting </li></ul><ul><li>Football player & champion wrestler </li></ul><ul><li>Voted most likely to succeed </li></ul><ul><li>Married high school sweet-heart </li></ul>
<ul><li>“ His friends in Drama could not understand why he was on the wrestling team and associated with athletes, and of course his friends among the athletes could not understand why he would involve himself with the theater group.” </li></ul><ul><li>Stephen L. Tanner, from his biography of Kesey </li></ul>Outside the Box in College…
Perry Lane - Dramatic Life Change <ul><li>Avoided the draft (Vietnam War) in 1957 due to a wrestling injury </li></ul><ul><li>Won a prestigious fellowship to study writing at Stanford on the same day </li></ul><ul><li>Moved to a neighborhood called Perry Lane in Menlo Park, with a bohemian reputation </li></ul><ul><li>Became involved in San Francisco counter-culture </li></ul><ul><li>In a short time, the teetotaling Kesey with a Baptist background was wearing a beard, smoking marijuana, and working on a novel titled Zoo , about the North Beach beat scene. </li></ul>
Beat Culture <ul><li>Centered around writers including Allen Ginsberg (Howl), Jack Kerouac (On The Road), William Burroughs (Naked Lunch) </li></ul><ul><li>Flew in the face of conformist 1950s mainstream culture </li></ul><ul><li>Emphasized non-conformity, spontaneity, open emotion, spirituality, rejection of materialism, experimentation with drugs, openness around sexuality & homosexuality </li></ul>
Government Sponsored Drug Trials & Work in the Psychiatric Ward <ul><li>Volunteers for CIA drug experiments at the Veterans' Hospital in Menlo Park (LSD) </li></ul><ul><li>Takes job on graveyard shift as an aide at the hospital </li></ul><ul><li>Finds that he sympathizes with the patients </li></ul><ul><li>Experiences on the psych. ward inspire his writing of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest </li></ul>
One Flew East, One Flew West, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest <ul><li>Book published in 1962 </li></ul><ul><li>Immediate critical & popular success </li></ul><ul><li>Remains one of the best known novels of the 1960s </li></ul><ul><li>Made Kesey a literary star </li></ul><ul><li>1975 movie won five Academy Awards, further expanded influence </li></ul>The title of the novel is taken from a nursery rhyme that Chief Bromden’s grandmother sang to him when he was a child.
La Honda & The Merry Pranksters <ul><li>Publication of the book allowed him to buy a home in the woods of La Honda </li></ul><ul><li>Motley crew of friends who became known as The Merry Pranksters moved in with him </li></ul><ul><li>Parties (“acid tests”), drugs (psychedelic), and rock & roll (The Grateful Dead, then known as The Warlocks) </li></ul><ul><li>Communal living, psychedelic experimentation, boundary-pushing… these were earliest hippies. </li></ul>
FURTHUR <ul><li>1964 Merry Pranksters cross country road trip </li></ul><ul><li>Psychedelic day-glo school bus </li></ul><ul><li>“ On the bus or off the bus” </li></ul>
Summary <ul><li>When LSD was made illegal, Kesey & The Pranksters fled to Mexico. Upon his return, he did serve a short time in jail. </li></ul><ul><li>He spent the later half of his life on a farm in Oregon with his wife & kids, teaching writing at Univ. of OR. </li></ul><ul><li>Roots of the Hippie Movement: “I was too young to be a beatnik, and too old to be a hippie” </li></ul><ul><li>Other developments of the sixties that we associate with the countercultural movement: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Anti-War Movement - massive protests of the Vietnam War </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Civil Rights Movement - advances against racism & sexism </li></ul></ul>