Ken Kesey bio: Journey from farm kid to Merry Prankster
Rick Dodgson’s “It’s All a Kind of Magic: the Young Ken Kesey” tells the improbable true story of an all-American kid from Oregon who turned into an icon of the counterculture.
Special to The Seattle Times
“It’s All a Kind of Magic: the Young Ken Kesey”
by Rick Dodgson
University of Wisconsin Press, 250 pp., $26.95
While still in his 20s, Ken Kesey rocked the American literary world with two groundbreaking novels, 1962’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Sometimes a Great Notion” two years later. He followed that by jump-starting 1960s counterculture with his band of Merry Pranksters, famous for LSD-fueled cross-country bus trips and psychedelic “Acid Test” parties up and down the West Coast.
By 1966, when the counterculture he helped inspire was taking off, Kesey was on the lam in Mexico ducking two drug busts.
Quite a résumé for a farm kid from Oregon.
In “It’s All a Kind of Magic,” Rick Dodgson traces Kesey’s dramatic story from his rural boyhood through early literary success up to the eve of his magical bus trip. That episode was evocatively told in Tom Wolfe’s best-seller “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”
Dodgson’s is a less fanciful, more scrupulous biography. He spent time with Kesey and his family before the novelist’s death in 2001 and had access to files, manuscripts and correspondence. But this is far from a scholarly biography. How could it be with Kesey for a subject? It is a compelling, well-researched and fluidly written portrait of an American original.
Surprisingly, what comes through from Kesey’s early years is the unlikelihood that he would become a ’60s icon.
Growing up in rural Oregon, Ken Kesey was an all-American kid. A star athlete, excelling in wresting and football, an avid participant in school plays, a self-taught magician and natural showman. He became good enough at magic that his shows paid part of his college tuition.
He was a jock, frat man and teetotaler during his undergraduate years at the University of Oregon. He married his hometown sweetheart in his junior year.
This, of course, is all on the surface. Dodgson makes a sound case that Kesey’s fascination with magic and performance — and tremendous drive — are key to his later literary success and counterculture status.
In college, Kesey was more interested in an acting career than a literary one. Two summers spent trying to make it in Hollywood disabused him of that idea. But pounding out unproduced screenplays while there developed his discipline as a writer.
When he entered the graduate writing program at Stanford and took up residence on Perry Lane, a “quirky bohemian oasis” of single-story cottages just off campus, Kesey’s world took a turn. Early, government-funded psychotropic drug experiments at the VA Hospital in Menlo Park opened him to the mind-altering possibilities of LSD. And night work there introduced him to mental patients who would inspire many of the characters in “Cuckoo’s Nest.”
The fascinating story of Kesey’s emergence into the larger-than-life character we’ve come to know takes up the second half of Dodgson’s excellent biography.
The Beats were reigning just north in San Francisco, and Timothy Leary was conducting LSD experiments at Harvard. Dodgson, for his part, downplays Kesey’s role as “the Pied Piper of Acid.”
In many ways, the times would conspire, writes Dodgson, to make “Kesey the somewhat unlikely public face of a social movement from which he actually felt quite removed.”
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