Ken Kesey was born in 1935 in La Junta, Colorado. The family moved to Springfield, Oregon, where he attended public school before matriculating and graduating from the University of Oregon. While in college, he pursued drama and athletics. A champion wrestler, he nearly won a place on the U.S. Olympic team. After graduating, he worked for a year, thought about becoming a movie actor and wrote an unpublished novel about college athletics entitled End of Autumn. Kesey married his high-school sweetheart, Faye Haxy, in 1956, and the couple became the parents of three children. In 1958, Kesey began graduate work in creative writing at Stanford University in California, where he studied with several noted writers, including novelist Wallace Stegner. He wrote a second unpublished novel, Zoo, before beginning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the summer of 1960. Around this time, he became a paid volunteer in government-sponsored drug experiments at the Veteran’s Hospital in Menlo Park, California. There he was introduced to psychoactive drugs such as mescaline and LSD, and became a frequent user of them. He was under the influence of these drugs during some of the time he wrote this, his first published novel.
Cuckoo’s Nest enjoyed considerable critical and popular success after its 1962 publication, becoming especially popular in college classes. Kesey himself gained additional notoriety with a group of friends who titled themselves the “Merry Pranksters” and traveled the country promoting the new “counterculture” of social protest and psychedelic drugs. The experiences of Kesey and his friends were chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s noted 1968 work The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. This trip was not without cost, however, for Kesey was arrested in 1965 for drug possession and eventually spent about five months in jail and in the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Honor Camp. Released in 1967, he moved back to Oregon in 1968, taking up residence on a farm in Pleasant Hills. He gave up writing for a period of time before returning to his former art. He also kicked the drug habit successfully, and disavowed experimental drug use, saying “There are dues.” None of his subsequent works received the same attention as Cuckoo’s Nest, which is seen as both a predecessor to and representative of the counterculture movement of the 1960s.