A new book, Conversations with Ken Kesey, offers a fascinating collection of interviews with Ken Kesey '57, arguably Oregon's most colorful literary figure.
In this book, I have attempted to collect interviews that represent the full range of Ken Kesey's time in the public eye: from his first major interview with Gordon Lish, which took place between the publication of his two early novels (and in which we see Kesey at his most writerly), to his last interview reminiscing about the Grateful Dead; from short newspaper pieces to long, in-depth portraits.
Alongside the interviews in this book are two distinctly noninterview pieces. One is a transcription of Kesey's first "trip" at the Menlo Park VA hospital. The other noninterview, excerpted here, is a 1965 lecture, sponsored by the National Defense Education Act, that Kesey gave at the Summer English Institute [a workshop for teachers held at San Francisco State University]. I include this lecture because it's the best articulation of Kesey's decision to turn away from writing during this period. We also get a taste in this talk of the Kesey we read about in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, spurring people on to the present moment, a different way of living and being; a guru, becoming the messiah he called for on his first "trip."
After Sometimes a Great Notion, writing stopped seeming like an adequate means of expression for Kesey, and he began to think of the bus Furthur as his primary artistic product. It's with Neal Cassady at the wheel, a refrigerator full of acid-infused orange juice in the back, and the whole country in front him, that Kesey says, "Novels are a dime a dozen, but there's only one bus Furthur."
Despite the toll of fame and drugs on Kesey, these interviews reveal an author, an artist, a person, of utmost intelligence and compassion, deeply engaged with and committed to the world around him. No matter the occasion, he speaks or writes playfully in parables full of the folksy wisdom he cultivated in Oregon, coming of age amidst a storytelling family.
—Scott F. Parker '04
Adapted with permission from the introduction to Conversations with Ken Kesey
(University Press of Mississippi, 2014)
First let me make it understood I'm not a writer. I haven't written anything since I finished the last drafts of Notion, and I don't honestly look to write anything else. I have a number of reasons for this. Mainly it's because I feel like to continue writing would mean that I would be unable to continue my work. I feel like if I wrote another few novels—I think it's impossible to do this without becoming a kind of Walter Keane. And if you look at the works of a lot of writers, this is what happens. You learn to do a thing, you get so you're able to do it with some ease and some cleverness, and then you begin to do it over and over because you find that there's a market for it, a demand for it. And a lot of times there's more demand than you realize. There's a kind of panic demand, which means as soon as it gets a little tight, hell I can knock out a novel for Esquire, serialize it, do it in six months and then get back to my serious work. I don't think you ever do that. Once you realize that you're writing commercials, that's it. So I've been devoting my time to a lot more serious work like riding around on buses, exploring the inside of various jails, seeing what's going on like that.
I went back and looked over Cuckoo's Nest some time ago and to my surprise, as much as I still feel for the book and the situation, I recognized it as a very elaborate commercial, an advertisement. That if I remove my personal good or bad about what I like or dislike in the world and look at this bones of it, it's this: it's a thing that comes in and says—like the Bayer pain ad that says, "Pain. Pain. Pain." It sells you what I think is a particular pain in the world, then goes on to sell you what I think is the particular alleviation of that pain. I've no way of knowing this is true, I didn't see it happen. I created it; I made it up. I designed, almost before I thought about it, little map points in my head, which we call "plots," and then I took the life that I was seeing out in front of me to go along and meticulously make each of those points. This is what almost all of our literature is doing, what almost all of our movies and television plays are doing right now. They go ahead, and each one picks a particular axe that that writer is trying to grind, and then the adroitness with which he conceals the grinding is how you judge his ability as a writer. Look at Esquire or look at Playboy. You can read the ads in Playboy and it's very obvious that they're aimed at a certain audience, a certain people, to sell a certain product. You can read the short stories in this magazine the same way. Those things are designed to fit a certain length, to hit a certain audience, and to push a certain philosophy. And although it isn't soap or Mennen Skin Bracer, it's still an ad man writing a very complex commercial to sell you something. And it may not have anything to do with what's going on in front of us.
I tried more and more to break away from the usual way of plotting a story, which is you try to figure out a theme, character development. I tried to let it happen. I found that's practically impossible. We've had a system programed into us since we were this big, since we hit the ground, and we are so tightly bound by this that it's almost invisible to each one of us. It's almost impossible to talk nonsense, to hook words together, just word after word after word without making some kind of inductive sense, without following a grammatical line, because going along in front of my conversation right now, going on in front of my words is extending a kind of little number painting that I've been taught ever since I was this big, that grammar must exist in this form, that words must happen in these ways. And within this framework nothing new happens.
I don't think anything really new has happened in writing for hundreds of years, with maybe the exception of Burroughs. I found that no matter how hard I would try to find new areas of my mind or of another person's mind in my writing, I would be walking through a territory and see there was Shakespeare's sign, he did it, he did it, and we've just been doing it over and over again. He came along and set a standard. And practically everything after that time is redoing the same thing, just changing the plots and the emotional interplay just a little bit.
So I found I couldn't sit down and not write. As soon as I pick up a typewriter, as soon as I begin to speak, I begin to form my words into some kind of little birthday cake to sell a particular idea to the people who are listening. When I'm talking to my kids, I aim it toward them. When I'm talking to my folks, I aim it toward them. We do it naturally; it's built into us. And this world, that I was presenting with these words, I began to suspect might not have a whole lot to do with the world of this and of this and of this. So I started going out and taping with tape recorders, and filming. And going back to look over what I had filmed and taped to see if people talked like they do in novels—and they don't. A taped conversation typed up doesn't look like anything you read. A moment-to-moment account of what goes on doesn't look like almost any novel you've ever run across. Hollywood is the main one that I think has been doing this for some time. They have sold us an idea of what an interesting, exciting life looks like. The fabric of it, the way it should feel to us. And anything that doesn't get up to these standards is drab, is boring, so that we continually go through our lives with this number painting up here that we're trying to live up to, that we can't ever make.
I picked up the flute, started trying to play the flute. Now, I'm never going to be a great flute player, and I was playing the flute for two or three reasons. One thing, I liked the sound of it. You blow a flute long enough and you get dizzy. But I found out that no matter how hard I was trying to play this damn flute, pretty soon I was trying to play "Greensleeves." I was dissatisfied with the way my flute was sounding because it didn't sound like it was coming off KPFA. I don't want to play for KPFA. All I want to do is play for myself. Even when I go out completely alone in the desert and just blow this flute for my own reasons, just blow it so that I can hear it coming into my own ear, the note as it leaves me is lost there, other than what I can extract from it for myself. I would be dissatisfied because I couldn't make it sound like this. I had this "Greensleeves" of the mind ahead of me, and I would always be trying to play it, and I could never get there. I could never make it. No matter how much I practice, that will always be out there ahead of me. But I found another thing, that if I stopped trying to play that and just started listening to the note that was coming out of the flute, just put my ear over it like a big umbrella, pretty soon I stopped thinking about what it sounded like to another ear and just listened to the sound. And then I began to play not "Greensleeves," but something that made me feel good and made me feel close to what I think I am and what I think I'm doing. So I tried to achieve kind of the same thing in words. I've been working on this for better than a year now. How can you play the flute of language with such a "Greensleeves" of the mind ahead of us?
From a 1965 speech Kesey delivered at the National Defense Education Act Summer English Institute at San Francisco State University. It was originally broadcast on local radio station KPFA. Used with permission.
Available for Further Inquiry
Knight Library Acquires Kesey Collection
The original drawings, collages, and handwritten texts that make up Kesey's Jail Journal—created over the summer of 1967 as he served five months for marijuana possession—are a particular highlight of Ken Kesey's archives. The panels are much larger and more detailed (and greater in number) than the two dozen that appear in the posthumously published book version. They must be seen in person to be appreciated.
And now they can be, thanks to donations large and small that will keep the Ken Kesey Collection permanently in the University of Oregon's Knight Library. Encompassing more than 100 large boxes of manuscripts, artwork, and correspondence, the collection includes early drafts and revisions of Kesey's novels; dozens of unpublished stories, fragments, and marginalia; and correspondence with other writers, including longtime friend Ken Babbs.
Kesey brought the collection to the UO himself, storing his papers in the library beginning in the late '60s to keep them safe. After his death in 2001, his widow, Faye, added about 30 more boxes of material to the archive. Since then, the papers have been accessible for study with permission from the Kesey family, but as part of the UO's Special Collections and University Archives, they are now available to all visitors—and people are coming from around the country to spend time with them.
The archives preserve an important cultural heritage for the region, as well as providing a resource for scholars. "Kesey is part of the identity of the state," says James Fox, the library's director of special collections and university archives. "He's defined who we are, and we breathe his legacy. The idea that his papers would be anywhere else is unimaginable."
To prevent the unimaginable, Keri Aronson, the library's development officer, raised $400,000 in donations from prominent local businesses such as Voodoo Doughnut, Rogue Ales, and Townshend's Tea Company, and from private donors around the world. "People who had had their lives touched by Kesey—some as readers, some in person—literally emptied their pockets to help the library keep the collection," says Aronson. Last summer, UO president Michael Gottfredson directed about $1 million of university funds to finalize the purchase of the collection, committed to keeping the archives on campus. Those funds were quickly replenished with a donation to cover the acquisition from the Giustina family of Pleasant Hill—Kesey's hometown the last years of his life.
As word of the Kesey collection spreads, more material is arriving all the time. The library continues to organize and preserve these papers, and is putting together traveling exhibits and doing educational outreach to share this treasure as widely as possible. We are not near done hearing from this iconic storyteller.
—Scott F. Parker '04