The idea of having the power of taming an unknown, rugged territory has always been a significant goal in American society. The early American settlers came over to this continent to find a better home with the intention to conquer and make their surroundings fit their needs. In an interview with Ken Kesey, he said:
What I explore in all my work: wilderness. Settlers on this continent from the beginning have been seeking wilderness and its wilderness. The explorers and pioneers sought that wilderness because they could sense that in Europe everything had become locked in tight. . . .When we got here there was a sense of possibilities and new direction and it had to do with wilderness. (Faggen 22)
In Kesey’s novels, this American feeling of confidence in oneself to dominate and control one’s surroundings is a continuing theme. Kesey is predominately known as an author of the Beatnik generation. He was very influential as a leader of the psychedelic movement on the West Coast, and drugs played an important part in his life and often influenced his writing.
What I explore in all my work: wilderness.
His first published novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, was extremely popular and is often thought of as one of the great books demonstrating the social values of the Beatniks. In this novel, the protagonist, R.P. McMurphy, is a con man who fakes mental illness to enter a psychiatric hospital to escape working at a strenuous state correction farm. He goes there with the idea that this will be an easy life and he’ll make a profit. Miss Ratched, known as the Big Nurse, is the dictating power on the ward, and the place runs in exact order under her control. The two engage in a continual power struggle. McMurphy encourages the patients to rebel against her authority for his own self-interest as well as for the theirs. He makes it his personal goal to overthrow her rule and uses whatever means he can. He has the intention of taking control of the ward and conquering the ruler, and uses the ward meetings to get the other patients to vote against her policies. Once McMurphy tries to get the daily schedule changed so the World Series would be on during the TV hour. With a great effort, he persuades the patients to stand up against her and switch the time slots the way they want, but their immense fear of her makes it difficult for McMurphy to take control.
Using his con man skills to weaken her rule, McMurphy brings gambling to the ward, betting for the patients money and cigarettes. He is able to take much of their money fairly, without the Big Nurse being able to stop him. He bets that he will be able to make her lose her cool within a week. He tells the patients, . . .a bee in her butt, a burr in her bloomers. Get her goal. Bug her till she comes apart at those neat little seams, and shows, just one time, she ain’t so unbeatable as you think. On week. I’ll let you be the judge whether I win or not. ( 72) He comes very close by upsetting her, and making a fool of her. He plays games such as innocently offering to help and them getting her all upset and flustered. He does lose this bet but he proves his point that he is clever enough to get to her. This is an important step in winning the patients’ confidence in McMurphy and their support of him.
The Big Nurse shows society’s inhumanity in dealing with the insane by locking them up out of its sight. Kesey has McMurphy set out on the goal to conquer the villain and take control for himself. For him, the end justifies the means, even if he sacrifices himself for the cause. He sees the ward as a challenging wilderness that he can tame in order to accommodate it to his own needs.
…a bee in her butt, a burr in her bloomers.
-McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest
Kesey’s second novel is Sometimes A Great Notion. It is a difficult novel to comprehend because it quickly shifts from first to third person. The book blends past and present(Granville 277), switching story lines by using italics, capitals, and parentheses. Much of it is written in stream of consciousness. The novel takes place on the Oregon coast, where the Stampers are a large logging family who own their business. They have a rugged, strenuous life with few modern conveniences. Hank Stamper runs most of the business with Joe Ben Stamper, and together they work excruciatingly hard to pull through their struggles. They are the model example of Americans surviving the elements in an attempt to conquer the wilderness.
The Stampers isolate themselves from the rest of the town; only family members can work for the company. Theirs is a competitive company, and Hank prides himself on being the most successful of them all. He makes a deal with Wokonda Company to ship a huge order of lumber. The town is unaware of it until the Stampers have almost completed the deal. This contract puts the rest of the loggers, consisting of most of the town, out of business. Much of the book is about how the townspeople try to persuade Hank to cut off the deal. In one argument, the towns leader says, …I know you can’t possibly do such a thing, Hank, not and still call yourself a Christian. There is an entire town off there depending on you. An en-tire town, your home town, the fellows you grew up with, played ball with… an’ their wives an’ kids! (360).
He refuses to back down and the town cuts off ties with him. He suffers severe losses trying to complete the contract with only a few men, even losing his closest family member, Joe Ben, in the struggle. Learning that he, alone, cannot pull off such a large operation, he is ultimatly unsuccessful. Torrential rain causes constant flooding of the river, and makes his life frustrating and challenging. Throughout the book, the river is always Hank’s potential enemy. He is constantly checking the bank to see how much the water had risen.
…Hank was worried that the boats might be swept loose from their moorings, as they had been last year,…Before going to bed, he put on rubber boots over his pajamas and pulled on a poncho and went out with a lantern to check….Hank noted the water’s height on the marker at the dock–black water swirling at the number five; five feet, then, above the normal high tide mark… (105-106)
Hank is constantly haunted by paranoia about the river rising and destroying his belongings. This is his ongoing conflict against nature, his attempt to confine and control the river.
Another of Kesey’s books Kesey’s Garage Sale is a group project by him and other authors. This book portrays Kesey’s ideas of the 1960’s counterculture movement and a desire for a broadened consciousness. It is not a very popular work, and most reviewers saw the book as a thrown together combination of recycled spare parts designed to make money (Tanner 104). Many of the characters in the work are based on Kesey and his life experiences. The longest piece, a screenplay, Over the Border, is an exaggerated version of his flight to Mexico to escape prosecution for his second drug arrest.
The main character, Devlin Deboree, is modeled after Kesey, who is joined by a group called Animal Friends, modeled on Kesey’s followers, the Merry Pranksters. They both lead their groups into frequent experiments toward discovering new dimensions of consciousness. Never satisfied staying the same, Deboree and his Friends must constantly try new paths and they’re confident in finding what they are searching for. Deboree makes this journey with the confidence in being strong and becoming successful. He goes into Mexico to live a better life, using his surroundings to accommodate his needs. In the hope of being free from the legal system, he flees to another country just as the first immigrants to America were seeking freedom from religious prosecution and a better life.
In this screenplay, Kesey evaluates his leadership. It is fascinating and informative document of Kesey’s search for new awareness and transcendental experience (Tanner 111). In Kesey’s collection, the realization of the revolution of consciousness has gone sour, as it was hindered by too idealistic motives and by the …corroding impulses to power and vengeance… (Tanner 112).
Tom Wolfe’s documentary on Ken Kesey and his group of Merry Pranksters, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is about Kesey’s real life and how his social life affected his writing. He describes Kesey’s avid use of LSD and marijuana. Surrounded by his Pranksters,with drugs being used all around him, Kesey is a leader of the psychedelic revolution in California. The drugs do have a marked affect on his writing, and he has often said he was high while writing parts of his novels. Drugs have also distracted him from his writing, and there had always been a conflict between the two; eventually he stopped writing and remained active as a drug user.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test reveals the life Kesey lived, as Wolfe writes about Kesey and his group taking a trip across the United States to New York City in a bus painted exotically with day-glo colors. Being the first Beats to make such a statement to the nation, they are confident in entering the uncharted adventure to make new discoveries about themselves. As Wolfe wrote of the trip, Kesey was already talking about how writing was an old-fashioned and artificial form…(91). The idea of the journey was to further expand their consciousness by making a journey to bring their revolution to New York. They were confident in g successfully spreading their ideas. This trip had a major affect in making the transition from the Beatnik generation to the hippies. After they traveled across the country in the outlandish bus, other similar vehicles became popular. Tom Wolfe illustrates the great influences Kesey had on the nation and the promotion of psychedelics. Kesey persists in his own life to take on new challenges, confident in his ability to change things to the way that suits him.
Ken Kesey’s works all relate to the early American ideal of being able to come to a completely new place and take control. Taming the wild and rugged environment and making it adjust to one’s desires was an important part in his characters’ lives. In Cuckoo’s Nest McMurphy could end the Big Nurse’s control and live his own way. Like McMurphy, In Great Notion, Hank and Joe Ben do tame the wilderness but pay a severe price for it. In Garage Sale, Kesey portrays his own journey to lead the nation to new psychedelic stages of consciousness. In Acid Test, Kesey’s road trip across the United States shows his determination and ability to lead people to new phases in history and his confidence in achieving his goal. He says:
It’s the same old wilderness, just no longer up on that hill or around that bend, or in that gully. It’s because there are no more hills and gullies that hollow is there, and you’ve got to explore the hollow with faith. If you don’t have faith that there is something down there, pretty soon when you’re in the hollow, you begin to get scared and start shaking…. Real warriors like William Burroughs or Leonard Cohen or Wallace Stevens examine the hollow as well as anybody; they get in there, look far into the dark, and yet come out with poetry. (qtd. in Faggen 24)
Ken Kesey continues to illustrate the American ideal of conquering new territory and transforming it into the way that suits them best. He shows how important determination to take the dominating role affects Americans lives. He is an author of the Beatnik generation and throughout his lifetime made significant social contributions. He led the country from Beats to Hippies with his influence through psychedelic drugs.