remembering ken kesey

What I fear we have lost here in Oregon is our greatest personification of ‘place,’ and of an Oregon spirit that he captured so perfectly it’s hardly necessary for anyone else to try.  Not that they shouldn’t. It’s just that his death comes at the time when Oregonians need to be aware of that spirit and fight to keep it from slipping away, strip mall by strip mall…”


by marc covert


When Ken Kesey slipped away from life in a Eugene, Oregon, hospital on November 10, it set tongues to wagging and pens to scrawling, both set in motion by a realization that a genuine giant of an icon had passed from the scene. Hurriedly compiled death notices trickled from various newspapers at first, mostly culled from the AP; by Sunday and Monday more thoughtful articles and essays came forth from the New York Times, Salon, and, thankfully, The Oregonian, which ran the story on page one. In them you read of Kesey’s tremendous legacy—two of the true masterpieces of American literature, hell, any literature: One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes A Great Notion; instigator and ringmaster of the Merry Pranksters’ west-to-east voyage aboard the multi-colored bus Further; friendships with Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, Gerry Garcia, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, Wallace Stegner, Wendell Berry; you could tick off many, many more and never come close to naming them all. Mostly they attempted to characterize him as one who “defined the Psychedelic Era” or to somehow tie him to the Beat Generation; of course, Kesey always seemed to delight in skirting such classifications, claiming to be “too young to be a Beatnik and too old to be a hippie.”

I felt a tremendous sense of loss when I heard of his death a scant 24 hours after learning of his illness. As I read the words of Kesey’s longtime friend Ken Babbs in the Saturday Oregonian, asking for positive energy to be directed to Kesey as he lay gravely ill, it was too late to do him any good in this world; he had already died early that morning before the newsprint was dry. I couldn’t shake the sense of loss; I still can’t. As with all great artists, his body of work will live on, but what I fear we have lost here in Oregon is our greatest personification of “place,” and of an Oregon spirit that he captured so perfectly it’s hardly necessary for anyone else to try. Not that they shouldn’t. It’s just that his death comes at the time when Oregonians need to be aware of that spirit and fight to keep it from slipping away, strip mall by strip mall.

That spirit is something I miss when I poke my finger into a farm-raised Atlantic salmon fillet at the Safeway; limp, lifeless, and flaccid, it lacks the springy tension of a fresh slab of wild chinook; it shines out from under cellophane, as out of place as a turd in a punchbowl. I miss that spirit when I see wet-suited knuckleheads on windsurfing boards, scooting across the flat, sluggish surface of the Columbia River at Celilo, some forty feet above the great falls that once teemed with millions of salmon and fed ancient souls for over 10,000 years.

Kesey never hesitated to celebrate the glories of his home state, but he always tempered his praise with high drama and its resulting tragedies as they played out on his characters. The opening lines of Sometimes A Great Notion, to my mind Kesey’s best work, tell the reader in vivid, living detail what awaits in this place where he set his tale:

Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range…come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Auga River…

The first little washes flashing like thick rushing winds through sheep sorrel and clover, ghost fern and nettle, sheering, cutting…forming branches. Then, through bearberry and salmonberry, blueberry and blackberry, the branches crashing into creeks, into streams. Finally, in the foothills, through tamarack and sugar pine, shittim bark and silver spruce—and the green and blue mosaic of Douglas fir—the actual river falls five hundred feet…and look: opens out upon the fields.

But look again, and listen: Kesey isn’t done yet:

Fog is draped over the low branches of vine maple like torn remnants of a gossamer bunting. Fog ravels down from the pine needles. Above, up through the branches, the sky is blue and still and very clear, but the fog is on the land. It creeps down the river and winds around the base of the house, eating at the new yellow-stained planks with a soft white mouth. There is a quiet hiss, not unpleasant, as of something pensively sucking…

Kesey captured that spirit with his choice of loggers as heroes and victims, a choice made in 1964, mind you, a time many look back on now as a sort of boom time for the state. Kesey provided a look into a future that came crashing down on Oregon in the 1980s, collapsing once and for all an artificially shored-up timber and lumber industry. Doomed from the start by naked capitalism, technology, and greed, screwed in roughly equal measures by union bosses and lumber companies, countless logging families and towns were crushed by the breakdown of the industry. Here is Kesey’s old drunken bolt-cutter as Truth, as found in history if one would only take the trouble to look:

“These times? That bomb talk? All horseshit. That depression talk and that other business, that strike business? More horseshit. For twenty years, thirty years, forty years, all th’ way back to the Big War, somebody been sayin’ oh me, the trouble is such, oh my the trouble is so, the trouble is the ray-dio, the trouble is the Republicans, the trouble is the Commy-ists…” He spat on the floor with a pecking motion of his head. “All horseshit. You boys, you boys…Don’t you see it’s just the same plain old horseshit as always?”

Kesey had his detractors too—some would say he never lived up to his full potential, never managed to write anything to compare to Cuckoo’s Nest or Great Notion in the years after they were published; there are also those who don’t exactly look upon the Psychedelic era as anything worth celebrating. To his credit, though, Kesey knew his first two novels were masterpieces, and to my knowledge he never made any attempt to top them or to claim that he ever could. As for psychedelia, well, he never felt compelled to apologize for any of its attendant excesses either. In most of his interviews from the “Drug War” nineties and the young 21st century, when prodded by reporters, he loved to say his modus operandi with drugs had always been to “Just say ‘Thanks.’”

My first exposure to Kesey came at a time when I couldn’t have cared less about things like “spirit” or “place”; my 17-year-old mind was bent on keeping another part of my person bent as often as possible, along with other youthful diversions. It was my sophomore year, 1977, and Central Catholic High School was mounting a production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” literally to a captive audience, as the entire student body was herded to a mandatory performance in our squalid little gym. I’m not sure what it was—the fact that my high school happened to have an uncommonly gifted drama class at that time, or just the surging hormonal hotbed of that 14-to-17-year-old audience—but when Chief Bromden crashed through the window and made his escape, that mass of raging adolescents exploded from their seats, ready to fight back against any and all who would dare to assume authority over us.

The school had to be crazy to put on that show. Asses chapped by the indignities and oppressions heaped on us by the teachers, nuns, priests, and parents who made up our world, howling, hooting, and pumping our fists in the air as we spilled from the gym, surging through the halls and up the stairs, we…well, we took our places in classrooms, library carrels, or the cafeteria, effectively neutralized by the old trick of “divide and conquer.” How easily we were cowed so soon after feeling our blood boil and thrill to Kesey’s characters and words and the lessons they held for us.

And now he’s gone, buried on his Pleasant Hill farm in a psychedelic coffin, next to his son Jed, whose dying young nearly did his father in. Kesey didn’t have a monopoly on the Oregon spirit—many writers have done a fine job of capturing what it is that sets Oregon apart from the rest of the country, for good as well as bad: Barry Lopez in Crossing Open Ground; David James Duncan in The River Why; Clyde Rice in A Heaven in the Eye; irascible old walleyed Terrence O’Donnell in An Arrow in the Earth: General Joel Palmer and the Indians of Oregon, and That Balance So Rare: The Story of Oregon. Maybe this passage by Kim Stafford comes close:

My father said once that everywhere you look the land held you up. I look, and it seems to go on forever. For a time you will accompany it. This is the place where I was born and my brother died. Maybe I have already survived into the family of the place, and the place owns me.

But few writers or artists of any type could hold a candle to Kesey’s skill, and he had a style all his own, not just in writing but in living and loving and knowing where home is, a true Oregon original who never saw any reason to live anywhere else, regardless of his accomplishments. You don’t often see a living icon of your place in the world, your home, and that’s what Kesey was first and foremost, to me anyway. I feel the loss now and don’t anticipate it will go away any time soon. But I do make a point to think of Ken Kesey and just say, “Thanks.”


Originally published:
Issue Fifteen
November 2001


(all photos courtesy of intrepidtrips)


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