The Last Book (Collection) I Loved: The Ken Kesey Collection


What would the man who said, “I’d rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph,” think about becoming a museum piece?

The quote, by Ken Kesey, appears in the first chapter of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe’s chronicle of Kesey and his cohorts’ legendary Day-Glo bus journey across America and the widespread explorations of inner space that followed. The quote is Kesey’s Keseyesque (at once enigmatic and concrete) explanation of why he would rather be a man of action–a pioneer in the burgeoning psychedelic movement–than a man of letters: a scribe who records, rather than catalyzes, his epoch’s causes.

Yet, 11 years after the author-turned-prankster’s passing, Kesey’s literary legacy has proved at least as strong as his cultural one.

I was in Eugene, Oregon recently with a countercultural and perceived-to-be deep-pocketed friend, and we got a special peek at the Ken Kesey Collection, the physical manifestation of that literary legacy. Kesey’s archives are housed, somewhat precariously, at the University of Oregon. James Fox, head of Special Collections for the university’s libraries, explained how the Kesey Collection came to be: “Kesey began depositing manuscripts and other materials at the university as early as 1966.” That’s two years after the bus trip, and one year after his arrest for possession of marijuana and subsequent sentence on a California penal farm.

After his release, Kesey and his two families (his biological one and his Merry Prankster one) resettled in Pleasant Hill, Oregon. There was a lot of pranking going on still, Fox hypothesized, so Kesey began dropping documents at his alma mater down the road for safekeeping. But after 46 years of the archives being on unofficial loan from the Kesey family to the university, the loan is set to expire next year, and the fate of the archives is up in the ether. The Kesey Collection is anything but passive, like seismographic readings, or anachronistic, like Kesey once claimed novels had become. The collection bursts with creative energy, and while it must be preserved, it is anything but frozen in time.

The archives include the original typewriter-written, hand-corrected manuscripts of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion, letters to other luminaries, and Kesey’s jail journals, which are poster-sized, rainbow explosions of distorted images and intentionally obscuring words.

In order to continue housing such artifacts, the University of Oregon must match or approximate the price for which the collection has been appraised (around $2 million). The Kesey family would be happy for the university to be the collection’s long-term curator. (I hesitate to use the word “permanent.” Another Kesey quote, “Nothing lasts,” comes to mind.)

But they have to come up with the money first.

Splayed out on a table for my friend and me, next to the only remaining manuscript of Sometimes a Great Notion, were the working notes for the novel: numbered lists and scribbled reminders from which anyone who has ever attempted to write a book should draw strength, for they are the records of the early mental machinations that went into a masterpiece. Toward the end of a two-page list of plot, character and theme points, there is one item that stands out amongst the others as having no overt association with any aspect of the novel. The note says, “The onion.”

In the book there are berries, fish, geese, flapjacks galore, burnt eggs, and the little morsels of chocolate and nuts that Viv sneaks into her men’s lunches, to set them apart from the lunches of ordinary men. There are no memorable scenes or devices involving onions.

Notion is Kesey’s epic “about an Oregon logging family,” but about so much, so much more. It was the first novel I ever read that summed up everything: love, friendship, rivalry, revenge, fathers and sons, curses and destinies, the river-like flow of the present, and the ocean storehouse of time passed and time yet to come. You read a brick-sized book that encapsulates the universe, and you forget that it is the end product of years, sometimes decades, of incremental struggle.

Novels begin with prayer-like scribbles on loose-leaf paper. They are made objects. It is so easy to forget this.

Here is a quote from Kesey, from a Paris Review interview in 1994:

“The answer is never the answer. What’s really interesting is the mystery. If you seek the mystery instead of the answer, you’ll always be seeking. I’ve never seen anybody really find the answer, but they think they have. So they stop thinking. But the job is to seek mystery, evoke mystery, plant a garden in which strange plants grow and mysteries bloom.”

“The onion” may be shorthand for mystery. Layer after layer of ineffable mystery. Effable only in 600 pages, via a piece of technology as complex and fine-tuned as a modernist novel (I go to the bookshelf for my copy of Notion to confirm that it is indeed approximately that many pages, and hidden away in the middle is a hundred-dollar bill, something I must’ve tucked away for a rainy day, choosing this moment to reveal itself. Another gift from Mr. Kesey.).

Recall that old writing-workshop rule of, if you can say it in fewer words, please do. “The onion” is shorthand for what ended up requiring every word–not one of them extraneous–in Notion‘s pages. “The onion” is interlocking layers of mystery, which are brought out with what all those other notes clearly reference: people, places, events–the building blocks which, with the right touch of alchemy, come to life in a work of literature.

Peel back the final layer of an onion, though, and you are left with nothing. There is no boiled-down abstract of the many layers at the center, no pill-sized summation of mystery evoked. That sensation, of being amazed but empty-handed, is not too different from the feeling a reader experiences upon finishing the final sentence of a deeply enjoyed book.

Kesey is a giant, the giant, in the Oregon cultural and literary landscape. While the author claimed that his greatest accomplishment as an artist was not his books but his bus, the bus itself resides on the Kesey family farm, off-limits to the public. Meanwhile, the archives, which still breathe with the bones and blood that went into the books, are potentially open to everyone. It’s not that I am uninspired by Kesey’s work as a prankster–I, too, briefly owned a painted bus in my early twenties–but I wasn’t around for Kesey’s Acid Tests and bus trips. The beauty of books is that you’re always around for them, and they’re always around for you.

So, to view the Kesey Collection was to view a treasure. As an aspiring author, it was an awesome experience to leaf through the physical evidence of such deep-sprung creating. Literary archives remind us that from lists and scribbles can come towering tales, if an author honors his or her early visions as Kesey did. He constructs a narrative so unified, its pieces so interdependent, that, in the finished product, the reader faces a layered, organic sphere.

The Ken Kesey Collection must have an institutional home, to ensure it is properly cared for and made readily accessible. The University of Oregon–where Kesey was an undergraduate in the 1950’s, where he co-authored Caverns in collaboration with a creative writing class in the 1980’s, and less than a dozen miles from the farm where his body is buried–should be it. The Kesey family is currently in negotiations with the university to guarantee rights of first refusal and to confirm the deadline by which the university must purchase the collection.

Should the University of Oregon succeed in its fundraising efforts, it will be a victory for everyone. The days of semi-public viewings for special events and private showings for special visitors will be behind us, and the magic the collection contains will be a simple written request away for students, scholars and, to quote the final sentence of the hallucinatory opening scene of Sometimes a Great Notion, “for anyone else who might care to look.”

Jay Boss Rubin, a native of Portland, Oregon, is a Swahili instructor at Hofstra University. He learned the African language at the University of Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania, then began offering free, Monday-night Swahili lessons at Voodoo Doughnut (where he was also employed as a fryer) in 2004. After several attempts at writing a nonfiction account of his manic years as an activist in Africa and America, he is finally giving it a break and trying his hand at essays and fiction. More from this author →