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Ken Kesey papers

Identifier: Ax 279

Scope and Contents

The Ken Kesey papers document his work as a novelist, essayist, short story author, and playwright, as well as his public life as figure who embodied the spirit of American counterculture movements in the 1960s. This collection contains correspondence, manuscripts and publications, personal journals and artwork, event and tour material, press clippings, personal memorabilia, and creative works by members of Kesey’s artistic circle, the Merry Pranksters. While this collection is primarily representative of Kesey’s public life as both a writer and counterculture icon, some more personal artifacts, including journals and family mementos, have been preserved as part of this collection.

The correspondence series contains incoming and outgoing general and business correspondence, fan letters, phone logs, email printouts, and address books. General correspondence includes letters to and from family, friends, colleagues, and associates, as well as letters collected from Kesey’s time in prison.

The writing for publication series documents Kesey’s work as a novelist, essayist, short story author, and playwright. This series includes materials related to Kesey’s novels; collections of short works; short stories and magazine articles; stage, film, and radio productions; as well as general notes, story fragments, and outlines unrelated to larger works.

The journals and artwork series contains artwork, chiefly ink sketches, by Ken Kesey, as well as personal journals. Journals in this series are restricted until until 2063 by request of the Kesey family.

The events, tours, and publicity series documents Ken Kesey’s public life as an author and counterculture figure. Materials in this series include information about Kesey’s speaking engagements, materials related to book tours and artistic gatherings organized by Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, press clippings and interview transcripts, and awards.

The personal papers and memorabilia series contains student materials from Kesey’s time at the University of Oregon, photographs, audiovisual material, personal artifacts, ephemera, obituaries, condolence letters, and memorials. A small amount of material related to the original “Futher” bus tour is included in this series.

The writings of others series contains manuscripts, academic theses, dissertations, and published materials sent to Kesey by other authors, including Kesey’s friend and writing partner Ken Babbs and other Merry Pranksters.


  • circa 1953-2012
  • Majority of material found within circa 1953-2001


Conditions Governing Access note

Collection is open to the public. Collection must be used in Special Collections and University Archives Reading Room. Collection or parts of collection may be stored offsite. Please contact Special Collections and University Archives in advance of your visit to allow for transportation time. Collection includes sound recordings, moving images, and digital files to which access is restricted. Access to these materials is governed by repository policy and may require the production of listening or viewing copies. Researchers requiring access must notify Special Collections and University Archives in advance and pay fees for reproduction services as necessary. All personal journals in series 3 of the Ken Kesey papers have been restricted until 2063 by request of the Kesey family. Personal legal documents have been restricted to comply with attorney-client privilege. \n\nCollection must be used in Special Collections and University Archives Reading Room

Conditions Governing Use note

Property rights reside with Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries. Copyright resides with the creators of the documents or their heirs. No individual allowed to view the Kesey Collection shall be allowed to photograph or otherwise copy the Kesey Collection in any manner whatsoever, for as long as Kesey LLC maintains the copyright ownership of the material. All requests for permission to publish collection materials must be submitted to Special Collections and University Archives. The reader must also obtain permission of the copyright holder.

Biographical / Historical

Ken Kesey was an internationally renowned Oregonian novelist, essayist, and counterculture figure most famous for his book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and his psychedelic cross-country bus tour immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Ken Elton Kesey was born on September 17, 1935 in La Junta, Colorado. In 1946, his family moved to Springfield, Oregon where he graduated from Springfield High School. Kesey attended the University of Oregon where he studied journalism and communication and was a champion wrestler. He graduated from the University of Oregon in 1957. In 1956, while still a student, Kesey married Norma Faye Haxby. Together they had three children, Jed, Zane, and Shannon.

After graduating from the University of Oregon. Kesey was encouraged by his former literature professor, James B. Hall, to apply for a Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship. This award enabled him to continue his education in creative writing. In 1958, Kesey enrolled at the Stanford University Creative Writing Center under the direction of Wallace Stegner. While at Stanford, Kesey formed friendships with fellow writers, most notably Ken Babbs who would participate in many of Kesey’s creative projects, and would co-author his final novel Last Go Around.

During this time, Kesey also became part of the bohemian social milieu of Palo Alto’s Perry Lane where, through Stanford psychology graduate student Vik Lovell, he became aware of experiments with psychoactive drugs being conducted at the Veterans Hospital in Menlo Park. Kesey became part of these experiments as a paid volunteer, and later became an employee of the hospital. Both experiences would have a profound impact on his art and writing, particularly the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Kesey published his first and most famous work One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1962, and quickly followed it with another bestseller, Sometimes a Great Notion, in 1964. That year marked the beginning of a writing hiatus that would last until 1971. Instead of producing another novel, Kesey incorporated himself as Intrepid Trips, Inc. and purchased a 1939 International school bus, dubbed “Further.” He and his artistic circle, first cultivated in Perry Lane and now settled at Kesey’s home in La Honda, California, began the cross country road trip to the New York World’s Fair that would become the basis for Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and cement Kesey’s reputation as a counterculture icon. After Kesey and “his band of Merry Pranksters” returned to La Honda in 1965, they busied themselves by editing film footage of the bus trip, and organizing parties known as the Acid Tests. The Grateful Dead served as the house band for many of these gatherings.

In 1966, to escape a five-year prison sentence for possession of marijuana, Kesey faked his own death and fled to Mexico. After several weeks, when word of his whereabouts leaked to the press, Kesey was joined by his family and several Pranksters. Kesey’s youngest daughter, Sunshine, was born to him and Merry Prankster Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Adams Garcia during this nine-month exile. Upon his return to the United States, Kesey was convicted of drug possession and spent six months in San Mateo County Jail and the San Mateo County Sherriff’s Honor Camp. Upon his release in 1968, Kesey and his family moved back to Oregon, settling on a farm in Pleasant Hill near his childhood home of Springfield.

Kesey began writing again in 1971, coediting the Last Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog with Paul Krassner. In 1973, Kesey published Kesey’s Garage Sale, a collection of his works including the screenplay for Over the Border, a fictionalized account of his sojourn to Mexico. Kesey continued to publish short stories and essays for the next ten years, culminating in 1986’s Demon Box, a collection of short fiction and non-fiction pieces, many of which had appeared in other publications including Kesey’s own literary journal Spit In the Ocean. In 1989, Kesey published Caverns, his first novel since Sometimes a Great Notion, which was co-written with University of Oregon graduate students and published under the pseudonym O.U. Levon.

In the 1980s and 90s, Kesey continued to write, make public appearances, perform, and organize gatherings of Pranksters and fans in the spirit of the original “Further” bus trip and the Acid Tests. Kesey wrote two children’s books, Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear and The Sea Lion, and published his screenplay The Further Inquiry and his final two novels, Sailor Song and Last Go Around during this time.

Kesey suffered a stroke in 1997, but recovered to perform as the Wizard of Oz in his play Twister: A Ritual Reality in Three Quarters Plus Overtime If Necessary. He died on November 10, 2001 after suffering postoperative complications from an attempt to remove a liver tumor. His Jail Journals, a psychedelically illustrated account of his time at the San Mateo County Sherriff’s Honor Camp, were posthumously published in 2003.

Sources: Leeds, Barry H. “Biography: The Hallucinogenic Outlaw.” In Ken Kesey, 1-12. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1981. McClanahan, Ed. “Cut ‘em Loose.” In Kesey’s Jail Journal, edited by David Stanford, ix-xiii. New York: Viking, 2003. Parker, Scott F. ed. Conversations with Ken Kesey. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014.


94.05 linear feet (60 containers (44 record storage boxes, 2 manuscript boxes, 1 half-manuscript box, 8 flat boxes, 4 custom phase boxes, 1 square tube))

Language of Materials



Ken Kesey was an internationally renowned Oregonian novelist, essayist, and counterculture figure most famous for his book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and his psychedelic cross-country bus tour immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. His collection contains correspondence, manuscripts and publications, personal journals and artwork, event and tour material, press clippings, personal memorabilia, and creative works by members of his artistic circle, the Merry Pranksters.


The Ken Kesey Papers are arranged in six series:

1. Correspondence, 1956-2012 2. Writing for publication, circa 1953-2003 3. Journals and artwork, 1954-2001 4. Events, tours and publicity, 1957-2001 5. Personal papers and memorabilia, circa 1950s-2005 6. Writings of others, 1959-2006

Series 1. Correspondence is arranged in six subseries: 1.1. General correspondence, 1956-2012 1.2. Business correspondence, 1962-1999 1.3. Fan letters, 1968-2001 1.4. Phone logs and address books, circa 1980s-1990s 1.5. Email printouts, 1995-2001

Series 2. Writing for publication is arranged in five subseries:

2.1. Novels, 1959-2003 2.2. Collections, 1964-2003 2.3. Short stories and magazine articles, circa 1953-2001 2.4. Stage, film, and radio productions, circa 1953-1999 2.5. Fragments, notes, and outlines, circa 1953-2001

Series 3. Journals and artwork is arranged chronologically. Personal journals in this series are closed until 2063 by request of the Kesey family.

Series 4. Events, tours, and publicity is arranged in four subseries:

4.1. Speaking engagements, 1972-2001 4.2. Tours and gatherings, 1970-1997 4.3. Interviews and press, 1957-2001 4.4. Awards, 1978-1997 Series 5. Personal papers and memorabilia is arranged in four subseries:

5.1. Photographs and audio visual materials, circa 1950s-1997 5.2. Family papers and artifacts, circa 1950s-2000 5.3. Legal documents, 1970, 1983-1985 5.4. Obituaries, condolence letters, and memorials, 2001-2005

Series 6. Writings of others is arranged in three subseries:

6.1. Manuscripts, circa 1950s-20002 6.2. Academic thesis and dissertations, circa 1970s-2006 6.3. Published works, 1961-2000

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Deposited by Ken Kesey in 1970. Purchased from Kesey LLC in 2013.

Existence and Location of Copies

Sound recordings in this collection are available as digital audio files from Special Collections & University Archives.

Separated Materials

Duplicate publications were individually cataloged as part of the Oregon collection, located in Special Collections and University Archives.

Processing Information note

This collection was originally processed by staff in 1970. Accruals processed, and revisions to description made by Alexandra M. Bisio and Liliya Benz, 2018.

Guide to the Ken Kesey Papers
Complete Description
Alexandra M. Bisio and Liliya Benz
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the University of Oregon Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives Repository

1299 University of Oregon
Eugene OR 97403-1299 USA