In these days of Wikileaks, oversharing on Facebook, and one-click answers from Google, library research has been relegated to the purview of yesteryear historians and diehard scholars, and the arrival of a cache of new information is often met with skepticism, or simply a big yawn. So it was somewhat surprising recently to find myself with two writer friends—Miriam Gershow and Lauren Kessler—reading historic papers in the hushed atmosphere of the University of Oregon’s Special Collections room.
Later, about Sometimes a Great Notion he writes: “It’s a big book. Possibly a damned big book Certainly a remarkable book. Perhaps even a great book. If it fails—and it could, could fail, and still be very close to being a great book—I’ll have still learned a hell of a lot about writing from doing it, enough, I hope, to know better than try something so cumbersome again.”
“highoutofmymind on Peote or however its spelled.”
“Just remember, it isn’t all the drug, it is more that the drug is a key and your mind has a thousand doors most of which are never opened by the ordinary man.”
Kesey wrote and wrote and wrote. The collection contains dozens of books of journals, boxes of letters. Drawings. Poems. Fan letters others wrote to him. He was an avid communicator, and people responded by communicating back to him. Many of the ideas for his novels were explored and cultivated in letters to his friend and frequent correspondent, Ken Babbs. When Kesey wasn’t specifically writing about his fiction, he was tilling the fertile soil of observation from which his novels grew. Some of his letters are typed, but many are written in longhand, his language lush, raw, uncensored, oblivious to the niceties of spelling and grammar, but rich in inventive use of metaphor and syntax. While he is not known as the most prolific of fiction writers, these papers reveal how truly prolific he was.
What stands out above all is Kesey’s nearly super-human energy and his voracious appetite for life. One long handwritten missive to Babbs was done when he was bedridden, with a fever of 102. “The vital life force that sets me so apart from others ebbs slowly from my wasted body.” Vital life force indeed! He wanted to suck life’s proverbial marrow, all of it. “If I can’t live forever then I want an afterlife, I want more not less and my despair is the smoke rising from the fear I can’t have more.”
I never knew Kesey and only saw him once, spotting him and his entourage from high in the bleachers at Mac Court. Now I know what I missed. Reading these primary sources was a visceral experience. The ink and coffee stains, the cross-outs, the misspellings, the scribblings on the backs of envelopes all zinged the man to life. And what a man, a character himself, given to fits of despair and hubris, outpourings of generosity and love, compelled to record as much as he could, a life-guzzling, daredevil of a man who could go head-to-head with any of the fictional characters he wrote, a writer who embraced the seamlessness of life and art.
Editor’s note: For more information about the Ken Kesey Collection and supporting its permanent home at the University of Oregon’s Knight Library, go here.