In our tell-all and show-all age of reality television and Internet saturation, we may need to be reminded that once upon a time a mere book could shock and galvanize the world. Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was certainly such a book. First published on February 1, 1962, it was immediately recognized as both an important literary work and a barbed protest against oppressive authority. The book soon became one of the defining texts of the counterculture that rose up in response to the turmoil of the 1960s, and Time magazine later chose it as one of their 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. A new 50th anniversary hardcover edition, to be released January 19, eschews introductions and epilogues to remain true to the original verison—down to the abstract jacket art by legendary book and album cover designer Paul Bacon.
The novel grew out of Kesey’s personal observations of mental ward patients at the Menlo Park Veterans Hospital, where he worked the graveyard shift and participated in government-sponsored experiments with LSD and other psychedelic drugs while a graduate student at Stanford in the late 1950s. Many who have not read the book are still familiar with the story, thanks to Miloš Forman’s brilliant, faithful 1975 film adaptation. A sterile psychiatric ward ruled with a heavy hand by the indomitable Nurse Ratched is invaded by a patient who turns order into chaos. Randle Patrick McMurphy, sent to the hospital in lieu of a prison work camp, may or may not be crazy—at least not in any diagnosable way. He is, for sure, someone who lives outside the polite margins of society (he revels in a charge of statutory rape), and his arrival on the ward shakes things up as he rallies the other patients and riles Miss Ratched. McMurphy’s fun-loving, anarchic efforts to exert the rights and individuality of the patients crash into the stone wall of the ever-watchful Miss Ratched’s own need to maintain her power.
This prescient novel set in a mental ward still resonates with readers today.
The third pivotal character in the novel is Chief Bromden, the towering, silent, half-Native American patient who narrates the story with near-omniscience. The chief tells us the ward is “like a cartoon world, where the figures are flat and outlined in black, jerking through some kind of goofy story that might be real funny if it weren’t for the cartoon figures being real guys.” And the power of Kesey’s ageless novel rests in large part with those doomed patients—Harding, the latent homosexual, stuttering mama’s boy Billy Bibbitt and others—who have surrendered their independence. The squirm-inducing scenes of group therapy deftly convey Ratched’s stoic sadism.
A prescient novel that tapped into the zeitgeist of the early 1960s, the story of R.P. McMurphy still resonates a half-century later, for issues of the individual vs. authority are eternal. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, his inventive book about Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters, Tom Wolfe quotes the novelist as saying, “I’d rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph.” With One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Kesey managed to be both, agitating the complacency of the age of conformity, then measuring the repercussions of the ripples he helped set in motion.