Robert Faggen, Professor of Literature at CMC, lounges in a tweed sport coat under a black and white print of a single finger pointing upward. Shelves of books line all sides of his office, and an Allen Ginsberg figurine sits on his desk. He holds a letter from the Guggenheim Foundation, dated April 6, and reads in a calm, casual voice:
“It is my privilege to inform you that you have been named a fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Your grant is recorded in the minutes of the board of trustees as follows…”
The prestigious $25,000 award is granted annually to candidates who have demonstrated achievement in the arts and submit an exceptional project proposal. Faggen had already planned to go on sabbatical next year, but with the award he will be financially free to dedicate his time to a singular passion of his: writing a biography of his friend, legendary “merry prankster” Ken Kesey.
Kesey, who passed away in 2001, was an iconic 60s counterculture figure and the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. What Faggen calls the “rabblerousing” part of Kesey was depicted in Tom Wolfe’s hippie-era novel The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
“The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is the book that made Kesey famous, but it focuses only on a few sensational years of his life,” Faggen said. “Psychedelics is really how people want to tell the Kesey story–that is, acid–but there is much more [to the story].”
Faggen says that his book, the first biography of Kesey ever written, will be different.
“I have a great interest in trying to understand what made him a great artist,” he said, “because ultimately he was a great writer and a great storyteller, and I’m much more interested in that.”
Faggen speaks from first-hand experience. He met Kesey in Los Angeles in 1990 and asked him to speak with his students at CMC in 1991. The following year, Kesey was the CMC graduation commencement speaker.
“We were friends,” Faggen said. “Our conversations were about all different kinds of things, including literature and storytelling. Sometimes it was fun just to listen to him tell stories.”
In fact, Kesey knew that Faggen would someday write the story of his life.
“We spent some time with each other over the years,” Faggen said,“and at one point I asked him if I could do a biography of him, and he said, ‘It isn’t over,’” Faggen recalled.“I said, ‘It’s going to take me a long time to do this,’ and he said, ‘Okay, I’ll think about it.’ About a year later he said, ‘Why don’t we get started on this?’”
Since Kesey’s death, Faggen has been researching and writing with the help of Kesey’s family. He said they have been completely supportive of the project and given him access to Kesey’s personal journals and letters.
Next year Faggen will spend time with Kesey’s family on their farm in Oregon. He will also spend time in Colorado, Texas, and Arkansas conducting research. Faggen says this is crucial to understanding how Kesey came to be an artist.
“He is a farmer-storyteller. There is a real tradition of that—an old tradition,” he said.
Faggen joked that Kesey was a lousy farmer, though. His real gift, Faggen explained, was storytelling.
“With Kesey, it was fun to take a trip to somewhere as simple as a shopping mall to hear him tell the story later about your trip to the shopping mall. What you did at the shopping mall was not as much fun as hearing his story about it,” he said. “He really was an exceptional storyteller.”