Friday, October 21, 2011

One Flew Over The Cukoo's Nest

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, published in 1962, is the product of both the personal experiences of its author, Ken Kesey, and the specific culture in which it was written. Kesey developed the novel while he attended Stanford University as a graduate student in their Creative Writing program as the winner of a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. The novel was partially inspired by Keseys part-time job as an orderly in a Palo Alto veterans hospital. It was also as a student at Stanford where Kesey began participating in experiments for the psychology department that involved the use of LSD. This use of LSD prompted Kesey to have hallucinations while working as an orderly. Kesey hallucinated seeing a large Indian mopping the floors of the hospital; this hallucination prompted Kesey to add the character Chief Bromden as the novels narrator.

Kesey published 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' to great critical and commercial success, but for one reader the factual information that he included from his experiences at the veterans hospital proved problematic. Both Kesey and his publisher, Viking Press, were sued by a plaintiff who claimed that a minor character in the novel, a Red Cross nurse, was based on her and she was unfairly portrayed. The case resulted in revisions to subsequent editions of the book. The Red Cross nurse was changed to the nameless character Public Relation. The plaintiff in the case later became a novelist herself, and wrote a novel set in a California spa. In an ironic twist, she was the subject of a lawsuit from a doctor who claimed that a character in her novel defamed him.

The novel in some sense forms a bridge between the bohemian beatnik movements of the 1950s and the 1960s counterculture movement. Kesey was significantly inspired by the beatnik culture around Stanford, and in the novel Kesey deals with a number of themes that would be significant in the counterculture movement, including notions of freedom from repressive authority and a more liberated view of sexuality. Kesey himself became a highly influential counterculture figure as part of the Merry Pranksters.

Despite the counterculture themes of the novel, 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' was a popular and critical success. Dale Wasserman adapted the novel into a two act play in 1974, while Milos Forman directed a successful film adaptation of the novel the following year. This film, recently named as one of the twenty greatest films by the American Film Institute, featured Jack Nicholson as R.P. McMurphy and Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture and gained awards for Nicholson and Fletcher. It remains only one of three films to sweep the top five categories at the Oscars.

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