How Ken Kesey's Iconic Merry Pranksters Reinvented the American Counterculture Road Trip
Fifty years ago, Oregon's iconic novelist launched American counterculture on a long, strange trip.
In July 1964, New York’s Viking Press unleashed a novel from one of the nation’s most promising young writers: Sometimes a Great Notion. The Oregonian proclaimed the 28-year-old Eugene-rooted author Ken Kesey’s work “an extraordinary second novel ... a long, powerful tale of the frontier ruggedness that marks the clash of personalities in the man’s world of the Oregon timberlands.”
The latest incarnation of Further will be on display at the Northwest String Summit music festival, July 17–20 in North Plains
Meanwhile, Kesey himself was tripping on LSD in a 1939 International Harvester bus named “Further,” piloted by Beat legend Neal Cassady, packed with the 13 or so companions Kesey called the Merry Pranksters. The proto-hippie Pranksters had set out in June on a cross-country mission to freak out Middle America, drop mass quantities of acid, and reach the New York World’s Fair.
Sometimes a Great Notion was a painstaking work, still acclaimed as an essential American novel. Kesey’s papers, now archived at the University of Oregon, contain letters, outline notes, and character sketches relating to the novel’s fictional Stamper clan, dating to at least 1961. (One note: “The story—figure out later what it means.” On another time-stained page, Kesey scrawls lyrics to “Good Night, Irene,” the source of the novel’s title.)
The bus trip, an improvisational stunt, would arguably prove more influential.
Tom Wolfe made the journey the subject of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a first-person report Wolfe conducted wearing a three-piece suit with a corduroy tie. (Wolfe would later tell an interviewer, “To try to fit into that scene would have been fatal, perhaps literally fatal.”) The New Journalism landmark would enshrine the Pranksters’ voyage as an iconic moment, when American counterculture burst into mainstream consciousness with a flourish. That pivotal summer, Kesey—then a messianic figure for the nation’s underground—issued a manifesto for every wild road-trip since, from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to The Hangover:
“Here’s what I hope will happen on this trip ... If somebody is an ass-kicker, then that’s what he’s going to do on this trip, kick asses ... Everybody is going to be what they are, and whatever they are, there’s not going to be anything to apologize about. What we are we’re going to wail with on this whole trip.”