Not finished yet

There’s a line that appears over and over again throughout Kesey’s Jail Journal. It is a refrain that Ken Kesey’s fans will recognize instantly. Kesey, that merriest of Merry Pranksters and author of the classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Sometimes a Great Notion (one of the finest novels to emerge from 20th-century America), two children’s books and other miscellany, hummed this chorus his entire life. That life ended two years ago. Kesey, like the spirit of the 1960s, is dead.

And this is what makes Viking Press’ publication of Kesey’s Jail Journal all the more significant. It’s easy to dismiss Viking’s decision to publish Kesey’s Day-Glo prison memoirs as a crass marketing move—a vulgar attempt to capitalize on baby-boomer nostalgia for the good old days.

Surely cynics will reject Kesey’s jail notebooks as just that—mere 1960s kitsch, a coffee-table book for the armchair hippie in all of us. The historian no doubt will find the journal a rich cultural artifact, a veritable treasure trove of symbols, beliefs and assumptions that provide a snapshot of an era.

And that’s just dandy—to each their own. But what about the refrain that beckons us through the pages of Kesey’s Jail Journal? What are we to make of it?

In the winter of 1966, Kesey jumped bail on possession charges and fled to Mexico. He returned in the fall, writes Ed McClanahan in a rousing introduction to the journal, crossing the border on horseback with a guitar and the moniker “Singin’ Jimmy Anglund.” The FBI caught up with Kesey two weeks later in the Bay Area. He was arrested and sentenced to six months in an experimental honor camp, located a short hike away from his own La Honda compound. Kesey’s Jail Journal is an account of his time served. A collection of poems, prose and swirling color, the papers were smuggled out of the camp by Kesey’s friend and sidekick Page Browning. (Browning hid Kesey’s pages in cutout compartments constructed within porn magazines.) The journal entries Kesey tried to bring out were mysteriously lost during his discharge procedure.

But however incomplete the journal may be from its original incarnation, Kesey’s refrain comes through loud and clear. Kesey’s mantra, while unique in tone and delivery, is rooted in the 18th-century philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In The Social Contract, Rousseau writes, “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” Or, if you swing from the east, as Kesey was apt to do, in the philosophy of Lao Tzu, who tells us in Tao Te Ching: “Throw away morality and justice, and people will do the right thing.” There’s a certain shared assumption at work here, an assumption that people, if stripped to their tighty-whiteys, just aren’t all that bad.

Historically, however, such assumptions have not sat well with the arbiters of American culture and their lackeys. For example, Sgt. John Wayne, acting warden of camp Pomponio, asked Kesey one day where we would be without laws and systems of punishment. “Who would protect you and your family and children from the murderers and child molesters and lunatics?” he wanted to know.

“Who breathes for us when we sleep?” Kesey responded, only somewhat joking. “Who protects us from the bogeyman?”

Kesey may well be two years dead, but even in death, he manages to rattle the cage. He’s still not finished. His vision, though sadly out of fashion, provides a refreshing alternative to the run-amok jingoism and fear-mongering rhetoric of today. The refrain that infuses Kesey’s Jail Journal hearkens back to a different time—a time when artists, writers, students and even a few dues-paying union members were animated by the idea of liberation. The times, they may have changed, but Kesey’s message remains the same: “Cut the motherfuckers loose.”