When Kerouac Met Kesey

Sterling Lord in The American Scholar:

640px-Furthur_02-600x398If the 1950s and ’60s belonged to Jack Kerouac, then the ’60s and ’70s belonged to Ken Kesey. Both of them were my clients, and I liked and admired each of them. Although they differed in age, personality, and writing styles, they overlapped as writers of their times, and there was room for both. Each man was an iconoclastic thinker whose writing and philosophy inspired passionate devotion in his readers.

Before I ever met Kesey, Tom Guinzburg, president of Viking Press, called me one day in 1961 to ask whether Kerouac would write a blurb for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey’s first novel. Tom had bought the book, but Viking had not yet published it. Publishers are always looking for well-known writers to offer positive comments for the book jacket or a press release. A blurb can be particularly helpful if readers feel there is a creative relationship between the two writers. I had no idea whether Kerouac would help, because I couldn’t remember his having blurbed before, but I didn’t think he would be offended if I asked. I thought he might even be flattered. So I told Tom to send me the manuscript. I read it before passing it on to Jack, and I knew right then that I wanted to work with Kesey. His novel was a bold, creative story of what happens in a mental institution—a very daring subject for his time. In the end, Jack did not write a blurb; he felt uncomfortable doing it, perhaps not wanting to get into that arena and all that went with it, and I respected that.

I called Guinzburg to tell him I’d like to represent Kesey, who didn’t have an agent, and then got in touch with Ken. He was delighted, and we started working together.

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