The University of Wisconsin Press

Biography / U.S. History / American Studies

It’s All a Kind of Magic
The Young Ken Kesey
Rick Dodgson

“Every page is an illumination. This is a brilliant, landmark biography of the novelist who gave the world One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion.
—Douglas Brinkley, author of Cronkite

Counterculture icon and best-selling author of the anti-authoritarian novels One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Kesey said he was “too young to be a beatnik and too old to be a hippie.” It’s All a Kind of Magic is the first biography of Kesey. It reveals a youthful life of brilliance and eccentricity that encompassed wrestling, writing, farming, magic and ventriloquism, CIA-funded experiments with hallucinatory drugs, and a notable cast of characters that would come to include Wallace Stegner, Larry McMurtry, Tom Wolfe, Neal Cassady, Timothy Leary, the Grateful Dead, and Hunter S. Thompson.

Based on meticulous research and many interviews with friends and family, Rick Dodgson’s biography documents Kesey’s early life, from his time growing up in Oregon through his college years, his first drug experiences, and the writing of his most famous books. While a graduate student in creative writing at Stanford University in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Kesey worked the night shift at the Menlo Park Veterans Administration hospital, where he earned extra money taking LSD and other psychedelic drugs for medical studies. Soon he and his bohemian crowd of friends were using the same substances to conduct their own experiments, exploring the frontiers of their minds and testing the boundaries of their society.

With the success of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey moved to La Honda, California, in the foothills of San Mateo County, creating a scene that Hunter S. Thompson remembered as the “world capital of madness.” There, Kesey and his growing band of Merry Prankster friends began hosting psychedelic parties and living a “hippie” lifestyle before anyone knew what that meant. Tom Wolfe’s book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test mythologized Kesey’s adventures in the 1960s.

Illustrated with rarely seen photographs, It’s All a Kind of Magic depicts a precocious young man brimming with self-confidence and ambition who—through talent, instinct, and fearless spectacle—made his life into a performance, a wild magic act that electrified American and world culture.

Rick Dodgson is associate professor of history at Lakeland College in Wisconsin. English by birth but global by inclination, he has lived much of his life outside the United Kingdom. In his younger years, he worked as a plumber, heating engineer, soccer referee, handyman, Mediterranean deckhand, and teacher of English in a village on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. He is also the creator and producer of Mission to the Stars: A Space Rock Opera. This is his first book.


“Kesey took part in early LSD experimentation, and Dodgson does an excellent job of describing the drug culture of the era. . . . Dodgson’s preface entertainingly explains how he came to write about Kesey for his dissertation, eventually meeting the man himself.”
Publishers Weekly

“A rich, complex, and historically telling portrait of the sixties author and acid luminary Ken Kesey. Dodgson’s research is impeccable, and he captures Kesey's individualistic ethos, physicality, and creative flair.”
—David Farber, author of The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s

“Rick Dodgson has pored over Kesey’s published and unpublished writings, interviews, and historical records to write a colorful biography of this charismatic American character. The resulting portrayal challenges assumptions about Kesey’s place in the counterculture.”
Journal of American History

“Rarely do I say this about an academic book: I did not want to put it down. But that is exactly how I feel about this wonderful biography of Ken Kesey’s early years. . . . Kesey was serious about his work and its larger purpose. But he was also committed to having fun. This book parallels those themes, offering both substantive information and entertainment.”
Oregon Historical Quarterly

“Meticulously traces Kesey from the time his dustbowl Okie parents hightailed it to Oregon . . . to when he wrote his masterpiece. . . . It’s All a Kind of Magic offers a painstaking catalog of detail, one that achieves the most complete portrait of Kesey’s early life to date.”

“It’s through such intimate contact with journals, letters, and manuscript pages that Dodgson is able to provide such a thorough account of Kesey's early life.”
Rain Taxi

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November 2013
LC: 2013010411 PS
256 pp.   6 x 9   19 b/w illus.

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Cloth $26.95 t
ISBN 978-0-299-29510-3
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