Ken Kesey Had a Bone to Pick with The New York Times

If you read one 47-year-old letter to the editor today, make it this one

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Strongly worded rebuttals to 47-year-old New York Times theater reviews rarely merit mention, but we think Ken Kesey's newly unearthed letter to the paper defending the Broadway adaptation of his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest warrants an exception. Here are two reasons:

  • It is written on Kirk Douglas' stationary Douglas was the star and one of the show's producers. If you did not know this before, you will when you see the original copy of the letter, written right at the top in big capital letters.

  • It represents full-throated dissent The middle portions of Kesey's response are only really of interest to rabid fans of the book or people who saw the original production. That's not a problem, since he bookends it with an assault on criticism and defense of his own work that could have been written on an electric typewriter.

You can find the original review in The Times's archives here. It was not kind. Howard Taubman started out, "Do you find the quips, pranks and wiles of the inmates of a mental hospital amusing? If you do, you should have a merry old time at One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." It was clear that Taubman was no fan of the play's comic depiction of mental patients. "When the patients--chronic and acute--get together for work, rest or group therapy there are more laughs than in a college dormitory," he wrote. "As an objective reporter, I should tell you that people were chuckling and roaring at a lot of these gags last night. I should also add that I found them either embarrassing or in appalling taste." But perhaps his worst insult--at least to a writer--came before his roasting of the on-stage performance: "Not having read Ken Kesey's novel, I cannot tell you whether the play is faithful to its source."

When Kesey sat down to make his rejoinder, he started with the topic of criticism, and why he's avoids dignifyng it with a response

The answering of one's critics has always struck me as doing about as much good as fighting crabgrass with manure. Critics generally thrive on the knowledge that their barbs are being felt; best to keep silent and starve them of such attention, let them shrivel and dry, spines turned in.

Then, on his story's basis in fact

While this world may be fantastic, it is not mere fantasy. Neither is it an exaggeration; when I hear of someone accusing the book, or the play, of "exaggerating the bad" I think of my last days at the hospital: the first draft of the book almost finished, I had handed in my letter of resignation (a day before, incidently, I received a letter from the superior nurse advising me I was being discharged for "a lack of interest in the hospital...") and I had only one bit of research left: I wished to try shock treatment to get some idea why the patients thought it so bad. And I did. And I found out. And to those who think it is fictionally exaggerated I only say try it first and see.

Because it can never be as bad in fiction as it is in real life.

The rest is really quite worth the read.

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