On the Road

The minute Ken Kesey walked into the Stegner Fellowship Class in Fiction, at Stanford in September of 1960, he made it plain that he meant to be the stud-duck—in today’s parlance, the alpha male. Wallace Stegner was away that year. Malcolm Cowley took the fellowship class for the fall semester; Frank O’Connor taught us in the spring. There were about a dozen of us assembled when Ken made his entrance, and he was hardly the only competitive person in the room. Like stoats in a henhouse, we were poised to rend and tear. Except for the lovely Joanna Ostrow, protected by her elegant Afghan—a dog, not a Mujahideen—we were all young males. Ken plopped himself down at the right hand of Mr. Cowley and got set to read what turned out to be the first chapters of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. This was stud-duckery indeed, for at least two members of the class, Christopher Koch of Tasmania and Peter Beagle, youthful pride of Brooklyn, had already published books and might be thought to have a better claim to read. My own first novel was in press; Jim (James Baker) Hall and Gurney Norman from Kentucky, Dave Godfrey from Canada, and Robin Macdonald from Scotland—who was soon to marry the lovely Joanna—all had arrived with books or parts of books that would in time be published. Mr. Cowley, still an editorial force at Viking—he had helped reel in On the Road—was keeping a paternal eye on Peter Beagle, also a Viking author (as Kesey soon would be). We were primed, and we were anything but slackers: when I lost count in the Nineties the class had produced about sixty books.

So who was this lumberjack, a figure so Paul Bunyanesque that I would not have been surprised to see Babe, the Blue Ox, plod in behind him? When he took out his pages, casually assuming the first position, there was a momentary bristle of egos, powerful enough to cause Malcolm Cowley, seasoned literary warrior that he was, to turn off his hearing aid. I believe he kept it turned off the whole semester, a tactic that allowed him to indulge in comfortable fantasies about how nice and how well educated we were. (I think this because in an interview given years later about our by then famous class he said that I had read all of French literature and had written a thesis on the naughty poetry of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester: in fact I was still struggling through Madame Bovary and have never written a word about Rochester.)

Ken cleared his throat, we bristled, and then relaxed and decided to be bemused, rather than annoyed. Why? Because Ken Kesey was a very winning man, and he won us. In Robertson Davies’s Fifth Business, Mrs. Dempster, the minister’s wife, is caught in the bushes with a tramp; when her husband asked why she did it she said, “…He was very civil, ‘Masa. And he wanted it so badly.”…

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