Kesey and Plath: A New American Myth

Kesey and Plath: A New American Myth

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Kesey and Plath: A New American Myth

 

A mutual friend sets up Ken Kesey and Sylvia Plath on a blind date. They meet in a Boston restaurant and discover they're both writers. Describe the ensuing conversation.

Sept. 3, 1955 (from Sylvia's diary)

It must have been some terrible mistake. Mother set me up with a certain Ken Kesey, a friend of a friend of the family. Terrible! We met at a restaurant on Harvard Square and it went downhill from there. I came home alright, but barely. I guess I can start from the beginning... Ken is large and very open with his body and gestures. He's from California, which could explain that. He dressed very casually and he had a crazy look in his eyes when he saw me. I don't know if he was happy to be there either. Apparently he goes to Stanford and is studying creative writing. I asked him about his writing and he started a whole speech on psychiatric wards and medications. I didn't want to hear a word about psychiatric wards, but he certainly got my interest.

 

He volunteers to do experiments for money. I can't imagine going through what I went through voluntarily... I did venture to ask him why he was writing about hospitals and he looked very closely at me and said, "You've been there. I know." And he did. He was seeing inside me, all the way inside, and it was the most uncomfortable silence I've ever had. I mumbled an accusation and as soon as it came out, I knew my mother hadn't told him about all that. Dinner went alright, barring the conversation about hospitals. We walked around the square and by the river for awhile and then he invited me to his hotel room and I said no, but I really wanted to leave with him. I've been so bottled up for days... I wanted to do something different. We sat down facing Cambridge and he looked at me again, intently and laughed...

 

 

"It's all black, isn't it? Then everything shuts down." Ken looked off toward the river. He started to laugh again.

"I don't know what you're talking about." Sylvia put her knees closer together. Uncomfortable.

"When they throw the switch. When it all shakes and then you black out. Then you can't think for days.

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It's the same. It's all about CONTROL. Them trying to control you, you trying to control them. It's control." He looked back at her and grinned. "I found a way to get my own control."

"Why are you telling me this?"

"You write. You're smart. I haven't talked to a woman in weeks. Are you sure you don't want to come back to my place?"

"Sorry."

"You prim little Boston girl. You're nothing like the girls in California."

"Why, what are they like?"

"Different." He paused and took something out of his pocket. The first acid test. "Here, I got this from the hospital. You seem a little uptight."

Sylvia felt uptight, but she didn't admit it. "What is that?"

"Nothing. Everything. Come on."

Sylvia remembered pills like this in her mother's medicine chest. "Is this Valium?"

"Yeah, sure, try it." Kesey was in control now.

It was the 50s, Sylvia was a woman, she didn't think twice. She quickly swallowed the pill down without water. He's a friend of the family after all... And out of her mouth came these words...

"I am a lantern--

My head a moon

Of Japanese paper, my gold beaten skin

Infinitely delicate and infinitely expensive.

Does not my heat astound you. And my light.

All by myself I am a huge camellia

Glowing and coming and going, flush on flush."

This girl has come up roses, thought Kesey as he popped his own pills.

Plath continued on the lawn facing Harvard from the East.

"I think I am going up,

I think I may rise--

The beads of hot metal fly, and I, love, I

Am a pure acetylene

Virgin

Attended by roses,

By kisses, by cherubim,

By whatever these pink things mean.

Not you, nor him.

Kesey heard voices from the future. "Kesey was the magnet and the strength, the man in both worlds. The Angels respected him and they weren't about to screw him around" (Wolfe 179).

*****

"That stuff is evil Ken. Evil... Why don't we write it down?" Sylvia was sprawled on the lawn, she looked at the Boston sky.

Kesey, still high, "What's it like though? Why isn't the world in the bird's nest there?"

"I think it is. It's all a test though. The blackness and the world. It's a test for us."

"You don't know what you're talking about." Ken was sprawled on the bench, used to this feeling. "I'm running this game." And you know why, he thought, you know why?

"Why?" Sylvia caught on to his thoughts. She knew why. Across the street, she turned, she saw the gates of Harvard, the gates of better writers than her. "They are better." More respected. Not guest editors for Mademoiselle. "Were you ever an editor for Time Ken?"

"Kesey was a great many things."

"Of course he was..." And Plath knew why. "You know what it's like being me? You know what it's really like?"

Ken looked at the bricks in the wall. "What's it like?"

"It's like being under a bell jar, in an experiment. It's like being in chemistry class."

"What's like chemistry class?" Ken hadn't paid much attention in chemistry.

"Being a girl. You wouldn't understand. You get everything more. People are going to know who you are someday. No one will ever know me." Plath laid down while her pleated skirt smeared the wet ground.

Kesey was on a different trip. "Except that bird. And it's nest. They know us."

"I'm stuck in this body. Stuck stuck stuck. It's black and burned and terrible and lucid. Being in this body with breasts," Ken's eyes lit up. Sylvia continued. She found her words tumbled out. She couldn't stop them. "Being in this burned charred body is like a big test. Some sort of test. Like a litmus test. Or no, an acid test. An acid test like in chemistry class. Burn right through my skin until there's nothing left." Sylvia got up to walk away, but quickly tumbled down again.

"An acid test, huh?" Kesey started thinking.

 
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