January 19, 2012


This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” To commemorate the occasion, Viking Press will release a commemorative edition. James Wolcott notes the event in his essay, “Still Cuckoo After all these Years.” In it, he speculates on the success of this single novel for which the author best known*, one that puts him in a class with Joseph Heller (“Catch-22”), Ralph Ellison (“The Invisible Man”) and Harper Lee, (“To Kill a Mockingbird”): Authors who made their reputations based upon a solitary work.  (“Vanity Fair” 1/2012)

I confess I paused over Wolcott’s observation. When I think of Hemingway, or Poe or Twain, several book titles crowd into my head but not so with any of the aforementioned. The realization posed a question: Is it better to be remembered in literary history as the author of a single classic or to be remembered as the author of several good works?

My initial response was “The more the merrier,” but that is the reflex of greed. Given that there are seven billion of us occupying the planet, to ask for more than one success might be a little excessive.   

For some reason, the teachings of Buddha popped into my head. In his view it is better to savor a solitary chocolate than to gobble down many and miss the scent, textures and flavors of the experience. In similar fashion, I suspect Heller, Ellison and Lee reveled in the success of their single novels with as much rejoicing as did Hemingway, Poe or Twain of their many. There is something to be said for savoring the moment, especially if it’s as long lasting as Kesey’s.

Certainly, I’d be satisfied with his degree of success. Why not? I’m satisfied with my small ones.  

*Kesey also wrote “Sometimes a Great notion” but its popularity was overshadowed by his first novel.