Meet American writer Daniel Keyes
Daniel Keyes was an American writer and professor best-known for Flowers for Algernon, a science fiction novel that’s sold more than five million copies since its publication in 1966. The novel, originally a novella, is the tragic tale of a science experiment that turns a mentally challenged man named Charlie Gordon into a genius. Keyes’ beloved novel has been translated into 27 different languages, taught to a countless number of students in English classes, and was actually written during Keyes’ time at our very own Wayne State. In honor of that important time, Daniel Keyes spent here, his daughters Hillary and Leslie Keyes have generously set up several scholarships for Wayne State English students. The scholarships, which were awarded for the first time this year, include The Daniel Keyes Family Endowed Scholarship, and the Daniel Keyes Family Graduate Scholarships in Creative Writing.
Flowers for Algernon has a long history, stretching back to Keyes’ days as a premed major at New York University. Although he dreamed of being a writer, Keyes’ parents wanted him to be a doctor. In April 1945, near the end of his first year at NYU, Keyes asked himself during a train ride, “What would happen if it were possible to increase a person’s intelligence?” As he puzzled over the question that day, Keyes went to biology class and dissected a mouse for a lab assignment. It might have seemed trivial during the time, but both experiences would help him write Flowers for Algernon years later.
Other events from Keyes’ life, like the jobs he did growing up, would also influence the novel. To pay his way through college, Keyes waited tables at a restaurant called Meyer’s Goody Shoppe. His bosses were tyrannical, but Keyes stuck with the job, and ended with enough money to cover his first year of tuition. One night, after a boss insulted him for accidentally dropping dishes, Keyes decided he had enough. He quit his job, put school on hold, and with the permission of his parents, joined the U.S. Maritime Service at the age of 17.
During his time in the Service, Keyes doubled as both ship purser and pharmacist mate. When he wasn’t sorting out money or helping out sick sailors, Keyes read books from the ship library and kept a journal. He thought life on the sea would be romantic, but then he had a devastating experience with one of his patients. A drunk sailor drank a quart of lemon extract, collapsed on the deck, and began to choke on his own vomit. Keyes rolled the man on his side and tried giving him artificial respiration, but it didn’t do any good. The loss of this patient devastated Keyes. Once his tour was over, Keyes wanted to stop his medical career right there.
When Keyes returned home in December 1946, he broke the news to his parents. Like his heroes Anton Chekhov and Somerset Maugham, Keyes had tried medicine, and now he was ready to be a writer. His parents were disappointed, but Keyes quickly set to work on his first novel, an autobiographical work about a 17-year-old ship purser. When the novel was rejected by publishers, Keyes decided to take up journalism. He enrolled in a journalism course at NYU, but dropped out after two weeks, thinking that a journalist's job might leave him too tired to work on his fiction.
Keyes was at a bit of a loss. He still aimed to be a writer, but wondered what he could do as a day job. While taking classes at Brooklyn College, Keyes became interested in psychology. As a psychoanalyst, Keyes figured he could not only help people, but better understand them to improve his own writing. He declared psychology as his major, and began to work as a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman to support himself.
In 1950, Keyes finished his bachelor’s degree and enrolled in a postgraduate course at the City College of New York. To become a psychoanalyst, Keyes first had to undergo psychoanalysis himself. He met up with a thick-accented Austrian man every Monday and Friday, spending fifty minutes a session free-associating and thinking over his life. The dull professors and inkblot tests he encountered during this time would later show up again in Flowers for Algernon.
The next couple of years would be a very busy time for Keyes. He got a job editing pulp magazines, and married his wife Aurea Georgina Vazquez in 1952. It was during this time that Keyes began to hone his skills as a writer and get his first stories published. Keyes used a pseudonym for these early pieces, but finally put his own name on Robot Unwanted, a short story about a robot slave that was published in Other Worlds Science Stories.
Due to declining sales in the pulp industry, Keyes was eventually let go from his editing job. He next found work for Stan Lee, the comic industry giant who helped create such characters as Spider-Man and the Hulk. For Lee’s Timely Comics, Keyes submitted story ideas, did freelance assignments, and wrote comic scripts. He also took night classes at Brooklyn College, graduating with a Master’s degree in American Literature. Keyes also got a teaching license in June 1957, which provided him a stable income and freetime to write.
In the fall, Keyes began to teach English at his old high school. He taught two creative writing classes for gifted students, and another two classes for mentally challenged students. The first day of the special class made a great impact on Keyes. As he recounted in his autobiography, at the end of class, a student approached Keyes at his desk. “I know this is a dummy class,” the boy said, “and I wanted to ask you. If I try hard and get smart by the end of the term, will you put me in a regular class? I want to be smart.” The question haunted Keyes. He wanted to write a story about the boy, but eventually shelved the idea to work on another novel, this time about his experiences in fashion photography.
Once the book was finished, Keyes thought the end result was terrible. He became depressed, but his mood improved when the editor of Galaxy magazine called him up and asked for a short story. Flipping through his notes for ideas, Keyes remembered the question he asked himself that April day on the train in 1945: What would happen if it were possible to increase a person’s intelligence? Keyes thought about the student in his special English class, and set to work on the story that would make his writing career, Flowers for Algernon.
So the reader could emphasize with Charlie Gordon, Keyes wrote the story from Charlie’s point of view. Charlie writes about his “progress reports” in a diary format, his grammar, spelling, and thoughts becoming increasingly more refined as the intelligence experiment changes him. When Keyes finished the story, he knew he had a brilliant work on his hands. As popular as Flowers for Algernon is today, however, publishing the story proved to be quite the challenge.
H.L. Gold, the editor of Galaxy, liked the story. But Gold found the downbeat ending problematic, insisting that Charlie should stay a genius. Keyes then decided to take the story to Bob Mills instead, the editor of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Fortunately, while Keyes had to cut about 10,000 words, the original vision of his story was uncompromised. Mills’ magazine published Flowers for Algernon in April 1959 to wide acclaim, winning Keyes the admiration of writers like Isaac Asimov, and ultimately the Hugo Award for the Best Story of 1959.
Even though Flowers for Algernon was a hit, and CBS adapted the story into a teleplay, Keyes couldn’t quit his day job. While he continued teaching and writing at night, a publisher asked for Keyes to expand his short story into a full-length novel. Now that Keyes was a recognized author, he thought about trading his high school teaching job for teaching creative writing at the college level. Looking for a position, Keyes sent out over a hundred inquiries across the country, including Wayne State. The university responded and offered Keyes a four-year lectureship to teach literature and creative writing. Keyes accepted, bought an old car, and set off for Detroit with his family.
Keyes began teaching at Wayne State in 1962. While teaching classes, he also worked on the novel version of Flowers for Algernon. Keyes worried that he might ruin what readers loved about the original story, but he was determined to further develop and explore Charlie’s life. When the first draft was finished after a year of work, Keyes sent it off to his publisher. It was rejected, edited and sent off again, and then rejected a second time. Losing courage, Keyes sent the manuscript to two other publishers, both of whom passed.
The stress to get the novel published was straining. It took such a toll on Keyes that, while walking on State Street to his office one day, he fainted. A month after this, just when it seemed like nobody wanted the novel, Keyes finally got an acceptance letter from the Harcourt publishing firm. Harcourt published Flowers for Algernon in March 1966, but the first reviews appeared earlier. The very first, which Keyes read in the Virginia Kirkus Bulletin, was so negative that Keyes ran to the library bathroom and vomited.
The Virginia Kirkus Bulletin proved to be the lone exception; the other critics were raving. The novel received praise not only from the science fiction community, which gave the book the 1966 Nebula Award for Best Novel, but also Publishers Weekly and The New York Times. The acclaim for the book led Keyes to search for a teaching position with tenure. In 1966, he left Wayne State and joined the English Department of Ohio University, where he taught creative writing until the early 1990s.
Flowers for Algernon sold out it's the first printing of 5,000 copies in only a couple of days. To this day, the book has never been out of print, and has been adapted into movies, plays, and even a musical. After the release of Flowers for Algernon, Keyes went on to write several other books. His novel The Touch was published in 1968, and The Fifth Sally appeared in 1980. The Minds of Billy Milligan, a nonfiction novel about a criminal with 24 personalities, was also quite popular. It sold a million copies in Japan, and Keyes produced a sequel in 1994 called The Milligan Wars. In 2000, Keyes published Algernon, Charlie, and I: A Writer’s Journey, a memoir detailing his life and experiences with Flowers for Algernon. The same year, Keyes was given professor emeritus status at Ohio University. His last published work, a political thriller called The Asylum Prophecies, appeared in 2009.
In 2013, Keyes' wife Aurea passed away, and Keyes died at the age of 86, passing away at his home in Florida on June 15, 2014. The couple are survived by their daughters Leslie and Hillary, the donors of the WSU scholarships in their father's name. Daniel Keyes and his amazing work continue to touch the lives of many readers, and it's truly special that Wayne State was able to play a part during the creation of one of his best books. The scholarships set up in Daniel Keyes' name add to this remarkable relationship, continuing the connection between Keyes' legacy and family and the English Department at Wayne State.
By Tristan Shaw