Daniel Keyes, author of the heartbreaking novel Flowers For Algernon, died Sunday at the age of 86. Although Keyes published four additional novels, his debut, Flowers For Algernon, remains his best known and most beloved, selling more than 5 million copies and never going out of print. It was also one of the 100 most frequently challenged books in the ’90s.
Algernon—about a man named Charlie with an IQ of 68, whose intelligence is artificially increased by university researchers—was first published as a short story, which won a Hugo Award in 1960. The expanded novel won a Nebula Award in 1966, and in 1968, it was adapted into the film Charly, which won Cliff Robertson an Oscar for the title role. The book takes the form of Charlie’s diary entries, which at first employ poor spelling and grammar. (“All my life I wantid to be smart and not dumb.”) Charlie gets an experimental operation to make him more intelligent—an idea, Keyes wrote in his memoir, that struck him when he wondered, “What would happen if it were possible to increase a person’s intelligence?” The operation Charlie gets is first performed on a lab rat named Algernon, who becomes smart enough to finish mazes more quickly than Charlie can. Charlie’s hopeful diary entries—which improve in spelling and grammar, only to regress—trail Algernon’s progress, though Charlie eventually realizes that the operation’s results will not be permanent. According to an interview he gave Locus Magazine in 1997, Keyes’ story was rejected five times, including once by an editor who demanded a happy ending.
Prior to writing novels and non-fiction, Keyes’ worked in fashion photography and comics writing, including a stint working for Stan Lee. He also had a degree in psychology, which informed much of his science-fiction writing, often probing the moral questions of intelligence and agency.