15 Facts About Flowers for Algernon

Erin McCarthy
Erin McCarthy / Erin McCarthy

Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon is a poignant science-fiction novel that has won critical acclaim and popularity around the globe. Published in 1966 (after having first existed as a short story), Flowers for Algernon tells the heartbreaking story of Charlie Gordon, a 32-year-old man whose IQ goes from 68 to 185 thanks to an experimental brain surgery. The experience becomes traumatic for this human test subject as he learns things he can’t forget about his past, present, and future. (Spoilers below!)

1. Flowers For Algernon is an epistolary novel.

Charlie’s story is told through progress reports he writes at the request of the scientific research team. Along with giving the novella a first-person-perspective, this diary-like approach reveals how Charlie is progressing emotionally and intellectually over the course of the experiment. Early on, his entries are full of misspellings, like “progris riport.” Later, his spelling improves and his descriptions of events become far more involved, even sharing his misgivings about the experiment.

2. The title Flowers For Algernon refers to a mouse.

Algernon is a white mouse who underwent the experimental brain surgery before Charlie joined the human trial. As they are going through a similar experience, Charlie comes to feel deeply bonded to the little critter. When the mouse backslides, suffers, then dies as a result of the experiment, Charlie mourns not only for Algernon (with flowers on a backyard grave) but also for what he knows lies ahead for himself.

3. Daniel Keyes had a variety of jobs before becoming a novelist.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, on August 9, 1927, Daniel Keyes always valued education, hard work, and literature. At 17, he joined the United States Maritime Service, eventually becoming a ship’s purser (he was responsible for managing the on-board money, supplies, and clerical duties of oil tankers). According to his 1999 memoir, Algernon, Charlie, and I: A Writer’s Journey, Keyes decided to pursue writing after his service ended, but his first novel was repeatedly rejected. He then attended a summer journalism course at NYU before realizing that a career in journalism would leave him too exhausted to write fiction on his own time. He eventually enrolled at Brooklyn College and pursued psychology, reasoning that “I would learn about peoples’ motives, and come to understand their conflicts. And I imagined how that would help me create believable characters—living, suffering, changing characters—for my stories and novels.” He graduated with his bachelor’s degree in 1950.

From there, he took jobs as an editor of pulp magazines, a fashion photographer, and an English teacher. All the while, he tirelessly pursued his goal of becoming a great writer. By the latter half of the 1950s, Keyes was teaching during the day, writing on the weekends, and taking night classes to earn his M.A. in American Literature, which he completed in 1961.

4. Daniel Keyes found inspiration for Charlie in his work.

Charlie Gordon isn't based on a specific person or an existing experiment, but the character’s resolute drive to become smarter was inspired by one of Keyes’s students. In interviews over the following decades, Keyes would recount how one of his pupils in a class for children with intellectual disabilities asked to be transferred out. “Mr. Keyes, this is a dummy class,” the child said, according to the author’s recollection. “If I try hard and get smart before the end of the term, would you put me in a regular class? I want to be smart.”

5. Daniel Keyes also found inspiration in his own school struggles.

Before he’d set sail at 17, Keyes did a short stint as a pre-med student at New York University—but he had no interest in medicine. It was his parents’ dream that he became a doctor, not his. Keyes dropped out, and his fear that his education was ruining his personal relationships proved a pivotal inspiration point for Charlie’s journey.

In his memoir, the author recalled how the realization came to him while he was waiting for the subway to whisk him from Brooklyn to classes in Manhattan: “My education is driving a wedge between me and the people I love,” Keyes wrote. “And then I wondered: What would happen if it were possible to increase a person’s intelligence?”

6. Stan Lee missed out on making Flowers For Algernon a comic book ...

Keyes’s work in pulp magazines in the 1950s led him to work for a pre-fame Stan Lee—but comics weren't Keyes’s passion. In his memoir, Keyes described editing them as a survival job, writing, “Since my $17.25-a-month rent was almost due, I accepted what I considered a detour on my journey toward a literary career.”

As an editor, Keyes impressed Lee well enough that he was offered the chance to pitch stories and even write the scripts for comics. It was during this time that he first scribbled out the plot synopsis for the story that would become Flowers for Algernon.

7. … But not because he passed on it.

Keyes never gave him a chance. He explained in his memoir, “I didn’t submit it to Stan Lee because something told me it should be more than a comic book script. I knew I would do it someday after I learned how to write.”

Also shared in his memoir were Keyes’s notes for the could-have-been comic pitch he’d called “Brainstorm.” It read (ellipses his):

“The first guy in the test to raise the I.Q. from a low normal 90 to genius level … He goes through the experience, and then is thrown back to what he was … he is no brighter than he was before, but having had a sample of light, he can never be the same. The pathos of a man who knows what it is to be brilliant and to know that he can never again have the things that he tasted for the first time.”

8. Flowers For Algernon was an acclaimed short story before it became a novel.

By 1958, Keyes had turned his concept into a short story. Retitled “Flowers For Algernon,” it was first published in a 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The following year, the story was honored with the Hugo Award for Short Fiction, which celebrates he best literature in science-fiction and fantasy. The win put Keyes in the ranks of such seminal authors as Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Bloch.

9. Isaac Asimov was a big fan of the short story.

As an esteemed American sci-fi writer in his own right, Isaac Asimov’s praise came with great weight. But he also offered a wry edge of playful jealousy when penning an introduction for the “Flowers For Algernon” in the short story collection The Hugo Winners. “Here was a story which struck me so forcefully that I was actually lost in admiration as I read it,” Asimov wrote. “So lost in admiration was I for the delicacy of his feeling, feeling, for the sure way in which he plucked at my heartstrings, for the skill with which [Keyes] handled the remarkable tour de force involved in his method of telling the story, that I completely forgot to hate him. ... How did he do it?”

10. The novel version of Flowers For Algernon was a huge hit.

By 1966, Keyes expanded Flowers For Algernon from a short story into a novel that would go on to win the Nebula Award for Best Novel (it tied with Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17). His smashingly successful debut book would go on to sell more than 5 million copies, be published in 27 languages[PDF], and become a part of the canon of English classes across America for generations.

11. Flowers for Algernon has been repeatedly adapted.

The first adaptation came in between the publishing of the short story and the novella. In 1961, the anthology TV series The United States Steel Hour presented an episode called, “The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon.” Stage plays, radio shows, other TV productions, and a West End stage musical followed, as well as international adaptations on stage and screen. However, the most popular of all was the 1968 American film, Charly.

12. Charlie became a career defining role for actor Cliff Robertson.

With “The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon,” Robertson originated the portrayal of Flowers for Algernon’s doomed hero. But it’s not that version of the role that he’s remembered for. The actor went onto reprise the part in Charly, and by his own design. In 1969, Cliff recalled that as they were rehearsing the show, someone asked him “who do you think will play your role [in the movie adaptation]?” to which he responded “Probably Debbie Reynolds.” But he saw the potential and decided that it was time for him to make his own career decisions, so he bought the movie rights and spent the next several years trying to persuade a studio to make it.

His patience and persistence paid off. Robertson won the Academy Award for Best Actor for Charly.

13. Flowers For Algernon defined a seminal trope.

Called “Flowers for Algernon Syndrome,” this trope occurs when a protagonist is given an enhancement, only to lose the gift by the end of the story. This arc has been explored across comic books, films, video games, and television shows, including family-friendly movies like 1969’s The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and 1993’s Rookie of the Year, as well as episodes of Seinfeld, Doctor Who, and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphias outrageous parody, called “Flowers for Charlie.”

14. Flowers for Algernon was Keyes’s most popular work.

The esteemed author went on to write more short stories and novels (The Touch, The Fifth Sally, Until Death…, and The Asylum Prophecies) as well as non-fiction books (The Minds of Billy Milligan, The Milligan Wars: A True-Story Sequel, and Unveiling Claudia.) However, none achieved the level of success that Flowers For Algernon saw. Keyes seemed to accept this, naming his memoir not only for himself, but also for the fictional friends of his first novel: Algernon, Charlie, and I. He even gave them top billing.

15. Daniel Keyes lived to see his science-fiction flirt with science-fact.

When Keyes was finishing off his memoir, he was stunned to see a New York Times headline proclaim “Smarter Mouse Is Created in Hope of Helping People.” The 1999 article reported that neurobiologist Dr. Joe Z. Tsien was conducting experiments on mice with the goal of “helping patients with memory loss, in counteracting the fading of memory in the elderly, or even in making healthy individuals smarter,” according to the Times.

Looking back on Keyes’s life in his 2014 obituary, The New York Times quoted the afterword of Algernon, Charlie, and I, where the author recounted discovering this article and reaching out to Dr. Tsien. At the time, the scientist told the science-fiction writer that human testing for his brain experiment might begin within the next 30 years. In 2009, Tsien was still at work on the study similar to that in Flowers for Algernon. This means Keyes was generations ahead of his time.

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