‘Sometimes a Great Notion’: Sink or Swim

Fifty years after its publication, Ken Kesey’s novel Sometimes a Great Notion still raises fundamental questions about life in rural America. Do we hang together or hang separately? And are those the only choices?

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A striking cartoon from Kentucky artist Joel Pett features a strip miner carving into a mountain with a front loader. With each scoop of the machine the miner pleads, “Save my job!” Once the mountain is gone his boss flies in by helicopter, fires him, and tells him to go home. The miner looks at the wasteland he has created and scratches his head: “Home?”

A detail of Joel Pett’s cartoon.

The cartoon asks a basic question: How much is one willing to surrender to maintain a lifestyle? This question is at the heart of Ken Kesey’s rural masterpiece, Sometimes a Great Notion, which turns 50 years old this year. The novel concerns a stubborn logging family in the coastal Oregon town of Wakonda. The Stampers, led by patriarch Henry and his son Hank, refuse to join a union strike against a local lumber company and continue to log trees. To satisfy production quotas – and thereby break the strike – Hank begrudgingly hires his estranged, quasi-socialist brother, Lee.

The Stampers have a family motto: “Never give an inch.” Hank’s decision to hire his rebellious brother is the first compromise he makes, and thus the first inch he gives. The remainder of the story is a cascade toward doom, as Hank’s obsession with defeating the strike becomes embodied in his battle with Lee, and costs him lives, relationships and, ultimately, a place to live.

Many critics consider Sometimes a Great Notion to be Kesey’s best novel, but his first, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, is better known.

Kesey’s objective is to show the value of one inch: At what point does it cost more – environmentally, mentally, physically – to live the life of the detached yeoman, the rugged libertarian? Even if this is the ideology to which one subscribes, it is increasingly difficult to follow. Fifty-five percent of America’s streams no longer support healthy levels of aquatic life. Agricultural policies and the rise of corporate farming have pushed the American laborer off the land, so that now less than 1% of Americans pursue farming. Aquifers are drying up; pipelines carve through the earth and its water sources; chemical spills blanket coastlines.

A haunting image in Notion is that of a solitary deer swimming perilously far off the Pacific coast. Henry Stamper and his coworker haul the deer into their boat, but as they near the shore, the buck jumps overboard and swims, frantic, back out to sea. The reader is left to contemplate the creature’s suicidal behavior. Has it made a conscious decision to pursue certain death? When confronted with the choice between brutal individualism and routine collectivism, do we react similarly? How is this choice affected by the awareness of environmental stress, of depleting resources, of the monomaniacal Ahabs – such as Hank Stamper – who drag down entire communities into the fight against nature’s “intangible malignity” with them?

Kesey bleakly suggests there is a third option – death – that is the ultimate compromise between libertarianism and collectivism; between West Coast individualism and East Coast intellectualism; and, most importantly, between rural and urban society. Consider the title of the book. It is taken from Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene”:

Sometimes I live in the country,
Sometimes I live in the town;
Sometimes I get a great notion
To jump into the river … and drown

Kesey is saying that to merely engage in any American enterprise is itself a form of death. An example is found in an argument between Hank and Lee regarding the “proper” way to die. Hank has just saved Lee from being drowned by a gang of teenagers who have targeted Lee for his last name. (In other words, for being a Stamper and thereby a scab.) Hank cannot understand why Lee would passively welcome a watery grave. He declares that the only way to make it through life – and remain sane in the process – is to absorb hostility in all its forms, to walk into a room “knowin’ everybody there would like to take a pot shot at me.” The fight is the ultimate validation of enterprise. To Lee, the honorable way to die is to submit to nature’s “intangible malignity;” not to fight, but to go down with the ship.

One is racing towards death; the other is fleeing from life. Are they really all that different? This depends on how one views rural communities. Can we afford to keep boxing them into impossible choices and false compromises?

Sometimes a Great Notion is bracketed by a grisly image: a detached arm, dangling from a fish line high above the Wakonda Auga River. Its middle finger is outstretched. Never Give An Inch. In the 50 years since Notion was published, this attitude has been used as a justification for policies on both sides of the rural-urban divide. But it is important to remember that the arm is detached from the body. And what is a middle finger without a body?

Tarence Ray lives in Whitesburg, Kentucky.

 

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