‘Sometimes a Great Notion’: Sink or Swim

[imgbelt img=KenKeseyStatue1.jpg]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?


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?”

[imgcontainer left] [img:joel_pett_save_my_job.jpg]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.

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.