Sometimes a Great Notion

by Ken Kesey
   This second novel by ken kesey, which is often considered to be his masterpiece, exhibits a concern with local color that is reminiscent of many of America’s best regionalist writers such as William Faulkner and John Steinbeck. Kesey went to the Oregon logging country for several weeks in 1961 and rode with loggers in their trucks and frequented their bars. The novel was begun in Stanford and completed in La Honda, California. The publication party for this novel was one of the ultimate destinations for the group known as The Merry Pranksters, a collection of psychedelic experimenters based in La Honda and led by Kesey and neal cassady. The Pranksters started in California in their colorful bus “Furthur” and traveled across the United States to New York. This moment, which is captured in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), is seen by some as the transition between the Beats and the hippies, their countercultural inheritors.
   Sometimes a Great Notion follows the saga of the Stampers, a family of strike-breaking loggers on the Wakonda Auga River in southwest Oregon. This is done at the behest of Hank Stamper, the novel’s protagonist. Kesey manipulates the novel’s narration through Hank and various characters who are connected to him, showing their emotional and psychological relationship to him through flashbacks. The novel opens with Jonathan Draeger, national representative for the logging union on strike. Floyd Evenwrite, the local representative, informs Draeger that the Stampers have broken the strike. This opening sequence is illustrative of Kesey’s technique, as Draeger and Evenwrite become secondary to Vivian, Hank’s wife, as the focal narrative character; she then gives way to a third person who retells of the clan’s migration West. The novel’s plot is told as a recapitulation of the past and through a series of point-of-view shifts which are often abrupt. In some cases, there are several of these shifts in one paragraph. The plot first centers around Hank’s decision to do “wildcat” logging to fill an order to a sawmill. When the novel opens, none of the timber has been delivered, and only some of the contract’s quota has been cut. Due to the strike in the Wakonda community, there is a shortage of help for Hank and his family. They must therefore send for Leland “Lee” Stamper, Hank’s half-brother, who is currently a graduate student at Yale University. Lee attempts suicide before receiving his invitation West. This establishes a contrast between Lee as the bookish easterner who has no sense of selfworth, and Hank as a self-reliant western-frontier type who is secure in his own individuality. In an interview with Gordon Lish in 1963, Kesey stated that there were some autobiographical elements in each of these two characters. The entire Stamper clan eventually goes to work on the lumber contract: Hank, Lee, their father Henry, and their cousin Joe Ben, who helps run the family business. This close family work environment is soon disturbed by ghosts from the past. When Hank was a teenager, he had an affair with his stepmother Myra, Lee’s mother. Myra would commit suicide, and Lee blames Hank for contributing to her death. This background story soon leads to the conflict between Lee and Hank over Vivian. She has become a substitute for Myra, as Lee seduces her in revenge for Hank’s earlier indiscretion. During the novel’s action, Joe Ben serves as more of a brother for Hank than Lee, a change of roles that will have dramatic consequences for Hank’s emotional and psychic health.
   The climax of the novel takes place during one of several logging accidents on the river, some of which are caused by the union workers. During the pivotal accident, Joe Ben is trapped underwater. Hank tries to bring him air but is unsuccessful in his surrogate breathing and Joe Ben drowns. In the same accident, Hank’s father Henry loses his arm and is left on his hospital deathbed. Hank is left to take the logging run down the river with one helper at the novel’s close. The climax of the love triangle culminates in Lee’s successful seduction of Vivian, who then realizes that she loves both brothers. Now aware of the full scope of the conflict between Hank and Lee, Vivian decides to leave the Wakonda community and begin her life anew. Vivian is portrayed as alienated from the community throughout the novel, a state that is made worse by the loss of her unborn child. The relationship between Vivian and Hank is complex, and many critics see her as one of Kesey’s most realistically portrayed women characters.
   Kesey’s technique of changing points-of-view in quick succession makes a first reading of the novel a bit difficult. However, many of Kesey’s recurrent themes come through in Sometimes a Great Notion. Hank Stamper is the archetypal rugged individualist. As a wildcat logger, he is paid based on the amount of lumber that he delivers to a sawmill; the union loggers surrounding him are paid an hourly wage. This fundamental difference is illustrative of Kesey’s concern with the value of the individual in the face of a group that demands conformity, much like McMurphy’s defiance in one flew over tHe cuckoo’s nest. Draeger, the national union man, is representative of the larger system at work beyond the local Wakonda community. This is a hallmark of many of America’s great regionalists. They are able to expand the concerns of a small community outward to the larger society as a whole. Sometimes a Great Notion was made into an underrated film released in 1971 by Universal Studios starring Paul Newman and Henry Fonda. The film was rebroadcast on television under the title Never Give an Inch.
■ Leeds, Barry, Ken Kesey, New York: Unger, 1981.
■ Lish, Gordon. “What the Hell You Looking in Here For, Daisy Mae?: An Interview with Ken Kesey.” Genesis West 2 (Fall 1963): 17–29.
■ Porter, Gilbert M., The Art of Grit: Ken Kesey’s Fiction, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982.
   Donovan Braud

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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