Ken Kesey: Sometimes a Great Notion Takes Root

“Remember William Carlos Williams’ description of the pioneer
women who shot their children against the wilderness like cannonballs. Do the same with your novels.”

— Nathanael West

sometimes_notion_150.jpgDismantling Paradise is hard work. Accomplishing it by proxy, such as in writing a novel, also takes its toll. Perhaps that’s why Ken Kesey abandoned the novel form after completing Sometimes a Great Notion in 1964.

He dismantled the myth of Eden at the end of the Oregon Trail.

Americans claimed Oregon, in the words of John Quincy Adams, with the promise “to make the wilderness blossom as a rose, to establish laws, to increase, multiply and subdue the earth.” But the idea that the West is a storehouse of riches to be extracted from raw wilderness, is counterpoint to that other potent myth – that the West is a natural, unspoiled Eden. Many folk long to spend their pilgrimage here in refreshing hot springs, even as money folk see the quick buck in resources, renewable or not.

As Aaron Posner’s stage adaptation of Sometimes a Great Notion premieres at Portland Center Stage, and related lectures and discussions explore Kesey’s importance and place in Oregon culture, let’s recall how Kesey exposed that myth as baldly as a clearcut and covered a theme as old as Europe’s invention of America. The empire with no clothes. An empire as precarious as the Stamper house cabled and sandbagged on the brink, the river’s edge.

Here’s D. H. Lawrence in Studies in Classic American Literature:

“Always the same. The deliberate consciousness of Americans so fair and smooth-spoken, and the underconsciousness so devilish. Destroy! Destroy! Destroy! Hums the underconsciousness. Love and produce! Love and produce! Cackles the underconsciousness.”

And Charles Olson in Call Me Ishmael:

“I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.”

Olson is writing about Melville and Moby Dick, but he’s thinking of the continent and “the restless thing” that is the American in action, out to conquer that stretch of earth between oceans. “It is geography at bottom, a hell of wide land from the beginning.” Americans fancy themselves as democrats, “but their triumphs are of the machine. It is the only master of space the average person ever knows, oxwheel to piston, muscle to jet. It gives trajectory.” For Olson’s Melville “it was not the will to be free but the will to overwhelm nature that lies at the bottom of us as individuals and a people.”

Sometimes a Great Notion is a compendium of Ken Kesey’s passions and preoccupations, and one of them is delving into this split in our individual and collective will – the will to conquer and destroy, and the will-less desire to sink into the land, to let Oregon weather and the wet land’s fecundity that is like a low-grade fever run through us.

William G. Robbins knows this story completely, and it formed the background for his comments on Kesey Sunday April 6, at an afternoon symposium with poet Elizabeth Woody and essayist David Oates at Portland Center stage, one of several similar events scheduled in connection with the play. The audience was small but very attentive to what the authors had to say about Kesey.

In Landscapes of Promise: The Oregon Story, 1800-1940, and Landscapes of Conflict: The Oregon Story, 1940-2000, Robbins, a professor of history at Oregon State University, provides a comprehensive environmental history of Oregon, the story of the tug of war between those who would change the landscape and exploit its resources to accommodate settlement and economic growth and those who would preserve the natural character of the land. Robbins shows how thoroughly our resource policies are now captive to regional and national priorities and the “unbridled market imperatives” of a global economy.

Robbins noted that the historical period of the novel, after World War II until about 1960, was the last era of shoestring logging operations, the Stamper family an example of technology and effort now virtually lost, overtaken by the corporate operations on private and public lands. He made a special point of the “propertylessness” at the heart of the novel, the fact that the Stampers don’t own the land or the timber.

In Landscapes of Conflict Robbins argues that the dominant features of postwar timber management practices — increased production from national forests, clear cutting, road construction, the use of pesticides, and implementation of a policy designed to convert “decadent” old growth to new stands with shorter harvesting cycles –- all can be traced to the influence of the marketplace, increasingly a global one, as the “primary arbiter” of timber policy.

Warm Springs poet Elizabeth Woody said that every good book she knows has a river, and in Sometimes a Great Notion it is the Wakonda Auga, a made-up river at that. And that the characters are “subsumed by the power of the river,” as in one way or another they become identified with this force that is greater than they are; characters driven by the power of nature –- in awe of it or defeated by it or inspired by it. I’m compressing Woody’s direct, pungent, evocative commentary here, in sharp contrast to her social observations about the novel, how it exposes individualism, the “great lie” of the West, a white male lie at that, for Woody also pointed out where where the novel is weakest, in its portrayal of Native Americans, and its gloss of the role of women in the West, both pioneer and native, who sustained family and social relations in the wilderness civilization.

Citing the writings of historian Richard White, Robbins also stressed how individuals come to know nature through work, “find an intimacy” with the natural world that complicates the image Western man as all “will to conquer,” an image fostered, by the way, in the Michael Brophy painting gracing Portland Center Stage’s ads for the play, a carved wooden logger on his stump, surrounded by stumps as far as the eye can see.

David Oates pushed that idea a little more by pointing out the elements in the novel demonstrating the dignity, beauty, productivity – even “transcendence” that the Stampers find in hard work, collective enterprise. All part of what Oates sees as the “stubborn cockroach vitality” exhibited by the Stamper clan at the end of the novel.

Sometimes a Great Notion wrestles many themes. Capitalism. Class relations. Demonic, ruthless individualism. Union efforts to harness the forces of capitalism. Ways of living on the land; ways of living off of the land. And “stubborn cockroach vitality” roots the Stampers to the sodden earth. But, as all three speakers emphasized, it is the rich dialogue Kesey captured that lifts the Stampers out of the woods and keeps their heads above water. Voices, anonymous at first but revealing themselves as the cacophony of invasive timbres, hissing “Never give an inch.” “Never give an inch.” “Never give an inch.”

Meaning: “Never leave an inch.”

I suppose that “sticktoitiveness” of the pioneer rooted to the earth is what we mean by never giving an inch. It’s those itchy, thrusting ambivalent urges Lawrence and Olson write about. It’s the eerie feeling I had when Elizabeth Woody said that at some level the novel is about Henry Stamper doing what is necessary, not to win, but to prevail, echoing what William Faulkner said upon receiving the Nobel Prize for literature in 1950. Despite the threat of nuclear annihilation, the global warming of the day, Faulkner declined “to accept the end of man”:

“It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustable voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s duty, is to write about such things.”

Yes, that is breathtaking. But I also like the sound of Samuel Beckett’s voice, prevailing only in memory:

“…it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
(The Unnamable)

Where is Ken Kesey in this debate? Destroy? Love and produce? The intellectual or the rugged earth-bound individualist? The Stanford scholar, or the hippie-farmer wrestler? My guess he is ambivalent, in the novel as he probably was in life. His consciousness hummed on all cylinders.

Kesey said: They say, ‘Just say no.’ I say, ‘Just say thanks.’