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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.”
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