â€œRemember William Carlos Williamsâ€™ description of the pioneer
women who shot their children against the wilderness like cannonballs. Do the same with your novels.â€
— Nathanael West
Dismantling Paradise is hard work. Accomplishing it by proxy, such as in writing a novel, also takes its toll. Perhaps thatâ€™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 â€œto make the wilderness blossom as a rose, to establish laws, to increase, multiply and subdue the earth.â€ But the idea that the West is a storehouse of riches to be extracted from raw wilderness, is counterpoint to that other potent myth â€“ 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 Posnerâ€™s stage adaptation of Sometimes a Great Notion premieres at Portland Center Stage, and related lectures and discussions explore Keseyâ€™s importance and place in Oregon culture, letâ€™s recall how Kesey exposed that myth as baldly as a clearcut and covered a theme as old as Europeâ€™s invention of America. The empire with no clothes. An empire as precarious as the Stamper house cabled and sandbagged on the brink, the riverâ€™s edge.
Hereâ€™s D. H. Lawrence in Studies in Classic American Literature:
â€œAlways 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.â€
And Charles Olson in Call Me Ishmael:
â€œI 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.â€
Olson is writing about Melville and Moby Dick, but heâ€™s thinking of the continent and â€œthe restless thingâ€ that is the American in action, out to conquer that stretch of earth between oceans. â€œIt is geography at bottom, a hell of wide land from the beginning.â€ Americans fancy themselves as democrats, â€œbut 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.â€ For Olsonâ€™s Melville â€œit 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.â€
Continue reading Ken Kesey: Sometimes a Great Notion Takes Root