Le Québécois Libre, February 15, 2012, No 297.
Ken Kesey’s novel, Sometimes a Great Notion (1964), is a complex and integrated historical background and relationship study of the Stamper family, a prideful logging clan living in Wakonda, Oregon. This big story involves a man, his family, a town, the country, a period of time, and the effects of time. All of the elements of the novel including its characters, events, settings, symbols, and so on, are integrated and oriented toward the themes of independence, individualism, and self-sufficiency. The novel teaches that a person should have the right to try to be as big as he believes it is in him to be. Sometimes a Great Notion was made into a 1971 film directed by and starring Paul Newman. In Britain this film about generations of loggers was called Never Give an Inch.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Jonas Stamper had traveled from Kansas to Oregon to pursue his American dream of becoming a successful pioneer in the promising new Western frontier. Jonas begins to construct a large frame house on a bank of the Wakonda Auga River. Overcome by the potential of the Oregon climate and wilderness to overpower and destroy men, the intimidated Jonas leaves his family and goes back to Kansas.
Jonas’s son, Henry, takes command, finishes the house, and commences a continual battle to keep it from being washed away by the mighty river. Stamper House stands on a dangerous peninsula on a river bend. All of the other homes in the vicinity are eventually destroyed by the waters. Henry refuses any help from others in the community and declines to join the Wakonda Co-op or any other community association. By 1961, the independent, stubborn, and fierce Henry is widely recognized as the patriarch of the long-resented Stamper clan. His motto is “Never Give an Inch.” In the novel, the house built on the river will come to represent family tradition, the river will symbolize the eroding effects of time, and Henry will epitomize the family’s link with its pioneering past. Henry is a man of habit whose philosophy is “to keep on going.”
Hank is Henry’s oldest son. A man of integrity, he is loyal, honest, and courageous, and possesses a strong will and personality. The toughest man in the region, Hank was an all-state football player and a veteran of the Korean War as a Marine. Like his father, Hank is tough, obstinate, self-reliant, and independent. He is the only character in the novel who is able to swim across the river, his most powerful and relentless adversary. The aggressive and vital Hank becomes the leader of the family and has numerous clashes with members of the community and his own family. Throughout the novel he is portrayed as a heroic small businessman who is able to deal with and withstand a variety of pressures.
Hank’s mother dies when he is only ten years old and Henry goes off to New York City to find another wife. Henry returns with a youthful new wife, Myra. The beautiful, 21-year-old, Stanford-educated Myra prefers an urban environment and becomes unhappy in a household of loggers. She and Henry have a son, Leland, who is sensitive, intellectual, and has low self-esteem. Henry pays little attention to Leland as he is apparently satisfied with one son in his image. When Leland was born Hank was already twelve years old.
Myra seduces Hank when he is sixteen years old. The young Leland views them in bed together through a hole in the wall. Psychologically damaged by the incident, Leland hates, fears, and envies his half-brother, Hank. Henry never finds out about the affair and Hank never realizes that Leland knows about his secret affair with Myra. Aware that she is unsuited for the tough life of a logging wife, Myra decides to leave for New York with Leland when he is twelve years old. A dozen years later, she commits suicide by leaping off a tall building. The intellectual Leland has been pursuing doctoral work in English literature at Yale. Having troubles with his studies, he becomes paranoid, turns to drugs, and he too attempts suicide, but is unsuccessful.
The major action of the story occurs during a period of several weeks in 1961. At that time Hank and his cousin and best friend, Joe Ben, are running the Stamper family’s logging business. Henry does what he can but has recently been injured and wears a cast on one side of his body. Having captured the market, the big lumber corporations have been putting pressure on the smaller companies and the union. The Stamper family owns and operates a company that does not have a union‒Hank only hires family members. Henry’s goal is to keep the family logging business alive.
The small town is dying due to the introduction of the gas-powered chainsaw, which has reduced greatly the need for manual labor. As a result, the union loggers go on strike demanding the same pay for shorter hours in response to the decreasing need for manual labor. The union is striking against Wakonda Pacific Lumber Company, a regional mill. The union leaders and members want the Stampers to close down their family-owned, non-union shop believing that it was the Stamper’s duty to support the strike as a sign of solidarity for this small town. The union’s message is one of brotherhood and interdependence.
The Stampers decide to continue to work and to cut and to supply trees to the regional mill in opposition to the striking unionized workers. They supply all of the lumber that the union laborers normally would have supplied from their union shops if the strike had not occurred. Accepting the contract to supply the big lumber company with logs is the opportunity for the Stamper family to gain great wealth. Signing this contract with Wakonda Pacific is the break they had been waiting for. The Stampers also understand that backing the union would damage their own non-unionized family business. To Hank and the other Stampers, the union represents mediocrity and conformity. These small businessmen are thus eager to confront the union.
The union has the backing of the whole town except for the Stampers. This does not sit well with the union workers who feel betrayed. The Stamper family’s decision to keep working prevents the strike from ending because there is no good reason for Wakonda Pacific to negotiate and to resolve the dispute when the Stampers are doing all of the work that the unionized workers would have done. This large corporation can only meet its own contracts by dealing with men like Hank Stamper, a man of his word.
With Henry still injured, the family needs additional labor and, as a result, Hank sends for his half-brother, Leland, who is doing graduate work back East. Leland receives the card from Oregon just after he has unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide by gassing himself. His suicide attempt had blown up all of his possessions including the dissertation that he was writing. He was in a lot of trouble as he could not pay his hospital bills and his landlord was suing him for destroying his home. He decides to travel back to his roots in the Oregon timberlands to help with the logging business and to gain revenge against Hank. He has never forgiven Hank for what happened between Hank and his mother and for not going to his mother’s funeral. The bitter and vengeful socialist-leaning intellectual wants Hank to pay for the things that he had done. The insecure Lee hates Hank’s strength and self-sufficiency.
Floyd Evenwrite, the local union leader, has been envious of Hank’s strength since high school. This fierce, blustery, impulsive, and unintelligent man wants to stop the Stamper family from fulfilling its contract and will use violent and illegal means to sabotage the family’s efforts. Evenwrite sends for Jonathan Draeger, a union representative from California, to aid him. Draeger is well-educated, confident, manipulative, rational, and coldly-calculating. The cruel and destructive Draeger takes the offensive through trickery, subterfuge, and patience. He fervently believes in communal values and hates the ideas of self-determination and freedom. Draeger is convinced that all people behave according to predictable patterns. Together, Evenwrite’s fury and Draeger’s machinations provoke the feelings of the community members against the Stampers.
Leland arrives and the Stampers teach him to cut down trees. The Stampers do not make up a totally happy family. There are many confrontations among them. In this family the men do the talking and the women remain quiet. Lee has a very different view of life than do the other Stamper men. He believes that women are equal to men and that everyone’s voice should be heard. He finds he has a great deal more in common with Viv, Hank’s wife, than he does with the men of his family. Leland devises a plan and campaigns to seduce and sleep with Viv which he eventually does. During the stay, Lee and Viv grow even closer as he recognizes and acknowledges her unhappiness because she is not appreciated by the others in the house.
The Stampers will not succumb to the demands of the union workers to cease working so that they can gain the benefit of higher wages. One of the townspeople, who is Hank’s friend and union member, pleads with Hank to stop working during the strike. He says that if the Stampers don’t stop then he will commit suicide pretending it was an accident thereby gaining insurance proceeds for his family. Hank refuses while exhibiting no emotions. His friend later follows through with his suicide. Hank is determined by principle to fulfill his commitment to deliver the logs.
After a football game at a community picnic turns into a brawl between the Stampers and the other townspeople, the union workers sabotage some of the Stamper’s machinery. Hank retaliates by going to the union office with a chainsaw to cut Evenwrite’s desk in half. The union members also attempt to vandalize the Stamper’s collected logs. When one of the union workers falls in the water, Hank jumps in to save him. The Stamper’s determination to succeed is demonstrated when their transportation equipment is destroyed and Hank and Henry decide to cut trees closer to the river thereby eliminating the need to transport them. This strategy unfortunately and ultimately will result in the accidental deaths of Henry and Joe Ben as described below.
Henry had recovered sufficiently to rejoin the logging efforts. As Hank is cutting down a tree, it splits vertically down the middle with half crashing backwards toward the forest and the other half landing in the river. The portion of the tree that fell on land severs Henry’s arm in the process. The section that fell into the water lands on Joe Ben pushing him toward the bottom of the river.
Lee drives the mortally-wounded Henry to the hospital and Hank attempts to use the chainsaw to free Joe Ben but it runs out of oil. With no axes to be found, Hank valiantly but unsuccessfully attempts to save Joe Ben. As the river rises, the tree shifts and Joe Ben gives up his struggle and drowns. In an ironic twist of fate, the chainsaw, an important cause of the strike itself, fails and results in the death of the optimistic, hard-working, well-liked and loyal Joe Ben.
Viv feels trapped and her love for her husband, Hank, wanes as she comes to understand her place in the household. Like Myra, Viv begins to think that there must be better ways in which to spend her life. She is eventually seduced by, and has an affair with, Lee. Hank sees them through the same hole that Lee had used as a young boy to witness the sexual relationship between his mother and Hank. As a young child, Leland saw his mother in bed with Hank and has bitterly resented his half-brother ever since.
A fist-fight showdown between Hank and Leland ends in a draw. Hank apologizes for sleeping with Lee’s mother and explains that, because of the age difference, Hank was not taking advantage of Lee’s mother, Myra. The brothers come to somewhat of a truce. Lee also discovers that Hank had been sending money to his mother for many years.
At this point in the story Hank appears to be ready to give in to the union demands. This has negative effects on the community, and the townspeople are saddened. His giving up would disillusion the residents of the community and would destroy their assurance in confronting life’s challenges. The novel thus illustrates how an heroic free individual with strength and integrity, like Hank, has a positive effect on the community. The community benefits from Hank’s free expression of his self-interest.
By this time, Henry and Joe Ben have been killed, the mill has been partly burned down, and the boathouse has been dynamited into the river. It is at this point that Hank, the strong and stubborn idealist, decides not to give in and gets ready to steer the logs down the river by himself. Lee joins Hank on the tugboat and they pilot the boat and four large rafts of logs past the disbelieving townspeople. Viv leaves Hank just as the two brothers begin the log drive. On the boat sits Henry’s severed arm with all the fingers bent and tied down except for the middle one. This defiant gesture is aimed toward the union members gathered on the side of the river. It represents the strength of men to defeat, at least temporarily, overwhelming forces.
Sometimes a Great Notion illustrates the value of a family sticking together. Hank, the product of a frontier culture, has a strong will and work ethic and leads his family in fighting for what they believe. He is a man of integrity who has a strong sense of kinship. In association with his family, Hank is able to withstand a variety of pressures including the forces of nature, (i.e., the river and the forest), social pressures exerted by the townspeople, the conformist pressures brought by the union, and the need to fulfill their logging contract. Hank represents the joy of an unyielding will in his quest to deliver the logs to the Wakona Pacific Lumber Company.
Lee has abandoned his sheltered academic life in the East to affirm himself as a man. At first he is uncomfortable with his new duties as a logger. Because of his lack of knowledge of the business he feels out of place and distant from his family. After working with his family for a while he discovers a common ground with them in the activity of logging which demands strength, skill, and courage. By the end of the story he has learned the values and virtues of family, work, and self-reliance.
This fine tale of independence, individualism, and family has been made into a 1971 film. The roles and actors include: Hank Stamper (Paul Newman), Henry Stamper (Henry Fonda), Viv Stamper (Lee Remick), Leland Stamper (Michael Sarazin), Joe Ben Stamper (Richard Jaeckel), Floyd Everwrite (Joe Maross), and Jonathan Draeger (Roy Poole).
* Dr. Edward W. Younkins is a Professor of Accountancy and Business Administration at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia.