Sometimes a Great Notion and the American Dream

In Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, the Stamper family illustrates how the idealistic American culture — and the equally idealistic individuals living and working within that culture — become corrupted by the dark side of the American Dream. The Stamper family follows the unthreatened life, unregulated liberty, and unrestricted pursuit of happiness, which leads them to the inevitable demise of that pursuit. The theory that every man has the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is frequently skewed and instead perceived as every man’s right to his maximum capacity of these inalienable rights, provoking detriments that he may inflict on his neighbors. This dark side is further defined as the pursuit of financial success and personal power, both of which come at the expense of others. The Stampers’ determination to freely pursue their life, liberty, and happiness on their own terms gets them into conflict with others who are trying to do the exact same thing. The family runs a Gyppo logging operation in Wakonda, Oregon that has made a deal with a logging union called Wakonda Pacific. The gravity of their decision soon becomes evident when the town’s lumber industry finds itself in a strike. The Stampers’ agreement with Wakonda Pacific confronts them with the responsibility to fill the contracts of these striking workers with a very limited amount of family members. Although the contract is portrayed as somewhat unfeasible, even the town admits that “half the men can cut twice the trees” (Kesey 46), and the Stampers are convinced that they can make the deadline. While the town is left in a disoriented state, wondering “who [do they] think they are, anyway? These Stampers? To make this bad strike?” (Kesey 200), the family becomes preoccupied with a large workload and disregards the potential corollaries of their decision. This Stamper manifestation of the American Dream is deeply rooted in the inherent idea of “Never Give A Inch” — a family motto that rests on a plaque in Hank Stamper’s room. This plaque was originally a picture of Jesus, but was painted over in garish yellow machine paint and embossed with the motto and now represents the way in which the Stamper family values of determination and stubbornness paint over several universal values throughout the novel. This willpower not only causes the Stampers to ignore widespread values, but also steers them towards a goal that can only be achieved at the expense of others. In the midst of this strike, Hank Stamper is confronted by the union negotiator, Jonathan Bailey Draeger, who reminds Hank that “a good many people in town are dependent on that mill reopening” (Kesey 360). Hank Stamper is offended by Draeger’s attempt to instill self-reproach and convince him to sell the operation and dismisses any humane concern for the town by exposing his ambitious, self-fulfilling personality:

If we was to get into it with Russia I’d fight for us right down to the wire, and if Oregon was to get into it with California I’d fight for Oregon. But if somebody — Biggy Newton or the Woodsworker’s Union or anybody — gets into it with me, then I’m for me! When the chips are down, I’m my own patriot. I don’t give a goddam the other guy is my own brother wavin’ the American flag and singing the friggin’ Star Spangled Banner! (Kesey 363)
Kesey portrays Hank Stamper as a protagonist who embodies not only honesty, integrity and commitment, but also ruthlessness, aggression, and insensitivity. These negative traits surface when it comes to acting on his determination. When Hank deliberately tells Draeger, “[You] can tell my good friends and neighbors Hank Stamper is heartless as a stone if you want” (Kesey 363), it becomes clear that he cares not for the greater good, but for the immediate good of himself and his immediate circle. Hank, unlike many characters, does not undergo any transformation throughout the course of the novel and remains generally fixed in terms of attitude and beliefs. The perseverance of his character further underlines the persistence of his motives and the family’s interests. His father, Henry, and brother, Lee, exhibit similar tendencies and attitudes, but become handicapped throughout the novel, both literally and figuratively. Henry loses his arm in a logging accident and Lee becomes tangled in an affair with Hank’s wife, distracting both characters from the family’s initial pursuit of this modified American Dream.Conflicts within the family only conceal the exponential growth of the obsession, allowing Hank Stamper to pursue an ambition which eventually goes to benefit solely himself and leaves the family in shambles. His invulnerability causes him to ignore key morals and embody a callous, insensitive lifestyle. At the end of the novel, Hank Stamper’s belief in the plaque is stronger than his belief in his family. He consistently pursues his corrupt idea of the American Dream, which was meant to initially beat down everyone around the Stamper family but is camouflaged until it leaks from its margins and beats down members within the family. The philosophy eventually comes to reflect Hank Stamper’s best interests, as distinct from that of the family as a whole. His intent turns malignant to those he considers close — even his wife, Viv, who can no longer endure the loneliness his intent causes her and commits adultery.This obsession not only provokes internal conflict within the Stampers, but also forces the family to face the town’s external resentment: “The citizens truly weren’t being allowed to make themselves comfortable by blaming it on the rain… when it was so goddam evident that the town’s worries and woes were being caused by… that goddam hardnose up the river!” (Kesey 400). Since Hank constantly finds himself impermeable to the town’s cries and Draeger’s pressure, the burden is placed upon the rest of his family. The consequences of the family’s unrestricted pursuit are experienced by Viv, who is snubbed by the town and eventually “stops answering the phone during the day (she had already stopped going into Wakonda to shop, and was even experiencing chilly stares when she went as far away as Florence)” (Kesey 444). The unregulated liberty that Hank Stamper believes he possesses even begins to limit the freedom of his extended family. Insisting that the operation be sold, Orland complains to Hank that “you have to worry about neighbors! You don’t have a teen-aged daughter who comes home crying because the kids in school won’t vote her into the Y-teens” (Kesey 418). A member of the family is ultimately killed in a logging accident and the adultery between Lee and Viv is no longer concealed towards the end of the novel. The deterioration of the family is evident to all but is steadfastly overlooked by Hank Stamper, who sees to the logging operation as his top priority and declares that “I’m going to finish out that last boom… don’t matter if I come down with flu from every country in the world” (Kesey 449). However, Hank’s pursuit of a so-called unthreatened life eventually jeopardizes his ability to even fulfill the contract with Wakonda Pacific. Despite his worry that “[they] just might not make that deadline” (Kesey 364), Hank Stamper remains relentless and continues to wrestle with the logs to his likely death. As American society is founded on the traditional respect for individuality, rebellion, and rule-breaking, so are the Stamper family values. Their philosophy does not deviate too far from the original idea and can even be seen as admiring that concept. However, their application of these values shows how the American Dream can be pursued in an infatuated manner where eventual demise is unavoidable. In his novel Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Kesey exhibits how every man’s right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” can be corrupted, preempt morality, and potentially lead to the destruction of life.Works CitedAdams, James Truslow. The Epic of America. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1931.Kesey, Ken. Sometimes a Great Notion. New York: Viking Press, 1964.