Ken Kesey and the old Northwest

by W.F. Price on December 17, 2012

I picked up Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion over the weekend, and read the book in my spare time. It’s a novel about an Oregon logging community back in the mid-20th century. Although that isn’t my family background (my Western forefathers were miners and urban working men — more like Jack London), it’s pretty close, and it brought back memories of logging towns we’d often pass through on our family trips when I was a boy. By the 1980s, the culture Kesey describes in the book was already in steep decline; by now it serves as little more than a romantic setting for vampire books. Logging is a lot more systematic and better managed these days, largely out of necessity. The old growth forests have been shaved down for the most part, and what’s left can only be profitable with a scientific application of forestry management, so the “gyppo loggers” of old (small, private operations) are out of business. The only comparable industry in the region today is fishing — crabbing in particular.

Sometimes a Great Notion is a difficult read. It almost requires some intimate knowledge of the old Northwest to understand it and to make sense of the characters, so I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. However, it offers a portrait of America in transition that can provide a good deal of understanding of contemporary culture and family.

Above all, the book is about family, and how the westward march of progress and industry across the continent chewed right through the fragile families that took root in its path. Not only were majestic forests and towering mountains little more than obstacles to be chopped down or blasted through, but human relationships as well. It was all about work and money, doing battle with nature and just struggling to hang on in the face of roaring, fire-driven progress.

In hindsight, it looks as though the cultural revolution of the 1960s may have been the first step in taming that beast. The nature-worship, the “dropping out” and the prioritization of love were in direct opposition to the prevailing culture of Western America of the mid 20th century. The typical man of the time was hard, brutal and defiant — not sensitive, thoughtful and caring. It might be tempting to compare the masculinity of the time favorably with today’s, but those in my father’s generation were often deeply resentful of their own fathers, who knew little more than the value of a hard day’s work at the factory, in the forest or on the sea. Fatherhood to them was nothing more than putting meat on the table and raising the boys to do the same, using whatever methods they deemed expedient (hence the origin of contemporary family law, which is really a child of the Age of Industry). It was a transitional time that was hard on young men, and some of the misbehavior the “liberation” from the old ways engendered is understandable in that light.

Sometimes, when we look at problems we face today, it’s tempting to blame a few people, or some particular group for causing the problem. In the case of the destruction of the family, however, I don’t think we can pin the blame entirely on feminists, or any other political group for that matter. That isn’t to say they have no responsibility for what’s happened, but they’ve been opportunists more than anything else. They were riding a wave that has been in motion for two centuries now. It’s a wave we couldn’t have escaped even without them, and it’s one we’re going to have to deal with whether they remain a political force or not.

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