Children and Others
Sometimes a Great Notion
James Gould Cozzens’s serious critical reputation has been shaky since the publication of By Love Possessed in 1957 and this collection of seventeen stories, many published in Colliers and the Saturday Evening Post during the 1930s, will do nothing to strengthen it. He does not know much about how to secure the effects of economy and epiphany characteristic of the modern short story since Chekhov; the writing is as stiff and flat as a board; the backward-looking, fine-old-American-family prejudices are harder to ignore in a brief tale than in a long novel, possibly because in the former each sentence has to do more work.
He writes badly: that is, with a very uncertain grasp of either English or American prose idiom and syntax, and he tends to sound facetious when he probably doesn’t intend to. Describing his mother’s sex life a narrator speaks of her as a woman
very little constrained in acting out her part of woman as regularly as she and the night and the double bed gave rise to fresh urgence [sic] in the doctor to play the man.
Perhaps the intention was to suggest a decent reserve in combination with some affectionate irony. The actual effect achieved is something altogether different. And yet the story from which the passage is excerpted, “Eyes to See,” is the best in the book. A prep-school boy comes home to attend his mother’s funeral and meets Cousin Eben, a bearded man whose father had led a utopian sect in upstate New York which practiced a form of free love for unexceptionable religious reasons. Lying in bed that night after the funeral the boy hears Eben and his wife making love in the next bedroom. Grief, a sense of the strangeness of one side of his familial tradition, a powerful upsurge of sexual feeling come together in the boy’s consciousness and provide a genuine illumination for him and for the reader.
More often in Children and Others Cozzens settles for conventional middleclass reticence and threadbare pieties. The pieties are particularly evident in a set of stories about life in a Connecticut private school during and shortly after the first World War. The place is modeled on the worser kind of small English public school, with a fatuous headmaster who goes by the name of Pater, a set of prefects who carry sticks and are permitted to beat the smaller boys for infractions of school discipline, and an elaborate mystique of big games and football heroes. The tendency of the stories as a group is to support the authoritarianism of the institution on the ground that it is a good thing for boys in the long run. This tendency, unfortunately, leads to some embarrassing truisms which happen not to be true. For instance:
Real rebels are rarely anything but second-rate outside their rebellion: the drain of time and temper is ruinous to any other accomplishment.
Cozzens has been described by one critic as “a novelist of intellect.” On the evidence of Children and Others this is surely wrong; for his mind confines itself entirely to the same received ideas most unreflecting Americans live by. He believes in the importance of being a mature person, in the “pathetic impracticality” of socialism, in the immaturity of conscientious objectors, and so forth. If you have a stock idea in your head or a stock response in your heart take it to Cozzens and he will rubberstamp it for you.
Mr. Kesey’s first novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1960), was a very beautiful and inventive book violated by a fifth-rate idea which made Woman, in alliance with modern technology, the destroyer of masculinity and sensuous enjoyment. As the story went—it is told by a schizophrenic Indian half-breed of heroic size who gradually recovers his wits while events unfold—a busty, frigid, ex-Army nurse called Big Nurse holds total control over a men’s psychiatric ward in a Federal hospital in the American west. This contemporary Circe figure wields the entire panoply of new psychiatric drugs, electric shock, lobotomy and lobectomy, along with up-to-date hygienic procedures and concepts (group therapy, the therapeutic community, etc.) to brainwash and dehumanize the patients. When her authority is challenged by the ribald, back-slapping “psychopath,” McMurphy, she temporarily loses ground but eventually maneuvers McMurphy under the flashing knives of the brain surgeons, where he is made into a living corpse. Yet his rebelliousness has roused many of the other patients from psychotic apathy, and, as the book ends, these disciples are securing their releases from the hospital in ever-increasing numbers.
The point is that McMurphy isn’t a true psychopath; rather, he is the familiar saintly clown who, in this case, lays down his life for his sick friends after promulgating a gospel of existence as horseplay, sexual frolic, gambling and drinking, fishing and hunting. But Big Nurse is a melodramatic device standing for an arbitrary, indefensible anti-feminine argument. Several men in the ward, including the narrator, have been shoved into mental illness by domineering, castrating mothers or wives. A good woman, predictably, tends to be a prostitute, and the good life envisioned beyond the confines of the ward consists in running loose with men and ocasionally consorting with prostitutes while drunk. As lives go, it is boyish, even doggy, and, like life back in the psycho ward, it amounts to no more than a half existence.
After one closes Cuckoo and after its narrative magic begins to wear off one starts asking certain questions. Why didn’t the physicians in charge of the hospital throw this bitch out of her job? What about all those patients in the women’s psychiatric ward—would they be cured by becoming tarts? Why, when foreign literatures so often represent woman as the guardian and guarantor of a sensuous, homely, and humane order of values, do American books so often represent her as the antagonist of these values? I have never been able to swallow Leslie Fiedler’s assumption that our literature has been written, for the most part, by the boy-men or innocent closet queens. What, finally, and in the light of his attitude toward relations between the American sexes, would become of Mr. Kesey’s talent when he turned to write his second novel?
That novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, is a massive book scaled to its setting in the rainy, tall-tree, logging country of coastal Oregon. The author has a perfect knowledge of the forest, the weather, the rushing rivers, the birds and animals, the work routines and hidden lives of the people of that region and puts these things onto the American literary map once and for all. The book reminded me of Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! in its hyper-saturated style, its use of the devices of delayed disclosures and of witnesses who try to puzzle out the meaning of an action which is substantially complete as the book opens, its adumbration of classical and biblical archetypes involving titanic confrontations of male siblings, its ambition to convert a slab of social history and the story of a family into a legend about the destiny of western Americans from the last generation of pioneers to the latest generation of rugged individualist entrepreneurs and Indian-hemp-smoking college boys.
But for all its virtuosity and ambition Sometimes a Great Notion is flawed, like its predecessor, by the author’s inability to imagine a world where whole men, and women who are neither authoritarian bitches nor decent whores, can get together and make a whole life. At the end of the book the college boy, Leland Stanford Stamper, joins his entrepreneur half-brother, Hank, on some log floats, help him get the logs to market down a dangerously flooded river, in defiance of an entire town of striking lumberjacks. Meanwhile Hank’s wife, Viv, looks through the family photo album, makes out correctly that there is no place for her in the Stamper future, and leaves town on a bus, alone and bound for nowhere in particular.
Now we are neither in the God-suffused world of the Old Testament nor with Uranus and Zeus on Mount Olympus, so we may well wonder what we are witnessing in human terms relevant to the contemporary American milieu which Kesey so vividly specifies. Evidently it is the enshrinement of hard masculine defiance—grounded in despair. The brothers prefer a gesture of blind reaction on a log raft to all the opportunities for reconstruction, revision, and self-reappraisal they leave behind them on the river bank. They are heroic but only in a boyish way. Their fate is not tragic and it does not encompass the American fate or give a deeper imaginative meaning to the idea of the final closing of the western frontier. Instead the book is personal and eccentric, and it is question-begging with respect to the large social and economic issues it raises. It is the kind of deeply perplexed and ambiguous book into which many conflicting meanings can be read and the same people who hailed The Fountainhead as a masterpiece will no doubt again disgrace themselves by citing Sometimes a Great Notion as the beginning of a new era in American writing.