Your Favorite Male Character
Hank Stamper of Sometimes a Great Notion
Okay, this may turn out to be the longest post I’ve made so far. You may say my only literary man-crush is here in this absolute of greatest male literary characters. And when I say absolute, I mean (for me) there was and will never, ever, be a greater character in all of literature or even film or any other medium that may present itself in the future. I’m that sure. And if you know me, I am not a man given easily to black and white ways of thinking. My tumblr handle is kaleidoscope view, for godsake. But all the same, Hank Stamper is such a great character I find myself having difficulty deciding where to begin. First of all, Hank is not only a wonderful character for readers, but he is one of the most fully developed characters I’ve ever encountered and as a writer, watching how Kesey develops Hank from the start of the book to the finish is extremely instructive.
At the beginning of the book, we are introduced to the name Stamper and the house of the Stampers. The house sits on a river, on a peninsula of land that juts out farther than any other part of the shore. The river has not yet eaten away this part of land that the house sits on. We learn that the Stamper clan has bucked the logging strike of the union and tried to make a run of logs down the river, thus alienating themselves from the rest of the town. In this masterstroke, Kesey makes the river and the house into metaphors for the town and the Stamper name, respectively and at the same time introduces us to the strongest of this cussed breed, Hank Stamper.
In an interview, Ken Kesey said that he set up the two main characters of the book as the two different parts of his personality. The character of Hank Stamper is the part of Kesey’s personality that came from Oregon, that was raised by dairy farmers, that was a state-champion wrestler, that was full of rugged individualism. It’s this fact that I think first drew me to Hank Stamper–he is a character who is not necessarily book smart, but he operates on another level of intelligence–he operates on instinct, on his feel for things, and is very cunning.
Physically, Hank is one of the “10 Toughtest Hombres This Side of the Rockies” as Hank says in the book. He is the holder of all the swimming and football records at his old high school. He held a double-edged axe straight out to his side for 8 minutes and 37 seconds because he heard that some lumberjack in Washington did it for 7 and a half. He is the only person who can swim across the Wakonda-Auga river and live to tell the tale. But as the book goes on, we see that this isn’t only speaking of the physical realm–Hank is also very tough emotionally.
I think my favorite quality of Hank’s that we see throughout the book is his stubbornness. To read the book and see Hank’s character go through his struggles is to see the triumph of the entire human will. The strength of Hank’s will is what I think inspires me most about the book. No matter what everyone else wants him to do, he stays true to his own vision. This is seen through many different scenes of the book–whether he is holding an axe parallel to the ground, rigging the top spar of a tree, or fighting a guy who outweighs him by 30 pounds, Hank Stamper is one tough motherjumper.
One of the most interesting aspects of Hank’s character is the way he interacts emotionally with people. Many times he acts oblivious to certain things that people say or how they act, but through his narration, we see that he is actually very observant and insightful, and that he has his own reasons for appearing to be obtuse or downright rude. Though Hank is clever, we also see that at times those who know him see through his subterfuge, moments where Joe-Ben (Hank’s best friend and cousin) becomes the narrator and he describes to us exactly what he sees Hank doing and explains it, usually with an example from the past or with an explanation taken directly from Hank. It is completely owing to Kesey’s talent as a writer that Hank comes off as such a compelling character.
Though Hank isn’t a great intellectual, he is a constant thinker. Throughout the book, we are given opinions that Hank has on why he feels such a competition with everyone around him, with the members of the community, with his brother, and even with the river that is constantly lapping at his shores. We also see Hank consider just what constitutes strength, the different kinds, and even its very existence. We also see that Hank is intelligent through the way he thinks constantly about his own thinking, analyzing exactly how he got to a point where he had to resort to violence or some other means that he didn’t really want to resort to.
I think I’ve said enough to justify my choice here, but I’m going to end my post with a quote from Hank, one of the best quotes from any character in any book:
“Listen…listen to me, Mister. I’m just as concerned as the next guy, just as loyal. 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’!”