The answer to such questions, of course, is almost invariably “Yes,” whether or not the person answering the question can be honest enough to say so. (I’m not saying people are always willing to marry for money—just that if you’re getting asked that question, I’m inclined to think there’s a reason you are.) Certainly it’s “yes” for Paula Arnold, the young woman being questioned by young Dirk DeJong. She’s a family friend (daughter of Selina’s best friend from her childhood) and has been raised in fabulous wealth thanks to the success of her successful “pork baron” grandfather, August Hempel: she says frankly (and unashamedly) to Dirk that it would take a millionaire to keep her happy, and even though Dirk’s attractive and bright, he simply couldn’t provide for her at the level she’s accustomed to.
It’s become Dirk’s story now—I have to admit, I think Ferber may have tried too much with this novel. Dirk’s a very different person than his mother, and having invested half the novel in Selina (who’s almost absent for much of the latter half), it’s hard not to feel that the whole Dirk storyline is a distraction to the reader. I see some opportunities for drawing those plots together (which will come in at the end of this post), but it’s too often a bit disengaging, like two reasonably solid novellas that have been hastily stitched together.
I do have to emphasize that solidity–the novel isn’t shifting into a weaker story by following Selina’s son. Dirk is interesting to watch, especially in the light of the novels I’ve already read on this journey. He seems to want to be Georgie Minafer (the unredeemed version) or Newland Archer. Despite his interest in, and talent for, architecture (thanks to training at Cornell), he’s not moving up fast enough, so he connects himself to the easy life of investments and the stock/bond trade. It’s the early 1920s, after all, and that spiral seems to lead upwards forever. Paula, who’s married a much older man for money (and unhappily, it should be noted), is constantly pushing him into this world, using her rich husband and rich family to make connections for Dirk and raise him into one of the brightest young stars in the city. She’s in love with him, and he with her, it seems—it’s only a matter of time before their relationship is the scandal of Chicago. (Sidenote: This aspect of the novel is in some ways strangely reminiscent of the story of Frank Lloyd Wright, which I read in a novel, Loving Frank, that was good enough to be almost worth recommending to you.)
There’s an obvious and depressing trend to these young Chicago men. The old rich men, at least, had the virtue of industry and passion for what they did. August Hempel may be a rich old tyrant, but there’s something vital about him, and the rest of these imperial barons who built the town up from the mud. Their children and grandchildren, by contrast, seem to value riches without effort, style without substance. And Dirk wants to live that way, as well. But isn’t this the way every generation sees its children? Ferber’s implicit criticisms of young bond-traders are surely not much different than the criticisms levied against the young businessmen of the 1950s or the young guns on Wall Street in the 1980s. Is this the real Chicago of the 1920s, or just the narrative that we hand down in every generation—that the Golden Age is dead, that “the great men are gone and we shall not see their like again”?
All this setup, though, leads to a truly wonderful scene. Selina learns from Paula’s mother that there’s talk all over town about Dirk and Paula, and the affair everyone expects will manifest. The next time Dirk comes home, she asks him to come sit in her room that evening, and she confronts him about the course his whole life is taking. Their conversation is masterfully done—Ferber allows both characters to speak as frankly and sincerely as two people would in such a situation. When they’re melodramatic, it’s because people in such situations overplay their hands. When they leave things unsaid, we hear them all the more loudly. Selina is appalled that her son would abandon real and important work—the making of beautiful buildings—for something as common and base as the pursuit of wealth through the buying and selling of little pieces of paper. And Dirk cannot fathom why his mother thinks so little of him, or fails to see the importance of changing to adapt to the new world. At one point, she asks him (as she often did, long ago) how big he is, now. He says “So big,” and holds his thumb and forefinger mere millimeters apart. And in his heart he thinks himself very “big” indeed. In context, it’s a very powerful moment.
And though Selina is angry with Dirk (and I understand that anger), I think she’s unfair to him. She wants him to pursue his dreams. She thinks he would have done better to work on her farm than go off to the financial markets. But Selina’s journey from seeking the “hard and thrilling” life to the “hard but honest” life wasn’t exactly a bed of roses. She could never be the comfortable farmer she is today if a land-owning farmer (Pervus DeJong) hadn’t married her, and if a rich man (family friend August Hempel) hadn’t offered her an interest-free loan after her husband’s death. I’m not saying anything against Selina, who’s worked her fingers to the bone for that farm. But without two successful men (well, one who was well off enough to have a decent farm, and one who was truly and epically wealthy) she’d never have gotten where she has. Is it so hard to see that Dirk would look at the course of such a life, and decide that it would be better to be August Hempel than to be Selina DeJong? And because he doesn’t understand either of them, really, he chooses a line of work that offers the path of seemingly least resistance. It’s the American way. And in a few years, it will utterly destroy the American economy…if he only knew. I’m almost at the end, now: a review will almost certainly be my next post.