1925: So Big, by Edna Ferber

Literary Merit:

A lot happens at the end of the book, much of which I’m still processing, but overall the sense I have right now is that Edna Ferber wrote the novel that Booth Tarkington set out to write in The Magnificent Ambersons.  Those of you who remember my reactions to that book may be a bit surprised….certainly this isn’t the way I’d envisioned starting this review, even as recently as 50 pages from the end of the book.  But in the end, this was a two-generation story about families growing up in the new American age.  Economic and social roles shift, and the author casts her lot firmly with one side while exposing the flaws of the other.  At the end of the book, a realization is reached by a young man who’d lived the wrong way.  I could have written that synopsis of Ambersons and been pretty much spot on.

What makes Ferber more successful in telling this story is a bit complicated to explain, and multiple reasons are overlapping here.  First of all, she’s too smart to hitch the main plot to a character as unlikable as Georgie Minafer—Selina DeJong is a delight (but sufficiently human to reveal some flaws), and her son Dirk DeJong (he of the “realization”) is at least a reluctant rich young jerk rather than an exuberant one (and he’s very conscious of not really wanting to be a jerk).  Second of all, Ferber is very sensible about the changes of modern life: her criticisms of “the modern woman” are smart in two ways.  She acknowledges clearly that not all modern women fit the stereotype (and is honestly fairly supportive of many advances for women), and even those modern women she opposes are described with a certain admiration.  She understands why so many young women angle for money and connections, why they put on such airs and play such games—she doesn’t approve of their antics, but she sees them as people like her in a way that Tarkington could never have managed.

What bothers me about Ferber is her willingness to draw lines sharply against Dirk.  The last portion of the novel leaves Dirk under absolutely no illusions regarding the fact that he’s made the wrong choices.  The woman who “loves” him has no real appeal, and the woman he loves (or thinks he does) is too down-to-earth to have anything to do with him.  His mother’s life as an asparagus farmer is richer and more exciting than his life among the rich, famous, and well-traveled in the best circles of Chicago society.  But it seems pointless to have shown him all this: the woman he loves (Dallas O’Mara) makes it plain to him that it’s too late for him to change.  That, at the ripe old age of his late 20s/early 30s, there’s nothing he could do to become the kind of honest, hard-working, tough young man that would ever really attract a woman like her.  I could understand this with Newland Archer—the whole point of that book was the inexorable gravity of his society pulling him down, with no opportunity for him to achieve exit velocity.  But Ferber didn’t do that with Dirk–he’s still close to a mother who is as grounded as anyone can possibly be (Dallas loves her), and as recently as a few years ago he was a young man fresh out of college and passionate about architecture.  If he doesn’t escape his life because he “can’t” or “won’t”, Ferber doesn’t take the time to make that choice believable.  In the end, Dirk’s decision to settle back into the life he hates seems inexplicable, and really a contrivance for the sake of ending the book the way she wants it to.

As I noted in an earlier review, there were really two books here.  I understand why she tied them together—putting Selina and Dirk in contrast to each other creates some meaningful opportunities.  But in the end, I felt she never really finished Selina’s story, and Dirk’s story feels only barely begun.  Ferber has enough talent (good characterization, a decent ability to describe social settings, dialogue that’s often a bit witty or insightful…admittedly a style that’s sometimes a bit too sentimental) to write a really good novel, and a much better personality and attitude than some other authors (poor Tarkington…I never miss a chance to bash him) which means her tone and her instincts are generally good.  She just tried to cram too many ideas into one novel, which leaves me a bit unsatisfied at the end of what was a pretty engaging read.

Historical Insight:

The latter half of the book is where this really shines.  Ferber’s good at depicting the growth of a “society life” in young, brash Chicago–she neither steals from Wharton (which would be easy to do: surely Ferber knew Wharton’s work well) nor strays so far from it that it makes Chicago feel foreign to the New York environment I’m accustomed to.  And this book is in the fascinating position of describing flappers just as they’re coming onto the scene (Ferber’s a bit wicked about them, but also a bit admiring), and Ferber’s attitudes about modern life gives her the advantage of guessing that the stocks-and-bonds boom time can’t last forever.  The book gave me enough of 1920s Chicago to sink my teeth into that I could add my knowledge about 1929 and what followed, to give a real poignancy to her story.  Ferber didn’t know that Dirk would be wiped out and penniless in 4 years, but I do.

There’s also a definite exploration of what Ferber thought it meant to be “American”—maybe more explicitly than any of the authors has since Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer confronted the differences between their worlds—and I think I was able to get a sense from her of what being American felt like at the height of the 1920s.  It’s nice to have ridden this train up from the Great War…I can sense the Crash coming but I don’t have to confront it just yet.

Rating:

I give So Big the rating “Read this after you’ve read about the 1920s”.  It’s definitely a good book, and definitely worth reading if you have any interest in the time period/setting.  But I think you should have dipped your toes into the 1920s somewhere else before this: whether you’re reading history, memoir, or another novel (like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby), I think it will make this book a much richer experience when you do so.  Ferber’s good enough that I’m willing to seek out other books of hers, too.

The Last Word:

As I’ve said already, I think Ferber’s been awfully direct in this book about what she values about America and what she disapproves of.  She likes hard work, and artists who worship beauty, and good sturdy architecture.  She disapproves of imported Parisian fashions, and “posh” accents, and investment banking.  These lists could be much longer, but I’ll let Edna Ferber take us to the end of the review by indicating a bit more about Americans herself, in a conversation that Dirk DeJong and the woman he loves, the artist Dallas O’Mara, have while sitting in Selina DeJong’s farmhouse parlor, watching Selina talk animatedly to young Roelf Pool, an old friend.

Seated next to Dirk, Dallas said, in a low voice: “There, that’s what I mean.  That’s what I mean when I say I want to do portraits.  Not portraits of ladies with a string of pearls and one lily hand half hidden in the folds of a satin skirt.  I mean character portraits of men and women who are really distinguished looking—distinguishedly American, for example—like your mother.”

Dirk looked up at her quickly, half smiling, as though expecting to find her smiling, too.  But she was not smiling.  “My mother!”

“Yes, if she’d let me.  With that fine splendid face all lit up with the light that comes from inside; and the jaw-line like that of the women who came over in the Mayflower; or crossed the continent in a covered wagon; and her eyes!  And that battered funny gorgeous bum old hat and the white shirtwaist—and her hands!  She’s beautiful.  She’d make me famous at one leap.  You’d see!”

1919: The Magnificent Ambersons, by Booth Tarkington

Only explanatory note: I’m realizing “Historical Value” isn’t the right phrase–really what I mean by that category name is how useful/revealing I think the book can be about its time.

Literary Merit:

It’s hard to encapsulate my feelings about The Magnificent Ambersons as a novel: Tarkington’s clearly in possession of some talent for description, and there are times when the book is very engrossing.  But there are major weaknesses here I’ve complained about all along–most critically, that Tarkington invests us in an implausible “redemption” storyline for the one character no reader can reasonably be asked to empathize with.  Furthermore, Tarkington’s narrator gives us too many little nudges that there is something “right” about Georgie’s perspective–I think Booth was a lot more taken with Georgie than I am…that he saw him as a more complicated guy, a guy who represented a side of America that Booth was a little sad to lose.  If I’m not careful, I can go way overboard with the symbolism–Georgie’s being struck by a car after being the spokesperson for how the car was ruining America represents….I don’t have the heart to go through with it.

An interesting discovery (post-read) was that this is volume 2 in a trilogy of works about this fictitious Indiana town–a trilogy Tarkington called “Growth”.  The other two books are long since forgotten and out of print.  I think it may explain a lot, though, regarding why the book seems to drift–particularly, why the narrator sometimes seems a lot more interested in the changes in the town than in the plot which dominates the book.  It is a book (I would say) without subplots, unless we consider the effects of industry on the town to be a subplot (but if so, how plodding a subplot can you choose?).  So we’re left with a lament regarding the late industrial revolution, and the story of an arrogant jerk of a young man who miraculously learns to be good.  Not gripping.

The end of the novel, I want to particularly call out for its poor taste.  Tarkington uses a seance to force Eugene Morgan to change his mind about Georgie…and then realizes mid-seance he’s overplaying his deus ex machina, and bails out by creating a scenario in which Morgan realizes it was all a sham.  (But then if he didn’t believe the medium, why does he still follow the dead Isabel’s “advice”?)  And the final moments seem to emphasize Morgan’s change of heart, not Georgie’s…in the end, Georgie is automatically assumed to be gracious (he is kind to the Morgans, but we never see his decision/epiphany that allows him to make that change in his personality), while we follow Morgan’s struggle in great detail (when, frankly, I didn’t think Morgan’s character needed to redeem himself for me at all).  It just rings false–Tarkington thinks we’re going to be torn between Eugene and Georgie, seeing both men as at fault.  But Eugene is a patient, kind, forgiving, and generous man whose hope of romantic happiness is destroyed by a petulant child who refuses Eugene even a final visit to the love of his life on her deathbed.  If, after all that, he resented Georgie….well, who among us would blame him?

Historical Value:

I’ll say this: Tarkington describes Gilded Age Middle America very well.  If you want to envision what life was like in Grovers Corner, this book will do a fair job (at least in describing the lives of the wealthy).  And the reflections on the positives and negatives regarding progress are of some importance.  But in the end, Tarkington’s narrow vision just didn’t grip me.  By the end of His Family, I understood and cared about New Yorkers from the 1910s in a way I never had, despite that book’s real limitations (largely Poole’s sermonizing).  This novel just didn’t bring me to a historical place like that–a place where I could be at once fascinated by and connected to people and their world.  There were moments when I came close, but the characters and their interactions simply don’t allow Tarkington to explore the tensions of a growing city in anything like the depth he wants to.

Rating:

Still on the ridiculous scale of “Never read this book” to “You must own this book”, I give The Magnificent Ambersons a “You probably shouldn’t bother with this book”.  I hate to say it, but I think you’ll do much better to read other things–I can’t identify anything this book does well that isn’t done better in a number of other works.  It’s not a bad book, and Tarkington’s honestly a writer with some skill, but there are too many books in the world for me to say you should invest yourself in this.

Last Word:

It’s only fair to give Tarkington and Georgie the last word, and I’ll let them pontificate on the one message I found most interesting–the message regarding what it means that this small Indiana town is becoming part of the modern world.  From near the end of the book, Georgie lies in a hospital bed and thinks…

“…What a clean, pretty town it had been!  And in his reverie he saw like a pageant before him the magnificence of the Ambersons–its passing, and the passing of the Ambersons themselves.  They had been slowly engulfed without knowing how to prevent it, and almost without knowing what was happening to them. … Nothing stays or holds or keeps where there is growth, he somehow perceived vaguely but truly.  Great Caesar dead and turned to clay stopped no hole to keep the wind away; dead Caesar was nothing but a tiresome bit of print in a book that schoolboys study for awhile and then forget.  The Ambersons had passed, and the new people would pass, and the new people that came after them, and then the next new ones, and the next–and the next—“

1918: His Family, by Ernest Poole

I’d like these reviews to take on a sort of regular structure over time, but as yet I’m not sure what that will be.  The only thing I’m sure of is wanting to divide a review between the literary merits of a novel, and its historical value.

Literary Merit:

His Family was certainly an enjoyable read in many ways–Poole creates characters that are sympathetic and at least somewhat complex (particularly the central figures of Roger, Edith, and Deborah).  The dialogue slips at times: Poole’s decision to write a novel of “important ideas” occasionally turns his characters, particularly Deborah, into placeholders that allow him to dig into particular attitudes regarding society in the modern era.  But I’ve seen a lot worse, and normally I didn’t feel this damaged the book.  He does have a tendency to get “preachy” through the mouths of characters, and when he wants the narrative to create an emotional reaction, he tends to simply pile on phrase after phrase in one long sentence.  Sometimes I was carried along by those phrases and felt the intended emotion, but only perhaps half the time.

Plot is probably the book’s greatest weakness: Poole rests most of the forward motion on the (oft-repeated) idea that Roger promised his wife on her deathbed that he would remain involved in their children’s lives, but struggles to connect with them.  This is a good character trait, or at least one I found compelling, but Poole allows all the other conflicts to come and go as a result.  Laura sparks tension but then disappears for ten chapters.  Deborah’s over-commitment to her job is resolved rather quickly.  The novel seems to end at least three times before it does, always because Poole thinks he needs to stay with Roger’s story to the very end, but I think he may have miscalculated there.

Overall, though, this is exactly the kind of a book that a book club could enjoy, if it was still in print.  There’s nothing overly complicated about how the story works, how it’s narrated, or who these people are.  There are recognizable character types, and plenty of room for disagreement by readers (whether any of the characters behave rationally, for instance, or whether or not Roger should have blackmailed Deborah into her marriage to Allan Baird as he did).  I can’t say I end up seeing this as a “great novel” in the way that Gatsby or To Kill A Mockingbird are–it lacks some of their depth, it tries a little too hard to sell the reader on a single moral.  But I enjoyed reading it, and if I ever stumble into an affordable used copy, I’d almost certainly buy it.

Historical Value:

The added value of these older books, I’m realizing, can be pretty powerful when read in historical context.  Poole likes returning to the question of whether the new century will be better than the old one–whether the Great War will mean the end of all wars or the beginning of war without end.  As I mentioned in a previous post, scenes took on much deeper resonance with me because I could read this book in the light of the Depression, WWII, and all the other events of the modern era.  I’d say that this book is particularly good when trying to turn our attention to immigration–for me, seeing the modern immigration debate in the context of the passion surrounding immigration in the 1910s was an interesting exercise, and is something that will stick with me.  Of all the characters in the book, I think my favorite was one who appeared in a single scene: a poor young Polish librarian who, when he had only nine dollars in his pocket, spent seven of them at the city court to change his name to Isadore Freedom.  That’s what it meant to him, and that fact alone, read in context of the horrifying conditions in the tenements, reminds me how complicated this is.  Isadore had come to a country full of prejudice and squalor (as far as he was concerned), and yet the freedom it meant to him became a part of his identity.  Isadore (and others like him) helped this book become a way for me to see the social problems of American cities at the turn of the 20th century: other books could do this better, I have no doubt, but this book does it well enough that I’m grateful for it.

Rating: I hate these, and have no notion of the scale I’ll operate on.  But for now, on a scale of “Never Read It” to “You Must Own This”, I’d give His Family a “You Would Enjoy This”.  I know most people will never pick it up, but if you do, you’ll meet some people worth remembering, and think about some things worth considering, especially here at the end of the so-called “modern” era that the Gales were watching emerge.

Last Word:

The lingering message of this book regarding the childishness of humanity is interesting, especially because it becomes increasingly obvious that Poole intends this to cut both ways.  It is the childishness of these people that blinds them to other people’s needs, that makes them feel hesitant and ill-at-ease in nearly every new situation, that causes them to lash out in fear when they feel threatened.  But because people are childlike (or at least these people in middle-class America in the 1910s), they rebound more quickly from setbacks, they see more possibilities than they have a right to see (and achieve them), and they can still experience the wonder of being alive that is so powerful in the young.  Even Roger is able to tap into this youthful power: I still don’t know whether Poole meant to say that these people had something special in being “young”, or whether all people ought to see themselves as “young”.  I will keep wrestling with this notion downstream I think–these certainly can’t be the last “childish” characters I encounter.  We’ll see if the Ambersons (though “Magnificent”) manage to be as juvenile.

And I gave Ernest Poole and Roger the first words when I started the book–only fair I let them finish with this excerpt from the very end of the book, as Roger prepares for his death:

“…and with a breathless awe he knew that all the people who had ever lived on earth were before him in the void to which he himself was drifting: people of all nations, of countless generations reaching back and back and back to the beginnings of mankind: the mightiest family of all, that had stumbled up through the ages, had slaved and starved and dreamed and died, had blindly hated, blindly killed, had raised up gods and idols and yearned for everlasting life, had laughed and played and danced along, had loved and mated, given birth, had endlessly renewed itself and handed on its heritage, had striven hungrily to learn, had groped its way in darkness, and after all its struggles had come now barely to the dawn.  And then a voice within him cried,

‘What is humanity but a child? In the name of the dead I salute the unborn!'”

“I was thinking of hungry people…”

“…Hungry, oh, for everything–life, its beauty, all it means. And I was thinking this is youth–no matter how old they happen to be.”

One hurdle I have to clear at the outset–I’m realizing I just have to talk about these books as though you’ve read them, even if you haven’t.  I’ll try to identify characters and situations clearly, and not give away every crucial plot point, but to dig into what I’m thinking, there’s no vague way to do this.

As I get further into His Family, it’s becoming clearer that one of the critical problems of the rapid pace of modern life (as far as Ernest Poole is concerned) is that no one really grows up.  Everyone is constantly a beginner at life–Roger Gale, the aging patriarch, is racist, perhaps sexist, certainly not comfortable in 1910s New York.  But his racism feels less like a deep angry fear, and more the casual intolerance of a child who’s never played with a particular group of children.  At first it seemed this would be a book about how old-fashioned, conservative Roger can’t accept the world, while his daughters try to enlighten him.  But it’s steadily clearer that the kids are just as clueless–Edith who hopes somehow to mimic her deceased mother (and can’t accept the world’s changing any more than her father can), and on the other end of the spectrum Laura, whose desperate quest to find a world devoid of responsibility and full of fun would be at least amusingly understandable in a teenager, but seems recklessly doomed in the late twenty-something that she is.

Deborah, the middle child, the schoolteacher, seems the most grounded so far with her desire to reach out and save the lives of these tenement children (“all Jews and Italians”, according to Roger).  But she is anchoring herself to a belief in 19th Century progress that must have already seemed quaintly deluded in a world that was slowly grinding progress into death and blood in the trenches of Northern France.

The underlying problem for me, of course, is whether our culture is any better at dealing with modernity.  Are we less likely to behave childishly, to seek escape in entertainment or tradition or the hope of progress?  Am I?  And does Poole see these people for who they are, or is he as deluded as the rest of them–is he sympathetic to Deborah or Edith, or even, heaven help us, Roger?  I wonder.  Roger’s about to visit Deborah’s school with her–we’ll see if I can pick up the signals there.

(Side note: The children in these turn-of-the-century novels always talk so preciously…the dialogue of the adults seems far more natural to my ears than the kids around the dinner table.  Have children changed so much, or is it just that literary conventions about children have changed?)