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!”

“Do you mean to tell me you’d marry a man simply because he happened to have a lot of money!”

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.

“My life doesn’t count, except as something for Dirk to use. I’m done with anything else.”

Oh, Selina.  There’s a particular brand of martyrdom that she seems to specialize in—the pointless, wallow-in-self-pity, abdicate-responsibility-for-happiness kind.  Selina’s hardly unique….I’m sure we’ve all encountered people who see the world in this way.  I can’t deny it’s gotten her and Dirk through some rough times.  But if she’s going to help her son, she can’t just reject her own happiness at every turn.

While they’re poor and starving, several people offer to help them, but Selina has too much “dignity”.  Is she right that it’s undiginified?  Furthermore, when you and your child need food, does it make any sense to turn down offers of help because you don’t accept “charity”?  There’s a remarkable amount of pride here—her desire to do nothing but help her son herself is the sort of thing that leads to trouble, both in a larger sense of where she’ll get food, and on a deep internal level.  Maybe I’m wrong, but I find that kind of self-rejecting pity a really dangerous thing.

In fact, I’d say she sets her son up for failure.  By the time he reaches eighteen, she’s so cared for his every whim that he doesn’t seem fully independent.  He could have been Georgie Minafer, but thank goodness Ferber pulls him back from that abyss.  He’s just insensitive to the middle-aged woman  student he befriends (and casts aside) at college.  He doesn’t believe in himself enough to stand up to peer pressure. I worry that this latter half of the book will show a real turn for the negative—an exploration of how mild riches and comfort can spoil a young man.

There’s more to say, but it’s late.  I’ll just note that there’s a lot of interesting stuff about college ca. 1910, as we follow Dirk through those bright years on campus, and that he’s headed back East to what I can only assume is the conflict that will set the last stages of the plot in motion.

“To her, red and green cabbages were to be jade and Burgundy, chrysoprase and porphyry. Life has no weapons against a woman like that.”

It’s nice to be back at my Pulitzer readings: Selina DeJong continues to be a plucky character, and someone I find it easy to cheer for.  As the above quotation rightly notes, there is something unsinkable about her—I don’t know if it’s true to say that the ability to find beauty in simple things is sufficient insulation against the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, but it’s an attractive thought.  Selina certainly doesn’t seem to give in to despair very easily.

And this is a woman with plenty to despair about.  Her marriage to Pervis DeJong was a mistake from the beginning—he loved her, true, and she loved him.  But neither of them knew how to show that love in ways the other would understand, and both of them seemed to think of the other as a sweet but naive person in need of “looking after”.  Love may conquer all, but not this kind of love.  We deceive ourselves too easily.

Pervis’s death is expected (the book begins, after all, with Selina alone with her son, Dirk “Sobig” DeJong), and not particularly sad.  It’s not that he’s a villain; he’s just an obstacle to the plot, and he’s cold enough outwardly that it’s hard to feel a connection to him.  I find his farm as isolating as Selina does, and I am as reluctantly relieved as she is to think that her world will become larger.

It’s a scary world, though, that she steps out into.  She has to figure out how to get goods to market and make sufficient sales to stay alive.  This is a world that doesn’t respect women in such a role, and the road to Chicago is long and dark.  No one will buy from her, and she and her son sleep out in the cold.  It’s fascinating to look at the Haymarket through her eyes–a chaotic flood of peddlers and maids dashing about buying fresh produce.  It hasn’t struck me before how profoundly supermarkets have changed our lives, but I’m certainly thinking about it now.  This was a tough experience, though, watching Selina sink deeper into the mire and believing that there would be no way out of disaster.  A delightful and somewhat unexpected discovery, though, clutches her out of danger, at least for the moment.  I’m hopeful that the story’s taking a good turn for her and little Dirk—this is a story where I’d be really glad to get a happy, storybook ending.  We’ll see if I get it.

“You can’t run away far enough. Except you stop living you can’t run away from life.”

Maartje Pool, for an overworked and thoroughly task-focused farmer’s wife, offers a very philosophical perspective to Selina on the eve of her wedding.  A true one, too, I’d say.  Selina’s sudden panic at the thought of tying herself to farm life in High Prairie forever is certainly understandable, but the heart has its reasons, I suppose.

In all honesty, I can understand her heart’s reasons in this case, as she prepares to marry the sturdy and kind Pervus De Jong.  He steps in to spare her embarassment in public in a surprisingly sweet way, and then pays her for reading lessons.  He’s a simple man, whose run of bad luck (whether we consider crop failures, the deaths of his first wife and their only child, etc.) is shockingly consistent.

I do like Edna Ferber’s work to keep the story grounded in reality. The courtship of Selina and Pervus is a bit too easy, but even there, Ferber offers a lot of context (especially in the attitudes of the Pool family, including Roelf, the 13 year old boy who is not-so-secretly in love with Selina) that keeps it from being a fairy tale.  And Selina’s life after the wedding is the rough, exhausting, never-ending drudge of a life that every woman in the community seems to lead.  These Great Lakes farms do not bear the storied amber waves of grain…they are lucky if good cabbages can be produced.  And Pervus is never lucky.

He refuses to take his wife’s advice on planting—her experience in it is all book learning, of course—preferring to trust the same techniques and practices his father used (and perhaps his father before him).  But he’s not a monster.  Pervus is exactly who he always was—a simple, kindly man who sincerely loves his young wife (and their newborn son, Dirk), but someone who has no concept, even, of the life that Selina wants to lead.  She is desperate to go back to “culture” and “society”, but she can’t even get Pervus to repaint their wagon.  They may be in love, but this was a poor match.

I don’t know if the tale is intended to be cautionary, but it certainly serves that purpose.  Selina, a young thing and full of passion, thinks that the rapid beating of her heart when Pervus is near will be enough.  I don’t think it will.  Even if she is loyal to him, and he to her, they will never really fulfill each other’s needs.  He will never be interested in the books she reads (let alone read any himself, for them to talk about), and she will never be the homemaker that Maartje Pool is.  I hate to be a downer about this…to say that love isn’t the all-conquering force that pop music and Hallmark want us to believe it is.  There’s no other way to account for the reality of relationships, though.

Oddly, this book is titled So Big, which, as noted before, is the nickname young Dirk De Jong gets as a toddler (his mother asks him “how big Baby is” and gets that stock response).  So, where will Selina, our central character for the book’s first 110+ pages, disappear to?  I know that novelists play with the idea of which character is the real protagonist; an idea perhaps most famously stated in the opening line of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”).  But given the otherwise straightforward nature of this book’s plot, it’s hard to see why and how Dirk “So Big” De Jong will supplant his mother—and honestly, it’s hard for me to imagine being able to transfer my emotional investment in her to him unless it’s done really skillfully.  We’ll see.

Oh, and I have to mention that the brief passages we get of her schoolteaching (before she’s married) are horrifying.  Maybe all teachers at the time really did demand their students to “parse” (or “diagram”) sentences on the fly.  But it strikes me as a rotten way to teach—people reminisce about the good old days, sometimes, but educationally, I ‘d say it appears to me we should be glad to get well clear of 1890s public education (at least in rural areas).

“There was pork for supper. She was to learn that there always was pork for supper.”

It’s tough times for our little Selina, whose gambler father was killed by a stray bullet fired by a jealous wife, as she heads off into the prairies at the age of nineteen to teach in a one-room schoolhouse and live with a Dutch immigrant family.  Well, “tough times” is a bit of an exaggeration.  Selina, whose imagination always runs away with her (“It was after reading Pride and Prejudice that she decided to be the Jane Austen of her time.“), had envisioned a life as a sort of transplanted Katrina von Tassel in a Midwestern version of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  As it turns out, life among Dutch farmers has a lot more to do with dried blood fertilizer and cabbages than it does Gothic horror/romance (at least for now).

It’s a fun little book…we’re still light-years away from the title character, Dirk “So Big” De Jong, who is as yet not even a twinkle in Selina’s eye.  Still, I’m happy following her around in this light little story.  I can’t pretend that Ferber is breaking new ground with the plot—naive young schoolteacher from the big city comes to the farmland to find that there is much her sophisticated education hasn’t taught her…gee, do you think these simple rural folk will grow to love and accept her, and that one of their strapping young lads will sweep her off her feet in rugged yet sentimental fashion?  But Ferber is good at other things, particularly creating believable and interesting characters, and writing decent dialogue.  She manages to write fractured English for these Dutch immigrants that sounds very believable (not like the faux Scottish brogues that Margaret Wilson slathered all over her novel….which I have to stop talking about, or my blood pressure will never drop back down to normal), and makes them quaintly amusing without (quite) turning them into caricatures.

It’s another book whose real point is obscure at the outset.  I’d suspect the simplistic plot I mentioned above, but that’s clearly only going to be enough to get her married off.  How does she end up a washerwoman back in Chicago, raising a ten year old boy (apparently alone)?  Ferber’s given me just enough to pique my interest, and not enough yet that I can connect the dots.

What’s odd to me is that the family doesn’t speak much Dutch at home, as far as I can tell.  I’ve heard that immigrant parents were pretty militant about enforcing English on their children to hasten assimilation, which makes sense in a diverse urban environment, but was it really also the practice out in a rural community where seemingly most of the inhabitants share a common ancestry?  Perhaps I need to read a bit more about this prairie society before jumping to any conclusions.

“Until he was almost ten, the name stuck to him.”

“Stuck to him”—I like that.  Not stuck “with” him.  There’s a little hope glinting off of this, the first sentence of the 1925 winner, Edna Ferber’s So Big.  The name in question is, in fact, the title–the young man had been nicknamed “So Big” and later “Sobig” by his mother…poor fellow.  That little detail strikes me as a bit precious, but the opening of this novel still makes me sure that I’m headed somewhere better than I’ve been.

Why?  It’s the little things.  The book, after introducing “So Big” (whose “real” name is Dirk DeJong), turns to the childhood of his mother, and in describing the authors she grew up reading (a generally interesting and wide-ranging list—at least, I’d say Lord Byron and Charles Dickens are two different worlds), Ferber provides the following  description of a favorite book: “that good fairy of the scullery, the Fireside Companion, in whose pages factory girls and dukes were brought together as inevitably as steak and onions.”  It’s not a sentence that makes the heart weep for joy, but there’s something delightfully cozy about the image, and the pairing of storybook romance with “steak and onions” was unexpected and fun.

Dirk’s mother, Selina Peake, is an interesting little girl, and Ferber’s taking some time to set things up with her.  I’m looking forward to this book because it seems to be set in a real urban environment that’s not New York—a first for me, in this run of Pulitzers.  Chicago at the turn of the century is a fascinating place, and it seems like Ferber will take on the story with a nice tone and a wry sense of humor.  For example, in describing Selina’s education in an all-girl’s school in Chicago, she makes the following statement:

Of men, other than her father, she knew as little as a nun—less.  For these cloistered creatures must, if only in the conning of their Bible, learn much of the moods and passions than sway the male.  The Songs of Solomon alone are a glorious sex education.  But the Bible was not included in Selina’s haphazard reading, and the Gideonite was not then a force in the hotel world.

For me, that little paragraph showed a bit of the author’s personality.  I don’t think she’s going to stay out of the way in this book (unlike, say, Edith Wharton), but I think it will be an interesting style of narration, rather than irritating.  I’m cautiously optimistic…I guess we’ll see how it goes.  More on So Big in a day or two!