So Big by Edna Ferber is going to take some time for me to mull over. It was an enjoyable novel, albeit scattered. It was published in 1924, and won the Pulitzer in 1925. It is a novel that strives to find beauty in the ordinary. It rejects modern materialism while seeking to expose the new capitalist class for its empty promise of both money and happiness. So Big is a novel that highlights the tension between city and country, between Chicago and the farm, and the gulf between honest tradesmen and hypocrites. The story is loosely based on the life of Dutch immigrant, Antje Paarlberg (a famous immigrant from the Netherlands who fled his native country as a result of high taxes, a progressive church, and disease).
The first half of the book tells the story of Selina Peake, a fun-loving girl who is raised by her charming but gambling-addicted father. They travel throughout the United States until his death when she moves to the high prairie in Illinois (based on the area of South Holland, Illinois). Selina takes a job as a country school teacher among the midwest Dutch immigrant community. She is clearly out of place. She had initially moved to the Illinois farmland to save up enough money to relocate to Chicago- where the world is bright and exciting! However, Selina soon finds the rolling farmland of the high prairie to be beautiful, even the cabbage fields of Illinois. She notices a shy boy named Roelf Pool -an artistic child to whom she gives reading lessons. On one dramatic night at a local musical, the town begins ‘bidding’ on the young and eligible ladies. All the men clamor for Selina, much to her surprise, until a quiet but strong and tall widower named Pervus DeJong wins her over with what little he owns. Selina begins giving him reading lessons, as well, and soon they fall in love and are married. Meanwhile, Roelf Pool flees the country for France to pursue an art career. Selina weeps for joy for Roelf, her first crush. It is bittersweet.
In the second half of the book, Selina gives birth to a boy named Dirk DeJong. Everyone asks her ‘how big is the baby?’ to which she responds ‘S-o-o-o-o big’ -hence the nickname of her son “SoBig” and the title of the novel (even though Dirk is not actually a large boy). Years go by and their little farm struggles. One day, Pervus comes home from selling their vegetables in Chicago. He falls ill and dies, leaving Selina all alone to tend to the farm. She starts making business decisions. She travels all alone to the bustling Haymarket Street in Chicago to sell her vegetables. Eventually her asparagus finds a market in the city, and the farm becomes successful. She sends Dirk away to College so that he may be educated in all things refined and beautiful (at today’s University of Chicago). When he leaves school, he becomes an architect in Chicago, with dreams of building big and beautiful structures, like the elegant classical structures of Europe, but he soon becomes swayed into a financially successful career as a bond salesman. He is urged to make the change by Paula, a married woman who claims to love him. After all, she says to Dirk, where is the utility in beauty? You can make just as much money working out of a box as a cathedral.
Selina becomes distraught at her son and his rejection of his architectural career. He has neglected beauty and art for an empty life of American capitalism. His firm focuses on selling bonds to vulnerable widows or single women who do not know otherwise. The time period is at the height of the economic expansion, the Gilded Age -an age of loose credit and plenty of money. Dirk eventually falls in love with another woman -a young and carefree artist named Dallas. One day, Roelf Pool comes to Chicago to visit with an old European General, and they all decide to visit the DeJong farm outside the city. Dirk feels out of place as both his mother and Dallas clearly love Roelf and his life in Europe. Roelf’s hands are rough from years of his craft. When she was young, Selina’s father used to say there are two kinds of people: wheat and emerald. Selina says Roelf is emerald, Roelf says Selina is wheat -both beautiful. Dirk “SoBig” DeJong returns to Chicago, dejected and alone at the end of the story.
Selina is the hero of the novel, and Ferber asks us to contrast her successes with Dirk’s choices. Selina is the innovative, free-spirited, lover of beauty. She does not listen to the popular mythology of wealthy urbanite life. She pursues her own success and happiness, finding both, while Dirk is sadly absorbed by the passing wave of glamour (bond-selling in Chicago). Still, Selina is a complex character. As a young and carefree woman, she is open to all the world offers, and as a consequence her life takes an unexpected turn -she becomes a struggling farmer’s wife, and then a widow. Yet she is happy. In Ferber, we find the American dream in something simple, like appreciation for the beauty in rows of Midwest cabbage plants, or the successful harvest of asparagus. Yet it is complicated. As with other early winners of the Pulitzer, So Big, addresses the issue of change in American life: changing technology, trends, progress, and so on. Yet it reaffirms that hope and happiness can prevail over these frightening changes. There are still people who are “emerald” and “wheat.”
Apparently there was a minor controversy among the members of the Pulitzer board about whether or not to split the award in 1925 between Edna Ferber’s So Big and Joseph Hergesheimer’s Balisand, a novel about a Revolutionary War hero. A second choice follow-up was Laurence Stallings’s Plumes, a story about a soldier who returns from World War I disabled and disillusioned. Eventually the advisory board nominated So Big, and today Joseph Hergesheimer is largely forgotten.
William Allen White, owner and editor the Emporia Gazette in Kansas, had served on the Biography Juries in 1923 and 1924, and this was his first time serving on a Novel Jury. He was a friend and colleague of Edna Ferber -both of them being Midwesterners, members of the same literary circles, and Edna Ferber had even dedicated one of her novels to William White. He advocated greatly for Ferber’s So Big to win the Pulitzer, but he ultimately conceded that Balisand was acceptable as the winner since his fellow Juror was adamantly against So Big. The other two Jurors in 1925 were both professors of comparative literature, and one was O.W. Firkins of the University of Minnesota who was disappointed in White’s advocacy for a friend’s novel. However, in the end the advisory board rejected Balisand and chose So Big. Professor Firkins was so incensed at the decision that he returned his $100 honorarium check afforded to all Jurors for their work. The 1925 selection was tense to say the least. William White later served on the Pulitzer Board for six years.
Ferber once called So Big a “theme” and a “story on the triumph of failure.” In hesitation about getting the book published Ferber once wrote: “Who would be interested in a novel about a middle-aged woman in a calico dress with wispy hair and bad teeth, grubbing on a little truck farm south of Chicago?” But nevertheless Doubleday loved the book, and it sold hundreds of thousands of copies in its first year of publication alone.
Who Is Edna Ferber?
Edna Ferber (1885-1968) was once one of the more popular names in American literature. Her most notable books include So Big (published in 1924 and Pulitzer Prize winner in 1925 -it was also made into a silent film in 1925 and several remakes followed), Show Boat (published in 1926, a multi-generational story of a traveling theater steamboat as it floats along the Mississippi River during American Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, and up to the Jazz Age -it was later made into a successful musical), and Cimarron (1929) -the story of a family during the Oklahoma Land Rush in the Cimarron Territory where they build a successful newspaper company. Cimarron (you can read my review of the film at this link) was made into an Academy Award film in 1931 (and again in 1960), though I must say the 1931 film is forgettable at best, another miss for a ‘Best Picture’ winner from the Academy.
Edna Ferber lived through the development of the west, traveling frequently due to her father’s blindness and line of work. She lived all throughout the Midwest and her mother was forced to take on work, as a result of their father’s illness. This left the children to be raised by “hired girls,” like Willa Cather’s famous bohemian, Ántonia. Edna Ferber was raised in a Jewish family, and she worked at various newspapers after abandoning her dream of becoming an actor. She faced considerable anti-semitic discrimination during her lifetime, and this is reflected in some of her works, but she remained a lover of America and Americans. After winning the Pulitzer, she floated in literary circles in New York City and gained quite a following, which counted Theodore Roosevelt as a member, among many others.
Ferber never married and she had no children. She died of stomach cancer at her home in New York City at the age of 82.
Here are some notable passages from So Big:
“In his way and day he was a very modern father. ‘I want you to see all kinds,’ he would say to her. ‘I want you to realize that this whole thing is just a grand adventure. A fine show. The trick is to play in it and look at it at the same time.’
‘The whole thing?’
‘Living. All mixed up. The more kinds of people you see, and the more things you do, and the more things that happen to you, the richer you are. Even if they’re not pleasant things. That’s living. Remember no matter what happens, good or bad, it’s just so much’ -he used the gambler’s term, unconsciously-‘just so much velvet.’ (page 6 -Selina’s father speaking to her).
“She was aware of a kinship with the earth; an illusion of splendour, or fulfilment. Sometimes, in a moment’s respite from her work about the house, she would standing the kitchen doorway, her flushed face turned toward the fields. Wave on wave of green, wave on wave, until the waves melted into each other and became a verdant sea” (page 71).
“More than ten years ago she had driven with Klaas Pool up that same road for the first time, and in spite of the recent tragedy of her father’s death, her youth, her loneliness, the terrifying thought of the new home to which she was going, a stranger among strangers, a warm little thrill of elation, of excitement – of adventure! That was it. “The whole thing’s just a grand adventure,” her father, Simeon Peake, had said. And now the sensations of that day were repeating themselves. Now, as then, she was doing what was considered a revolutionary and daring thing; a thing that High Prairie regarded with horror. And now, as then, she took stock. Youth was gone, but she had health, courage; a boy of nine; twenty-five acres of wornout farm land; dwelling and out-houses in a bad state of repair; and a gay adventuresome spirit that was never to die, though it led her into curious places and she often found, at the end, only a trackless waste from which she had to retrace her steps painfully. But always, to her, red and green cabbages were to be jade and burgundy, chrysoprase and porphyry. Life has no weapons against a woman like that” (page 97).
“‘Yes. All the worth-while things in life. All mixed up. Rooms in candle-light. Leisure. Colour. Travel. Books. Music. Pictures. People -all kinds of people. Work that you love. And growth -growth and watching people grow. Feeling very strongly about things and then developing that feeling to-to make something fine come of it…That’s what I mean by beauty. I want Dirk to have it'” (page 123 -Selina’s idea of beauty for Dirk).
Ferber, Edna. So Big. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1995.