Chapter 58: “So Big” by Edna Ferber (1925)

“He sat looking down at his hands—his fine strong unscarred hands. Suddenly and unreasonably he thought of another pair of hands—his mother’s—with the knuckles enlarged, the skin broken—expressive—her life written on them. Scars. She had them.”

21856For so long, I had been so close to finishing So Big—the 1925 Pulitzer-winnning novel by Edna Ferber. Finally, though, yesterday afternoon, I finished the last page and officially wrapped it up.

This is a very, very short read. One that could be finished up in, oh, several hours probably. And what’s more—it’s an easy read. Ferber, unlike so many other authors I’ve come across in this project, doesn’t exasperate her audience with glossy metaphors and long-winded pontification. She’s very Hemingsway-esque in her ability to get to the point, which I really appreciated.

However, it was the lack of story and the piling on of Ferber’s own paranoia of the changes taking place in her society that made this book so, so hard to get through.

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Once again, here in 1925, we see another one of these “the times they are a-changin’ and I’m not sure how I feel about it” sort of novels. Ernest Poole, Edith Wharton, Louis Bromfield all had their chance in the early years of the Pulitzer Prize to air their grievances about mass-delivered electricity, the automobile, and the impending dismantling of the American family, values, freedoms, and way of life. Hell, Booth Tarkington got two chances at it!

Edna Ferber, while she does everything in her power to let the reader know that she is not at all happy about the direction her beloved City of Chicago is heading, takes a very different road to the same destination as her Pulitzer-winning peers.

See, while the authors mentioned above wrote in this sort of pseudo Americanized style of Victorianism, Edna Ferber headed straight down the path of modernistic realism. She ignores the pomposity, the self-importance, the fluffy language of Victorianism and instead describes the gritty and harsh realities of Southside Chicago and the hardships of farming in Chicago suburb New Holland. Even when she’s writing about the posh lifestyles of Chicagoans living on the North Shore (in areas like Evanston and Winnetka), she does so from the perspective of an alien to that world.

However—and this isn’t a stylistic complaint—, her writing creates a clear divide between two visions of what makes America great. Furthermore, she clearly stands on one side of the gap—a desperate clinging to the past.

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This is the story of two people: Selina DeJong and her son, Dirk (aka, “SoBig”). Selina is the tireless widowed mother working the farm with her bare hands and experiencing a life of unrelenting hardship; Dirk is the son whom she cared for and raised on her own, provided for on her own, the son she wanted nothing but the best for, and the son she eventually came to resent because of his massive success in a field that she didn’t think was fulfilling or gratifying.

To be fair, I didn’t really have a problem that story—it’s a classic story, one that’s been told a million times, one that is true to life. Furthermore, I can really appreciate Ferber’s bravery in writing a story about a single mother who takes on a man’s job in a man’s world and succeeds. I would even go so far as to call Selina DeJong the hero of the story, because, in many ways, she is.

What I had a difficult time with, though, was Ferber’s treatment of young Dirk. This kid did everything right: he respected his mother, he helped her work the land, he was studious, he took life seriously, he was ambitious and aspiring, he pursued tough jobs and nailed them, he was massively and financially successful, he put himself in the position of being able to take care of his mother in her older years, and for what?

To be shat on by Edna Ferber and her anti-progressive paranoia.

Ferber does everything she can to paint Dirk as a sort of Richard Cory—a well-to-do depressive in a very dark place—but it really doesn’t work in the story that she wrote, and it’s really unjust. If Dirk had been an ass throughout the book, if he was disrespectful, if he was an awful person, then yes, by all means Edna, feel free to throw him under the bus. But Dirk was a great guy that I came to really admire! I admired his tenacity, his vision, his rags to riches story.

Ferber, though… She really has it out for the man. She has him fall in love, then makes his love interest unattainable; she gives him a great job, only to make everybody else in the novel give him the cold shoulder for it; she gives him massive success, only to devalue his wealth; then, at the very end, she gives him a golden opportunity to reconcile his differences with his mother who clearly disapproves of his wealth and lifestyle, only to leave him alone in a penthouse.

Selina, on the other hand, is lavished with affection and praise from every character in the novel throughout the novel. And, even though Ferber puts Selina through the wringer with hardships, toils, pains, and striving, there is no doubt that Selina is construed as Ferber’s view of life (even though the old ways are hard, are outdated, are not glamorous, the old ways are still the best ways).

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In a story of this kind, there really shouldn’t be any winner or loser; the story doesn’t call for it. In this particular novel, though—Edna Ferber’s So Big—, Selina DeJong is the clear winner and Dirk DeJong is the clear loser.

That’s what makes the book such a sham. I believe that literature can and should be used as a way to spread a message, to preach a truth, to endorse an idea, but it should be done in a well-written way. This book just didn’t execute what it set out to as well as it should/could have.

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