American Dreams, 1924: ‘So Big’ by Edna Ferber
Edna Ferber’s Pulitzer-winning So Big was the bestselling novel of 1924. This class-conscious novel with a feminist heroine looks better the older it gets.
Four years after the publication of So Big, the bestselling novel of 1924 and a Pulitzer Prize winner, Edna Ferber found herself in a scene that might have been lifted from that novel. E.B. White wrote an item about it in the New Yorker:
Miss Edna Ferber, the novelist, who lives in Central Park West, may not vote this year, because of something that happened when she registered prior to the last election. The clerk was taking down the facts about her: name, address, age, and so on. When he came to the question of occupation he didn’t bother to ask her about that. He simply glanced up at the author of So Big and Show Boat and then wrote “Housewife.”
If Ferber’s novels are any indication, it was not the first time she had encountered this particular strand of misogyny. The heroine of So Big, a young schoolteacher from Chicago named Selina Peake, endures a similar series of slights upon arriving in High Prairie, an impoverished, patriarchal Dutch community where she has been hired to teach the unbathed children of farmers. When she tries to join a conversation between two men at dinner she is chastened for her assertiveness. When she contributes agriculture advice, gleaned from reading the most modern scientific texts on the subject, she is greeted with mockery. Later, after marrying a farmer, she is told that she cannot sell her vegetables at the market in Chicago without a male chaperone. “That ain’t for womans,” says one merchant, who might be speaking for all of the men that she encounters.
So Big is a lumpy pillow of a novel, misshapen but cozy. It follows Selina from naïve adolescence to a premature middle age, before abruptly shifting its attention to her son, Dirk, as he moves to Chicago and establishes himself in high society. Ferber frustrates expectations, and often pivots between characters, storylines, and ideas in sudden bounds—all of which is another way of saying that So Big is consistently surprising. It is also surprisingly funny, wise, and even elating.
The novel is named after Selina’s nickname for her son, whom she calls “So Big” or simply “Sobig.” It is a peculiar choice for a title because Dirk only emerges as a character in the second half of the novel, and even then he feels like an afterthought. Ferber is mainly interested in Selina’s noble, if tragic transformation from a high-spirited, high-minded schoolteacher to a downtrodden farmer’s wife, who finds redemption through hard labor and determination. When the action shifts to Dirk’s adventures as a young businessman in Chicago, Selina largely vanishes from the story, but her indefatigable spirit remains more tangible a presence in the book than the diffident Dirk, who never can figure out who he is or what he stands for. He wants to be an architect, but the war has just ended and materials are too costly. More pressingly, he wants to be rich. When Dirk abandons his artistic aspirations to become a bond trader, even Selina seems to lose interest in Dirk. Her sympathies lie instead with Roelf Pool, one of her first pupils, who has run away from his farm to become a painter in Paris. Ferber makes us root for Dirk, only to reveal at the end that Roelf is the son that Selina wishes she had. It is not a satisfying or happy ending, but it is an honest one.
Selina is a proto-feminist hero, a character far ahead of her time, but Ferber is not entirely able to shake the trappings of her own era. So Big was published only four years after the passage of the 19th Amendment. For all of Ferber’s iconoclasm, she is not revolutionary. When Selina works hard, she is said to work “like a man.” When a group of pioneering businesswomen attend financial planning classes, Ferber makes it clear that their handsome instructor is a greater draw than his lessons about amortization. And for all of Selina’s free-spiritedness and intelligence, she marries Pervus, a dumb, plodding, barely literate farmer because she is overcome with passion at the sight of his strong hands. (“She wanted, crazily, to touch them. She wanted to feel them about her throat.”) When Selina says that her life “doesn’t count,” and that she is living only for her son, she does so without irony or regret. She believes sincerely that her life, in itself, does not count; its value is measured in the influence she has on the men she loves.
What seems at first to be novel about gender inequity gradually reveals itself to be a parable about social class. There are indications of this early on, particularly in a scene in which Selina tries to teach Pervus to diagram sentences. Selina’s instruction is so obviously futile, and has such little effect, that the reader is forced to agree that education is wasted on this man. It’s not his fault—he is a subsistence farmer, and must slave in order to survive. It is too late for him to transform himself into a scholar, or even to learn a new craft. “What good does it do a truck farmer when he knows Constantinople is the capital of Turkey?” asks Pervus. “That doesn’t help him raise turnips.” There may be hope for the next generation, but Pervus’s point sticks. The men and women of High Prairie are too poor to afford the leisure required for education. They must work perpetually in the fields, hunched over and miserable, until they “take on the very look of the rocks and earth among which they toiled.”
In opposition to the crude, if occasionally sympathetic farmers, are the specious millionaires whom Dirk befriends as a young bond trader. The older ones are overweight, with hard, impassive faces and illiterate speech; the younger men are college-educated but indolent; they doze in their private offices most afternoons. They hand out brochures to potential investors that say things like “You are not dealing with a soulless corporation.” When Dirk tells Selina about this high business world, she’s horrified:
“Dirk, do you know sometimes I actually think that if you had stayed here on the farm—”
“Good God, Mother! What for!”
“Oh, I don’t know. Time to dream…no, I suppose that isn’t true any more. I suppose the day is past when the genius came from the farm…”
Given the novel’s striking juxtaposition between farmers working their skin off in order not to starve, and businessmen making millions without raising a finger, it’s tempting to conclude that Edna Ferber saw the coming crash—that she understood, more clearly than most of her contemporaries, how unfair the system had become, and how unsustainable. But So Big doesn’t need such justifications. It is big enough already, and even now, 90 years after its publication, it is only growing bigger.
Other notable novels published in 1924:
The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs
The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy
The Tattooed Countess by Carl Van Vechten
The Old Maid by Edith Wharton
The Glory Hole by Stewart Edward White
The Able McLaughlins by Margaret Wilson
Bestselling novel of the year:
So Big by Edna Ferber
About this series:
This monthly series will chronicle the history of the American century as seen through the eyes of its novelists. The goal is to create a literary anatomy of the last century—or, to be precise, from 1900 to 2013. In each column I’ll write about a single novel and the year it was published. The novel may not be the bestselling book of the year, the most praised, or the most highly awarded—though awards do have a way of fixing an age’s conventional wisdom in aspic. The idea is to choose a novel that, looking back from a safe distance, seems most accurately, and eloquently, to speak for the time in which it was written. Other than that there are few rules. I won’t pick any stinkers.
1902—Brewster’s Millions by George Barr McCutcheon
1912—The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson
1922—Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
1932—Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell
1942—A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell
1952—Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
1962—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
1972—The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin
1982—The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux
1992—Clockers by Richard Price
2002—Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
2012—Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
1903—The Call of the Wild by Jack London
1913—O Pioneers! By Willa Cather
1923—Black Oxen by Gertrude Atherton
1933—Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West
1943—Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles
1953—Junky by William S. Burroughs
1963—The Group by Mary McCarthy
1973—The Princess Bride by William Goldman
1983—Meditations in Green by Stephen Wright
1993—The Road to Wellville by T.C. Boyle
2003—The Known World by Edward P. Jones
1904—The Golden Bowl by Henry James