As I explained in my last post, Joseph Hergesheimer’s Java Head missed it’s chance for the Pulitzer Prize by four letters: the difference between “whole” and “wholesome.” So what is it about Java Head that’s unwholesome? The illegitimate child? The opium addiction? The characters who contemplate murder? The suicide? I suppose any of these things could have qualified as “unwholesome” in 1920, but the combination of them all is probably what convinced the 1920 Novel Jury that this novel did not meet the criteria to be considered for the Pulitzer Prize. But as a novel, it is a fantastic construction.
From the back cover:
Java Head is a novel of the American merchant marine at the beginning of the great clipper ship era. It is laid in Salem, when that city was still a port rich with the traffic of the East Indies; a story of choleric ship masters, charming girls, and an aristocratic Manchu woman in carmine and jades and crusted gold. There is a drama as secret and poisonous as opium, lovely old gardens with lilac trees and green lattices, and elm-shaded streets ending at the harbor with the brigs unloading ivory from Africa and the ships crowding on their topsails for Canton. It is a romantic novel-and yet true-rather than a study of drab manners; there is no purpose in it other than the pleasure to be found in the spectacle of life supported by high courage and made beautiful by women in peacock shawls.
First of all, book descriptions from 1919 are awesome. Especially when they have to clarify that this romantic story is about truth instead of drab manners. Secondly, the description doesn’t really do the book justice, in my opinion. Yes, romance is at the heart of the story; it is the primary conflict for many of the characters. But this is a book about culture conflict: between East and West, young and old, Christian self-righteousness and Taoist resignation to fate. And none of them come out as a clear winner when all the cards are on the table.