1920 Near Miss: Java Head by Joseph Hergesheimer

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.

My thoughts:

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.

The Java Head from the title refers to the house built by Jeremy Ammidon, an aging owner of a shipping business who made a name for himself as a ship master in the early days of trading with the Indies, and who is now faced with changing ships and changing trading practices, while he’s stuck in the old days when he was on the ocean. Meanwhile, his son, Gerrit, has returned from his latest voyage with a Chinese wife, and a chest of opium for one of the citizens of Salem. While the opium goes unnoticed by the town, the Chinese wife does not, and she becomes a figure of mystery, suspicion, and sometimes contempt. She remains stolid and emotionless in the face of this culture shock, but in the process of keeping herself above the culture of Salem, finds it difficult to adjust to it.

There is a lot of drama and conflict that unravel from these, and other problems presented in the novel, and the characters are slowly drawn out and their complexities more fully realized as they face these challenges. But even more interesting than the characters is the structure of the novel. It seems like a cinematic structure that wasn’t used until decades later: each chapter is from the point of view of a different character, and the transitions between one chapter and the next occur at those points when two characters’ paths converge, as though that interaction has pushed the reader from one character’s thoughts to the other in the process of that interaction. And so we wind around, learning more about each of the characters as we are made privy to their own thoughts and desires, while a larger drama ties them all together within the bounds of the novel.

When asked in 1962 what his favorite novel was, the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett said, “one of the best I ever read was Hergesheimer’s Java Head.” It’s a shame that Hergesheimer did not win the Pulitzer, and that he is almost unknown now, because Java Head is a well-crafted novel populated with complex and well-written characters. The ways in which people hurt each other and hurt themselves are on full display, though it’s not always as gloomy as all that, and there are real moments of charity and compassion between characters, as well. It is a study of culture clash and what it does to the people on both sides.

Favorite passage:

The wisdom lay in this–that here she must remain Manchu, Chinese; any attempt to become a part of this incomprehensible country, any effort to involve herself in its mysterious acts or thought, would be disastrous. She must remain calm, unassertive, let the eternal Tao take its way.

Why you should read it:

The structure and characters alone make this novel worth reading. The ideas of cultural prejudice, while not in the same forms as they were, are still alive today, and this book takes a look at what that culture clash does to different people. Also, Hergesheimer’s style is considered to have influenced Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby considerably.

Currently reading: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

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