Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and widely considered to be Edna Ferber’s greatest achievement, So Big is a classic novel of turn-of-the-century Chicago. It is the unforgettable story of Selina Peake DeJong, a gambler’s daughter, and her struggles to stay afloat and maintain her dignity and her sanity in the face of marriage, widowhood, and single parenthood. A brilliant literary masterwork from one of the twentieth century’s most accomplished and admired writers, the remarkable So Big still resonates with its unflinching view of poverty, sexism, and the drive for success.
So Big takes the concept of success and the new industrial aristocracy and the idea of the American Dream and promptly turns it all on its head. The novel follows Selina Peake, the daughter of a gambler, who lives a life of alternating poverty and wealth until her father dies and leaves her at age 18 to figure out a new life for herself without him. A country teaching position that she takes only so she can get enough experience to get a job back in the city, instead leads her to become a farmer’s wife with a son she adores and tries desperately to make understand the virtues of beauty and creativity and self-expression. Like any child, however, Dirk DeJong misses the point entirely, gives up his early and yet unprofitable career as an architect to sell bonds, quickly joining the new aristocracy until he finally comes to the devastating realization that he had missed the point entirely, that money is not the only, or even best, measure of success.
The novel jury member William White is correct when he says the novel appealed to his “devilish lust for propaganda,” for the book is indeed propaganda, propaganda for creativity and the arts in the face of a growing aristocracy focused on emotionless finance and business. Though Selina’s son Dirk is on display the most in the novel, the best example of Ferber’s ideas about the changing face of business and finance are best seen in the supporting characher of August Hempel, and his children and grandchildren. Hempel, who began as a butcher in Chicago, soon created a sprawling meat packaging empire, but still spends most of his time in the pens with the animals and the farmers and the people on the ground. He complains that his son-in-law’s “clothes never stink of the pen like mine do” because he sits all day in the office in the plant, never bothering to see the work going on in the ground, and he Hempel predicts that his grandson “won’t go within smelling distance of the yards” when he comes into the business.
It is this detachment that Ferber argues against in the novel. Selina is the ideal figure in the novel because she cares about and works her land, but does it in her own style. When she first sees the farms as an incoming teacher she remarks that the cabbages are beautiful, much to the humor of the other farmers, but she retains a sense of beauty in her work, and a sense of progress. She uses new techniques and plants new and different vegetables, upsetting the traditional farmers along the way, but in doing so, is able to turn a poor plot of land not only into something profitable, but something beautiful as well.
The book seems to recall Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons in many ways. Both George Minafer (the protagonist of Ambersons) and Dirk DeJong, are described as “jeunesse dorée,” the gilded youth of aristocracy, and it’s not meant complimentary by either Tarkington or Ferber when they write it. But whereas Minafer finds his family money dwindling in the light of new industrialism until he’s able to find a bit more of his true self through hard labor, Dirk fulfills the opposite pattern, but toward the same disaster. Raised on a poor farm constantly in debt, it is through the struggle of his mother (and at times the assistance of others) that he is able to go to college, find a job, and make a name (and a salary) for himself in the finance world. But it is a shallow world he finds himself in, and he would have done well to have learned from George Minafer’s descent into poverty before he abandoned creativity and self-expression in pursuit of his own wealth.
Ultimately, there is a complexity to the characters that makes the novel work. They are not all cardboard cutouts, standing in for bigger ideas, but real people with real ideas and ambitions and mistakes. Ferber does not condemn money or the aristocracy outright, instead providing characters like August Hempel, meat packaging emperor, who is still down to earth. Nor is progress or technology condemned, as Selina employs many new technologies on her farm in her pursuit of beauty. Even Dirk, who betrays beauty for wealth when he gives up architecture, has some redemption when he realizes the mistakes that he made, even if he doesn’t know any good way to undo them. Though Ferber’s ideals of beauty and creativity and self-expression are treated as propaganda, there is no clear or correct way for any of the characters to achieve it, except perhaps to surround yourself with people who are not like you. As one character says about her perfect dinner out: “I like ‘em mixed up, higgledy-piggledy. A dining room full of gamblers, and insurance, agents, and actors, and merchants, thieves, bootleggers, lawyers, kept ladies, wives, flaps, travelling men, millionaires–everything. That’s what I call dining out.” It is an argument against stagnation, against so surrounding yourself with people who do and think the same things as yourself, that you’re able to branch out and discover more about the world, and beauty, and yourself. So Big is perhaps overly sentimental in this regard at times, but I can’t help but liking it nonetheless.
“They’re all trying to be something they’re not. And that’s such hard work. The women were always explaining that they lived in Chicago because their husband’s business was here. They all do things pretty well–dance or paint or ride or write or sing–but not well enough. They’re professional amateurs, trying to express something they don’t feel; or that they don’t feel strongly enough to make it worth while expressing.”
Why you should read it:
A fascinating counterpart to Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons (and a better read in my opinion), Ferber deconstructs the myth of the American Dream and writes an unconventional success story for the era that remains in many ways relevant even today.
Currently reading: Balisand by Joseph Hergesheimer