1925 Near Miss: Balisand by Joseph Hergesheimer

Plot Summary:

Richard Bale, last in the long lineage of Bales of Balisand, and hero of the Revolutionary War, finds his family inheritance of aggression and a short temper coming into conflict with the burgeoning and evolving American political scene.

My thoughts:

At its most basic, Baslisand is the story of a man trying to goad a man into a duel so he can kill him. Which does reflect the opinion of one of the novel jurors that it had an “unimportant thesis” and that the “hero is a cad.” Fortunately, the novel is much more than just a story of a man plotting to kill another man. It’s a novel of the early years of America. It’s a novel of one man who finds both the artistic nature of his mother, and the hotheaded, duel-centric nature of his father inside him, often at odds with each other.

Richard Bale, of Balisand, comes from a long lineage of antagonistic duelists in an age when duels are going out of style and duelists are viewed as little more than murderers. He is a hero of the American Revolution, and a Federalist, in an age when war heroes are going out of favor, and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans are rising into power. Much like the aging patriarch of Hergesheimer’s Java Head, Richard Bale is a man from a different time, a man who is unable and unwilling to adjust to the changing social climate. According to Hergesheimer, Bale “had neither interest or patience with views which–idiotically–differed from his own.” He’s often contemptible, always argumentative, and does not shy from violence.

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The 1925 Novel Decision

In 1925, the novel jury kept the chairman from the previous two years, but brought in two new members to complete the triumvirate. The three jurors could not come to any consensus on which novel should win the prize. William A. White, one of the new members, argued strongly for Edna Ferber’s So Big to be recommended for the prize, while the other newcomer, Oscar Firkins, wanted Joseph Hergesheimer’s Baslisand to be recommended (Hergesheimer had been denied the prize in 1920 for Java Head because his novel was not thought to fit the prize’s wording stipulating a novel that represented the “wholesome atmosphere of American life”). Both members were willing to call Laurence Stalling’s Plumes a second best, but the chairman, Jefferson Fletcher, objected to Plumes as the recommendation. In the jury report, Fletcher suggested that the prize be split equally between Balisand and So Big, to represent the split decision the jury came to, but added that he preferred Balisand for the prize himself.

In a supplemental letter included by Fletcher to the Pulitzer Prize Fund, William White explains in detail his thoughts on the novels. He says that Balisand, though artfully constructed, had an unimportant thesis and “besides, Balisand’s hero is a cad.” He states that his choice of So Big for the prize is possibly due to his “devilish lust for propaganda” and that he appreciated that the novel argued, “America needs creative spirit in something other than finance; that we should express ourselves in beautiful things, beautiful architecture, beautiful lines and that beauty is the sad and vital lack of America.”

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