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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1925: So Big by Edna Ferber

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Plot Summary:

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.

My thoughts:

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.

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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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