Edna Ferber’s remarkable Chicago novel So Big

257443So Big, Edna Ferber’s 1924 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, is a wonderful book. I question why it was not listed and taught among the rest of those American classics. I imagine it would be if it weren’t written by a woman with a woman as its main subject, though it tries to fool you in the beginning that it is about Dirk De Jong. Really it’s all about his mother Selina, and not in the creepy oedipal way male authors would have done it.

She is amazing.

Selina grows up alone with her father–a small time poker player who reminds me strongly of one of the Maverick brothers (But is it Brett or is it Bart?). They lead a roaming, eventful, varied life of highs and lows. His death shatters all that, and she goes to become a small teacher among the farmers in that ‘incredibly Dutch district southwest of Chicago known first as New Holland and later as High Prairie.’ She falls for a handsome farmer, and her life follows a path very different from the one she dreamed of.

There are details about this new community that I love:

She did not then know that spotless window-panes were a mark of social standing in High Prarie. Yard and dwelling had a geometrical neatness like that of a toy house in a set of playthings. The effect was marred by a clothesline hung with a dado of miscellaneous wash…

Above all, the perspective of a woman on the effects of work, the terrible weight of rural farming life. Here Selina meets Maartje for the first time:

Selina suddenly saw that she, too, was young. The bad teeth, the thin hair, the careless dress, the littered kitchen, the harassed frown–above all these, standing out clearly, appeared the look of a girl.

Selina fears it. Swears it will not become her own fate. But you know that it is.

When the next ten years had done their worst to her, and Julie had suddenly come upon her stepping agilely our of a truck gardener’s wagon on Prairie Avenue, a tanned, and weather-beaten, toil-worn woman, her abundant hair skewered into a knob and held by a long grey hairpin, her full calico skirt grimed with the mud of the wagon wheel, a pair of men’s old side-boots on her slim feet, a grotesquely battered old felt hat (her husband’s) on her head, her arms full of ears of sweet corn…a woman with bad teeth, flat breasts, a sagging pocket in her capacious skirt–even then Julie, staring, had known her by her eyes…and had cried, “Oh, Selina! My dear! My dear!”–with a sob of horror and pity…

It is Selina who comforts her. Selina who no longer minds. Selina who is not bound by the need to be attractive and thus is found by many to be the one who is truly beautiful, outside of those conventions. Selina who has lived the fullest of lives. The lives of the ‘successful’, the sons and daughters born into wealth and position, fall far short. Her position at the death of her husband:

Youth was gone, but she had health, courage; a boy of nine; twenty-five acres of wornout farm land; dwelling and out-houses in a bad state of repair; and a gay adventuresome spirit that was never to die; though it led her into curious places and she often found, at the end, only a trackless waste from which she had to retrace her steps painfully. But always, to her, red and green cabbages were to be jade and burgundy, chrysoprase and porphyry. Life has no weapons against a woman like that.

And the wine-red cashmere. She laughed aloud.

It is Selina that you love and admire and think it would have been all right to have ended up that way — in a battered hat and men’s shoes and a shapeless body and still extracting every ounce of deliciousness from life.

Her story raises all kinds of questions. This deals with the conflict between love and self-realisation in this period (and I don’t want to say of course it does, because a woman wrote it, but really I mostly feel that way). Selina loved her husband, but she is not able to fully flourish until after his death. Not able to put into practice her innovative ideas for the farm like the asparagus beds that shocked the whole community rigid, not able to rise out of poverty and live a fuller life. She carries guilt over this because a part of her knows it…this is never resolved in the novel just as it cannot be in life.

I also question the narrative’s assumptions that innovation and a sense of beauty come from outsiders, that anyone desiring moreĀ  than survival via the truck farming methods passed down through generations demands running away the way Roelf Pool does. That is unquestioned here, a resounding yes. But unlike the many realist novels I have been reading, this is hopeful of what will and intelligence and creativity can achieve.

She is curious about everything, and I love that this novel also deals with food, how it is grown and who grows it. Their life. The political economy of vegetables and the poverty it creates, the transport of vegetables, the world grown up in Chicago streets around the wagons arriving from the farms:

Food for Chicago’s millions. in and out of the wagons. Under horse’s hoofs. Bare-footed children, baskets on their arms, snatching bits of fallen vegetables from the cobbles. Gutter Annie, a shawl pinned across her pendulous breasts, scavengering a potato there, an onion fallen to the street, scraps of fruit and green stuff in the ditch.

Selina is able to escape this by innovating, reading books, trying new things. She is fascinated by the beauty of what she grows as much as its importance to the health and wellbeing of all those who eat it. She imagines mothers making sure their kids are eating all of the spinach and potatoes she has grown. This is a time when people ate what was grown locally, could buy it direct if they chose, where farmers knew wholesalers and shopkeepers, where everything was organic. This novel fit in so interestingly with Fukuoka’s One-Straw Revolution, and you wished Selina might have met him. She would have loved permaculture too, just as she loved any field of knowledge that built, created, made — and that relieved those working the land from the terrible burdens that aged them so quickly, that killed them so young. That celebrated growing food and healthy lives.

Her son Dirk asks Selina her idea of a Chicago House, and she has already given it much thought, brings her experience of land and weather and living well:

Well, it would need big porches for the hot days and nights so’s to catch the prevailing southwest winds from the prairies in the summer — a porch that would be swung clear around to the east, too–or a terrace or another porch east so that if the precious old lake breeze should come up just when you think you’re dying of the heat, as it sometimes does, you could catch that, too. It ought to be built–the house, I mean–rather squarish and tight and solid against our cold winters and northeasters. then sleeping porches of course. There’s a grand American institution for you!

In many ways, this is an alternative narrative of the American dream of success. Not too different of course — it does lionize the business men who rose from butchers to meat-packing millionaires, those who made fortunes in grain, railways, vegetables and those who planned and built the city. It recognises not all of their methods were legal or moral, but that seems to be just part of their force upwards towards progress. They are set far apart from their beautiful discontented children who live empty though comfortable lives. In that it is very much likeĀ The Cliff-Dwellers, but pushes it further and offers a very different counter-narrative of where a woman’s happiness lies. Its sympathies in describing Dirk’s college for example, are always with those who have scraped and saved to work hard in gaining learning from the bored gilded youth who have arrived there for a little polish and take way as little actual knowledge worked for and won as possible.

There is also the uncomfortable fact that Selina’s escape from desperate poverty into a life with some comfort and fullness is partially funded by the family she befriended through the higher class boarding school her father had scraped up the money for her to attend before his death. They help her son as well Ferber doesn’t quite know what to do with that, has Selina expressing it only to have her doubts relieved because strength of character and intelligence like hers will always come out on top. The novel lets you believe it, so in the end you have to give thanks to gloomy realism once again.

Here is Dirk’s success, bounded socially, racially and geographically:

There was always a neat little pile of invitations in the mail that lay on the correct little console in the correct little apartment ministered by the correct little Jap on the correct north-side street near (but not too near) the lake, and overlooking it.

Hi office was a great splendid office in a great splendid office building in LaSalle Street. He drove back and forth in a motor car along the boulevards. His social engagements lay north. LaSalle Street bounded him on the west, Lake Michigan on the east, Jackson Boulevard on the south, Lake Forest on the north. He might have lived a thousand miles away for all he knew of the rest of Chiacgo–the mighty, roaring, sweltering, pushing, screaming, magnificent hideous steel giant that was Chicago.

Selina is the opposite.

Her years of grinding work, with her face pressed down to the very soil itself, had failed to kill her zest for living. She prowled into the city’s foreign quarters–Italian, Greek, Chinese, Jewish. She penetrated the Black Belt, where Chicago’s vast and growing Negro population shifted and moved and stretched its great limbs ominously, reaching out and out in protest and overflowing the bounds that irked it…They thought her a social worker, perhaps one of the uplifters. She bought and read the Independent, the Negro newspaper in which herb doctors advertised magic roots.

If she had read more of the newspaper, she would have known it was also full of quality reporting on world events and racism and local politics — The Chicago Defender was one of the most legendary of African American papers for example. Edna Ferber occupies that strange ground of American liberal that can’t really seem to question fundamental injustices and inequalities, while still exposing some of the cruelty and racism’s unnecessary boundaries. At the same time, she takes for granted white supremacy:

Never mind, Selina assured him, happily. “It was all thrown up so hastily. Remember that just yesterday, or the day before, Chicago was an Indian fort, with tepees where towers are now, and mud wallows in place of asphalt. Beauty needs time to perfect it.”

Ferber wrote Showboat, of course, which I have seen rather than read. Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel steal and subvert some of the overt racism of it, but it remains a fascinating commentary on the one drop rule and rife with stereotypes. She wrote Giant as well, which I am now more curious to read.

I’ll end on reading, and the nice things women do for other women — there is in the beginning a casual list of classics that Selina has read. It includes Dickens but is mostly women — Austen and Bronte, but also Felicia Hemans, who I had not heard of but will now read. And then there is a list of popular women’s literature of which much is available on Project Gutenberg and looks quite interesting — Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth, Bertha M. Clay and The Fireside Companion. Southworth wrote these amazing serialized stories about Capitola the cross-dressing madcap having fabulous adventures across the country. How have I never heard of those?

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