The Pulitzer Project: So Big, Edna Ferber (1925)

the pulitzer project

Hi Friends, in case you’re just joining us, I’m reading my way through the Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists! 

Edna Ferber won the Pulitzer in 1925 for her novel, So Big. The 1925 Pulitzer Jury was split between three books: the other two were Balisand by Joseph Hergesheimer (his name may sound familiar to you if you’ve been following along with me – he was also considered in 1920 when no prize was awarded) and Plumes by Lawrence Stalling. Two of the jury members voted for the prize to be split between Balisand and So Big. The third jury member was an avid Ferber fan; in fact, he’s the one who pressured her publisher into submitting her novel for the prize in the first place. Doesn’t that seem like a conflict of interest to you? The Trustees ignored the pleas of two of the jury members and decided to award the 1925 Pulitzer Prize to Edna Ferber. so big

A Brief Summary: So Big follows the life of Selina Peake DeJong, the daughter of a gambler who sets off to be a teacher in a Dutch vegetable farming community. Selina marries a farmer, Pervus DeJong, and subsequently has a son, Dirk, whose nickname “Sobig” is the title of the novel. Selina is a lover of beauty, and she sees beauty in everything even while she toils in the fields of her vegetable farm. She wants to give Dirk all of the opportunities she never had and is delighted when he decides to study architecture. The second half of the book follows Dirk and the tensions that arise between Dirk and his mother when he chooses to pursue money over artistic and aesthetic values.

“Dirk, you can’t desert her like that!”

“Desert who?” He was startled.

“Beauty! Self-expression. Whatever you want to call it. You wait! She’ll turn on you some day. Some day you’ll want her, and she won’t be there.”

Fun Fact:
The character of Selina DeJong was inspired by a woman named Antje Paarlberg, a headstrong and determined widow who settled in Illinois. Ferber pays tribute to her in So Big by including a character known as the “Widow Parlenberg”. The Dutch community did not like the flirtatious personality that Ferber attributed to the fictional Selina DeJong.


Antje Paarlberg, circa 1870


Setting: Chicago, Illinois

Time Period: 1880s – 1920s

Review:  Edna Ferber’s style was the right balance between witty and pretty, for lack of better words. Ferber makes the most ordinary things interesting, from farming techniques to the architectural tastes of different communities in Chicago, and I felt refreshed reading her words after slogging through most of the 1920s. I’m happy I read this book on my Kindle, because I found myself looking up words in every chapter.

But always, to her, red and green cabbages were to be jade and Burgundy, crysoprase and porphyry. Life has no weapons against a woman like that.

Selina’s story is a bit of the usual rags-to-riches, American-dream story that may be the ideal “wholesome American atmosphere” that the Pulitzer Committee looks for, but Dirk’s story is the more interesting half. I think the two halves worked well together; I loved the contrast between the idealistic Selina DeJong and her more pragmatic son Dirk. While Selina may have been a bit too perfect of a character (I really would have liked to see her flaws!), I think Dirk was a fully realized figure. He is both ashamed and proud of his mother for being a successful vegetable farmer, he wants nice things but doesn’t want to acknowledge the work his mother must do to provide for him, and yet, he still finds his mother’s leathery hands to be beautiful. One of my favorite parts of the book is when Dirk enlists in the army during World War I and, unlike Claude Wheeler, becomes disillusioned by society after the war. Ferber also does a great job of creating mostly -compelling minor characters, from Dallas, the artist that Dirk falls in love with, to Ralph Poole, the dreamer-farm-boy that Selina befriends. The only minor character that I found lacking was Pervus DeJong, Selina’s husband. It seemed like his personality turned 180 degrees between their courtship and marriage. I wanted more for Selina! Overall, of the first nine years of Pulitzer winners, So Big is probably my second favorite so far (after The Age of Innocence). I haven’t been able to look at vegetables the same – Selina has convinced me that cabbages can also be beautiful.


I would recommend this book to people interested in turn-of-the-century architecture, people who miss the good old days when people had country estates and housemaids, and people who like love triangles and books about living the American dream.

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The Pulitzer Project: who almost won in 1920?

the pulitzer project

the pulitzer project

There was no award given in 1920, so I decided to find out why. If you recall when I posted a brief history of the Pulitzers last month, I hinted that the difference between whole and wholesome would alter the list of contenders for the prize.

In Pulitzer’s will, he described the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel as “for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the whole atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” However, when the Advisory Board established the prize, the Board settled on wholesome rather than whole.

(Yes, I just quoted myself.) When the Pulitzer Prize Jury reconvened in 1920, there were a few new members, and they could not reach a consensus on the most award-worthy book. One of the newest members, Stuart Sherman, literary critic and professor, was adamant that Java Head by Joseph Hergesheimer deserved to win the prize. Sherman, however, was reading Pulitzer’s original plan instead of the Board’s reworded plan. After reconsidering, Sherman agreed that Java Head “doesn’t at all obviously conform” to the conditions of the award. No winner was announced in 1920, but I was curious how Java Head presented the whole atmosphere of American life but not the wholesome atmosphere. Poor Hergesheimer, if he only waited another decade to write his book, he could have won the prize!


java head

From the back of the 1919 edition, 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.”

Does this sound intriguing to you? You can join me and read the book for free at Project Gutenberg.


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