Java Head Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Java Head is a historical novel, set in the 1840’s, about Salem, Massachusetts, shipowners who had grown wealthy from trade with the Far East, especially China. The novel consists of ten chapters, reflecting the viewpoints of nine different characters. As a result of these changing perspectives, Java Head is a complex novel based on a fairly simple plotline.

At the beginning of Java Head, the primary concern of the wealthy Ammidon family is that Gerrit Ammidon’s ship, the Nautilus, is months overdue. There are, however, tensions within the family—some of them trivial, like the squabbling between Laurel and her prissy sister Camilla; others more serious, like the frequent confrontations between the elderly Jeremy Ammidon, who spent most of his life at sea, and his son William Ammidon, whose only experience is in the countinghouse of the family firm. William’s wife Rhoda rebukes her husband for arguing with Jeremy about replacing their ships with the speedier clippers and about the profits to be derived from the opium trade. Either suggestion sends Jeremy into such a fury that Rhoda fears for his health. However, she sees no harm in the flirtation between her oldest daughter, Sidsall, and a middle-aged family friend, Roger Brevard.

The Ammidons are also troubled about the bad feeling between their family and that of another former ship captain, Barzil Dunsack. Jeremy has had nothing to do with his old friend since Dunsack refused to let Gerrit continue seeing Nettie Vollar, Barzil’s illegitimate granddaughter. Hearing that Barzil is ill, Jeremy pays him a visit...

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Java Head Summary (Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

In Salem, Massachusetts, one spring in the early 1840’s, there was concern because the ship Nautilus, owned by Ammidon, Ammidon, and Saltonstone, was seven months overdue. The captain of the ship was young Gerrit Ammidon, son of Captain Jeremy Ammidon, senior partner of the firm. Nettie Vollar grew more disturbed as the weeks passed. On the day the Nautilus left Salem, her grandfather had ordered Gerrit from the house before he reached the point of announcing his love for Nettie and asking her to marry him. The old man’s reason for his action had been that Nettie was an illegitimate child and, as such, did not deserve to be married and lead a normal life. His theory was that the girl had been placed on earth only as a punishment for her mother.

Old Jeremy Ammidon also awaited the return of the Nautilus, for Gerrit was the favorite of his two sons. The other son, William, was primarily a tradesman interested in making money. Old Jeremy and William clashed regularly over the kind of trade the firm was to take, the liberty to be given its captains in trading, and whether the ships of the firm should be replaced by the swift new clippers that were revolutionizing the Pacific trade. William had never told old Jeremy that the firm had two schooners engaged in carrying opium, a cargo the older man detested. The atmosphere at Java Head, the Ammidon mansion in Salem, was kept more or less in a state of tension because of the disagreements between the father and son. Rhoda Ammidon, William’s cheerful and sensible wife, was a quieting influence on both men.

Not many days later, the Nautilus was sighted. When it cast anchor off the Salem wharves, Gerrit asked that the Ammidon barouche be sent to carry him to Java Head. The reason for his request became clear when the carriage discharged at the door of the mansion not only Gerrit but also his Manchu wife, Taou Yuen. The sight of her resplendent clothes and lacquered face was almost too much for Gerrit’s conservative New England family. Only William’s wife was able to be civil; the father said nothing, and William declared that the painted foreign woman was an unpleasant surprise.

Gerrit’s first difficulty came when he assured his family that the Chinese marriage ceremony which had united him with Taou Yuen was as binding as the Christian service of William and Rhoda. The people of Salem wished to look upon the Chinese noblewoman as a mistress rather than as a wife. Nor did they understand that Taou Yuen was from one of the finest families of China, as far removed from the coolies and trading classes of Chinese ports as the New Englanders themselves.

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Java Head Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Cabell, James Branch. Joseph Hergesheimer: An Essay in Interpretation. Chicago: The Bookfellows, 1921. An important monograph in which one of Hergesheimer’s contemporaries comments on the early books. Cabell notes that the author’s most sympathetic characters, including several of those in Java Head, attempt to preserve beauty and order but always fail in their efforts.

Clark, Emily. Ingénue Among the Lions: The Letters of Emily Clark to Joseph Hergesheimer, edited by Gerald Langford. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965. Lively, informal letters from the editor of The Reviewer reveal much about Hergesheimer, his fiction, and the stellar literary circle of which he was a part. Helpful index.

Gimmestad, Victor E. Joseph Hergesheimer. Boston: Twayne, 1984. An excellent introduction to the author’s work. Includes chronology and bibliography. Chapter 4 analyzes the thematic development of Java Head, describes its reception at publication, and summarizes later critical opinion, which agreed that the novel is more effective pictorially than dramatically.

Jones, Llewellyn. Joseph Hergesheimer: The Man and His Books. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1920. Perceptive comments on the early works suggest reasons the author became so popular.

Martin, Ronald E. The Fiction of Joseph Hergesheimer. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1965. A thorough scholarly study, focusing especially on technique and theme. Java Head is compared to two other novels, The Three Black Pennys (1917) and Cytherea (1922). According to Martin, although Java Head excels in its evocation of a past era as well as in characterization and technique, the plot is flawed, and the conclusion seems contrived.