Critical Evaluation

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Edna Ferber was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1925 for So Big, the first Jewish American woman writer to be so honored. Even though it is one of the earliest of her novels, most critics consider it her best. The decade prior to its appearance in 1924, Ferber was a newspaper reporter in Wisconsin and a writer of a popular series of magazine stories about businesswoman Emma McChesney. Later she went on to write other regional novels, such as Cimmaron (1930) and Giant (1952), and to collaborate with George S. Kaufman on stage plays, the most famous being the musical created from her novel Show Boat (1926). Working-class America, and particularly its women, provided her lifelong fascination. She was interested in the kind of life provided by the expanding industrial society, the values that controlled America’s use of its great wealth, and the meaning of success. Lastly, although it is not an overt theme, but rather an underlying concern, she explored the role women were going to play in shaping America.

Ferber leaves no doubt as to her answers to these questions, opening herself to the frequent criticism of didacticism. Her biographer records that she claimed So Big was a book “whose purpose was to show the triumph of materialism over the spirit of America.” Nevertheless, the characters she draws as vehicles for her ideas are strong enough, particularly in So Big, to carry their weight successfully. When her gambler father tells her that there are only two kinds of people in the world that really count, wheat and emeralds, Selina quickly understands that her two maiden aunts, wizened and fearful because they shied away from real life, are neither. Physical goods of real value to people, such as farm produce, and nonphysical entities of real value, such as beauty and quality—these are the wheat and the emeralds. Although, on the surface it seems possible to have either a “wheat” life or an “emerald” life, in a deeper psychological reality, Ferber reveals, they are related. If one has one without the other, as did High Prairie’s Dutch farmers (wheat, through and through, impervious to the natural beauty of the land around them) or the glittering Chicago social set with their trappings of art and music and leisure (shiny, attractive emeralds), one is only “so big.” Selina’s hard work saves Dirk the necessity of the grinding physical labor on the farm and of mixing with the lower elements in the Haymarket, freeing him for an artist’s life dedicated, in his case, to making the ugly surroundings of Chicago beautiful. Instead, however, it becomes only too easy for him to fall into the trap of the empty rich life. He has emeralds, but, without wheat, they are of no value.

When Selina is emotionally at the lowest ebb after the death of Pervus, on her abortive trip to Haymarket in Chicago to sell his vegetables so that she and Dirk can survive, she seems to deny this philosophy of life. She comments then to August Hempel that she is wrong to think that if one just waits, living one’s life as best one can, then beauty will come. She wants to save Dirk from making that same mistake. Hempel chides her gently that each person must live the life that is natural for him or her. Dirk must make his own mistakes. However, even if she does disavow her passionate belief in beauty (Dirk accuses her of that in the scene in which he informs her that he will never be an architect), her years of living avow...

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it again and again. The two important artists in the book, Roelf Pool and Dallas O’Mara, both have a natural attraction to the old, mud-spattered farm woman, for they share the grand adventure of a life worth living, doing a work worth doing. Both wheat and emeralds, the three are successful Americans.

Ferber did not preach about the important role of women in shaping the American landscape as much as she preached about success. She did not need to do so. Her women protagonists prove it naturally. Selina herself towers above all the male characters in So Big. Her father may convey to her that life is an adventure, but he cannot provide consistently for his only child and is even killed by a bullet intended for someone else. Only Selina can see the beauty in the cabbage fields to which the Dutch farmers are blind. Pervus, her husband, does appreciate the beauty she creates in her boxed supper and the knowledge of figures she can give him with her teaching, but he cannot implement her excellent ideas to improve the farm, content to continue in his father’s ways. Those ways kill him. In contrast, under Selina’s control, the farm eventually flourishes with modern technology, producing even more beautiful products, ones that are sought after in the best eateries of Chicago. She goes into the marketing world, where women are not welcome, to achieve this success. Most important, Dirk, the son Selina loves above all else, though charming, intelligent, and successful by all worldly standards, causes her bitter disappointment when he deserts beauty for the false values of money and leisure with the idle rich.

It may not be that the female gender is necessarily the stronger or better one for Ferber, although the pattern of a woman succeeding where a man has failed, as with Selina and Pervus, is common in the rest of her fiction. (Indeed, it is the pattern she observed in her own parents’ marriage and business ventures.) After all, Roelf the artist exhibits the very success Selina desires for Dirk (how often she tells him so, enough so it must grate), but even Roelf could not escape High Prairie without her help. Then, too, there are the socialite women such as Paula who, like Dirk, refuse to live by true values. Nevertheless, the only conclusion to be drawn from So Big is that, if all Americans will work hard and think truly like Selina, an uncommon yet representative woman, the country will be truly great.