Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

With Java Head, his sixth volume of fiction and his fourth novel, Joseph Hergesheimer consolidated the reputation that had been established in 1917 with The Three Black Pennys. Hergesheimer continued to publish fiction until 1934, but these two early novels, along with Cytherea (1922), were his most popular. Many critics call Java Head his best work. It demonstrated the capacity for painstaking research that enabled him to re-create a past era so effectively. Critics praised Hergesheimer’s finely wrought style, so unlike that of the realists and naturalists who dominated the literary scene at the time he was writing. There were objections to what some saw as a neglect of characterization and plot in favor of what the author admitted was his primary interest, theme. However, though the resolution of Gerrit’s problems in Java Head was both melodramatic and implausible, there was much to admire not only in the author’s style and his use of detail but also in the way he employed various narrative voices and managed complex thematic patterns.

Although Hergesheimer’s early historical novels and his later fiction set in his own time continued to have a wide readership, it eventually became evident that, despite the fact he shared their pessimism, he was too different from the angry young realists and naturalists to maintain his position in the literary world. After The Foolscap Rose (1934), Hergesheimer virtually abandoned his craft. The paucity of critical study of Hergesheimer indicates how greatly his reputation has declined over time. Though occasionally a critic will praise his style or find his aestheticism of interest, Hergesheimer is now thought of primarily not as the serious artist he was but as someone who produced fiction for casual reading.