JAVA HEAD is essentially a novel about the struggles of outsiders with the powerful and closed society in which they find themselves. Although Joseph Hergesheimer did not give full effect to the dramatic possibilities inherent in the story, his feeling for surface impressions and the honesty of his statement produced a vivid spectacle and a thought-provoking book. Technically, the different parts—each from the viewpoint of a different character—remain “set” pieces, never quite fusing into a whole, but the book is worth reading for the skill of the sketching of atmosphere and characterization. Hergesheimer writes of a sailing ship, for example, as if she were a living creature and conveys great insight into sea psychology. One of the highlights of the narrative is the dramatic and detailed description of the ship Nautilus docking in Salem port.
Gerrit Ammidon tends to reduce the other characters to the background. Almost bigger than life, he stands for romance, eternally protesting against the conventional and the bigoted, and rebelling against the restrictions laid down by others. Only his old father, Jeremy Ammidon, is equal to him. Reliving his past glories and old voyages and reworking bygone grievances, Jeremy is frustrated by his beached existence. The characters symbolize the conflict of old and new, the struggle between the “clerk-sailors,” as Jeremy calls them, and those who would cling to the romance and danger of old ways. The tide of trade is turning from Salem to the railway and docking facilities of larger cities; although Gerrit and Jeremy are noble figures, they cannot win out against the pettiness of the majority and the lure of “progress.”
Taou Yuen is presented with subtlety and restraint. Hergesheimer resists the temptation to use her as a mere exotic counterpoint to the other characters. Viewed merely as a study of the ancient opium habit, the section of the book dealing with her is impressive and interesting. She is an outsider by birth, but her husband is an outsider by nature of his character, as his father has become one by virtue of his age. The destiny of the outsiders is martyrdom. Although their story is told in a strangely passive style, it is effective and significant.