Edna Ferber’s trio of career-woman short story collections, Roast Beef, Medium, Personality Plus, and Emma McChesney & Co. (available in one volume published by the University of Illinois), are not your typical turn-of-the-century women's lit. There is not a struggling Sister Carrie or a genteel well-educated woman with an interesting past who struggles to win the love of a good man because she cannot work. Ferber's capable, humorous Emma McChesney is an absolutely confident divorced businesswoman who rises from traveling petticoat salesman - she has the much-coveted Midwest region - to partner of Featherstone Petticoats. She loves her work and has adventures selling petticoats throughout the U.S. and South America, designs new lines of bloomers, skirts, and pajamas when fdresses become slim and tight and the petticoat falls out of fashion, helps her son Jock start his career as an ad man after Harvard, and eventually falls in love with her partner. This is absolutely charming Grade B stuff, very light, witty and fun.
Anyway, I became absolutely hooked on Ferber and decided to read one of the blockbuster novels made into movies (Giant, Showboat, etc.). Her 1924 Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, So Big, happens to be in an omnibus of her work I picked up at a sale. Oh my goodness it’s not literature but I couldn’t stop reading!
From a a literary point of view the light Emma McChesney stories are superior to So Big because Ferber has perfected a humorous tone, knows her limitations, and even provides important historical facts about businesswomen and fashion in the early 20th century. But her ambitious novel, So Big, a kind of cut-rate but fascinating version of Willa Cather’s My Antonia crossed with Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street , is powerful in a page-turning way, absolutely compelling though with occasional purple patches. This is an original portrait of a woman truck farmer, Selina Dejong, who becomes a successful businesswoman, and the powerfully sad story of her spoiled son, Dirk.
The first half of the novel focuses on Selina, the daughter of a well-educated gambler. This charming,,original character regards her father’s ups and downs on the road as an adventure. Sometimes she goes to public school, sometimes she goes to girls’ prep schools, depending on their fluctuating finances, but her father sees to it that she always has books.
“...good ladies wasted their sympathy. Selina had a beautiful time.... She read absorbedly books found in boarding-school parlours, in hotels, in such public libraries as the times afforded. She was alone for hours a day, daily. Frequently her father, fearful of loneliness for her, brought her an armful of books and she had an orgy, dipping and swooping about among them in a sort of gourmand’s ecstasy of indecision.”
Selina’s father is murdered, mistaken for someone else, and Selina, left penniless, goes to work as a country schoolteacher south of Chicago. When she falls in love with a Dutch truck farmer who is a gentle, handsome failure, she abandons her dreams, becomes a farm wife, is overcome by the amount of work but gallant, and works side by side with her husband. But her life revolves around her son, Dirk, nicknamed “So Big” during his childhood, and she transfers her dreams to him. The second half of the novel describes the fall of Dirk, who, because he falls in love with a manipulative rich woman who will not marry him, spoils his life under her mercenary influence and becomes a soulless bond dealer/banker. The last 100 pages of this sad, realistic novel are really literature.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and can whole-heartedly recommend the last part about Dirk if you want to read Ferber at her best.