“Who would be interested in a novel about a middle-aged woman in a calico dress with wispy hair and bad teeth, grubbing on a little truck farm south of Chicago?”
It’s hard to believe that Edna Ferber meant the above remark in earnest.1 The unglamorous woman she refers to is Selina Peake, heroine of Ferber’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1924 novel, So Big. There’s truth in the description, but not the whole truth, and the teasing omissions are notable. Selina’s story is told out of order, so she’s never middle-aged for long – and, out of all her features, “the eyes” – not mentioned above – “were what you marked and remembered”.2 After the years of farm labour that turn a delicate and exquisite nineteen-year-old to the toil-worn woman described above, Selina is reunited by chance with her childhood friend, Julie Hempel: Julie is shocked by her friend’s appearance, but recognises her by her eyes.
The novel was a huge critical and commercial success – it turned out that plenty of people were interested in the story of Selina. Ferber was a canny businesswoman, creating a demand for So Big by serialising it in the Woman’s Home Companion before its publication.3 Her instinct for business is reflected in her heroine’s. Selina does anything but “grubbing on a little truck farm”: she makes a diligent study of modern farming methods, invests in improving her land, and presents her vegetables beautifully before taking them to market. “Tie them tight at the heads, like this,” she tells the hired helper, Jan Steen. “Twice around with the string, and through. Make bouquets of them, not bunches. And we’re going to scrub them.”4
But it’s not her business sense that makes Selina such a compelling character. It’s the combination of practical intelligence with an extraordinary eye for beauty, and a character deeply moved by it. Orphaned after the death of her gambling father, Selina leaves Chicago for High Prairie to become the district school teacher. The first time she sees the farmland outside the city, from the two-horse wagon of truck farmer Klaas Pool, she is enlivened by a beauty that’s almost sacramental. It’s a lovely scene, powerfully reminiscent of Anne Shirley’s first journey to Green Gables with a baffled Matthew Cuthbert, the prosaic farmer providing a comic contrast with the wildly imaginative girl. Klaas Pool is rendered almost speechless with laughter when Selina comments on the beauty of the cabbages, prompting a refrain of sorts: “Cabbages is beautiful!” Selina tries to justify her view only to baffle poor Klaas even further:
“But they are!” she insisted. “They are beautiful. Like jade and Burgundy. No, like – uh – like – what’s that in – like chrysoprase and porphyry. All those fields of cabbages and the corn and beet-tops together look like Persian patches.”5
Ferber’s tone is often gently ironic, but I found myself hoping that she is in earnest when, a few paragraphs later, she writes that against a woman with such powers of vision, life has no weapons.
The “cabbages is beautiful” refrain comes back twice, and there’s something of a cruel edge to it that’s far away from the quiet affection of Matthew Cuthbert. Overhearing a conversation between Klaas and another farmer about fertiliser, Selina’s active intellect is fired up and she insists that they tell her what’s in it. Klaas laughs at her horror upon learning that it contains dried blood, and rolls his eyes at his friend, saying, “Well, cabbages is anyway beautiful, huh?”6 It feels as if Selina is being punished and mocked for being a woman interested in men’s work. Years later, learning of the success of Selina’s adoption of modern farming methods, Klaas Pool recalls his mockery of the former school teacher: “Cabbages is beautiful I betcha.”7
I mentioned above that So Big was an enormous critical and commercial success; however, it doesn’t seem to get much attention today. In her chapter in the 2003 book Middlebrow Moderns, Donna Campbell compares Ferber to Rose Wilder Lane, noting that both women were journalists and writers of popular fiction who were later dismissed as caterers to sentimental tastes. J. E. Smyth theorises that the book’s popularity in Hollywood has damaged its subsequent reputation. I haven’t seen any of the films yet, and I’ll update this review if I do – they’re an important part of the book’s reception, and might provide some illumination regarding the undeservedly limited readership in recent years.
Smyth notes that So Big appealed to 1920s social feminists in a way that might be offputting to women today:
Ferber’s heroine was simply a brave widow and mother struggling for independence and spiritual survival in a culture that placed little value on integrity, simplicity, or faith in oneself.8
The book’s title refers to the pet name of Selina’s son Dirk, to whom she is devoted, despite the fact that he shares none of her feelings for beauty, and gives up architecture to work in the investment business. But she’s hardly a martyr to him. Ferber gently satirised the idea of the ‘Prairie Madonna’, the idealised woman of the pioneer chronicle who formed a crucial part of American identity;9 this trope is subverted in Selina. There’s a gorgeous, heartbreaking scene in chapter 8 when Selena, newly married to Pervus DeJong and pregnant with Dirk, has a transcendental, Dionysian moment out on the farm. In a cabbages-is-beautiful flash of feeling, Selena pins a bunch of radishes into her hair:
It should have looked as absurd as it was, but it didn’t. Instead it was like a great crimson flower there. Her cheeks were flushed with the hot sun. Her fine dark hair was wind-blown and a little loosened, her dress open at the throat. Her figure was fuller, her breast had a richer curve, for the child was four months on the way. She was laughing. At a little exclamation from Roelf, Pervus looked up, as did Jan. Selina took a slow rhythmic step, and another, her arms upraised, a provocative lovely bacchic little figure there in the fields under the hot blue sky.
Roelf Pool, the beauty-loving son of Klaas who has a profound and spiritual connection with Selina, is ecstatically moved by the scene: Pervus is moved, too, but to a bitter violence, and he breaks the spell, commanding his wife to be ashamed of herself, and ripping the radishes from her hair. Why is he so cruel and violent? Ferber tells us that it’s the result of a “narrow insular mind that fears gossip.”10 But I was reminded of Guyon in the Bower of Bliss at the close of Book II of The Faerie Queene. Guyon goes too far in his rage – he destroys the Bower with “rigour pittilesse” – and I wondered if there’s something of that masculine violence towards a perfect vision of the bountiful, bucolic woman in Pervus. I’ll give this some more thought.
I’ve been thinking about this book a lot since I first read it a few months back. I’d been clearing wasted land myself, and felt keenly Selina’s frustration as the men in her life mock her for wanting to improve her husband’s land. Like a lot of other lockdown gardeners, I read books and websites for advice. Selina is viciously censured for ordering a farming book from Chicago, and it’s so painful to see her passionate defence of learning from books: “It tells you how. It tells you how!” Reading this simple but powerful appeal today, when we have astonishing educational resources available to us, makes me wonder why it’s still so difficult for people to accept that knowledge is out there, and self-improvement is within reach. I have a lot of thoughts on the rigid hierarchy of education, and the potential of new models of learning, but this isn’t the place to go into that. I’ll conclude, simply, by saying that Selina had me at cabbages. Chrysoprase and porphyry and Persian patches. I’ve always thought they were beautiful, and even more so now that I’m growing my own.
Ferber, New York Evening Post Literary Review, 1925. Quoted in J. E. Smyth, Edna Ferber’s Hollywood: American Fictions of Gender, Race, and History, 2010. ↩
Ferber, So Big, Chapter 1. ↩
Smyth, 35. ↩
So Big, chapter 10. ↩
So Big, chapter 2. ↩
So Big, chapter 3. ↩
So Big, chapter 13. ↩
Smyth, p. 42. ↩
Donna Campbell, ‘“Written with a Hard and Ruthless Purpose”: Rose Wilder Lane, Edna Ferber, and Middlebrow Regional Fiction’. ↩
So Big, chapter 8. ↩