Edna Ferber's So Big was a very popular novel at the time it was published; in fact it was the best-selling fiction novel of 1924. The popularity of this novel was not contributable to her reputation at this point in her career, as she was still a new face on the bestseller circuit. Her success was pre-bookclub, which may have been the making of a lot of bestsellers. The popularity of this novel stemmed from the genuine appreciation of its subject matter by its reader's , by looking at the cultural context in which the book was framed the reason for its popularity becomes evident. The Nobel Prize, the subsequent movies and her continued popularity certainly did not hurt the sales of So Big either.
At the time that the book was written the world was still reeling from World War I. People were beginning to feel disillusioned, " What did you think it was going to do purify,"(167, So Big). This comment, made by Selina to her son, captures the general feeling of loss at the winning of the war. Europe was either grieving or in shambles. "Europe, an entire continent, was doomed,"(275, A Peculiar Treasure). The Unites States had not joined the war until late, and so avoided many of the casualties that the rest of Europe absorbed. It was apparent to Edna that Europe was in trouble and as a result she turned from this depressing subject matter to the optimism of home. The United States was just beginning to realize its potential. Edna not only turned inward but to the center of the America, Illinois. The distinctly American feature of truck farming in the breadbasket was isolated from Europe. Her subject was composed of toil that was centered on farming, which allowed her to ignore the outside world. A critic in the Midwest felt that So Big was an "all too earthy novel,"(287,Gilbert). What this critic may have found to be unappealing may have been part of what contributed to the novels success. The pubic was tired of the stories coming from beyond its borders. American politics of the era reflects the public's dissatisfaction with the rest of the world, reflected in the government's foreign policy of Isolationism. It is no wonder that Edna found a fertile subject in the ground of America. The farm product was cultivated in this distinct American setting, and had to be consumed quickly, thereby limiting any roll of Europe through exportation. This book appealed to the masses by shutting out what they wanted to forget, and focusing on what they wanted to see.
Many people were also blue-collar workers. This book was written before the shift from blue collar to white collar had taken hold. The occupation of laborer was still seen as noble and worthwhile. The romanticizing of this work was appealing to people as well, because there were enough people involved in this type of work, but there was also enough of an urban population that felt the need to reminisce about the simpler times.
Selina offers the objective perspective of a person who is coming from Chicago to this region for the first time, when she first is riding out with Klaas Pool, Selina makes the mistake of saying how beautiful the landscape is, and how beautiful the cabbages are. Although there is no doubt to the reader that the scene is beautiful, Selina's mentioning it to the man who toils in the fields is naïve. Through out the book Selina's outside perspective offers greater insight into the reality of the life. "Yet Selina sensed something of the meaning behind these toiling, patient figures, all unconscious of meaning, bent double in the fields for miles throughout High Prairie," (71, So Big). This would ring true to the urban reader, and flatter the rural reader. When Selina tries to convey this idea of the nobility of their toil Pervus, in true unobservant Pervus fashion, says, "Farm work grand! Farm work is slave work,"(71, So Big). Selina knows that it is thankless work that pays little for the labor, but she also sees the bigger picture, and understands the importance of the work that Pervus is doing, as the urban audience can also appreciate the work from a distance.
Aaron Smith's observation that So Big was such a success due to its "self improvement entertainment and self encouragement appeal," may seem far-fetched, but when one examines the other bestsellers at this time it becomes apparent that Smith has a point. This era was exploring the possibilities of the media, and the ability for it to improve the lives of those it touched. Self Mastery through Auto-Suggestion, by Emile Coue, and Diet and Health, by Lulu Hunt Poters were both nonfiction bestsellers in 1923. These may seem to be completely unrelated to So Big but upon a closer look they all deal with the idea of self-improvement. This can be seen in the passage where Selina is asking her husband to make some necessary improvements on the bottomland, which is inundated with water. Selina's knowledge from a book also leads her to suggest that they add fertilizer or at least compost to their fields. Pervus scoffs at these suggestion and asks where she got these ideas,"'Out of a book,' Selina said, almost snappishly. 'I sent to Chicago for it,"(72, So Big). She goes on to say that the man who wrote the book knows more about farming than anyone else in High Prairie. In the end the book is right and by following the book Selina is able to improve her farm. This has several connotations, first Selina was able to improve the farm through the book, but most importantly hard work, next if Selina could use her book to improve her situation maybe So Big can be used to improve the reader's situation.
The first connotation is what makes this book so popular, the idea that if we work hard enough and smart enough we can overcome the odds. This is essentially the American dream. Selina starts as a schoolteacher in her High Prairie and is unaccustomed to the lifestyle. It takes her a while to become acclimated to the paucity of luxury and the relative abundance of work. Shortly after she does become adjusts she marries Pervus DeJong, which requires a higher level of work ethic. The morning after they are married Selina awakes to this reality, "Pervus DeJong laughed and came toward her. 'Get up, little lazy bones. It's after four. All yesterday's work I've got to do, and all today's. Breakfast, little Lina, breakfast. You are a farmers wife now,'"(69,So Big). This is a prime example of the work ethic that is seen throughout this novel. Not only does Selina adapt and improve herself, but she goes above and beyond the expectations of her husband. She becomes such a good worker that she not only does all of her jobs but she also begins to help Pervus in the fields. When the vegetables are going to waste in the ground because there are not enough hands to pick them Pervus protests to Selina's help, "Let them rot,' he said. ' Better the stuff rots in the ground. Dejong women folks they never worked in the fields. Not even in Holland. Not my mother or my grandmother. It isn't for women,'"( 81, So Big). To this the hardened Selina says, " Nonsense, Pervus. Working the fields is no harder than washing or ironing or scrubbing or standing over a hot stove in August. Women's work, housework is the hardest work in the world. That why men won't do it,'"(82, So Big). This step shocks and outrages Pervus, he wanted her to improve her work ethic but not to compete with him in his realm.
When Selina has her run of the farm she does make the necessary improvements that she gets from the book and as a result becomes very successful. So Big demonstrates self-improvement through hard work, and the possibility of gleaning useful knowledge from books. The self-improvement aspect of So Big is more prevalent in the second connotation.
The second connotation suggests that part of the audience; the Dirks, are mistaking money for success. When Selina asks her son, "'What do you mean by 'successful', Sobig?' 'Rich lots of money.' 'Oh, no, Dirk! That's not success. Roelf- the thing Roelf does is success,'"(133, So Big). It is apparent that Dirk has lost something by not pursuing the beautiful in his life; unlike Roelf Pool who pursued his passion and as a result he becomes a highly acclaimed artist. In the end when Dirk meets a girl he really loves, Dallas O'Mara, he is unable to win her over because he chose to follow money instead of going the hard way, following his passion. When Dirk asks her why his feelings aren't reciprocal she says that he took the easy way, "But if you had kept on - if you had loved it enough to keep on - fighting, and struggling, and sticking it out- why that fight would show in your face today,"(204, So Big). This is the intended message of the book, which seems at least at the beginning of the 21st century to be obvious. Edna was worried that many in the time era that it was written had missed the meaning. "About nine people knew what I was driving at,"(313, Gilbert). The book was intended to warn the reader about the dangers of chasing money. "I wrote a story whose purpose was to show the triumph of materialism over the spirit in America"(312, Gilbert). Although this is actually said in regards to Cimarron Edna says she had the same intention in So Big. Using Dirk, Edna points out that America is at risk of selling out its dreams in the pursuit of capital. This may have been intended as a warning to her readers, and her audience may have recognized this and understood they had a choice. In this manner So Big offers self-improvement to its readers.
These two connotations are not at odds when one considers that spiritual stability and hard work seem to go hand in hand, in a chicken or the egg relationship. This connection between these two ideas resolves their differences. Dirk was unable to work hard because he lacked the sense of beauty that comes with spiritual integrity, and in turn by not being able to work hard he did not have the gumption to follow his dream of being an architect. Roelf, who struggles early, follows his dreams and his sense of beauty, and in the end is happy and wildly successful.
The Nobel Prize undoubtedly helped the sales of So Big in the public realm by bringing it recognition and literary prowess. Edna Ferber's subsequent success helped keep the book selling and in print. What really allowed this book the popularity it experienced was its harmony with the public's desires.
Ferber, Edna A Peculiar Treasure. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc.,1939.
Edna Ferber. So Big. New York:Doubleday, Page and Company. 1924.
Gilbert, Julie Goldsmith. Ferber. Doubleday and Company, Inc., New York,1978
Smith, Aaron. The Saturday Review of Literature. August 5 1924. pp.112.