Indonesia via pixabay
The 15-Minute Pulitzers
Just as we often take the liberty of referring to all in-line skates by the specific brand name, Rollerblades, and call all brands of facial tissues, Kleenex, we sometimes refer to coffee as “java” because in the 16th century the Dutch introduced coffee growing in the Java region of Indonesia and the geographical association became the moniker of the drink. Figuring that out was pretty easy. (Thanks, Wikipedia. Sorry for the times I’ve been unfair to you.) What wasn’t so easy was waiting to understand why a book set in Salem, Massachusetts is called Java Head, which is a location in Indonesia very distant from anywhere in Massachussetts.
Well, it turns out, Joseph Hergesheimer’s novel, Java Head, is about a Massachusetts family in the shipping business and the retired grandfather character has named his mansion Java Head to show his continued devotion to the life he spent traveling the seas to distant ports as a ship’s captain. This story about the grandfather, his wildly different sons, their eccentrically named home, and the tragedies that sometimes occur when East meets West was almost awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1920. It seems a great disservice that it wasn’t awarded the prize. A disservice not only because I found the book to be rather masterful, but also because some of the reasoning behind its non-award status involved a spurious debate concerning the book’s “wholesomeness.” You see, in 1911, when Joseph Pulitzer died, his will used the word “whole” in description of the type of fiction his prize should be awarded to. By 1916-1917 liberties had been taken and the actual wording for the prize accepted by the Pulitzer Advisory Board included the word “wholesome” instead of “whole,” I quote, “the novel … which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood,” would be given the prize. Perhaps you can imagine how that shift from Pulitzer’s original “whole atmosphere of American life” to “wholesome atmosphere” could pose a problem for many books.
But what about the story is not “wholesome,” you may ask and why would this be such a preoccupation for the Advisory Board? To the first, there is an opium addiction, an illegitimate child, and regular ridicule of restrictive moral regulation. To the second, I only have my imagination. Why does anyone censor another?
But enough about my imagination. Read this book. That’s this juror’s verdict. The continuous narrative seen from a diorama of different characters’ viewpoints is fascinating, and much of the imagery is captivating. Besides, who couldn’t use to know a little more about the history and vocabulary of shipping in the United States and the experiences from it that shaped our cultural heritage. I mean, like coffee and rhetoric, knowledge is power.