American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

JAVA HEAD (1918). Java Head is the finest and most popular novel written by Joseph Hergesheimer (1880-1954), whose fiction and belles-lettres essays enjoyed a wide audience throughout the 1920s. The novel plays out a tale of two nautical families caught in the decline of Salem’s seafaring commerce during the late 1840s.

From his “Java Head” mansion, Captain Jeremy Ammidon opposes his son William’s decision to modernize the family’s Pacific trading fleet and move the business to Boston. From his small dockside cottage, Captain Barzil Dunsack confronts his son Edward’s opium habit (a result of many years in China) and the ruin it is bringing to the small family business. Indeed, the meeting of East and West leads to further tragedy. The discovery that William has secretly diversified into opium-running precipitates Jeremy Ammidon’s fatal stroke. William’s younger brother, Captain Gerrit Ammidon, loses his Manchu wife to suicide by opium overdose; Edward Dunsack loses his sanity. Gerrit, now the guarantor of Barzil Dunsack’s business, decides to take his ship and his share of the family inheritance out of the Ammidon company and back to the traditional ways of the old Salem shipmasters. He sails from Salem with a new bride: Barzil Dunsack’s granddaughter.

Each chapter is presented from the limited point of view of a different character. Overall, the plot is more impressionistic than dramatic: the novel centers more on what the characters see and experience than what they do. The sea provides a constant backdrop for the complex interactions between fathers and sons, old money and new money, East and West. The novel is based not on Hergesheimer’s experience at sea but on his extensive secondary research, including his reading of Joseph Conrad (in particular Youth [1898], which interestingly was based on a voyage that Conrad had taken aboard the Palestine off Java Head in Malayan waters). Like Conrad’s London, Salem is portrayed as the heart of a great commercial empire based on a network of ocean trade routes. Descriptions of the houses and docks of Salem always include the rich harvest of ocean trade, but the destructive consequences—cross-cultural intolerance and opium addiction—loom constantly in the background. At every turn, the characters see evidence that Salem will soon fade into the history of the great age of sail.

Jonathan R. Eller