Critical Evaluation

Edna Ferber was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1925 for So Big, the first Jewish American woman writer to be so honored. Even though it is one of the earliest of her novels, most critics consider it her best. The decade prior to its appearance in 1924, Ferber was a newspaper reporter in Wisconsin and a writer of a popular series of magazine stories about businesswoman Emma McChesney. Later she went on to write other regional novels, such as Cimmaron (1930) and Giant (1952), and to collaborate with George S. Kaufman on stage plays, the most famous being the musical created from her novel Show Boat (1926). Working-class America, and particularly its women, provided her lifelong fascination. She was interested in the kind of life provided by the expanding industrial society, the values that controlled America’s use of its great wealth, and the meaning of success. Lastly, although it is not an overt theme, but rather an underlying concern, she explored the role women were going to play in shaping America.

Ferber leaves no doubt as to her answers to these questions, opening herself to the frequent criticism of didacticism. Her biographer records that she claimed So Big was a book “whose purpose was to show the triumph of materialism over the spirit of America.” Nevertheless, the characters she draws as vehicles for her ideas are strong enough, particularly in So Big, to carry their weight successfully. When her gambler father tells her that there are only two kinds of people in the world that really count, wheat and emeralds, Selina quickly understands that her two maiden aunts, wizened and fearful because they shied away from real life, are neither. Physical goods of real value to people, such as farm produce, and nonphysical entities of real value, such as beauty and quality—these are the wheat and the emeralds. Although, on the surface it seems possible to have either a “wheat” life or an “emerald” life, in a deeper psychological reality, Ferber reveals, they are related. If one has one without the other, as did High Prairie’s Dutch farmers (wheat, through and through, impervious to the natural beauty of the land around them) or the glittering Chicago social set with their trappings of art and music and leisure (shiny, attractive emeralds), one is only “so big.” Selina’s hard work saves Dirk the necessity of the grinding physical labor on the farm and of mixing with the lower elements in the Haymarket,...

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