Edna Ferber hoped she would be remembered as a playwright, but even during her lifetime, she was considered primarily a novelist and writer of short stories; nevertheless, the ease with which several of her major novels, among them Show Boat (1926), Saratoga Trunk (1941), and Giant (1952), have been adapted to musical theater and film proves that memorable characterization is the greatest strength her works possess. Strong characterization appears even in her first novel, Dawn O’Hara: The Girl Who Laughed (1911), and Ferber achieved national success with the Emma McChesney stories, which were published originally in American and Cosmopolitan magazines, quickly reprinted as collections from 1913 to 1915, and finally distilled as Ferber’s first dramatic collaboration, Our Mrs. McChesney.
Ferber’s works were perfectly attuned to American popular taste. This was especially true of the novels and short stories written in the years between the two world wars, when her career was at its height. Her first venture in autobiography, A Peculiar Treasure (1939), written just before the outbreak of World War II, appropriately finishes this period. This work especially shows Ferber’s identification with European Jewry suffering under Nazi persecution and ominously foreshadows the horrors of the Holocaust.
Giant was Ferber’s last successful major novel, and it appears that even as she wrote her somewhat anticlimactic second autobiographical volume, A Kind of Magic (1963), she was aware that her popularity had waned. She continued to write until her death, however, managing to sell film rights to her unsuccessful last novel, Ice Palace (1958), even before its publication.