Edna Ferber Biography


ph_0111207078-Ferber.jpg Edna Ferber. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Edna Ferber was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to the Hungarian Jewish immigrant Jacob Charles Ferber and his American-born Jewish wife, Julia Neumann. Jacob Ferber was a storekeeper whose business failures caused the family to move frequently. As a result, Ferber spent her childhood in various towns and in Chicago. She lived in Ottumwa, Iowa, from 1890 to 1897 and then for several years in Appleton, Wisconsin. In Ottumwa, Ferber was exposed to anti-Semitism, which may have helped produce the strong opposition to bigotry seen in her fiction. Also in this period, her father began to go blind, and her mother took over his business and became the power in the family.

Ferber’s early ambition was to become an actress, and she performed in plays in high school. She would have liked to attend the Northwestern University School of Elocution, but her family did not have the money to send her there. She pursued a career in journalism instead, first working for the Appleton Daily Crescent and then for the Milwaukee Journal. An illness forced her to leave Milwaukee, her job, and journalism, and she turned to writing fiction, selling the short story “The Homely Heroine” to Everybody’s Magazine in 1910. She sold a number of stories to magazines over the following several years, including a popular series about an independent saleswoman named Emma McChesney. Three volumes of McChesney stories appeared in book form between 1913 and...

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A best-selling author in her own time, Ferber never attracted much critical commentary, being seen as merely a popular writer. However, at her best, for instance in her portrayal of Selina DeJong in So Big and in her description of the family dynamic in Show Boat, she creates forceful characters and touches on important issues concerning the proper way to live one’s life.


Edna Jessica Ferber was the second daughter of a Hungarian Jewish immigrant storekeeper, Jacob Charles Ferber, and Julia Neuman Ferber, daughter of a prosperous, cultured German Jewish family. She was named Edna because the family, hoping for a male child, had already selected the name Edward. When she was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, her father owned and operated a general store. Soon the business faltered, and the family moved in with Julia’s parents in Chicago. The family moved subsequently to Ottumwa, Iowa, then back to Chicago, then to Appleton, Wisconsin, but Jacob Ferber still failed to prosper as a storekeeper. Though intelligent, kindly, and cultured, he never acquired business skills; in addition, he soon lost his sight. Julia assumed management of the business and became the head of the family. With great personal effort and the active assistance of Edna, she stabilized the business, paid off debts, and maintained the family’s independence.

Edna Ferber later described Ottumwa as narrow-minded and sordid. There she experienced anti-Semitism and witnessed a lynching. During her high school years in Appleton, in contrast, she enjoyed pleasant, tolerant, midwestern small-town life. Unable to afford college tuition in 1902, she began her professional writing career as a reporter for the Appleton Daily Crescent. Eighteen months later, the editor who had hired her—on the strength of her reportorial writing in her high school...

(The entire section is 439 words.)