Edna Ferber considered her earliest years turbulent and unhappy, particularly the time before her family’s move to Appleton, Wisconsin. This unhappiness had essentially two causes: awareness that as the child of middle-class Jewish merchants, she was often not accepted by rough-edged Midwestern farmers, and her recognition of the isolated and difficult nature of plains life in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Her parents, Jacob and Julia, made several moves, evidently seeking a more comfortable life for the family, and Edna was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on August 15, 1885. (Ferber, perhaps from the vanity to which she confesses in her autobiography, gave the date as 1887, and this was the year published in The New York Times obituary.) By 1888, Jacob, though he seems to have prospered moderately in Kalamazoo, moved his family to Chicago, where his wife, Julia Neumann Ferber, had been reared, and the Ferbers lived for a year in the large Neumann house on Calumet Avenue. Jacob’s desire for independence, as well as his idea that his dry goods business would be more successful in an isolated town, prompted him to move the family again, this time to Ottumwa, Iowa, and the Ferbers lived in this farming and coal-mining town from 1890 to 1897. Edna Ferber always considered the place brutal and crude; it was a struggle to maintain even a modicum of comfort in this primitive town, which quite often was openly anti-Semitic. Jacob’s progressive blindness was first diagnosed in the Ottumwa years, and this served to place more business and family responsibilities on Julia. A successful lawsuit for slander brought by a fired employee cost the Ferbers several thousand dollars and hastened their move to Wisconsin.
Appleton provided more congenial surroundings. There was a small Jewish community there, good schools, and the pleasant atmosphere of a Midwestern college town. Ferber excelled in declamation and debate for Ryan High School’s Forum Debating Society, and her first prize at a statewide declamation contest paved the way at age seventeen for her position as reporter on the Appleton Daily Crescent, the town’s newspaper. Ferber, like Willa Cather, planned a career in journalism, and in 1905, she accepted an offer to work on the Milwaukee Journal.
Milwaukee proved a big change for the nineteen-year-old Ferber. She was suddenly on her own, living in a boardinghouse whose principal tenants were German-speaking engineers employed in the steelworks and engineering plants in and around the city. She drew on this experience for her first novel, Dawn O’Hara, a few years later. Milwaukee also provided more chances than ever to attend the theater, and some of Ferber’s earliest writings were drama and music reviews published in both the Milwaukee...
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