Edna Ferber Additional Biography


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 1153 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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

Edna Jessica Ferber, an immensely popular novelist, short-story writer, playwright, and public personality for more than forty years, chronicled the America she loved and provided stories for many films. Born in 1885 (many sources list 1887 as the year of her birth as a result of Ferber’s habitual reluctance to admit her age), she was the daughter of Jacob Charles Ferber, a Hungarian-born unsuccessful businessman, and Julia Newman Ferber, a Milwaukee native. At an early age Ferber moved with her family to Appleton, Wisconsin, and after her graduation from Ryan High School at the age of seventeen she began working as a full-time reporter for the Appleton Daily Crescent. After two years she was dismissed by the editors, who considered her writing too ornate and imaginative for journalism. For the next three years she worked for the Milwaukee Journal before illness forced her to return home. The family moved to Chicago, where her father, now blind and an invalid, died in 1909. Julia Ferber’s shrewd business sense saved the family, and she was a source of Ferber’s many stories of strong women married to weak men.

Ferber turned her energy to fiction writing and sold her first story, “The Homely Heroine,” to Everybody’s Magazine in 1910. Before she was twenty-four she had finished her first novel, Dawn O’Hara: The Girl Who Laughed, which her mother rescued from a wastebasket, and its publication in 1911 brought immediate success. Ferber gained national fame over the next four years as she published first in various magazines and then in collections stories featuring Emma McChesney, a traveling saleswoman selling Featherloom petticoats to support her rather weak teenage son. The stories emphasize the joy and satisfaction of labor and productive activity. Although Cosmopolitan offered Ferber a blank-check contract for another McChesney series, she turned to other characters and a wider scope.

In 1912 Ferber moved to New York, where she was to live most of her life. That same year she met William Allen White, a journalist who became a lifelong friend. Ferber dedicated her second novel,...

(The entire section is 883 words.)