Edna Ferber was a feminist, a conservationist, a crusader for minorities and immigrants, and a staunch believer in the work ethic and American culture. Strong women characters rising above the limitations of birth and gender dominate her novels; most men in her works are weak, and many desert their women and children. Ferber’s fiction describes and condemns mistreatment of African Americans, Jews, Latinos, and Native Americans. Her novels decry unrestrained capitalism and wasteful exploitation of natural resources while celebrating regional culture and history in an effective and pleasing style that clearly reflects her journalistic background. Her characterization, however, is less effective, and her plots tend toward melodrama and coincidence.
All of Ferber’s novels were commercial successes, and many remained in print for decades after their first publication. Her first novels, Dawn O’Hara and Fanny Herself, are strongly autobiographical. They remain interesting because they show Ferber’s literary growth. The background material in Great Son, a later work, is sketchy, the characters are stereotypical, and the plot is contrived. At the time of that novel’s writing, during World War II, Ferber was preoccupied with writing propaganda to help in the war effort. Her final novel, Ice Palace, is a political tract of little literary merit; Ferber was ill at the time of its writing.
Ferber expected The Girls to be a best seller and considered it her best novel. The story recounts six decades of Chicago middle-class history and intergenerational conflict. Charlotte Thrift, forbidden to marry an unsuitable boy, loses him to death in the American Civil War. She never marries. Her unmarried niece, Lottie, under her mother’s domination, keeps house for her mother and aunt. Lottie finally rebels, joins the Red Cross during World War I, has a brief affair, and returns with her illegitimate daughter, whom she passes off as a French orphan. Charly (Charlotte), Lottie’s niece, falls in love with a poet, who is killed in World War I, and moves in with her aunt and great-aunt. All three of these women are strong personalities, whereas their men are either incompetent boors or scoundrels.
Ferber’s first best seller, So Big, effectively contrasts humble life in the Halstead Street Market with that of pretentious Chicago society. A genteelly reared orphan, Selina Peake, goes to teach school in a community of Dutch market gardeners, where she must adjust to a brutal existence. Her only intellectual companion is thirteen-year-old Roelf, the artistically talented son of the family with whom she lives. After a year, she marries kindly Pervus DeJong, an unimaginative, unenterprising widower. They have a son, Dirk, nicknamed So Big. After Pervus’s death, Selina makes their farm a thriving success. She sacrifices all for So Big, who, after a few years as a struggling architect, shifts to a banking career and high society. In contrast, Selina’s first protégé, Roelf, becomes a famous sculptor. At the end, So Big finally realizes that his life is empty. Although the novel was critically acclaimed, the characterization barely develops beyond stereotypes, and...
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