Edna Ferber

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Ferber, Edna 1887–1968

Ferber was an American novelist, short story writer, journalist, and playwright whose fiction celebrates the American character and landscape. Throughout a successful writing career that spanned four decades, Ferber consistently and sentimentally described characters from the middle class, which represented for her an American ideal. Several of her popular novels have been adapted for film, including Giant and Show Boat. Ferber was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for So Big in 1924. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed., and Something about the Author, Vol. 7.)

["Fanny Herself"] is the most serious, extended, and dignified of Miss Ferber's books. Its first half, in particular, is quite the best work that [Miss Ferber] has done. The earlier stages of the career of Fanny Brandeis—her advance from the small bazaar … to an important position in a big mail-order house in Chicago—is full of unction, verve and passion…. Later on the author succumbs to that necessary but troublesome thing, a plot. The head of the mail-order house shows himself objectionable, if not dangerous; and a clever young newspaper man of Fanny's own race and own home town leads her to peace and safety. He rescues her from a career of business and business only, and aids her to realize herself as a woman and not as the mere head of a department—an ending which the trend and tone of the story had seemed to threaten. "Fanny Herself" is a vivid, vital, full-blooded book; dealing with "big business" and the ascent of a forceful and persistent race, it is more successful than some of its kind in avoiding essential offences to ideality and taste.

"Notes On New Fiction: 'Fanny Herself'," in The Dial (copyright, 1917, by The Dial Publishing Company, Inc.), Vol. 63, November 8, 1917 (and reprinted by Kraus Reprint Corporation, 1917), p. 463.

Louise Maunsell Field

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[The] portrait of Salina DeJong would in itself suffice to make Miss Ferber's [So Big] a notable book.

And as a background for this portrait we have a sketch of Chicago and its development during the past thirty-five years….

The plot is slight, very slight: the novel is rather a chronicle than a story, but it is a chronicle rich in variety and in contrast. There are moments of satire, as in the picture of Mid-Western University, with its division of students into two sections, the Classified and the Unclassified…. Salina sent her son there, with her head full of dreams about his developing "in an atmosphere of books, of learning."…

But the things that seemed of most importance to the people "who counted" at Mid-Western University were none of them the things that seemed important to Salina. Their standards of value were altogether different.

And this question of values is the crux of the book. What things are and what things are not worth while. Beauty, or a motor car; culture, or football and fudge; fashion, or the fine and mellow graciousness of spirit which can ennoble the routine of everyday living, however simple. It is a thoughtful book, this of Edna Ferber's, clean and strong, dramatic at times, interesting always, clearsighted, sympathetic, a novel to read and to remember.

Louise Maunsell Field, "From Gopher Prairie on to High Prairie: In a Novel Just Published Edna Ferber Invades the Small Town," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1924 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 24, 1924, p. 9.

Gerald Gould

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[Miss Ferber] believes in beauty—a belief which is all right so long as you don't talk about it at all, or do talk about it with the felicity of genius: the talk about it in...

(This entire section contains 276 words.)

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'So Big' is unfortunately tinged with sentimentality. Still, the story is energetic and in places almost thrilling. It tells of a woman who sets herself to fight the sardonic powers of nature, and wring from her own ignorance and the capricious soil a livelihood for herself and a chance of living for her son. The son turns out to be nothing better than a success. He does not create beauty; he just successfully sells bonds…. Dirk, handsome, athletic, popular, is a dreadful disappointment to his mother. This raises a number of questions, to which life returns the implacable and impartial answer of fact…. The old cheap lie that the good man becomes rich and dies respected, has been long ago exposed; but its successor, that the devotion to unworldly standards necessarily brings a reward of appreciations and exaltations inthis world, is still rampant. I do not, of course, accuse Miss Ferber of anything as crude as that. But she does set the pursuit of beauty in definite contrast to easy achievement; and possibly it escapes her notice that she has to give her beauty-pursuers a considerable measure of worldly success in order to make her contrast at all. But I do wrong to a charming novel by pursuing it too closely with speculation.

Gerald Gould, "New Fiction: 'So Big'," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1924 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 137, No. 3572, April 12, 1924, p. 392.

Louis Kronenberger

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At a time when realism is all but monopolizing literature, one experiences a sensation of delighted relief in encountering "Show Boat." It is gorgeously romantic—not in the flamboyant and artificial manner of the historical romance …; not staggering beneath a weight of costume and local color. "Show Boat" comes as a spirited, full-breasted, tireless story, romantic because it is too alive to be what the realists call real; because it bears within itself a spirit of life which we seek rather than have; because it makes a period and mode of existence live again, not actually different from what they were, but more alluring than they could have been. "Show Boat" is romantic not because its people and events violate any principle of possibility, but because they express a principle of selection….

After the days of Mark Twain, the Mississippi holds small place in American literature. Now it reclaims its place….

All art is a luxury in the sense that it fills a place beyond the physical necessities of life, but some art there is which is entirely ornamental, which does not reveal life, or probe character, or feed the soul. "Show Boat" is such a piece of writing—a gorgeous thing to read for the reading's sake alone. Some, perhaps, will conscientiously refer to it as a document which reanimates a part of the American scene that once existed and does no more. But this writer cannot believe it is that; rather it is a glorification of that scene, a heightening, an expression of its full romantic possibilities.

Louis Kronenberger, "'Show Boat' Is High Romance: Edna Ferber Goes Barnstorming Down the Old Mississippi," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1926 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 22, 1926, p. 5.


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Miss Ferber's talent, this reviewer is irrevocably convinced, does not lie in the way of the novel…. She writes a novel as a modern athletic girl might wear a crinoline and a bustle. She manages the trick, but she is self-conscious and filled with secret amusement over the masquerade. Why so many words? Why such a portentous enclosure for a mere story? So I imagine Miss Ferber secretly regarding the novel form. Her forte, I humbly submit, is the short story. She has the gift, and it is my belief she has the predilection, for that form of literary art. But editors and publishers demand novels spun out to serial length and Miss Ferber, who can do it, supplies the demand. That does not vitiate the argument that her short stories are remarkably good stories, while her novels are only remarkably good short stories spun out to novel length and thereby largely spoiled.

Show Boat as an example. I am prepared to confess that I am inconsistent because I read the book with excitement, not over the story, which is negligible, but over the description of life on the Mississippi in a floating theatre. (pp. 101-02)

If it be demanded outright what is the real trouble with Show Boat as a novel it is just this, that it is written in short story tempo…. Even though she writes a novel, it goes along at a speed which leaves the author out of breath and the reviewer out of patience. (p. 102)

William McFee, "Life on the Mississippi—New Style," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1926 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. XLVIII, No. 615, September 15, 1926, pp. 101-02.


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[It] is very long since I have read any book with such enjoyment as I found in the reading of Cimarron. Its pace, its colour, its panache, its gallant and defiant courage, its admirable, unapologetic Americanism are all delightful. It is a story of the settling of Oklahoma, and especially of the city of Osage and the dreadful injustice done by the United States to the Indians…. [The novel], in its praise of the past betrays, I fancy, the author's distaste for much in America of to-day.

Proteus, "New Novels: 'Cimarron'," in New Statesman (© 1930 The Statesman Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. XXXV, No. 891, May 24, 1930, p. 217.

William Kittrell

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Miss Ferber's [Giant] is certain to be on the required reading list of the Texas Folklore Society, for it deals with the habits of those mythological creatures, the freespenders from Texas, the Land of the Big Rich….

Despite the disclaimer in the front of the book, the characters in "Giant" will strike many Texans as bearing a remarkable resemblance to actual persons…. It is about as difficult to identify the characters and places in "Giant" as it would be to recognize the Washington Monument if it were painted purple.

Miss Ferber has done a lot of homework on this book, and there is some meat in it. Her discourses on grass, while not the last word on the subject, reveal diligent study….

"Giant" will be joyfully received in forty-seven states and avidly though angrily read in Texas….

William Kittrell, "Land of the Boiling Gold," in The Saturday Review (copyright © 1952 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 35, No. 39, September 27, 1952, p. 15.

Joe Dever

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Edna Ferber is a reportorial novelist with a powerful, encompassing love for America and the people in it. Miss Ferber's skill at reportage and enormous, healthy curiosity about the peoples, places and customs of America have produced a series of popular romantic novels which have been saved from tedium and slick-paper mediocrity by a rich gift of phrase and a warm, fearless social-consciousness. (p. 45)

There is, she tells us [in Giant], much to admire about Texas and Texans…. But over all this thumping materialism, looms the haunting shadow of the "spik," the "cholo" or Tex-Mex. His is the land and the natural resources by birthright; they, historically, are the interlopers, he, the disinherited.

In the gradual disintegration of the Bick Benedict ranching empire … [and] the rise of postwar ideas of social equality … Miss Ferber hints at a Texas of tomorrow.

Let us fervently hope that she is as good a prophet as a novelist. (p. 46)

Joe Dever, "Deep in the Heart," in Commonweal (copyright © 1952 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LVII, No. 2, October 17, 1952, pp. 45-6.

Walter Havighurst

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It was inevitable that Edna Ferber should write a novel about Alaska. The magnetic northern land has all the qualities that draw her to a scene—robustness, magnitude, epic tradition, the clash of strong-willed men and their stubborn duel with Nature. In her novel "Ice Palace" she has put more of Alaska between covers than any other writer in its short and crowded history….

The Ice Palace is a steel-and-glass apartment hotel in the bustling town of Baranof, halfway up the long Alaskan coast. It is also a kind of emblem of Alaska—people inside it can see out, but the people outside cannot see in….

Inside and Outside is the conflict in this novel, and Chris Storm's two grandfathers are allied with the two forces…. Between the two forces is Edna Ferber's heroine, who is like Alaska itself: "Beneath her shining surface were hidden treasures and wonders of the mind and heart and spirit."

Her heroine…. Here is the difference between Miss Ferber and the "modern" novelists, and a reason for the multitude of her readers. She still sees people in large dimensions, strong enough to be actors rather than to be acted upon. This novel contains a whole gallery of them, with Christine Storm in the center. Frankly heightened and exaggerated, they are men and women to match the seas and skies and mountains of the big North Country.

Walter Havighurst, "Big A," in The Saturday Review (copyright © 1958 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 41, No. 13, March 29, 1958, p. 26.

Edward Weeks

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In The Emma McChesney Stories, Edna Ferber staked out her claim as a delineator of American character; and in Show Boat she gave us one of the most appealing romances of the stage. Thereafter, in novels like Cimarron and Giant, she has written of the big operator, the limitless and often unscrupulous development of our natural resources, and the corrupting effect of power and wealth upon the individual. In Ice Palace … she has moved her setting to Alaska, our last frontier, and again she is writing about big strapping men…. (pp. 78, 80)

[The novel] reads to me like an old Morality…. The history of Seward's Purchase, the story of the early reckless days, of the potential locked in these vast northlands have been carefully built into the novel, but the pity of it is that by her process of overenlargement, Miss Ferber makes the picture seem less than believable.

Part of the trouble is traceable to her extravagant phrasing. I am prepared to believe that everything in Alaska is larger than life, except human nature, which I suspect must be pretty much the same there as it is here. Yet in phrases like these the author does less than justice to her people: "Oscar's little eyes narrowed to slits";… "tossing the amber stuff down their throats with one quick backward jerk of the head"; "Sid Kleet's steely voice cut the tension";… "His lethal gaze searched the crowd, passionless and coldly menacing as the eye of a Colt .38." Phrases like these are as subtle as brass knuckles. Apart from such theatricality, the virtue of this book is the fact that Miss Ferber cares deeply about the future both of Alaska and of mankind. (p. 80)

Edward Weeks, "Life and Letters: 'Ice Palace'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1958, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 201, No. 5, May, 1958, pp. 78, 80.

Stevie Smith

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There is something good about Miss Ferber's fighting character that comes through [her autobiography, A Kind of Magic,] and warms the reader's heart—especially if he is not very energetic himself or as good as he thinks he should be. She is very energetic, brave, affectionate and kind. Her talent as a writer—mostly of novels about different parts of America at different times—is not in the highest rank but she can communicate her enthusiasms, they are many, and is a sharp observer of scenes and people…. She loves America, even the noise and smells, and even though she has often been in trouble, especially in Texas, because of criticising. It is a pity that goodness of character, love of life, love of the characters one puts in one's stories, bear no relation to talent: nor the pains one takes either.

Stevie Smith, "Euphoria," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1963 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. LXVI, No. 1706, November 22, 1963, p. 750.

Mary Rose Shaughnessy

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Women—their potential, their success and failures; and America—its successes and failures, were … Edna Ferber's two great themes.

[In her novels] women were not "feminine first and human second," but women with a strong "dash of the masculine." From Dawn O'Hara in 1911 to Christine Storm in 1958, Ferber's heroines possessed not only "feminine" traits …; but also "masculine" traits—love of freedom, daring, adventure, excitement, independence, initiative.

Marriage was not the end of the story in Ferber's novels, but usually the beginning. Through an "ill-assorted" match, her heroines often found themselves in some strange new frightening world where their romantic dreams and illusions about male superiority collapsed, and they had to struggle out of some failure alone, often with a dependent to support. Their husbands, when they did not leave them, constituted obstacles against whom the heroines must struggle.

In making their way, her heroines developed qualities which helped them to succeed. Their pride would not allow them to go home (if they had a home to return to). Pride made them resolve to prove themselves, to make their husbands' businesses succeed, to make things the way they had dreamed or expected them to be. Pride made them resolve to provide for their children the security, education, opportunity, beauty, that they themselves had not had. Sometimes pride was a result of some failure they had seen in their mothers' lives that made them resolve not to make the same mistakes in their own. Thus motivated, Ferber's heroines displayed determination, competitiveness, ambition, imagination, initiative, bravery, endurance, hard work, scientific planning, business sense. They overcame their deference to the male and looked to themselves, to their own self-reliance, independence, and self-assurance, to succeed.

They had to overcome a variety of obstacles, chief of which was the "man's world" restriction. In the early novels this meant a world which was "no place for a lady," that is, a world in which a working woman was expected to be either masculine, hard-boiled, man-hating, and unattractive, or weak and liable to succumb to the familiarities and liberties of men. Her early women disproved this assumption by displaying maternal feelings, attractiveness to and interest in men, and by repulsing men who had the "wrong ideas" about them. After World War I this burden of proof was removed, and women freely entered into a man's world without having to prove that they were still "ladies."… Men in fact, in Ferber's fiction, became, not moral dangers, but high-spirited boys who were easily intimidated by the righteous female. In and after the thirties, Ferber had come so far from worrying about "ladies" that she allowed women to go out and get their own men, as a number of them did…. The "no place for a lady—no work for a woman" concept applied, after World War I, only to the occupations her heroines entered. Before the war they had engaged in business and journalism; after, they invaded farming, pioneering, newspaper work, politics, even grand theft, making contributions that were superior to those of the men by whose sides they worked. They were told that the Haymarket, the Mississippi River, newspaper offices, Congress, tobacco fields, gambling rooms, the Klondike, round ups, fishing boats, etc. were no places for women, but they pooh-poohed the objections, secure in the knowledge that American women have been the hewers of wood and haulers of water since pioneering days, and that there is no place and no work for which a woman is too delicate.

Besides the "man's world" obstacle, her heroines faced various obstacles such as loneliness; isolation from their kind; the savagery, crudeness and utilitarianism of their environment; poverty; social rejection; narrow customs; inner revulsions; etc. In and after the thirties, they began to face larger obstacles—the decline, demoralization, and ruin of society; the maladies of success poisoning—apathy, greed, isolationism, restlessness, the arrogance of power, waste, excess—in themselves and in those close to them.

Success for Ferber's heroines in her early novels was personal achievement in some worthwhile area, the contribution to society of their talents, the development of their powers. In 1917 Ferber began to contrast true and false success, illustrating in Fanny Herself a version of false success in big business. She then began her life-long task of separating the spoiled fruit from the sound fruit. False success consisted of an over-emphasis on the material aspects—wealth, fame, position, respectability, connections with the "right people." True success consisted of contributing one's own gifts to society, producing something creative, whether asparagus, editorials, plays, cartoons—whatever enriched society and fulfilled self. In her fiction Ferber began to illustrate more and more versions of false success…. She began to show the downfall, voluntary or involuntary, of these false successes. True success in the thirties began to consist of restoring America, fighting the sickness that Ferber had noted in Europe in 1922, and that had spread to America in the thirties. In the forties and fifties, protest, rebellion, even survival, became the triumphs of her heroines. (pp. 339-42)

In Ferber's fiction, women are always the stronger sex. She believed that women, especially American women, are possessed potentially of greater endurance, ingenuity, perception and initiative than men; that they, like the Jew, have had to become more intuitive, more practical, less romantic, less sentimental, less gullible than men in self-protection, in order to survive. She believed that they are less violent than men, that they could and might have to clean up the world that men have nearly destroyed. However, she believed that modern American women have failed to live up to their potentialities, to pull their own weight. They have concealed their strength behind a facade of femininity, clinging to old-fashioned privileges, spoiling and pampering themselves, wasting their energies manipulating husbands and children, ruling social cliques. Most women, she believed, spend their lives being "female only," without the "dash of the masculine" that she felt necessary to make the "whole woman." If women ever wake up to their potentialities, she wrote over and over, the world will be a better place. Her fiction presents images of women who "hit high C," against images of women who choose the easy, secure life which leaves them frustrated, nagging, hovering, bored and aged. (p. 343)

Mary Rose Shaughnessy, in her conclusion to her Women and Success in American Society in the Works of Edna Ferber (copyright © 1977 by Mary Rose Shaughnessy; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Gordon Press, 1977, pp. 339-48.


Edna Ferber Drama Analysis


Ferber, Edna (Vol. 93)