Edna Ferber Ferber, Edna (Vol. 93) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Edna Ferber 1887–1968

American novelist, short story writer, playwright, and autobiographer.

The following entry presents an overview of Ferber's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 18.

Ferber is best known for novels and short stories featuring typically American characters, romantic and melodramatic plots, detailed descriptive passages on historical and geographical settings, and an optimistic, celebratory belief in American history and mythology. Immensely popular with readers throughout the five decades of her career, many of her works—including Show Boat (1926), Cimarron (1930), and Giant (1952)—were made into successful movies. The author of two autobiographies, Ferber also collaborated with George S. Kaufman on several stage plays, notably The Royal Family (1927) and Dinner at Eight (1932). Critic W. J. Stuckey wrote that "whatever the final judgment about Ferber's work, there is no doubt that her finger was always on the pulse of what many American readers felt or wanted to feel about American life."

Biographical Information

Born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Ferber moved in 1890 with her parents and sister Fannie to Ottumwa, Iowa, where her father operated a general store. Impelled by that community's undisguised anti-Semitism, the Ferbers moved to the prosperous, liberal town of Appleton, Wisconsin. After graduating from high school, Ferber worked as a newspaper reporter for the Appleton Daily Crescent and the Milwaukee Journal. While a journalist, she began writing short stories; the first to be published was "The Homely Heroine," in Everybody's Magazine, November, 1910. After suffering what some commentators have called a nervous breakdown while working at the Milwaukee Journal, Ferber returned to her family's home in Appleton where, during her recuperation, she wrote her first novel, Dawn O'Hara (1911). Fully recovered, Ferber devoted all of her time to fiction writing, living a peripatetic life in which she maintained residences in New York and Chicago. Ferber first became famous for the short stories she published in such popular magazines as Everybody's and American Magazine. Her first collection, Buttered Side Down, was published in 1912. This was followed by collections of her very popular "Emma McChesney" stories: Roast Beef, Medium (1913), Personality Plus (1914), and Emma McChesney and Co. (1915). Following the critical success of her novel The Girls in 1921, Ferber began to concentrate on this genre and on her collaborations with Kaufman, which resulted in several successful Broadway productions. Ferber received the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1925 for her novel So Big, and went on to write many more popular works, including Show Boat, Cimarron, Saratoga Trunk (1941), and Giant, as well as two autobiographies, A Peculiar Treasure (1939) and A Kind of Magic (1963).

Major Works

Dawn O'Hara, which Ferber always dismissed as an immature effort, is set in New York City and presents the life of a young woman who falls in love with and marries a man who eventually goes mad and has to be hospitalized permanently. Emotionally damaged by this turn of events, Dawn seeks medical attention and recovers with the help of a young German doctor. Ferber's stories about Emma McChesney, a character who represented what at the time was referred to as the "new woman" in American society, are set mainly in Chicago and focus on Emma's travails as a single mother with a burgeoning career selling "T. A. Buck's Featherloom Petticoats." The Girls, also set in Chicago, explores the lives of three generations of spinsters, whose lives reflect the destructive influence of possessive mothers on their children. Beginning in the 1920s, Ferber collaborated with Kaufman on several plays, including Minick (1924), The Royal Family, Dinner at Eight, Stage Door (1936), The Land is Bright (1941), and Bravo! (1949). These plays typically deal with the idiosyncracies and foibles of upper-class urban life and are often set in New York City. The novel So Big revolves around a strong female character, Selina DeJong, a teacher who marries a farmer but is soon widowed and must raise her son and tend the family farm with little help. Inspired by the mythology of nineteenth-century American riverboat life, Show Boat depicts life on the Cotton Blossom, a floating theater and nightclub that travels along the Mississippi river. The story focuses on Magnolia Hawkes, daughter of Cotton Blossom's captain, and Gaylord Ravenal, a dashing gambler. Soon after Magnolia and Gaylord marry, Gaylord deserts his young wife, who then becomes a vaudeville star in Chicago in order to support her daughter Kim. Show Boat served as the basis for the Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II musical as well as three movies, including the famous MGM musical version of 1951. Cimarron is set in the Oklahoma territory of the late nineteenth-century, at about the time of the land rush of 1889. The story focuses on the dashing, impractical, and irresponsible Yancy Cravat, his wife Sabra, and their children. After Yancy deserts his family, Sabra takes charge, transforming both the family and the farm into healthy, prosperous enterprises. Eventually Sabra becomes an important political and moral force in Oklahoma's campaign for statehood. In 1939 Ferber published the first of two autobiographies, A Peculiar Treasure, which chronicles her childhood and her early literary career before World War II; A Kind of Magic chronicles her rise to celebrity and fortune from the 1940s through the early 1960s, and includes her thoughts about her own literary style. Saratoga Trunk is set in Saratoga Springs, Texas, and concerns the romance between Clint Maroon, a Texas cowboy and adventurer, and Clio Dulaine, the illegitimate daughter of a New Orleans Creole family. Determined to marry for money and power, Clio eventually discovers that true love is always more important than money. Giant, which is also set in Texas, depicts life among the members of the Benedict family. The story unfolds on the Riatta Ranch and involves love relationships, oil interests, and the pursuit of money, power, and influence. In 1958 Ferber published her last novel Ice Palace, which is set in Alaska. Critics contend that Alaskan history and geography—rather than the characters—are the real focus of the story. Christine Storm is the bridge between her feuding grandfathers and their differing views on the future of Alaska. At one time they were pioneers and friends, now Czar Kennedy supports the economic exploitation of Alaska's natural resources, while Thor Storm fights to preserve Alaska's pristine wilderness. This personal struggle for control of Alaska's destiny occurs just as the territory embarks on its quest for American statehood.

Critical Reception

Critical reception of Ferber's writings has generally been favorable. Most critics recognize the appeal of her romantic, nostalgic portrayal of American history and geography, and note her ability to create colorful characters. While many critics applaud Ferber's strong female characters—Emma McChesney, for example—most realize that her characters tend to be stereotypical, two-dimensional, and are uniquely suited to the melodramas in which they appear. Still, most critics agree that Ferber's novels and short stories are engaging and enjoyable, and are among the best examples of popular American story-telling. Stuckey has concluded: "Ferber's popularity and the critical attention she has received suggest that when the definitive study of popular taste in America is written, her novels, plays, and short stories will have to be reckoned with."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dawn O'Hara: The Girl Who Laughed (novel) 1911
Buttered Side Down (short stories) 1912
Roast Beef, Medium: The Business Adventures of Emma McChesney and Her Son, Jock (short stories) 1913
Personality Plus: Some Experiences of Emma McChesney and Her Son, Jock (short stories) 1914
Emma McChesney and Co. (short stories) 1915
Our Mrs. McChesney [with George V. Hobart] (drama) 1915
Fanny Herself (novel) 1917
Cheerful By Request (short stories) 1918
A Gay Old Dog (screenplay) 1919
$1200 a Year [with Newman Levy] (drama) 1920
Half Portions (short stories) 1920
The Girls (novel) 1921
Gigolo (short stories) 1922; also published as Among Those Present, 1923
Minick [with George S. Kaufman] (drama) 1924
So Big (novel) 1924
The Eldest: A Drama of American Life (drama) 1925
Show Boat (novel) 1926
Mother Knows Best: A Fiction Book (short stories) 1927
The Royal Family [with Kaufman] (drama) 1928; also produced as Theatre Royal, 1935
Cimarron (novel) 1930
American Beauty (novel) 1931
Dinner at Eight [with Kaufman] (drama) 1932
They Brought Their Women (short stories) 1933
Come and Get It (novel) 1935
Stage Door [with Kaufman] (drama) 1936
Nobody's In Town (novellas) 1938
A Peculiar Treasure (autobiography) 1939
The Land Is Bright [with Kaufman] (drama) 1941
No Room at the Inn (short stories) 1941
Saratoga Trunk (novel) 1942
Great Son (novel) 1945
One Basket: Thirty-One Stories (short stories) 1947
Bravo! [with Kaufman] (drama) 1949
Giant (novel) 1952
Ice Palace (novel) 1958
A Kind of Magic (autobiography) 1963

∗This work is based on Ferber's short story of the same name.

†This work is based on Ferber's short story "Old Man Minick."

‡This work served as the basis for the stage musical by Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern. Their musical was adapted for the screen in 1936 and 1951.

Frederic Taber Cooper (review date July 1911)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Dawn O'Hara, in The Bookman, New York, Vol. XXXIII, No. 5, July, 1911, p. 534.

[In the following slightly favorable review of Dawn O'Hara, Cooper praises Ferber's ability to convey her tragic story with "light-heartedness" and a "warm-hearted understanding of the things which go to make the essential joy of living."]

Dawn O'Hara, by Edna Ferber, is a book that [offers] a problem and in a certain sense answers it in its own subtitle. The problem is this: supposing a girl, after a few months of mad happiness, finds that she is bound for life to a man who has suddenly broken down and whom the doctors pronounce incurably insane. The...

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Hildegarde Hawthorne (review date 20 April 1913)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Everyday Folk," in The New York Times Book Review, April 20, 1913, p. 232.

[In the following favorable review of Roast Beef, Medium, Hawthorne praises Ferber's depiction of the modern American woman.]

"Roast beef, medium." A sane sensible order, pretty certain to result in something wholesome and satisfying. Not a food only, as Miss Ferber tells us, but a philosophy. Not a philosophy only, but an art, an art she makes delightful in this volume of stories [Roast Beef, Medium: The Business Adventures of Emma McChesney and Her Son, Jock], telling not about the exceptional, the lurid, or the miraculous, but just about the everyday, regular, I've-met...

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The New York Times Book Review (review date 20 September 1914)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Personality Plus: Some Experiences of Emma McChesney and Her Son, Jock, in The New York Times Book Review, September 20, 1914, p. 386.

[In the following favorable review of Personality Plus, the critic discusses the "fine human quality in these stories."]

All those who know and love Emma McChesney—to know her and to love her being one and the same thing—will be interested in the career of the son Jock whose "yellow streak," inherited from a worthless father, caused his plucky mother so many, anxious moments. In the five stories gathered together in this volume under the title of one of them, Personality Plus, Miss Ferber...

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The New York Times Book Review (review date 17 October 1915)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Emma McChesney & Company, in The New York Times Book Review, October 17, 1915, pp. 390, 396.

[In the following favorable review of Emma McChesney & Company, the critic praises Ferber's realistic characterization of her protagonist.]

According to all the rules of precedent, one should by now be thoroughly tired of Emma McChesney. Miss Edna Ferber should be especially tired of her, and Emma herself should be tired of life.

But Emma has always been a defier of precedent. She was, you remember, the pioneer among traveling saleswomen, and the travelers for rival firms shook their heads gravely and prophesied a...

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The New York Times Book Review (review date 7 October 1917)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Fanny Herself, in The New York Times Book Review, October 7, 1917, p. 380.

[In the following mixed review of Fanny Herself, the critic applauds the realism of the characters and story in the first half of the novel, but faults the concluding chapters for losing the narrative's momentum.]

In the amusing preface to her new novel, Miss Ferber declares that she would not be at all surprised if Molly Brandeis should turn out to be the real heroine of the book, instead of Fanny Herself. And this is precisely what happens, although the portion of the book in which Mrs. Brandeis appears is to a great extent but an introduction to the...

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The New York Times Book Review (review date 22 September 1918)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Cheerful—By Request, in The New York Times Book Review, September 22, 1918, pp. 399, 408.

[In the following favorable review of Cheerful—By Request, the critic discusses the strengths and weaknesses of the individual stories.]

Edna Ferber's new book of short stories [Cheerful—By Request] is thoroughly and entirely—Edna Ferber. Which means that the tales are outwardly simple, inwardly complex stories of human nature, and especially feminine human nature. They differ in detail a good deal, these women, yet fundamentally they are all of one type—the small-town, essentially domestic type of woman, to whom mending and...

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The New York Times Book Review (review date 9 May 1920)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Half Portions, in The New York Times Book Review, May 9, 1920, p. 236.

[In the following favorable review of Half Portions, the critic notes that Ferber's characters are similar to those of O'Henry.]

There are times while reading Edna Ferber's stories that one thinks of O. Henry. It is not the O. Henry plot with its surprising conclusion, its snap at the end, but the O. Henry characterizations that come to mind. Miss Ferber picks her people from among the everyday persons, the man in the street, the shop girl, the farmer who is strangely out his element in the city, just the types that O. Henry found ready-made to his hand around...

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Blanche Colton Williams (essay date 1920)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Edna Ferber," in her Our Short Story Writers, Dodd, Mead & Company, Inc., 1941, pp. 146-59.

[In the following essay, which is a chapter from her book originally published in 1920, Williams discusses Ferber's short stories.]

Few critics have accused Miss Edna Ferber of preaching a doctrine. "Me'n George Cohan," she wrote in 1912, "we jest aims to amuse." But few would deny that her stories possess qualities sane and wholesome. And the philosophy on which they are built is Work, with a capital W—Carlylean Work.

It is not remarkable that the joy of work illuminated throughout her scintillant pages has been forgotten in the display itself,...

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Louise Maunsell Field (review date 30 October 1921)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Girls, in The New York Times, October 30, 1921, p. 16.

[In the following favorable review of The Girls, Field praises Ferber's sense of realism.]

Congratulations to Edna Ferber! For her new novel, The Girls, is not only the best, and very much the best, book she has as yet written, but it is also one of the best that has so far been produced upon its particular subject. It has a realism, a fairness, a sanity not often found, and especially rare in stories which portray, or profess to portray, the "flapper" of the present day. Those who have contended that sweeping condemnation of that young person is unfair will rejoice in...

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Francis Hackett (review date 4 January 1922)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Girls, in The New Republic, Vol. XXIX, No. 370, January 4, 1922, pp. 158-59.

[In the following mixed review of The Girls, Hackett applauds the realistic details of the plot and characters, but faults Ferber's "underlying sentimentalism and snappy technique."]

At one time it looked as if nothing could drag Chicago into the focus of the novelist. It wasn't simply that Chicago didn't want to sit, in all its sprawling horror: it was also that the artist shrank from touching Chicago. Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, H. B. Fuller, Robert Herrick, Edith Wyatt—each of them roped the beast and yanked him forward, but there was a felt...

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The New York Times Book Review (review date 5 November 1922)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Gigolo, in The New York Times Book Review, November 5, 1922, p. 10.

[In the following mixed review of Gigolo, the critic contends that while the plots and characters of the stories are realistic, Ferber at times undercuts this quality with excessive melodrama or lack of narrative pacing.]

Every one who is at all conversant with the current magazines has by this time become well acquainted with the typical Edna Ferber short story. Eight of these short stories have been collected in the present volume, to which the least worthwhile of them gives its title, "Gigolo." Of the eight "Old Man Minick" is perhaps the best, with "Home Girl" and...

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John Farrar (essay date 1924)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Edna Ferber," in The Literary Spotlight, George H. Doran Company, 1924, pp. 135-45.

[Farrar, an American journalist, editor, and critic, founded the publishing companies Farrar and Rinehart and Farrar, Straus and Company, now known as Farrar, Straus and Giroux. In the following anecdotal essay, he discusses Ferber's evolution from journalist to short story writer and novelist.]

At one time, Edna Ferber was in the gravest danger of letting her cleverness run away with her. It might have been her artistic undoing. She would start a short story so brilliantly that one gasped, fearful for the climax of anything so sparklingly begun. But she got over that, and she...

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Saturday Review (New York) (review date 21 August 1926)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Showing America," in Saturday Review, New York, Vol. 111, No. 4, August 21, 1926, pp. 49, 54.

[In the following largely favorable review of Show Boat, the critic, lamenting his modern culture's lack of what he calls "local color," suggests that while Ferber's novel captures much of the feel of life on the Mississippi in the 1890s, it is perhaps too self-consciously nostalgic, "got up," to be fully satisfying.]

Who speaks a good word for the 'nineties now? What critic celebrated the exquisite low reliefs of Mary Wilkins Freeman's short stories when last year the American Academy awarded her its gold medal a decade (as usual) too late? Who spoke a fitting...

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Donald Davidson (review date 22 August 1926)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Edna Ferber," in The Spyglass: Views and Reviews, 1924–1930, edited by John Tyree Fain, Vanderbilt University Press, 1963, pp. 70-4.

[An American poet, literary critic, social commentator, and historian, Davidson is best known as a member of the Fugitive poets—a group of southern American writers that included John Crowe Ranson, Robert Penn Warren, and Alan Tate—and as a member of the Agrarians—a group that included many of the Fugitives and promoted the idea of agrarianism (as opposed to industrialism) in their writings on politics, social criticism, and economic theory. In the following review, originally published in the Nashville Tennessean on August 22, 1926, he...

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Louis Kronenberger (review date 22 August 1926)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Show Boat Is High Romance," in The New York Times Book Review, August 22, 1926, p. 5.

[Kronenberger was an American essayist, biographer, novelist, and educator. In the following favorable review of Show Boat, a portion of which was excerpted in Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 18, he describes the novel as "little else but an irresistible story," largely due to its self-consciously romantic and nostalgic tone at a time when most "serious" literature strove for realism.]

We need not be sentimentalists to regard the past with a romantic eye. It is the normal way of regarding it. The past is, at first hand, romantic. Disenchantment...

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The Bookman (review date September 1926)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Show Boat, in The Bookman, New York, September, 1926, pp. 91-2.

[In the following review, the critic favorably assesses Show Boat.]

Show Boat is magnificent. It is a definite advance in minor characterization and in atmospheric writing over So Big. The main characters are fine, too, although it is difficult to rival a Selina De Jong even with a Magnolia Ravenal, with whom Selina would have had much in common. Miss Ferber's documentation of her story of theatre days down the rivers of mid-America is admirable. This is a book particularly notable for the small scene, the memorable wave of the hand, the magnificent dress, the...

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The Spectator (review date 6 November 1926)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Show Boat, in The Spectator, Vol. 137, No. 5132, November 6, 1926, p. 824.

[In the following review, the critic favorably assesses the plot and characters of Show Boat.]

Richly romantic, packed with incident and sentiment, this new book Show Boat by Edna Ferber brings back the colourful past of the Southern States of America in the 'eighties and the 'nineties. The principal characters live the varied life of the little stock theatrical companies which went up and down the big rivers and played East Lynne and other vanished delights to the populations of the small riverside towns and villages. Parthenia Ann Hawks—grim consort...

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Louis Kronenberger (review date 17 April 1927)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Salt and Gusto in New Tales by Edna Ferber," in The New York Times Book Review, April 17, 1927, p. 2.

[In the following mixed review of Mother Knows Best, Kronenberger contends that all of the short stories are enjoyable, but some lack originality and realism.]

For sheer readability few writers can equal Edna Ferber. She writes so smoothly and brightly, with so much gusto, with so wide-awake a style and so clever a selection of detail that she routs all that is commonplace and casts out all that is dull. Her variety is remarkable, as any one must agree who reads the eight short stories in Mother Knows Best. Either she or her publishers, by the...

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Stanley Vestal (review date 22 March 1930)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Miss Ferber's Myth," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. VI, No. 35, March 22, 1930, p. 841.

[In the following mixed review of Cimarron, Vestal suggests that while the novel is historically inaccurate, it is nonetheless true to the "spirit" of the region.]

We have long since become accustomed to the habit of English novelists, who come to this country for a brief visit and then go home and write a book about the States. But for an American novelist to apply the same methods in writing about an unfamiliar region within the States is something of a novelty. Miss Ferber has done this in her new book on Oklahoma [Cimarron], and done it...

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The New York Times Book Review (review date 23 March 1930)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Miss Ferber's Vivid Tale of Oklahoma's Salting," in The New York Times Book Review, March 23, 1930, p. 4.

[In the following favorable review of Cimarron, the critic explores the character of Yancy Cravat and applauds the portrayal of pioneer life in the Oklahoma territory.]

The exuberance and gusto, the robust romanticism of Miss Ferber's Cimarron are so compelling that they almost insensitize the reader against its artistic deficiencies. For this is a tale in the same vein as Miss Ferber's Showboat, frankly glamourous, headlong in its story-telling fervor. She has filled in with the boldest of strokes a canvas even more colorful, more...

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The Bookman (review date July 1930)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Cimarron, in The Bookman, New York, Vol. LXXI, No. 4, July, 1930, p. 440.

[In the following review, the critic favorably assesses the characters and themes of Cimarron.]

In 1889 Sabra Cravat, dressed in gray cheviot braided with elaborate curlycues, wearing a bonnet with a bird on it, and high button boots, mounted the seat of a covered wagon and drove from the comparative civilization of Wichita, Kansas, to the red wastes of the newly opened Oklahoma. In the wagon ahead was her Peer Gynt of a husband, the picturesque, mysterious Yancey Cravat. She took with her her silver spoons and cake dish, monogrammed linen, her principles and her...

(The entire section is 694 words.)

Henry Seidel Canby (review date 17 October 1931)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gusto vs. Art," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. VIII, No. 13, October 17, 1931, p. 201.

[Canby was an American editor, educator, biographer, and literary critic. In the following review, he contends that while. American Beauty is well-constructed and realistic in its surface details, it lacks the subtlety and depth of a great novel.]

The Poles came in. They tore up the brush-grown fields of old Connecticut and forced new yield from them. They settled in those loveliest of American landscapes and, utterly oblivious of their dim beauty, saw them only as land, unused land, cheap land. They brought a peasantry on a soil that had never known a...

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Mary Ross (review date 18 October 1931)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Brilliant Pageant," in New York Herald Tribune Books, October 18, 1931, p. 3.

[In the following review, Ross favorably assesses American Beauty.]

Miss Ferber's title is cryptic. This story is not, as one might expect, of hothouse America, of cities and show girls and night clubs, but of the green upper valleys of Connecticut. There in the seventeenth century passed a gay procession of Cavaliers.

You saw women a-horseback through the wild grandeur of the Connecticut landscape in fine shoes of flowered russet or red Morocco; silks and velvets and brocades fashioning the gowns under their favorite cloaks of scarlet. The men,...

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Margaret Wallace (review date 18 October 1931)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Connecticut Pageant by Miss Ferber," in The New York Times Book Review, October 18, 1931, p. 7.

[In the following mixed review, Wallace applauds the vivid characters in American Beauty, but faults Ferber for emphasizing pageantry over plot.]

In her newest novel, American Beauty, Edna Ferber has made yet another and more ambitious excursion into the annals of American history. The pageant of Colonial settlement she attempts to portray here in the life of a single family involves the founding and growth of a civilization and its decay and replacement by a new order.

The story is told in four deftly related panels. The first, set...

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Dorothy Van Doren (review date 28 October 1931)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "American Beauty Shoppe," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 133, No. 3460, October 28, 1931, pp. 462-63.

[Van Doren was an esteemed American novelist, critic, and autobiographer; her husband was poet Mark Van Doren. In the following largely negative review of American Beauty, she laments Ferber's reliance on melodrama, a "curse," she argues, that detracts from the potential of the novel.]

Imagine a finely designed, sturdily built New England house. There are many such in New England. Imagine the bricks neatly turned and strongly laid, the small-paned windows giving off the mauve and pale rose of old glass, the fan-light over the door a thing of delicately...

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George D. Nickel (review date January 1933)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Dinner at Eight, in Sociology and Social Research, Vol. XVII, January, 1933, p. 297.

[In the following review, Nickel favorably assesses the characters and plot of Dinner at Eight.]

George S. Kaufman will get you if you don't watch out. He has a discerning eye that quickly penetrates the veneer of politeness and convention, and a sharp pen that delights in scratching this surface to reveal the selfish struggle within. Among his victims have been the theater in his Royal Family, Hollywood in Once in a Lifetime, national politics in Of Thee I Sing, and now with the aid of Edna Ferber is added the upper quartile of New York...

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Desmond MacCarthy (review date 14 January 1933)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Excitement, Satire, Speed," in The New Statesman and Nation, Vol. V, No. 99, January 14, 1933, pp. 41-2.

[MacCarthy was an English essayist and critic. In the following review, he favorably assesses Dinner at Eight, noting its fast pace and well-drawn characters.]

Dinner at Eight, at the Palace Theatre, by George Kaufman and Edna Ferber, both gifted authors (her novel, Show Boat was very superior to the popular play made from it), is an exceptionally animated performance: violent, unintermitted animation—that is the outcome and the aim of this ingenious mixture of ingredients, each of which is pungent enough to flavour for some palates...

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May Lamberton Becker (review date 7 May 1933)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "For Everybody Is a Story," in The New York Herald Tribune Books, May 7, 1933, p. 6.

[Becker was an American journalist, critic, and author of books for children. In the following review, she favorably assesses They Brought Their Women.]

Everybody has a story: that has been said since autobiographical novels began. Miss Ferber's new book [They Brought Their Women] seems based upon a sounder principal: everybody is a story. If it creates a person, a short story need do no more. If it reveals him in his everyday action, picked out in his group by the spotlight of creative understanding, it will do much more. If it chooses to turn on this light at a...

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Edith H. Walton (review date 14 May 1933)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Edna Ferber's Volume of Short Stories," in The New York Times Book Review, May 14, 1933, p. 7.

[In the following review of They Brought Their Women, Walton argues that while she has the talent to write realistic and exciting short stories, "depth, subtlety, intensity are beyond Miss Ferber."]

In a somewhat unexpected preface to this volume of tales [They Brought Their Women] which is her first since Mother Knows Best—Edna Ferber makes several generalizations about the short story.

"By its very form and brevity," she says, "it is restricted from penetrating deeply into the fundamentals of life. Profound human emotion...

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Zona Gale (review date 24 February 1935)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Edna Ferber's Roaring North Woods Tale," in New York Herald Tribune Books, February 24, 1935, p. 3.

[Gale was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American dramatist, novelist, essayist, and critic. In the following favorable review of Come and Get It, she applauds the unrelenting pace of the novel.]

There are two ways, there are many ways of writing fiction from fact. One is to use the method which Henry Adams employed not for writing fiction, but for imposing a mood. For permitting the reader not so much exercises in shared factual observation as in opening a door, offering a threshold. In San Christobal de la Habana Joseph Hergesheimer employs, again not...

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Fred T. Marsh (review date 24 February 1935)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Edna Ferber's Come and Get It," in The New York Times Book Review, February 24, 1935, p. 6.

[In the following mixed review of Come and Get It, Marsh applauds Ferber's eye for evocative detail, but contends that the novel loses its appeal and effectiveness in the closing chapters.]

To that great army of the American fiction-reading public who liked The Girls (1921), So Big (1924), Show Boat (1926), Cimarron (1930), American Beauty (1931), the short stories and the plays (with George S. Kaufman) of Edna Ferber, her new novel, Come and Get It, is recommended. It is of a piece with the rest.


(The entire section is 1053 words.)

The Commonweal (review date 6 November 1936)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Stage Door, in The Commonweal, Vol. XXV, No. 2, November 6, 1936, p. 51.

[In the following review of Stage Door, the critic applauds all aspects of the production, but notes that the characters are "mere types."]

Stage Door, though it is not George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber at their best, is an amusing, well acted and skilfully staged little comedy. It has to do with the rivalry between stage and screen, and the brave fight made by Terry Randall to become a legitimate actress. Terry sees her pretty but brainless roommate become a successful Hollywood star, and her chance comes only at the end, when her roommate has failed in...

(The entire section is 442 words.)

Joseph Wood Krutch (review date 7 November 1936)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Too Good Not to Be Better," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 143, No. 19, November 7, 1936, pp. 557-58.

[Krutch was an American drama, literary, and social critic who wrote esteemed studies of Samuel Johnson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Henry David Thoreau. In the following review of Stage Door, he attributes both the strengths and weaknesses of the play to George S. Kaufman, and laments the fact that the play itself is far less intelligent than its many witty lines and gags.]

It is unfair, of course, but anyone as good as George S. Kaufman must pay the penalty for not being a great deal better. He has paid it before and he will have to pay it again in connection...

(The entire section is 662 words.)

Margaret Lawrence (essay date 1936)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Go-Getters," in The School of Femininity, Kennikat Press, 1966, pp. 183-209.

[In the following excerpt from a book originally published in 1936, Lawrence focuses on the role of women in Ferber's writings, discussing the historical context in which Ferber's work first appeared and noting how she reflected and promoted women's new status in society.]

Behind the war generation and the post-war youth lay long centuries of feminine silence and economic helplessness. The ghost of it still haunted the race. Emancipation was so recent, it was confusing. The ghost appeared in the confusion. When the emotionalism of the war faded, and the excitement of the new...

(The entire section is 3768 words.)

Isabel Currier (review date 13 February 1938)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Manhattan Summer Music," in New York Herald Tribune Books, February 13, 1938, p. 5.

[In the following review, Currier favorably assesses the characterizations and plotlines of "Nobody's In Town" and "Trees Die at the Top," the two novellas in Nobody's In Town.]

"Everybody who is anybody" leaves New York in the summertime, seeking escape from the heat. After they have gone "The Little People … claim the New York that is rightfully theirs." Anonymously, they continue the routine of their days to keep the city of the world fed and thirst-free and clean. The great machinery of massed life never stops, and those who keep it running are unaware that "Nobody's In...

(The entire section is 504 words.)

Katherine Woods (review date 5 February 1939)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Edna Ferber and Her America," in The New York Times Book Review, February 5, 1939, pp. 1, 30.

[In the following review of A Peculiar Treasure, Woods favorably assesses Ferber's first autobiography.]

It was a lovable country town in Wisconsin, in the early years of the century: tree-shaded, prosperous, civilized, and stimulating as such a town is bound to be if one has the keenness and imagination really to look at it. "Just to sit on the front porch and watch the town go by is something of an education" in an open-living American community like this. And the formal education of the remarkably progressive high school offered extracurricular attractions...

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Peter Quennell (review date 24 June 1939)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Impressions of a Best-Seller," in The New Statesman and Nation, Vol. XVII, No. 435, June 24, 1939, pp. 998, 1000.

[Quennell was an American essayist, novelist, and critic. In the following review of A Peculiar Treasure, he praises Ferber as a keen observer and an honest and enthusiastic writer, rather than as a particularly accomplished novelist or insightful autobiographer.]

From several points of view A Peculiar Treasure is an engaging book. It gives us a vivid sketch of an active and successful woman: it traces the outline of a busy and exciting career: it helps to explain the methods and psychology of a modern best-seller. It is readable,...

(The entire section is 1105 words.)

Rose Feld (review date 2 November 1941)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Saratoga and New Orleans—and Edna Ferber," in New York Herald Tribune Books, November 2, 1941, p. 5.

[Feld was a Rumanian-born American critic and journalist. In the following favorable review, she praises the characterizations and plotline of Saratoga Trunk.]

Again Edna Ferber has taken a slice out of America's past and made it come alive. In Saratoga Trunk, her new novel, she has gone back to the '80's of New Orleans and Saratoga, two cities which at different poles represented the lustiness, the vitality and the romance of the period. Both scenes are admirably suited to her abilities. She has a feeling for the color and the sparkle of the robust, a...

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Margaret Wallace (review date 2 November 1941)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Saratoga Trunk, in The New York Times Book Review, November 2, 1941, p. 4.

[In the following excerpt, Wallace favorably assesses the characters and the pictorial style of Saratoga Trunk.]

The most cautious reviewer can predict skyrocket success for Saratoga Trunk—and not feel that he is getting out on a limb, either. Few of Edna Ferber's vastly popular novels of the past decade have arrived on the book counters with more fanfare. In abridged form it has been serialized by a national magazine, and it will be seen on stage and screen as soon as the ponderous machinery for producing an A spectacle can begin grinding it out. Saratoga...

(The entire section is 870 words.)

Fairfax Downey (review date 22 November 1941)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ferber …," in The Saturday Review of Literature, New York, Vol. XXIV, No. 31, November 22, 1941, p. 18.

[Downey was an American journalist, poet, and critic. In the following review, he favorably assesses Saratoga Trunk.]

"Hi, wait a minute, fellas," broke in the tabloid reporter. "Something tells me Mr. Maroon isn't kidding. Are you, Mr. Maroon? Say listen, maybe we're missing the real story."…

They did miss the real story, that group of newspaper men and women interviewing Clint and Clio Maroon in their rooms in the United States Hotel, Saratoga. Of course they already had a big story: the old Colonel's announcement that he was giving...

(The entire section is 623 words.)

Nathan L. Rothman (review date 27 January 1945)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Love-Letter to Seattle," in The Saturday Review of Literature, New York, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, January 27, 1945, p. 24.

[In the following review of Great Son, Rothman praises Ferber's skill as a novelist but laments the fact that she did not fully develop her story in this novel.]

Miss Ferber is a swell writer, gifted, fertile, and imaginative. And she is unfair to book reviewers. Here she has written a lively contemporary American romance, with certain inadequacies plain upon the face of it. We are prepared to speak to her in pained and loving accents. But right before us, in nice large type, is a two-page introduction in which she has ticked off these...

(The entire section is 642 words.)

William Du Bois (review date 28 January 1945)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tintypes by Ferber," in The New York Times Book Review, January 28, 1945, p. 5.

[Du Bois was an American educator, novelist, poet, playwright, and critic. In the following review of Great Son, he argues that Ferber has failed to provide her potentially interesting characters with a suitably compelling plot.]

First there's Exact Melendy—a great-grandame complete with Godey-book silks, medicinal rye, toy railroad, and the finest view in all Seattle. Then there's her son Vaughan—a two-fisted taker in his day. There's Emmy, his pneumatic wife, whose mother was a Mercer girl. There's his son Klondike, born of Pansy, his violet-eyed Alaskan mistress, and...

(The entire section is 423 words.)

Rose Feld (review date 28 January 1945)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Rich Lusty Story of a Family and a City," in New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, January 28, 1945, p. 3.

[In the following mixed review of Great Son, Feld applauds the plotline as "a lavish and prodigious feast," but contends that the characters are not well-defined.]

In a two-page introduction to her novel Great Son, Edna Ferber makes what she calls "an inadequate excuse for a slim book on a Gargantuan subject." No excuses, no apologies are necessary for this volume for, however lacking it may be in its creator's eyes, this story of Seattle comes alive with the spirit of its intention. The strokes are broad, but never wasteful; the...

(The entire section is 939 words.)

James Gray (review date 1946)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Edna Ferber," in his On Second Thought, University of Minnesota Press, 1946, pp. 154-64.

[In the following review, Gray examines A Peculiar Treasure, contending that it is a forthright autobiography and reveals the particulars of Ferber's literary success.]

Edna Ferber is an enormously gifted person. She is also a thoughtful analyst of human experience. This aspect of her intelligence she has seldom revealed in her fiction, which habitually takes a firm, possessive hold upon a heroine and leads her resolutely through a series of highly contrived incidents in a standardized siege against the citadel of success. Ironically, it is in Miss Ferber's...

(The entire section is 1008 words.)

Robert van Gelder (essay date 1946)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Interview with Edna Ferber," in his Writers and Writing, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1946, pp. 360-65.

[In the following essay, based on a 1945 interview, Gelder examines Ferber's views on the writing process.]

Edna Ferber waited for the publication of her new novel, Great Son. Her hands and her talk were restless. The talk ranged over the hard drinking of some American writers and their wives: "She was like a little girl, a child, but after the cocktails and wine at dinner, she filled a whole tumbler full of Scotch and drank it down as I'd drink water; before long she looked like an old hag." The talk reached to Russia and Communism: "It's a good...

(The entire section is 1940 words.)

James MacBride (review date 16 February 1947)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Thirty-One by Ferber," in The New York Times Book Review, February 16, 1947, p. 3.

[In the following review of One Basket, MacBride praises the collection as representing Ferber "at her best."]

Miss Ferber's short stories (her blurbist informs us solemnly) are required reading in schools and colleges. For once, it is pleasant to agree with the publicity department. Selected by the author herself from over a hundred published items, the stories in this volume will repay the closest study of the fledgling who would go and do likewise. For the confirmed novel-reader who shuns slick paper, they are vigorous examples of an author at the top of her form—a...

(The entire section is 423 words.)

George Jean Nathan (review date 1949)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Bravol, in his The Theatre Book of the Year: 1948–1949, Alfred A. Knopf, 1949, pp. 153-62.

[Nathan was an esteemed American journalist, playwright, author, and critic. In the following review of the 11 November 1948 Broadway production of Bravo!, he argues that while the play has technical, structural problems, "it contains much of the stuff on which good plays are made."]

The advance out-of-town reports on the play [Bravo!] were so fiercely grim that, having often after long experience become rather cynical in such cases, I went to the New York opening in a somewhat optimistic mood and learned, as sometimes in the past, that...

(The entire section is 730 words.)

John Barkham (review date 28 September 1952)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Where It's the Biggest and Bestest," in The New York Times Book Review, September 28, 1952, pp. 4-5.

[In the following favorable review of Giant, Barkham argues that the novel presents a scathing view of Texas, one that Texans will probably resent.]

If you haven't read Edna Ferber's name on any new novel lately, it isn't (as you might have suspected) because she was relaxing on the royalties from Show Boat, Cimarron, Saratoga Trunk and other movie masterpieces made from her books. On the contrary, it was because Miss Ferber was brewing the biggest witch's broth of a book to hit the great Commonwealth of Texas since the revered Spindle blew its...

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Florence Haxton Bullock (review date 28 September 1952)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Edna Ferber Tells a Big-as-Life Story of Oil-and-Cattle Texas," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, September 28, 1952, p. 1.

[In the following favorable review of Giant, Bullock examines Ferber's themes, characterizations, and portrayal of contemporary Texas life.]

Edna Ferber does best with a big story: Chicago in its burgeoning youth, the rugged Southwest, life on the Mississippi in show boat days, New England in her period of decline—and now, in Giant, she gives us this big, reluctantly loving portrait of the fabulously rich outsize state of Texas, and the Texians (as Miss Ferber's quick ear hears them calling themselves). Caught up in...

(The entire section is 856 words.)

Phoebe Lou Adams (review date October 1952)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "At War with Texas," in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 190, No. 4, October, 1952, pp. 100-01.

[Adams is an American writer and critic. In the following review of Giant, she favorably assesses its plot, themes, and characterizations.]

The state of Texas is hero, heroine, villain, and supporting cast in Edna Ferber's new novel, Giant and at that, Miss Ferber doesn't pretend to deal with the whole state. She has settled for that portion of Texas with more than ten millions, plus its Mexican retainers. That adds up to a large number of people, but Texas overshadows all of them.

Although Miss Ferber writes to entertain, and never fails to...

(The entire section is 507 words.)

Ernest Gruening (review date 30 March 1958)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Edna Ferber's Novel of Alaska's Dreams and Dramas," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, March 30, 1958, p. 1.

[Gruening, who served as governor of Alaska from 1939 to 1953 and senator from 1958 to 1969, was also a critic and author of several books about Alaska. In the following favorable review, he examines the plot, characters, and themes of Ice Palace.]

A painting of Alaska influenced by modern abstractional tendencies would be large, sparkling, brilliant with blues—of sky and sea—gleaming with whites of mammoth glaciers and towering peaks, vivid with the warm greens of virgin forest and tundra, crowned with the gold of the Midnight Sun, shimmering...

(The entire section is 1087 words.)

Elizabeth Janeway (review date 30 March 1958)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Strong Men Face to Face," in The New York Times Book Review, March 30, 1958, p. 4.

[Janeway, whose husband was the noted economist Eliot Janeway, is an American novelist, educator, nonfiction writer, and critic. In the following mixed review of Ice Palace, she applauds the nonfictional, historical aspects of the novel, arguing that the plot is "absent-minded to the point of being ramshackle."]

It was a maxim of my father's, quoted from a source I have unhappily forgotten, that the purpose of local color in writing is "to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative" [in a footnote, Janeway adds that the line was "spoken...

(The entire section is 673 words.)

Edward Weeks (review date May 1958)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Where Men are the Men," in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 201, No. 5, May, 1958, pp. 78, 80.

[In the following mixed review, Weeks applauds the geographical and historical scope of Ice Palace, but contends that the believability of the characters and plot are compromised by Ferber's "theatricality."]

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...

(The entire section is 563 words.)

W. G. Rogers (review date 8 September 1963)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "In the Moonlight and Magnolia the Protest Was Lost," in The New York Times Book Review, September 8, 1963, p. 6.

[Rogers was an American journalist and critic. In the following review of A Kind of Magic, he suggests that while "Miss Ferber bares no soul" in this autobiography, she provides insights into her career and the times in which she lived and worked.]

Edna Ferber again, we ask ourselves? When hasn't there been Edna Ferber? About 40 years ago she gave us the Pulitzer winner, So Big followed by Show Boat and Cimarron. Her public, she says, extends over four generations. She keeps on like "Ol' Man River," and we're glad of it,...

(The entire section is 773 words.)

Ellen Serlen Uffen (essay date 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Edna Ferber and the 'Theatricalization' of American Mythology," in Midwestern Miscellany, Vol. VII, 1980, pp. 82-93.

[In the following essay, Uffen explores the mythical aspects of Ferber's novels, focusing on her use of "larger-than-life" characters, the differences between her heroes and heroines, and the ways in which she uses American geography to reflect the essence of her protagonists.]

The enormous popularity of Edna Ferber's novels lay in her ability to create a consistent fictional universe based in popularly known and accepted American mythology: plucky, self-reliant boys and girls gain success and fame in colorful settings ranging from the old Wild...

(The entire section is 4264 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Gilbert, Julie Goldsmith. Ferber: A Biography of Edna Ferber and Her Circle. New York: Doubleday, 1978, 445 p.

Focuses on Ferber's personal life and her associations with such artists, writers, and public personalities as George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart, and Alexander Woollcott. Gilbert presents Ferber's life in reverse chronological order, beginning with her last years and the writing of her major works, and proceeding through to her childhood.


Banning, Margaret Culkin. "Edna Ferber's America." The Saturday Review of Literature XIX, No. 15 (4 February 1939): 5-6....

(The entire section is 523 words.)