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."
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).
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 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."