Edna Ferber Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

What is the significance of Edna Ferber’s frequent use of flashbacks and other time-shifting devices in her fiction?

Discuss Ferber’s attitude toward the conflicting ideals of responsibility and creativity.

Discuss Ferber’s attitude toward mothers.

Discuss Ferber’s depiction of outsiders and minorities in her fiction.

What is Ferber’s attitude toward success in her fiction?

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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

In addition to twelve novels, Edna Ferber wrote eight plays, two novellas, eighty-three short stories, and two autobiographies. Although her novels have perhaps been the most enduring part of her work, her short stories and plays were equally or more important during her lifetime. Almost all her works, except the dramas, first appeared serially in magazines. In addition, she wrote numerous short articles and commentaries. Twenty-two Emma McChesney stories made Ferber a best-selling writer. These were first published in The American Magazine or Cosmopolitan between 1911 and 1915 and later were collected in Roast Beef Medium (1913), Personality Plus (1914), and Emma McChesney and Co. (1915). Emma McChesney also was the heroine of Our Mrs. McChesney (pr., pb. 1915), Ferber’s first play, which she wrote with George V. Hobart.

The McChesney character was a significant innovation—the first successful businesswoman depicted in popular American literature. Finally, however, Ferber declined Cosmopolitan’s proffered contract for as many McChesney stories as she wished to write at a price she could name. Ferber saw herself, instead, as a novelist and dramatist. The plays she wrote with George S. Kaufman, especially Dinner at Eight (pr., pb. 1932), The Royal Family (pr. 1927), and Stage Door (pr., pb. 1936), enjoyed long Broadway runs and secured her fame as a dramatist. Her autobiographies, A Peculiar Treasure (1939, 1960) and A Kind of Magic (1963), explain her motivations and detail her writing techniques. The books also are intensely personal and revealing. The second, written after her health began to deteriorate, is rambling and repetitive but essentially completes the story of her active life.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Edna Ferber maintained herself as a best-selling author and a popular celebrity from the appearance of the Emma McChesney stories in 1911 to the publication of Ice Palace in 1958. During this period, she was cited several times as America’s best woman novelist, and literary notables such as William Allen Wright, Rudyard Kipling, and James M. Barrie praised her work. Her reputation, however, abruptly declined in the late 1960’s. A resurgence in interest in Ferber’s work began in the 1980’s, fueled mostly by the publicity surrounding her participation in several social crusades. Her advocacy of social and political causes in her fiction significantly influenced public opinion and policy. Ernest Gruening, territorial senator-elect of Alaska, for example, cited Ferber’s Ice Palace as important in winning Alaska’s statehood.

Ferber’s explication of regional history and culture in her novels also played a prominent part in raising pride in American culture after World War I. Her short story “April Twenty-fifth as Usual” (first published in Ladies’ Home Journal in July, 1918) received the O. Henry Award in 1919, and in 1925, her novel So Big won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s classic musical play Show Boat (pr. 1927), based on Ferber’s novel, was the first American musical with a serious plot derived from a literary source. The story also was used in a successful radio serial program and four films; it made so much money that Ferber referred to it as her “oil well.” She associated with many prominent theatrical, literary, and political figures, including members of the Algonquin Round Table, a circle of literary friends who met for lunch regularly at New York’s Algonquin Hotel. At least twenty-seven films have been based on her works.

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Edna Ferber hoped she would be remembered as a playwright, but even during her lifetime, she was considered primarily a novelist and writer of short stories; nevertheless, the ease with which several of her major novels, among them Show Boat (1926), Saratoga Trunk (1941), and Giant (1952), have been adapted to musical theater and film proves that memorable characterization is the greatest strength her works possess. Strong characterization appears even in her first novel, Dawn O’Hara: The Girl Who Laughed (1911), and Ferber achieved national success with the Emma McChesney stories, which were published originally in American and Cosmopolitan magazines, quickly reprinted as collections from 1913 to 1915, and finally distilled as Ferber’s first dramatic collaboration, Our Mrs. McChesney.

Ferber’s works were perfectly attuned to American popular taste. This was especially true of the novels and short stories written in the years between the two world wars, when her career was at its height. Her first venture in autobiography, A Peculiar Treasure (1939), written just before the outbreak of World War II, appropriately finishes this period. This work especially shows Ferber’s identification with European Jewry suffering under Nazi persecution and ominously foreshadows the horrors of the Holocaust.

Giant was Ferber’s last successful major novel, and it appears that even as she wrote her somewhat anticlimactic second autobiographical volume, A Kind of Magic (1963), she was aware that her popularity had waned. She continued to write until her death, however, managing to sell film rights to her unsuccessful last novel, Ice Palace (1958), even before its publication.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Edna Ferber’s reputation as a novelist and writer of short stories made possible her ventures into drama and autobiography. Paradoxically, the adaptation of several of her major novels to musical theater (Show Boat), film (Saratoga Trunk, So Big, Giant, Ice Palace), and even television (Cimarron, 1930) served to reduce public recognition of the novels from which the adaptations were derived. Correspondingly, two substantial autobiographies, coupled with a biography by Ferber’s great-niece Julie Goldsmith Gilbert, discouraged scholarly research.

Ferber’s novels are large in scope yet regional in character, and Ferber considered it an accomplishment that she was able to write with apparent ease about so many locations in which she had never lived, describing not only the Midwest, where she was reared, but the South, the West, and even the Arctic. She rightly believed that her strength lay in the ability to isolate the distinctive character of each region and describe it in terms appropriate to the popular imagination.

The Midwest of Emma McChesney, the South of Show Boat, even the Texas of Giant no longer exist, however, and this has served to make some of Ferber’s finest works period pieces. Stronger, more contemporary statements have been made about the plight of minorities; anonymous corporate greed has exceeded that of individual families; and novels of manners...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Antler, Joyce. The Journey Home: Jewish Women and the American Century. New York: Free Press, 1997. This overview of the lives of a selection of American Jewish women beginning in 1890 contains a portrait of Ferber.

Batker, Carol. “Literary Reformers: Crossing Class and Ethnic Boundaries in Jewish Women’s Fiction of the 1920’s.” MELUS 25, no.1 (Spring, 2000): 81-104. Ferber’s work is examined in the context of Jewish women’s fiction, along with that of Anzia Yezierska and Fannie Hurst.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Jewish Women Fiction Writers. New York: Chelsea, 1998. Provides biographical information, a wide selection of critical excerpts, and complete bibliographies of ten Jewish-American fiction authors, including Ferber.

Gaines, James R. Wits End, Days and Nights of the Algonquin Round Table. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977. An anecdotal history illuminating Ferber’s association with the Algonquin group.

Gilbert, Julie Goldsmith. Ferber: Edna Ferber and Her Circle: A Biography. New York: Applause, 1999. A good biography of Ferber. Gilbert calls Ferber a romantic realist, not opposed to working with the system, yet creating her own unique niche within it. Includes an index.

Mordden, Ethan. The American Theatre. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981. In this insightful investigation of what is peculiarly American in American theater, the author writes a straight chronicle, following the evolution of the American stage as art and industry from its beginnings to 1980. His discussion of Ferber focuses on the play The Royal Family. Contains a useful guide for further reading.

Shaughnessy, Mary Rose. Women and Success in American Society in the Works of Edna Ferber. New York: Gordon Press, 1977. Discusses Ferber’s place in the women’s movement.