Ferber began her career in journalism and turned to fiction only after she had a nervous breakdown. Her first efforts were short stories published in magazines, especially the popular Emma McChesney stories of a widowed traveling saleswoman. The success of a woman competing in a man’s world encouraged her to see the modern woman as necessary to the working class as characterized by various areas of America.
Her continued interest in theater led to collaboration with playwright George S. Kaufman. Prompted by a theatrical colleague’s casual reference to showboats, Ferber researched the American phenomenon of riverboats by residing on the James Adams Floating Palace for two months in Cincinnati. Her subsequent view made the Mississippi itself a major character for its strength and adaptability. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein adapted this concept into an African American work song praising the Mississippi, “Ol’ Man River.” To modern audiences, revivals of the musical may seem to underscore racial stereotyping. Kern and Hammerstein turned the novel Show Boat into the first musical comedy with social significance, with the songs arising from the story rather than serving as mere showcases for individual talent. In the novel, the social reality of a post-Civil War attitude toward African Americans is presented sympathetically and with no condescension; Captain Andy’s understanding and acceptance of his employees is especially notable. Ferber won a Pulitzer Prize for So Big (1924), and her subsequent works follow similar themes of investigating relatively little-known regions of America. These tales are told through the story of a sympathetic female character who becomes the symbol for the entire area, much like the traditional epic hero often stands for a country’s values.