Daughter of Jacob C. and Julia Neuman Ferber
Edna Ferber began her writing career as a newspaper reporter in Appleton, Wisconsin, as well as in Milwaukee, and Chicago, but wrote her first novel, Dawn O'Hara (1911), during a prolonged illness. She earned sudden success and great popularity with her stories of Emma McChesney, a traveling saleswoman.
In 1925 Ferber won the Pulitzer Prize for So Big (1924), her best novel, and a few years later saw her novel Show Boat (1926) transformed into a classic American musical. Her love of the theater was further indulged through her successful collaboration with George S. Kaufman, with whom she wrote such popular plays as Royal Family (1928), Dinner at Eight (1932), and Stage Door (with G. S. Kaufman, 1936, film version 1937). Royal Family was successfully revived in 1975. Ferber was seriously disillusioned by World War II; her postwar novels were more idea-laden and contrived, although she remained a popular novelist to her death.
In So Big, Selina Peake, the properly raised daughter of a gambler, is forced to make her own way in the world after her father is accidentally killed. She takes a teaching position in High Prairie, a Dutch farming community outside Chicago, and spends the rest of her life there. After the death of her husband, Selina struggles by herself to run their truck farm and to raise her son, Dirk, nicknamed "So Big." Dirk's youth is the counterpoint in every respect of Selina's. Where she cherishes life, he cherishes success; where she reveres beauty, he reveres money. By the novel's end, Dirk is an immensely wealthy, successful, miserable young man.
Show Boat deals with three generations of women—Parthenia Ann Hawks, Magnolia Hawks Ravenal, and Kim Ravenal—but the novel centers on Magnolia, her bizarre childhood on her father's showboat, her idyllic love affair with Gaylord Ravenal, her marital difficulties as she learns that her husband is a confirmed gambler, and her determination to provide for her daughter after Gaylord's desertion. As in many Ferber novels, the heroine's daughter is not nearly her mother's equal. Also as in most Ferber novels, there is a subplot concerned with racist attitudes, here about the mulatto showboat actress Julie, whose role was expanded in the musical.
Cimarron (1929) is Ferber's most overtly feminist novel. Sabra Venable Cravat moves with her husband Yancey to the recently opened territory of Oklahoma. Despite his many talents, Yancey is impractical and irresponsible and seems unable to stay in one place longer than five years at a time. In addition to the housework and the raising of her children, Sabra finds herself helping with Yancey's newspaper—the first in Oklahoma—and, on those occasions when Yancey abandons her, running it herself. Yancey is the dreamer; Sabra the doer. She becomes Oklahoma's first U.S. congresswoman.
Clio Dulaine Maroon, the protagonist of Saratoga Trunk (1941, film version 1945), is as close as Ferber ever came to creating an antiheroine. Clio, the illegitimate daughter of an established Creole family (the Dulaines) on her father's side and a series of "loose" women (including a free woman of color) on her mother's, returns from France to New Orleans to avenge herself on the Dulaines and to make her fortune by marrying a millionaire. Clio realizes at the last minute that love is more important than money, but luckily Clint Maroon, a Texan adventurer who has been making his fortune among the detested railroad men while Clio tries to marry one of them, can now provide both love and money.
Giant (1952) is much like Cimarron in its treatment of place: Texas. Leslie Lynnton Benedict, genteel Virginian, who must adapt to her amazing husband Bick (a male of mythic proportions), is believable and engaging, particularly as a young bride in rebellion against the Texan gentry's lifestyle. But she matures too quickly, and Ferber switches the conflict from Virginian vs. Texan lifestyles to a conflict between cattle and oil. Giant contains devastating portraits of wealthy Texans and acid social criticism of their treatment of Mexican Americans.
Ferber's writing remained untouched by the innovations of her contemporaries. She was neither responsible for any innovations of her own, nor did her own work appreciably evolve in terms of style, content, or structure. Still, her work deserves serious consideration for her treatment of the land, her feminism, and her egalitarianism.
Even when Ferber writes about the land, her novels are first and foremost about women—strong women, pioneer women, women determined to hold on to the land and to keep their families together. The women always triumph and often survive their men; the visionaries see their dreams come true, and the practical ones see the present inexorably improving toward the future. Although Ferber is not in the tradition of the great American literary experimenters, she is a solid member of another tradition, that of the celebrators of America.
Buttered Side Down (1912, recording, 1995). Roast Beef, Medium: The Business Adventures of Emma McChesney (1913). Personality Plus: Some Experiences of Emma McChesney and Her Son, Jock (1914). Emma McChesney and Co. (1915). Fanny Herself (1917, recording, 1995). Cheerful by Request (1918, recording, 1995). Half Portions (1920). $1200 a Year (with N. Levy, 1920). The Girls (1921). Gigolo (1922, film version, 1926). Eldest (1925). Minick (with G. S. Kaufman, 1925; film versions, 1925, 1932). Mother Knows Best: A Fiction Book (1927, film version, 1928). American Beauty (1931, reissue, 1997). They Brought Their Women: A Book of Short Stories (1933, Braille, 1998). Come and Get It (1935, film version, 1936, recording, 1998). Nobody's in Town (1938). A Peculiar Treasure (1939). The Land is Bright (with G. S. Kaufman, 1941). Great Son (1945). One Basket: Thirty-One Short Stories (1947). Bravo (with G. S. Kaufman, 1949). Ice Palace (1958, film version, 1960). A Kind of Magic (1963). Saratoga: Roman (1993). Edna Ferber: Stories (1996). One Basket, 31 Short Stories (1996). Personality Plus (recording, 1997).
Anderson, G. T., Edna Ferber's "Showboat": As Literature and as Film (1991). Freytag, B. A., The Tip of the Iceberg (1988). Shaughnessy, M. R., Women and Success in American Society in the Works of Edna Ferber (1976).
CA (1969, 1971). TCA, TCAS. Wisconsin Writers: Sketches and Studies (1974).
A Christmas Sampler: Classic Stories of the Season, from Twain to Cheever (1992). Chicago's Authors Celebrate Chicago (cassette, 1988). Chicago Jewish Forum 13. MTJ 13. NYTBR (5 Oct. 1952). Six Prairie Authors Biographies (audiovisual, 1991).
—CYNTHIA L. WALKER
American author Edna Ferber (1887-1968) wrote popular fiction and collaborated on several successful Broadway plays.
Born in Kalamazoo, Mich., Edna Ferber at an early age moved with her family to Appleton, Wis., where she spent most of her childhood. When her father lost his vision, she was forced to forsake her acting ambitions and, at the age of 17, began full-time work as a reporter for the Appleton Daily Crescent. Shortly afterward she joined the staff of the Milwaukee Journal and later the Chicago Tribune. During this period she wrote several short stories, some of which were published in Everybody's Magazine. She discarded a novel which her mother salvaged and had published in 1911 as Dawn O'Hara. Two short-story collections followed, Buttered Side Down (1912) and Roast Beef Medium (1913), and the novels Fanny Herself (1917), The Girls (1921), and Gigolo (1922).
Ferber won her first popular success with the novel So Big, the story of a young widow on a truck farm in Illinois who sacrifices everything for her son's happiness. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for it in 1924. Show Boat (1926), perhaps her best novel, tells the story of a showboat performer's love for an unscrupulous gambler. The novel was adapted as a successful Broadway musical the following year. Cimarron, another best seller, dealt with the spectacular Oklahoma land rush of 1889. In the early 1920s Ferber began a fruitful collaboration with playwright George S. Kaufman, producing such plays as Minick (1924), The Royal Family (1927), Dinner at Eight (1932), and Stage Door (1936).
In her later novels Ferber continued to explore various geographical and historical settings. American Beauty (1931) describes Polish immigrants in Connecticut; Come and Get It (1935) is about Wisconsin lumbermen; and Great Son (1945) depicts four generations of a Seattle family.
Many of Ferber's novels have been made into movies, including Saratoga Trunk (1941), which is set in New Orleans and Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and deals with the founding of railroad dynasties; Giant (1950), a story of oil fortunes in contemporary Texas; and Ice Palace (1958), about Alaska, from exploration to the fight for statehood.
Ferber published her first autobiography, A Peculiar Treasure, in 1939 and her second, A Kind of Magic, in 1963. Her often energetic and pleasantly nostalgic work was immensely popular with both the reading public and movie-and playgoers, making her one of America's best-known authors. She died on April 16, 1968, in New York City.
Miss Ferber's fiction is reviewed in Robert Van Gelder, Writers and Writing (1946), and W. Tasker Witham, Panorama of American Literature (1947).
Gilbert, Julie Goldsmith., Ferber, a biography, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978. □
FERBER, EDNA (1887–1968), U.S. novelist and playwright. She was born into a middle-class family in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and at the age of 17 became a newspaper reporter in Appleton, Wisconsin. Later she went to the Milwaukee Journal and the Chicago Tribune. Her first novel, Dawn O'Hara, appeared in 1911, but it was a series of short stories collected under the title Emma Mc-Chesney and Co. (1915) that established her as a professional writer. Edna Ferber wrote more than a score of novels, some superficial, some serious, but all smoothly and persuasively written. They deal with the life of ordinary Americans and in many the central character is a woman. Fanny Herself (1917) is the story of a small-town Jewish girl; So Big (1924), the story of a woman's struggle for independence, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1924. Show Boat (1926) became a successful musical; Cimarron (1930), Saratoga Trunk (1941), and Giant (1952) were all best-selling novels which were made into motion pictures. Dinner at Eight (1932) and Stage Door (1936), both written in collaboration with George S. *Kaufman, were her best-known plays. Edna Ferber wrote comparatively little about Jews and Judaism, but in her first autobiography, A Peculiar Treasure (1939), she depicted with humor and understanding her life in a small Jewish community, and she identified herself closely with the Jewish plight during the Nazi years. Her second autobiography, A Kind of Magic (1963), includes her impressions of the State of Israel.
S.I. Kunitz and H. Haycraft (eds.), Twentieth Century Authors (19502), s.v., and supplement I (1955); Brenn and Spencer, in: Bulletin of Bibliography, 22 (1958), 152–6.
[Harold U. Ribalow]