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Edna Ferber (August 15, 1885 – April 16, 1968), American novelist and playwright, is a name perhaps less known today than other classic women authors. In her heyday, she was considered one of the most successful writers of the time—primarily the 1920s through the early 50s. Her sprawling stories may be better known today than she herself is; it could be argued that she’s a forgotten author to be revisited.
She was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1885 to a Hungarian-born Jewish father, Jacob Ferber, and Julia Neumann Ferber of Milwaukee. Her parents moved around the midwest before settling in Appleton, Wisconsin. As an editor and contributor to her high school newspaper, her senior essays so impressed the editor of the Appleton Daily Crescent that he offered 17-year-old Ferber a reporting job.
And so, a career was born — even though she set aside her original dream of studying for a career in stage acting.
In due time, she moved up to a reporter’s position at the Milwaukee Journal and gradually intertwined her newspaper work with short story writing. Her first novel, Dawn O’Hara, was the tale of a newspaper reporter in Milwaukee —following the grand tradition of writing what you know, which she soon enough abandoned.
So Big, and a Pulitzer
Ferber’s reputation was cemented with So Big (1924), a novel that was not only a best seller, but which won the 1924 Pulitzer Prize. Popular writers rarely enjoy critical acclaim, but in her case, the critics were generally kind, even as her subsequent work became less literary and more mainstream. Having experienced antisemitism herself, she often wove themes of oppression, prejudice, and injustice into her novels.
Ferber avoided marriage and family in favor of what she described as “a necessary and chosen way of life.” Through strong female characters, she encouraged women to live larger, bolder lives. If she were still with us, she’d accept no excuses—and no nonsense—from today’s writing women.
Complete devotion to writing
Ferber’s life was completely devoted to writing, almost to the exclusion of all else. She was constantly asked by readers if her novels were telling the story of her own life, because the characters, events and settings were so real to them. She considered these tales the “inner life” of her imagination as they came to reality in her mind and by her pen. Her settings were so vivid and panoramic that readers believed she was writing what she knew, and was asked questions like: “That novel about Texas—is that the story of your life?” “That novel about Alaska—is that the story of your life?” Yes, she did her research thoroughly but did her writing from the comfort of her New York City apartment for the most part.
Ferber saw no obstacles to her own practice that couldn’t be overcome by discipline and steady work. She wrote, “The born writer goes to (her) desk daily and remains there throughout certain fixed hours each day. Sometimes ten words manage to get themselves down on paper, sometimes a page or two, sometimes (rarely) five or even more…”
The lonely but gratifying life of a writer
Here’s how she eloquently described her life as a writer:
“Writing is lonely work but the creative writer is rarely alone. The room in which one works is peopled with the men and women and children of the writer’s imagination. Often they are difficult—but rarely boring—company. This is a fortunate thing, for they are with one day and night, they never leave while the book or play is in progress. One wishes sometimes that they would go away. Just leave me alone for an hour—a minute—won’t you!
Often they are so much more fascinating to the writer than the living people one actually encounters that to go to a party, a dinner, even to the theatre is an anti-climax. Every day for hours one is shut up in a room with a company of chosen people created by oneself. It is a pattern of self-immolation familiar to any writer worth reading. The writer does not even remotely look upon this as a hardship. It is a way of life; a necessary an chosen way of life. Witty conversation, purposely dull dialogue, love, murder, marriage, birth, violence, triumph, failure, death—anything can happen in that room.” (from A Kind of Magic, 1963)
One success after another
Ferber’s books’ success gave her a great deal of clout in film and theater. With their strong female characters, imaginative plots, and colorful locales, most of her novels became not only best sellers but also Academy Award-winning movies. These include Giant, Show Boat, Saratoga Trunk, and Cimarron.
She also wrote eight plays, several of which were co-written with George S. Kaufman and produced on Broadway. The best known of these are Stage Door, The Royal Family, and Dinner at Eight. In their time, Edna Ferber’s works were financial goldmines.
An observer of human nature
Ferber was an independent woman who answered to no one. She didn’t gloss over the truth of human nature in her works — people could be greedy, cruel, and violent. As a Jewish woman in an antisemitic world, she was keenly aware of discrimination and oppression, and use these themes in various ways in her works. She also wrote of the antisemitism she had experienced growing up in her biographies.
Though her fiction and theatrical work may now be deemed more “popular” than literary, within her accessible storylines she spoke out against discrimination, racism, and classism. She created strong female characters as a way to encourage women to live bigger, bolder lives.
Edna Ferber died in New York City in 1968. Her New York Times obituary stated of her character and legacy:
“She was noted for her generosity. She said she never really cared about owning things. She always remained close to her family … In everything she undertook, whether civic improvement, books, plays, causes against prejudice, she had burning determination. Certainly, this was part of what took her to the top. But there was also her sense of awe — not at all unlike that of So Big’s Selina Peak de Jong, of whom Miss Ferber wrote:
‘Always to her, red and green cabbages were to be jade and burgundy, chrysoprase and porphyry. Life has no weapons against a woman like that.'”
Edna Ferber page on Amazon
More about Edna Ferber on this site
- Edna Ferber: Forgotten Author Revisited
- Quotes on Writing and Life
- 5 Great Tips for the Writing Life
- Edna Ferber Writes Fiction Because She Can’t Help Herself
- The Unanticipated Success of So Big (1924)
- A Peculiar Treasure is Testimony to the Glorious Career of a Writer
- Dorothy Parker’s Review of Ice Palace
- Success or Failure, All’s to Do Again
- Developing the Discipline to Write Regularly
- Classic Women Authors Tackle Writer’s Block
- How can I stick to a writing schedule?
- Edna Ferber’s Show Boat from Stage to Screen
- Ferber’s Inner Life of the Imagination
- So Big (1924)
- Show Boat (1926)
- Cimarron (1929)
- Come and Get It (1935)
- Saratoga Trunk (1945)
- Giant (1952)
- Ice Palace (1958)
In addition to these major works, Ferber produced numerous other novels, including her first, Dawn O’Hara (1911), followed by Buttered Side Down (1912); Fanny Herself (1917); Gigolo (1922); American Beauty (1931); and many others. Her early Emma McChesney stories were quite popular in their time.
Selected Stage Plays (those listed below were co-written with George S. Kaufman)
- Stage Door (1926)
- The Royal Family (1927)
- Dinner at Eight (1932)
- The Land is Bright (1941)
- Bravo (1946)
Autobiographies and Biographies about Edna Ferber
Selected film adaptations of Edna Ferber’s works
- Cimarron (1931)
- So Big (1932)
- Saratoga Trunk (1945)
- Show Boat (1936)
- Show Boat (1951)
- Giant (1956)
- Cimarron (1960)
See also: The Unanticipated Success of So Big (1924)
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