Edna Ferber, Prolific American Author of Giant

Edna Ferber

Edna Ferber (August 15, 1885 – April 16, 1968) was an American novelist and playwright whose name perhaps less known today than other classic women authors of her time. In her heyday, she was considered one of the most successful writers of the time—primarily the 1920s through the early 50s.

Due to the many film and stage adaptations of her sprawling sagas, including Giant, Showboat, Saratoga Trunk, and Cimarron, are better remembered than she is.

Ferber was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1885 to Jewish parents — her Hungarian-born Jacob Ferber and Julia Neumann Ferber of Milwaukee. Her parents moved around the Midwest before settling in Appleton, Wisconsin.

 

Girl reporter at seventeen

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.

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So Big by Edna Ferber

The Unanticipated Success of So Big 
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A Pulitzer Prize for So Big

Ferber’s reputation was cemented with So Big (1924), a bestselling novel that was awarded the 1924 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. 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. Years after the remarkable success of So Big by Edna Ferber, she confessed:

“I never dreamed that So Big would be popular. I wrote it against my judgment … I wrote my book because I wanted  to write it more than anything else in the world … Not only did I not plan to write a best seller when I wrote So Big, I thought, when I had finished it, that I had written the world’s worst seller …”

The critical response was overwhelmingly positive. Reviewing So Big for The New York Times, L.M. Field called it “a thoughtful book, clean and strong, dramatic at times, interesting always, clear-sighted, sympathetic, a novel to read and remember.”

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Show Boat (1951) movie poster

Show Boat went from page to stage to screen
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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 usually wrote from the comfort of her New York City apartment for the most part.

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. 

She saw no obstacles to her writing 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…”

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Edna Ferber U.S. stamp

Edna Ferber’s 5 Great Tips for the Writing Life
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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 and 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)

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Edna Ferber Quotes

Edna Ferbers’ Quotes on Writing and Life
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It wan’t as easy as she made it looked

While she made it all look easy, her personal musings on the writing life assured us that it was anything but. “Writing is agony,” she proclaimed once. And in a similar vein described the writing process as “a combination of ditch-digging, mountain-climbing, treadmill, and childbirth.”

It’s odd that she used the latter as a metaphor, as Ferber never had children, nor did she leave any evidence of having had any romantic relationship. She was truly married to her work.

If Ferber found the writing life taxing, she overcame any sloth or trepidation with self-discipline. She advised the aspiring novelist (that would be me—and perhaps you?) that it’s better to “think of a novel or any long piece of work as a day-to-day task to be done, no matter how eagerly you may think ahead … So one step after another, slowly, painfully, but a step. And so it grows.”

She also offered assurance that success and failure are intertwined parts of the creative process, not opposites: “In the working-day life of a professional writer success or failure is very likely to sum up much the same at the end … I’ve known both. Success or failure, you go on to the next piece of work at hand.”

Ferber shared much wisdom about the writing life; a sampling is in these 5 great tips from her experiences.

 

One success after another

The success of Ferber’s books gave her a great deal of clout in the worlds of film and theater. With their strong female characters, imaginative plots, and colorful locales, most of her novels became not only bestsellers 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.

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Giant by Edna FerberGiant (1952) was one of Edna Ferber’s blockbuster novels
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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 about 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.'”

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Saratoga Trunk by Edna Ferber

Edna Ferber page on Amazon*


More about Edna Ferber

On this site

Major Novels

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

  • A Peculiar Treasure by Edna Ferber (1939)
  • Ferber: Edna Ferber and Her Circle; by Julie Gilbert and Edna Ferber
  • Edna Ferber’s Hollywood by J.E. Smyth
  • A Kind of Magic by Edna Ferber (1963)

More Information and sources

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)

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4 Responses to “Edna Ferber, Prolific American Author of Giant”

    • I agree, Kelly. She wrote novels that leaped onto the big screen and was such a strong woman in so many ways. Really good at business and making money, too!

  1. I have a set of books by Edna Ferber of short stories etc Literary Guild printed by Country Life Press, Garden city, N.Y, can You tell me something about them?

    • Hi Elizabeth — I’m not sure if you’re asking whether they have any value … if so, you might check if any similar books are being offered on eBay to get an idea. Edna Ferber’s books were very popular in their time — which means that they’re not rare — and she’s not very widely read today, which means that there’s not much demand for them. I was able to find first edition hardcovers of her books at library fairs for a dollar or two apiece.

      But I think she’s a worthy writer, and was certainly a strong and independent woman who valued hard work and diligence, and who managed to incorporate social justice messages into crowd-pleasing stories and novels.

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