So Big by Edna Ferber (1924): An Unexpected Success

Edna Ferber

If ever an author failed to anticipate the public’s response to one of her own books, it was Edna Ferber when she was writing So Big. Fourteen years after its remarkable success, 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 …”


An odd plea — don’t publish me!

In fact, when Ferber submitted the final manuscript to her publisher, her cover letter to Russell Doubleday said, “I feel very sternly that I should not publish it as a novel. It will, as you know, appear serially in the Woman’s Home Companion. I think its publication as a book would hurt you, as publishers, and me as an author.”

Doubleday did publish the book, and 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.”

In the Literary Review, J.J. Smertenko went further, noting the “with all its flaws and crudities it has the completeness, and finality, that grips and exalts and convinces. By virtue of these qualities So Big is a masterpiece.

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Show Boat by Edna Ferber 1926

You might also like this review of Show Boat (1926)

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Unhappy with the book’s title

Ferber was never happy with the title So Big, intending to use it only as a tentative working one. When it was serialized in Woman’s Home Companion, it was titled Selina, after its heroine, but when it came time to publish in book form, the author could think of no better titled, so she reluctantly returned to So Big.

“I still didn’t like it,” she wrote in her 1939 autobiography, A Peculiar Treasure, “but it had stuck somehow. I now think that those two short words, and their familiar ring … helped to make the book a selling success.”

 

Sharing credit for success

She attributed much of its success to a young staffer at Doubleday, Dan Longwell, who championed the book and mapped out a campaign for selling it. Her reputedly bet that the book would sell fifty thousand copies — an estimate it certainly surpassed many times over.

Shortly after the publication date, Ferber embarked on a trip to Europe.On the voyage she encountered so many passengers reading So Big that she new she had a best seller on her hands.

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So Big by Edna Ferber

So Big by Edna Ferber on Amazon

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Three attempts at a film version

So Big, Ferber’s fourth novel, won the Pulitzer Prize, and was translated into many languages. It quickly became required reading for English courses at many high schools and colleges. Given its critical and commercial triumph it was inevitable that Hollywood would adapt So Big into a movie.

But the novel’s success has not translated well to screen, despite three attempts. The first was a 1925 silent film starring Colleen Moore. Barbara Stanwyck assayed the role of Selina in William Wellman’s 1932 film, Jane Wyman in Robert Wise’s 1953 remake. Ferber herself called the first two efforts “very bad indeed.”

After So Big, Ferber’s next novel was Show Boat, which proved even more popular and educing. While she would never again win a Pulitzer for one of her novels, she lived and wrote for another forty-two years.

Edna Ferber’s prolific output as a novelist, short story writer, and playwright proved to have great popular appeal around the world, making her one of the most commercially successful writers of her day. (Adapted from the 1983 HarperCollins edition of So Big by Edna Ferber)

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So Big Movie Poster with Jane Wyman 1953

1953 film version of So Big

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