Edna Ferber, a Forgotten Author Revisited

Edna Ferber

Edna Ferber’s literary works are less known today than those of the other classic women authors of her era, but she was prolific and widely read in her time. She was strong and savvy, and despite her relative obscurity today, wildly successful. 

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.


Edna Ferber’s formative years

Born in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1885 to working-class Jewish immigrant parents (she was known to say that she had faced more prejudice as a Jew than as a woman), her family finally settled down in Appleton, Wisconsin. 

There Edna Ferber spent her teen years, which were formative as well as fruitful. Her high school essays caught the eye of the editor of the Appleton Daily Crescent, who offered the seventeen-year-old a reporting job straight away.

She parlayed this experience into a position as reporter at the Milwaukee Journal. Soon, she turned her pen to short stories and launched her career in full-length fiction with an autobiographical novel about an independent girl reporter, Dawn O’Hara.

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Edna Ferber Young

Quotes on Writing and Living by Edna Ferber

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So Big: An early big success

It didn’t take long for Ferber to cement her reputation with the novel So Big. It won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel (as it was then called) in 1924, making Ferber one of the first female recipients of that award. The person who seemed the most taken by surprised by the novel’s success was Edna Ferber herself.


A cinematic imagination and a golden touch

From there it was a straight path upward. Her work became perhaps less literary than her early efforts, but bigger and more panoramic. Fully eight of her thirteen novels became major motion pictures, the best known of which were Cimmaron, Show Boat, and Giant.

Ferber was also involved in writing the screenplays for the film adaptations, and co-wrote five smashingly successful Broadway plays.

Everything she did turned to gold, making her not only fabulously wealthy (though she was thrifty) and the rare woman with power in publishing, film, and theatre.

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Giant by Edna Ferber

Giant by Edna Ferber (1952)
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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 polar 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 had a lot of wisdom to share about the writing life; here are 5 great tips she shares from her experiences.

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Edna Ferber

See also: Edna Ferber’s Memoir, A Peculiar Treasure

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A writer worth rediscovering

This talented, unconventional writer who climbed to the pinnacle of  professional success claimed that she faced more discrimination as a Jew than as a woman. Because of this, Ferber managed to work in her views against racial and cultural discrimination into many of her novels and screenplays.

She’s a writer worth rediscovering, and even if you can’t get into some of her more ponderous novels, you might enjoy watching Rock Hudson, James Dean, and a lovely young Elizabeth Taylor hamming it up in the film version of Giant.

Edna Ferber died in 1968 in New York City, at the age of 82. You’ll find a good listing of her books and more about her at The Jewish Women’s Archive.

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Edna Ferber

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