Edna Ferber: The Inner Life of Imagination

Edna Ferber

Have you ever heard of Edna Ferber? For most contemporary readers, the answer will be no. Her work was apparently of its time and place. Yet in that time and place (her prodigious output was concentrated mainly from the 1920s to the 1950s) her works were hugely popular, and financial gold mines.

Ferber was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1885. Her family moved around the midwest before settling in  Appleton, Wisconsin, where she spent her teen years.


Her senior essays so impressed the editor of the Appleton Daily Crescent that he offered the 17-year-old Ferber a reporting job. And so, a career was born.

In due time, she moved up to a reporter’s position at  the Milwaukee Journal. She 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.

 

A Pulitzer and big films

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.

So panoramic were her narratives that fully eight of her thirteen novels became major movies, including the aforementioned So Big, as well as Saratoga TrunkGiant, Show Boat , and Cimarron. She also wrote eight plays, some of which were produced on Broadway, and numerous short stories. 

Edna Ferber consciously avoided marriage and family in favor of what she described as “a necessary and chosen way of life.” Becoming a writer, for the prolific Edna Ferber, meant living comfortably in the realm of imagination. She seemed to need little else.

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Show Boat (1951) movie poster

You might also like: Edna Ferber’s Show Boat, from Stage to Screen

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The life of the imagination, in Ferber’s own words

“That novel about Texas — is that the story of your life?” “That novel about New England —is that the story of your life?” “That novel about Alaska — is that the story of your life?”

Yet when readers of these books write or speak to me, asking if this is the story of my life, I am far from irked or resentful. I am flattered.

It means that these fictional lives, these characters that never existed except in my imagination, actually have taken on such proportions of reality that the reader believes them to have been formed on fact; and that the tragic and comic and everyday events described in the novels took place in real life. Not only that—in the story-teller’s real life.

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Edna ferber quote on imagination and inner life

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What can a writer wish for more splendid than to know that by putting those little black marks on a sheet of blank white paper there have been accepted in the mind of the reader human beings with three dimensions who walk talk breathe live suffer exult die, much as the reader has done or will do, or has observed in his fellow men.

Is this, they ask, the story of your life?

Yes. My inner life. The life of my imagination and creative ability.

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.

… 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.”

—Edna Ferber, A Kind of Magic, 1963

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So Big Movie Poster with Jane Wyman 1953

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