Dawn O’Hara: The Girl Who Laughed, 1911
Fanny Herself, 1917
The Girls, 1921
So Big, 1924
Show Boat, 1926
American Beauty, 1931
Come and Get It, 1935
Saratoga Trunk, 1941
Great Son, 1945
Ice Palace, 1958
Buttered Side Down, 1912
Roast Beef Medium, 1913
Personality Plus, 1914
Emma McChesney and Co., 1915
Cheerful–By Request, 1918
Half Portions, 1919
Mother Knows Best, 1927
They Brought Their Women, 1933
Nobody’s in Town, 1938
One Basket, 1947
Our Mrs. McChesney, pr., pb. 1915 (with George V. Hobart)
$1200 a Year, pr., pb. 1920 (with Newman A. Levy)
Minick, pr., pb. 1924 (with George S. Kaufman)
The Royal Family, pr. 1927 (with Kaufman)
Dinner at Eight, pr., pb. 1932 (with Kaufman)
Stage Door, pr., pb. 1936 (with Kaufman)
The Land Is Bright, pr., pb. 1941 (with Kaufman)
Bravo!, pr. 1948 (with Kaufman)
A Peculiar Treasure, 1939, 1960 (revised with new introduction)
A Kind of Magic, 1963
Edna Jessica Ferber, an immensely popular novelist, short-story writer, playwright, and public personality for more than forty years, chronicled the America she loved and provided stories for many films. Born in 1885 (many sources list 1887 as the year of her birth as a result of Ferber’s habitual reluctance to admit her age), she was the daughter of Jacob Charles Ferber, a Hungarian-born unsuccessful businessman, and Julia Newman Ferber, a Milwaukee native. At an early age Ferber moved with her family to Appleton, Wisconsin, and after her graduation from Ryan High School at the age of seventeen she began working as a full-time reporter for the Appleton Daily Crescent. After two years she was dismissed by the editors, who considered her writing too ornate and imaginative for journalism. For the next three years she worked for the Milwaukee Journal before illness forced her to return home. The family moved to Chicago, where her father, now blind and an invalid, died in 1909. Julia Ferber’s shrewd business sense saved the family, and she was a source of Ferber’s many stories of strong women married to weak men.
Ferber turned her energy to fiction writing and sold her first story, “The Homely Heroine,” to Everybody’s Magazine in 1910. Before she was twenty-four she had finished her first novel, Dawn O’Hara: The Girl Who Laughed, which her mother rescued from a wastebasket, and its publication in 1911 brought immediate success. Ferber gained national fame over the next four years as she published first in various magazines and then in collections stories featuring Emma McChesney, a traveling saleswoman selling Featherloom petticoats to support her rather weak teenage son. The stories emphasize the joy and satisfaction of labor and productive activity. Although Cosmopolitan offered Ferber a blank-check contract for another McChesney series, she turned to other characters and a wider scope.
In 1912 Ferber moved to New York, where she was to live most of her life. That same year she met William Allen White, a journalist who became a lifelong friend. Ferber dedicated her second novel, Fanny Herself, to White, and White was influential in Ferber’s receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 1925 for So Big. Friends speculated about Ferber’s associations with various men, but her diaries reveal no strong romantic attachments. In Ferber: A Biography (1978), Ferber’s great-niece Julie Goldsmith Gilbert calls her “a spinster in the most resolved sense.” She quotes Ferber as saying, “I have never married. And I’m glad I never married,” but adding that marriage is a major life experience that no one should miss “if you can stand it.”
Ferber and George V. Hobart dramatized the McChesney stories in 1915, and Ethel Barrymore played the lead in the Broadway production, which ran for 151 performances. Ferber never wrote a play entirely on her own, but she worked with George S. Kaufman on seven plays from 1925 to 1949; the most immediately popular was The Royal Family, which ran for 343 performances.
In 1920 Ferber sold the film rights to Fanny Herself to Universal Pictures, and it appeared on the screen as No Woman Knows (1921). During her lifetime she sold twenty-five properties, of which eighteen were made into full-length films, often with more than one production. These included several of her plays and nearly all of her novels, notably Show Boat, Cimarron, So Big, Saratoga Trunk, Giant, and Ice Palace. The most remembered is Giant, which starred Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean in his final role as Jett Rink.
Ferber’s writing career progressed steadily. Her first mature work, The Girls, a novel about a possessive mother, was followed by nine novels interspersed with additional volumes of short stories. During the 1920’s Ferber became part of the Algonquin group, the New York literary and theater circle that met regularly at the Algonquin Hotel. Ferber’s work ethic and her curiosity led her to Europe as a war correspondent for the U.S. Army after Great Son was published in 1945. In 1952 came her last great work, Giant, and in 1958 Ice Palace, the propagandistic novel cited as helping Alaska achieve statehood. About this time Ferber developed the painful disease trigeminal neuralgia, and her last book, A Kind of Magic, is a rambling and unsatisfying sequel to her first autobiography, A Peculiar Treasure. Two years later she developed cancer, and she died in 1968.
Critics have commented on the unevenness of Ferber’s style and typically label her works didactic, sentimental, formulaic, and lacking in universality. The rapid decline in the popularity and availability of her books after the early 1960’s reflects changing tastes in both literary criticism and the reading public. Yet critics of the 1920’s and 1930’s called her the greatest woman novelist of her day, praising her American ideals and her strong characterizations. Her Emma McChesney stories introduced a new literary motif of the working woman in the business world and established Ferber as a delineator of American character. As Gilbert says, Ferber gave the middle-class “an introduction to, and an identification with, itself, and a reading joy that lasted for over half a century.” Ferber’s themes contrast ambition, ideals, and accomplishments, often between generations; she created vivid characters in settings as diverse as Seattle, Oklahoma, Alaska, New England, and Texas. Her works remain an important reflection of the first half of twentieth century American history.