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  • Jim Crow, Jett Rink, and James Dean: Reconstructing Ferber’s Giant (1952–1956)
  • J. E. Smyth (bio)

In December 1954, America’s best-selling historical novelist, Edna Ferber, wrote to director George Stevens emphasizing her continued interest in his production of her latest book, Giant. She believed that Giant’s value lay in its exposure of racial prejudice against Mexican Americans in Texas, and that its racial themes had become “more vital, more prevalent today in the United States than . . . when I began to write the novel.”1 Ferber hoped that one day Anglo oil millionaires like Bick Benedict and Jett Rink, the originators and perpetuators of these inequalities in the economic and social hierarchies of America’s new West, would be “anachronisms like the dear old covered wagons and the California gold-rush boys.”2 Later in May 1955, when shooting first began on the film, Ferber wrote to Henry Ginsberg, producer and co-founder of the independent film company, Giant Productions, “I don’t quite know why the motion picture presentation of Giant interests and fascinates me much more than the screen career of any of my other novels or plays. That goes for Show Boat, So Big, Cimarron, and many others. Perhaps it is because behind the characters and events in Giant there stands a definite meaning, a purpose.”3

Although Ferber had considered writing a historical novel about Texas as early as 1939, she only started to research the topic seriously after the war. The wartime and postwar publishing boom on Texas, ranging from George Sessions Perry’s admiring portrait, Texas: A World in Itself (1942), to Carey McWilliams’s study of Mexican Americans, North From Mexico (1949), helped to change her [End Page 5]

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Figure 1.

James Dean in blackface on the set of Giant, summer 1955. Warner Bros. Studios.

mind. Perry’s admiration of Texans’ wealth, success, and boundless financial frontiers was representative of a more general crass American materialism that sickened her.4 The new America was dominated by unabashed greed, garishness, and waste; as Ferber saw it, the nation had reverted to its Gilded Age-Robber Baron past, an era which Ferber had critiqued decades ago in her first two novels of the American frontier, Cimarron (1929) and Come and Get It (1935), and [End Page 6] the more recent Saratoga Trunk (1942). McWilliams’s book helped her to link Texas greed with its history of exploitation of Mexican Americans. She wrote to McWilliams in early 1949 telling him of her plans, and he, familiar with her critical appraisals of western history and national myths, responded, “Needless to say I was delighted to receive your letter with its most kind and generous praise of my book. You have, of course, my permission to use the book for factual material and background. I shall look forward to reading your novel with the keenest anticipation.”5 America’s “most popular woman writer” had become, in her words, “An Angry Old Woman.”6 Giant was the result, a chronicle of three generations of the cattle and oil-rich Benedicts viewed from the perspective of the family matriarch, Leslie Lynnton Benedict. As both an educated woman and an eastern-born outsider, Leslie functioned as Ferber’s constant critical voice.

But Ferber’s examination of the twin historical themes of American wealth and racism intersected in another character, Jett Rink, the poor-white ranch hand who ends up Texas’s most oil-rich citizen. In George Stevens’s 1956 film adaptation, Jett became the most magnetic of the three main protagonists, due in great part to James Dean’s performance.7 In the years since Giant’s release, the legend of James Dean as one of America’s pre-eminent cultural icons has eclipsed its complex portrait of Texas and Ferber’s ironic construction of the persistence of the masculine frontier myth in the twentieth century. Ferber’s reputation as one of America’s most successful novelists, her critique of Texas racism and postwar masculinity, the critics’ reaction to a woman’s view of the West and its iconic heroes, George Stevens and Ferber’s competing visions for the film...


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