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Edna Ferber and the Problems of the Middlebrow

“Edna Ferber and the Problems of the Middlebrow” considers the career of one of the most popular writers of the twentieth century, Edna Ferber, in terms of a mode of writing sometimes called “middlebrow.” Through a middle-distance reading of several of her best novels, it argues that Ferber used the very strategies of her work that predicated both her mid-twentieth-century success and her current relative obscurity to simultaneously criticize and entertain the American middle class. This essay shows how the protest invariably at the core of Ferber’s novels could be deployed as an asset, rather than a liability, for attracting her tremendous mass appeal.

Contemporaneous writing about the redoubtable Edna Ferber anticipates her eventual neglect. Ferber’s 1968 obituary in the New York Times hailed her as “the greatest American woman novelist of her day”—no mean designation, despite the gender qualifier, considering that her “day” included such figures as Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein, and Willa Cather—making much of the fact that her books were “required reading in schools and universities.” Yet, like much contemporaneous writing about her, it also registers a certain reservation about her long-term import, conceding that “her novels were not profound,” damning them with the faint praise of “minor classics.” Within a few short years, the name “Edna Ferber,” which once stood for an entire swath of literary achievement, was unrecognizable (Gilbert 12). Although during her lifetime she had some consistently loyal champions among prominent reviewers and editors, much of Ferber’s critical reception has had a recurring arc: effusive praise, coupled with inevitable condescension based on the very same virtues that were praised. Writing in 1941, Margaret Wallace calls Ferber almost the only writer who seems to be “actually writing in technicolor [sic]”; Yet, for Wallace, Ferber’s verve can’t quite replace a “fuller knowledge of history or keener sense of character analysis.” Orville Prescott can’t help liking 1952’s Giant, a “brisk, clever, constantly moving story.” And, although Prescott dismisses his misgivings about Ferber’s “brisk” stories’ lack of “depth” as “needless carping” without detailing them at length, he goes on to articulate a central tension of Ferber’s career, predicting with startling accuracy what would be her legacy: “[a]fter the last page is read surprisingly little remains in the memory.” Edna Ferber, the “well-dressed lady novelist” (Nichols)—a delineation which she courted but also disdained—was “interesting” (Prescott); Edna Ferber was “a historical painter” (Woods); Edna Ferber was “brilliant” (Barkham), according to writers in the country’s most widely circulated periodicals. Yet for some [End Page 65] elusive reason, in the blunt words of one critic, “she ha[d] not achieved greatness,” so indeed after her last page was written, few remembered her at all (Parker 448).1

Given the swiftness with which Ferber fell into decisive obscurity in the decades directly following her death, it’s easy to forget the staggering potency of her literary celebrity in the first half of the twentieth century. By some measures, Ferber was the top-selling American author of the twentieth century, despite a modest output of twelve novels, two autobiographies, and assorted volumes of short stories and plays over a half-century.2 A Ferber novel was sometimes a Pulitzer contender, once a winner, and very often a blockbuster film, sometimes two—with Ferber’s name in lights right alongside those of James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor (Smyth 223–26). Despite tremendous commercial success in her lifetime, however, dissonance in her critical reception plagued Ferber, and anxiety about its duality permeates her work, from its production, to its distribution, to its content.

The problems of Ferber’s legacy exemplify the problems of the tier of mid-century literature sometimes called “middlebrow.” Though the term is far from stable, middlebrow is generally used to describe books produced for a bourgeoisie that read for leisure but not frivolity, seeking the Arnoldian balance of edification and delight. Scholarship on this tier of fiction has grown in the last few decades, notably Joan Shelley Rubin’s foundational Making of Middlebrow Culture (1992) and Gordon Hutner’s more recent and more comprehensive What America Read (2009), which studies “middle-class realism.”3 Since work on the middlebrow tends to take a broad view of mid-twentieth-century print culture rather than focus on individual careers or texts, Ferber hasn’t emerged as a single figure for extensive study within that framework; the current, growing body of scholarship on Ferber more commonly invokes “women’s culture” (Berlant), domesticity (Edmunds, Zink), Jewish studies (Batker, Shapiro), “class” defined more broadly (Haytock), or focuses on Ferber films (Smyth).4 However, scrutiny of her work as a case study in print culture coupled with what I call “middle-distance” (that is, neither close nor distant) readings of her novels productively illuminates the tensions in middlebrow literature’s dueling values: its pursuit of the artistic satisfaction in critique as well as popular appeal. I argue that Ferber leverages the very traits thought to be the intellectual and aesthetic weaknesses of the middlebrow—its relative inattention to formal innovation, its affinity for romance, its championing of the bootstrap model of upward mobility—to criticize and please the bourgeoisie simultaneously in a delicate, sometimes precarious, balance. Dissonance in Ferber’s reception thus replicates the duality in Ferber’s novel production that grows out of her commitment to providing middle-class readers both the comfort of aesthetic pleasure and a scolding reminder of the problematic histories—including settler colonialism, slavery, patriarchy, and capitalism—that brought US middle-class comfort about. [End Page 66]

This essay, then, has two parts. First, I contextualize Ferber’s place as a middlebrow writer in the mid-twentieth-century book industry by offering a brief history of her career arc and the conversations about her as a writer that circulated in print. For the trouble with Ferber was the trouble with the middlebrow at large, with its aesthetic and artistic risk-taking so calculated it hardly seems like risk-taking at all. The term middlebrow appeared about the same time Ferber was publishing her first fiction, in the early-twentieth century, and continued through the middle decades; it was first used scornfully in essays repudiating both bourgeois taste and the stranglehold that middle-class consumers with neither the refinement of the highbrow nor the raw life experience of the lowbrow were thought to have on the book industry’s flow of supply and demand.5 Prominent literary critics fretted that the consumer power of the middle class outpaced its literary and artistic taste, that bourgeois participation in literature threatened to dilute the quality of artistic output and circulation, obscuring the genius in favor of the marketable. Concurrent with the rise of experimental fiction in so-called high art, middlebrow fiction tended to be comparatively predictable, even formulaic. Yet neither did it reveal itself as an exclusively commercial product for the masses quite as obviously as genre fiction or the mass-market paperbacks of the 1950s. Rather, middlebrow fiction pointedly drew on some of the values of each mode, to uphold some tacitly agreed-upon standard of literary quality which would nonetheless amuse a broad public seeking a diverting way to spend its recently acquired leisure time. Publishers, authors, and tastemakers in the media worked in tandem to define, destabilize, and redefine these standards.6 Ferber and her work are situated at the nexus of this delicate cooperation; so readily was her fiction identified with this kind of writing that when critics talked about Ferber they were talking about the middlebrow, and vice versa. Even the formidable Dwight Macdonald names Edna Ferber on the first page of his notorious “Masscult and Midcult” (1960); in his equally inflammatory “By Cozzens Possessed” he invokes Edna Ferber, not midcult, as a shorthand for the middlebrow style.7

Macdonald’s definition of “midcult” as that which reminds one of Ferber the “notably untalented lady”—with Ferber’s supposed lack of talent yoked to her “lady”-hood as if they reinforce one another—falls within Jaime Harker’s rubric of “implicit gendering” (19) in middlebrow reading and writing. Neither “Masscult and Midcult” nor “By Cozzens Possessed” has anything to do with Ferber’s work itself, or even mentions her at all beyond these early allusions. Rather, “you write like Edna Ferber” is merely an insult aimed at Ernest Hemingway, for what Macdonald sees as late-career missteps, and James Gould Cozzens, for his inherent mediocrity. Even those who admired Ferber and regarded her as an important figure in the midcentury literary world, such as Grant Overton of the Bookman, were prone to gendered condescension, as he pictured Ferber “giggling in a corner” with the prolific and popular Kathleen [End Page 67] Norris, despite the fact that, by all accounts, anybody acquainted with the sharp-tongued Ferber would know better than to accuse her of silliness.

The second part of this study then shows how such class- and gender-based anxieties, which saturate production and distribution of Ferber’s fiction, present themselves in several of her key texts in the form of particularly middlebrow versions of feminism and social criticism more broadly. Ferber most deftly integrates her competing goals for entertaining and instructing in her post-Cimarron novels, when her power in the book industry was at its peak: American Beauty (1931), Come and Get It (1935), Saratoga Trunk (1941), and Giant (1952). These four books, in which Ferber’s social criticism is at its most subtle and profound, aptly demonstrate both Ferber’s art and her project as a “chronicler of America” (as the New York Times characterized her in her obituary) for the middle class.8 In this, they took cues from Ferber herself who, “with poise and frankness,” called herself “middle class,” a “passionate democrat,” and “a provincial American” (Woods). Though Ferber implied that it was a happy accident that each of her novels was a portrait of a different region of the US, she nonetheless insisted that her books’ “sound sociological basis” was purposeful (Peculiar Treasure 170): “I can project myself into any age, environment, condition, situation, character or emotion that interests me deeply” Ferber boasts in her first autobiography (277). Thus Ferber’s books feature white women protagonists, strangers in new regions but with a keen ability to read people and places; readers get a critical view of the region through their intercessor’s eyes, and especially its “working people…those who got the tough end of life” (170).

Middlebrow texts, whether or not they are self-consciously “sociological,” don’t always lend themselves to close reading as readily as works from more complex early- to mid-twentieth-century genres such as modernism. Like many middlebrow writers, Ferber offers little formal innovation, and while she took enough thematic risks to saddle her with multiple libel lawsuits from the angry capitalists she satirized, her novels’ tidy resolutions often undermine those gambles—an aspect of her writing she occasionally rued (Peculiar 344).10 Yet when read in the context of the dissonance of Ferber’s literary persona, patterns emerge that make a middle-distance form of reading useful, and even crucial, though the object of inquiry is a section of a career instead of a single text. By reading several of her novels as a group this way, we can synthesize her contradictory interests and crystallize the dualism that her reception replicates. Achieving middlebrow moderation in a novel required careful organization, the kind of strategic alternating between accessibility and uncompromising frankness that Ferber excelled at and her publishers and public most appreciated. This balance, however, didn’t always come easy. It’s the chief source of tension in her oeuvre as well as in her middlebrow mode of writing, which may have contributed to her abrupt fall out of popular memory. [End Page 68]

Gusto or Art

Before Ferber was the highest-paid writer on Doubleday’s list, she was a teenaged reporter for the Appleton Crescent with a reputation for her incisive style and relentless drive—or her impertinence and mannishness, depending on who you asked. She transitioned to short story writing in the 1910s, but her early training would have lasting influence on her style. For Ferber, journalism and fiction may have differed only in that the cast of characters in fiction was technically made up. Her narrator is always omniscient, observant, and thorough yet concise; dialogue tends to appear in short, isolated patches where it aids or confirms the description in the prose; in neither mode of writing did she especially bother with the pretense of objectivity. The qualities that impressed her colleagues at the Appleton Crescent enough to keep her on despite her gender and scandalously young age proved to be widely appreciated when deployed in fiction. Ferber soon garnered national celebrity with her creation of Emma McChesney, her first smart-aleck female protagonist doing a traditionally male job, in a short story series for American Magazine that famously captivated the attention even of President Theodore Roosevelt (“What are you going to do about Emma McChesney?” he asked during her audience with him [Peculiar 196]). Her first major book would be a compilation of these stories, described by reviewers as “charming” and “as American as apple pie” (Herman), though critical enthusiasm would wane as she published two more extremely popular successors.9

By the mid-1920s, Frank Nelson Doubleday was grooming her for long-term prominence as a novelist on his list. Where Ferber’s first publisher, Frederick A. Stokes, a longstanding house established during the Civil War era, was content to have her churn out reliable short story collections each year (her autobiographical novel Fanny Herself having been something of a commercial flop), Doubleday was a much younger company that pushed her to do more. Though she’d been working as a writer for more than a decade before she met him, Ferber credited Russell Doubleday (brother of Frank Nelson Doubleday, her point of contact at the house) with heralding the half-century career she would go on to enjoy because of his encouragement in her writing of the Pulitzer Prize–winning So Big and its several kindred investigations of various pockets of American cultural life. Unsure of her manuscript, the title of which is derived from “the early and idiotic question invariably put to babies and answered by them, with infinite patience,” she had scrawled a note on So Big asking him not to publish it because “[n]othing happens” and “nobody…cares” about “a little truck farm south of Chicago” (So Big 3; Peculiar 280). Doubleday, after responding warmly and with great enthusiasm, published it anyway. It sold well over a million and half copies, Ferber’s first major best seller.

Ferber hints that it was the power of the text that captivated the publisher as well as the public, relating that everyone who read it felt moved to weep: [End Page 69] “I pictured the offices, damp with tears, the water mounting, mounting, like a scene out of Alice in Wonderland” (Peculiar 281). Though she perhaps overestimates the originality of her text’s subject matter (considering, for example, that writers such as Sarah Orne Jewett and Willa Cather had long written about farmers’ beleaguered yet persevering wives), her nod to Doubleday suggests some awareness of her publisher’s role in finding her a market. Indeed, Ferber was a major benefactor of a key innovation in book distribution that Doubleday spear-headed, which brought her books to little truck farms south of Chicago and eventually became the norm for circulating middlebrow literature: mail order. Such distribution reached potential readers who “would never enter a bookstore,” whether because it didn’t appeal to them or because their remote community didn’t have one (Beckett 49).10 Ferber saved a clipping of one review that asserts, “news of a new novel by Edna Ferber means a great deal to a public which is immeasurably bigger than the usual book world” (Heinemann). This mode of distribution was the perfect opportunity for Ferber, because while Doubleday wanted to sell books to these customers, the sort that “nobody cares” about, at a discount in far-flung places across the country, Ferber wanted to write about them, and her journalist’s voice allowed her to do so in ways they would find compelling and authentic.11

Mail order got Ferber’s novels onto middle-class shelves, and the praise of serious critics and reviewers from “the usual book world” got them top priority in advertising and editorial space in the country’s largest newspapers and magazines. Inevitably, Ferber herself became a culture-industry consumable, a literary celebrity whose health or new apartment interested outlets like the New York Times.12 Indeed, Ferber’s very ubiquity was key to her degradation, according to her. “‘[B]est seller’…is a hateful, slurring, derogatory phrase” she complained, “which means out today, gone tomorrow”—as if, on some level, Ferber feared Prescott’s prediction that her work, though beloved in its day, wouldn’t be remembered after she was gone. “I’ve never told anyone, not one soul,” Ferber told Robert van Gelder, “what a man said of my work in a letter…that it was probable that I would not be appreciated in my country and in my time. The man who said that was Rudyard Kipling, and his letter is in the Doubleday, Doran offices” (Interview).13 Ferber was bitterly aware that widespread commercial success wouldn’t guarantee her a transcending legacy, that it even carried a liability in that it signaled the approval of populations whose judgment, according to reigning tastemakers, was suspect.

One such tastemaker who lamented that Ferber “has been too popular,” and a giant among them, was Henry Seidel Canby. Canby might have been Ferber’s greatest advocate, since, unlike some of his peers, he was not at all predisposed to dismiss the middlebrow. Indeed, he was in some ways a key spokesman for it, as a founding board member of the Book-of-the-Month Club (Radway 188) and editor of the Saturday Review of Literature (Hutner 15). Yet when Canby pondered Ferber’s talent directly alongside that of William [End Page 70] Faulkner, a contemporary whose name would be invoked contrastingly at her funeral and in whose shadow she often dwelt, he found her wanting. A 1931 edition of the Saturday Review of Literature features side-by-side reviews of Faulkner’s and Ferber’s most recent works (a collection of stories called These Thirteen for Faulkner, American Beauty for Ferber), a coincidence of occasion that, taken together, reads as a primer on the state of American fiction and the contrasting values of these two types of novelists. Faulkner, Canby claims grandly (though characteristically irritated with Faulkner’s preoccupation with “pornography”), is “a genuine and really important creative talent in the field of American literature” (“A Collection” 201). Ferber, meanwhile, in a piece titled “Gusto vs. Art,” is encouraged to “hide away from The Ladies Home Journal,” to distance herself from “the careless millions” who read her books in order to “lift her reality into that higher and finer stage in which it becomes a creative element in the true but unreal world of the finest fiction” (“Gusto” 201). Faulkner is thus a master and innovator; Ferber, a fledgling still learning her craft who must be safeguarded from writing to popular taste—invoked here via middle-class “ladies’” magazines. Amongst this advice, however, Canby offers an important hypothesis for Ferber’s success, and the middlebrow more broadly:

Her art is naturally primitive and objective, slap-dashed in broad strokes, with little thought of a third dimension in her composing. But her craftsmanship has become too sophisticated and tricky. She dangles stock characters and stock situations before the door of the museum in which she has collected so much that is novel and vivid and well-observed in American life.…External reality, when once you learn to capture it, is a bait for any public; but it requires eminent self-control not to play with it, not to use it to make trite characters and stock situations sure-fire for public taste.

By “tricky,” Canby means that Ferber is “a showman for her novel, playing up romance and sentiment, writing by climaxes, twisting and inverting the order of her narrative so that her goods may be displayed” to middle-class consumers “who have to be tricked into reading” it. Canby seems to want Ferber to choose: does she wish to edify or delight, and does she prefer “gusto” or “art”? For him, her attempt to do both has left the bourgeoisie no smarter and failed to dazzle serious culture critics.

Ferber’s own assessment was strikingly similar to Canby’s—perhaps the only reviewer to ever call her “too sophisticated.” In her estimation, the trouble was that she was too good for everyone. She was too good of a writer not to sell novels: after all, her manuscripts captured the hearts of even the most business-oriented of publishers, and as she asserted to a reviewer, “there’s no point in writing if you can’t sell your stuff” (Rev. of Great Son).14 Yet she was also too good, according to some criterion of her own, for certain types of writing-for-hire, like advertising copy for film adaptations, screenwriting, [End Page 71] and war propaganda (Gilbert 76; Schatz ix; Ferber, Peculiar 232). Finally, and most embitteringly, Ferber was too good for her adoring public to truly grasp her vision. Cimarron, the 1929 novel that proved that her Pulitzer acclaim was not a fluke, but merely a beginning of what would be a long trajectory, was, in her words, a “malevolent picture” of “American womanhood” in Oklahoma (Peculiar 339), though despite its “terrific sales,” “only about nine people knew what I was driving at” (qtd. in Gilbert 313). Her gift for clever locutions and vivid description was too distracting, both for the pompous reviewers who condescended to her in gendered codes as well as the general interest reader who loved her. Yet she had no interest in writing more like Faulkner, nor was she impressed by writers like him, for “if a bore is windy enough and repetitious enough he usually is mistaken for a brainy fellow” (Peculiar 170).15 What Canby interprets as “tricking” readers into liking her books Ferber casts as authorial multitasking, edifying her readers while maintaining a principled stance against boring them. What good was cleverness without liveliness or interest, and why shouldn’t malevolent pictures of American womanhood in various pockets of the US be emotionally captivating as well as intellectually challenging?

Perhaps this is why, however wealthy and powerful she would become, Ferber would always consider herself an underdog. Some scholars have speculated that Ferber was “inordinately sensitive to adverse criticism” (Shapira 18). Indeed, it seems that she must have internalized negative criticism to an unreasonable degree if she were still to consider herself disadvantaged after all of her success; furthermore, Ferber’s great-niece, Julie Goldsmith Gilbert, bolsters such speculation in her 1974 biography of her famous aunt when she suggests Ferber’s vanity yielded a low tolerance for dissent. Yet, for Ferber, being misunderstood—the duality in reviews and reception of her work—was paradoxically a sign that her work had achieved its purpose. In a musing on “the first rules of writing,” she recalls her tenure as the Crescent’s first-ever female reporter as the first time she had been thought “strange,” “offensive,” and “a freak” by a large audience, finding a sort of rebellious validation in these remarks and drawing parallels between them and the sexist, anti-Semitic hate mail she would receive throughout her life (Peculiar 103).16 Ferber thus subscribes to some extent to the notion that one has to be offensive in order to write respectably, just as one has to be exceedingly special to appreciate the ordinary. Marginalized as she often found herself because of her ethnicity, gender, and unapologetic disinterest in matrimony, Ferber felt herself just enough of a “freak” to be perfectly poised for this kind of work (see Shapira and Shapiro).19 Though heavily invested in the middle-class fantasy of the American dream, Ferber made it her life’s work to investigate the American social contract’s weaknesses, especially where it failed women, the poor, and/or racialized others. For Ferber, who frequently called America “the Jew among the nations” (Peculiar 13), the most privileged of Americans weren’t [End Page 72] as much its heart and soul as they supposed. Her work catalogs a series of attempts to draw out American failures as well as its resilience: as she put it, her books “had power they had theme they had protest” (Kind of Magic 125).

Houses and Dead Patriarchs

Taken together, Ferber’s novels form what she called a “kaleidoscopic” US made up of smaller groups and regions (Kind of Magic 9). Herself a Hungarian-Jewish woman born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Ferber trained her journalist’s eye on various nonurban regions of America, especially those heavily populated with ethnic white immigrants. In each novel, one central family lineage stands in for a regional type; each has an argument or a critique to offer, and the family’s fate in each ultimately shows how to recuperate whatever is valuable about that group’s or region’s interpretation of the American experiment. Though Ferber took on such polarizing topics as settler colonialism and monopoly capitalism, she kept her shrewdest criticisms confined to the subtext. Though comfortable with unsubtlety in her individual characters—a vivid description of Clio Dulaine in Saratoga Trunk looking “beautiful and queenly,” with eyes “[b]ig and black and soft, and what they miss you could put in your own eye,” supposedly comes from a background character, though it reads suspiciously like the voice of the novelist herself—Ferber made her reader work for the weightier messages, attending to or disregarding them at will. Flashes of humanity, and even interiority, are granted to minor, marginalized characters who suffer the collateral damage wrought by the ambition of the novels’ more privileged subjects, but they quickly fade into the background, subordinated to the central plot events concerning the upwardly mobile protagonists. In Come and Get It, for example, we follow spinster stenographer Josie Sinnott, fired abruptly after twenty years’ service by the new heir of the paper mill company she worked for, as she takes up her new position as a menial office girl; we are invited to pity the deterioration of the working-class woman’s dignity—her broken heart, newly “yellow-tinge[d]” face, and swiftly graying hair—in a brief two paragraphs of the five hundred–plus page tome. In Giant, Leslie Benedict (née Lynnton) “long[s] to ask” third-generation vaquero Angel Obregon what her husband’s thriving ranch pays him in wages after viewing his dismal living conditions, clearly suspicious that the amount is inhumane. But she stops herself because “this would be disloyal” to the Benedicts, and drops it (169). Through careful management of her micro-level plots and the intimate relations of her individual characters, Ferber gave her novels their “sound sociological basis,” their “certain note of rebellion against the idle luxurious world,” without turning reader attention too far away from the delights of the main characters’ romantic arc—what she called the “stories’ readability” (Peculiar 170).

Ferber’s texts strove for a certain rapport with their presumably middlebrow readers; though there was much she left opaque, in other ways she seems to [End Page 73] consciously be trying to guide readers through certain aspects of her books in terms she thought would be familiar to them. For example, the design and structure of the kinds of big-ticket items that marked prosperity in middle-class American society, such as houses, feature prominently in Ferber’s fiction. The Benedicts’ house in Giant is as senselessly, wastefully massive as everything else wealthy cattle ranchers own in Texas; it’s repeatedly contrasted with the “flimsy” shacks of the barrios where the domestic and ranch employees live (21). Clio Dulaine surveys the decay of her mother’s old house in New Orleans with dismay; by restoring it—painting the outside, affixing some shutters, repairing the furniture, and scrubbing away the twenty-year-old bloodstain of her murdered father from the carpet—Clio finds closure for her mother and herself. American Beauty, a novel about a house, opens with one of Ferber’s favorite images: a young, capable white woman, deftly maneuvering a speeding automobile around the countryside, representing both the ingenuity and the excess of America, and providing Ferber the opportunity to overtly place her female protagonist in a literal driver’s seat. “Candy Baldwin drove with that relaxed insolence which marks the expert” around the familiar farms of her father’s home region, her tone strangely soothing as she condemns him and his lineage for its violent seizure of the land he remembers so fondly. Her father, True, a successful capitalist who overcame childhood poverty, can only “uncoil” “like a weary and ageless reptile” in the passenger seat (2). True isn’t the slightest bit intimidating to Candace, for like the dilapidated, centuries-old houses that “shrink in withered dismay from the vulgar red stare of gas filling stations,” the old man is “swiftly deteriorating.” Both house and man are beaten as they have fallen out of favor with the modern generation.

While houses and cars in American Beauty are a point of commonality among Ferber, her characters, and her readers, scenes set outside of middle-class wealth require translation, as in Giant, Ferber’s exposé of the material excess and anti-Mexican racism of Texas—which reviewer John Barkham gushingly proclaimed superior to “anything our material culture has ever produced.” Middle-class, liberal-arts-educated Virginian Leslie, having been whisked away to Texas by her near-stranger of a new husband, tries to act as the voice of liberal reason in an antiquated, patriarchal, and explicitly racist community. The narrative assumes reader identification with her position; by contrast, Ferber must explain the crooked Texas capitalists more thoroughly in order to satirize and criticize them. Leslie’s new environment is introduced by the “celestial traffic” of private airplanes “glittering” overhead on their way to Jett Rink’s party, and in a rare moment of mild formal experimentation, Ferber essays a stream of consciousness:

biggest airport in the Southwest…private pre-opening celebration… two thousand invited guests…magnificent banquet in the Grand Concourse…most important citizens…champagne [...] millions…first [End Page 74] Texas billionaire…orchids…caviar flown from New York…zillions… lobster flown from Maine…millions…oil…strictly private…millions… biggestmillionsbiggestbillionsbiggesttrillionsbiggestzillions….


Ferber intuits that this is how the middle class understands the very rich: as silver glints overhead, as vague phrases they overhear in bits and pieces, at once overwhelming and completely irrelevant to them. Similarly, when a later passage makes a great fuss about Mott Snyth’s playful pun on a French word, Ferber takes great pains to ensure readers’ comprehension by providing, over several pages of dialogue, extensive clues for the French word’s English translation, making some aesthetic sacrifices in the process. “He pronounced the abbreviation of her name so that it became a French noun unflattering to her figure” (15), the narrator laboriously explains, interrupting the text’s otherwise quick pace. “Mott Snyth, don’t you go calling me Vash, like that, front of company,” demands Vashti Snyth, continuing, obviously for the unknowing reader’s benefit: “You and I ain’t the only two in Texas know the French for cow” (16). The content of Mrs. Snyth’s warning that the French language isn’t the privileged knowledge of an elite (and, it’s suggested, regional) few starkly contrasts with the paratextual evidence that the line itself is only there to provide a necessary vocabulary lesson to its reader.

What advertising copy in Publisher’s Weekly framed as Ferber’s signature style might also be called predictability, in that the local (usually love) plots of Ferber’s works tend to follow roughly similar lines. Ferber’s 1963 autobiography, A Kind of Magic (which, unlike her first, was neither eagerly anticipated nor terribly well-received), has tucked in its third chapter a perhaps-unintentional summary of the basic plot of nearly every novel Ferber ever wrote:

I once knew a woman who fell in love with a drunkard. Today a victim of this illness is more tactfully and technically termed an alcoholic. This man was charming, drunk or sober; strikingly handsome, intelligent, and absolutely no good. She knew this and naturally he knew it; and certainly all her friends and his knew it. They rallied to prevent her marrying him.

“Look dear,” they said, “we know he’s fascinating and brilliant and of course he’s terrifically good-looking, but he’s—well, forgive me darling, but face it—he’s a drunk.”

“I’ll cure him.”

“You know perfectly well he’s tried everything....He’ll ruin your life just as his is already ruined.”

“I love him.”

“Why can’t you love Martin or Giles or Greg? They’re such nice sane boys and crazy about you.”

“I love him.”

So she married him. Her friends were right and she was right. She loved him, she wrestled with the hopeless situation for years, she tended him, enriched his life and it was like pouring Chanel Number 5 into the Ganges. [End Page 75]

So, having tried and failed (see adage re Loved and Lost) she left him and they both lived more or less happily apart forever after.


Perhaps most instructive for reading Ferber’s work is her sarcastic interjection “(see adage re Loved and Lost).” The bemused tone gently mocks the well-worn clichés of storytelling as well as the naiveté involved in proclaiming oneself having learned a life lesson. As a cliché, the “adage re Loved and Lost” is as middlebrow as it gets: a Tennyson reference, the kind of canonical touchstone that a middlebrow reader might have at the ready. Yet the phrase accurately signposts the true direction of the story—the woman really did love, and lose, and learn from it, and go on to a state of slightly qualified “happily… forever after.” This woman’s story can be captured in a bromide, Ferber suggests, because people’s real lives follow comfortable patterns, tethered to the same old stories, because that’s how they like them. The most resonant realism, for Ferber, contains an element of the cliché, and it retreads the same well-worn themes, because real people take their cues from familiar narratives in ordering their lives.

Similar asides appear throughout Ferber’s fiction, sometimes deployed to provide insight into a character, as in Giant when Ferber uses the phrase “like those in a Grade B movie” to describe the bowed legs of self-conscious cowboy Mott Snyth (8). Snyth is elsewhere marked by his awkward use of thesaurus words and constant need to prove his worth; readers later learn the precariousness of his place among the rich Texas cattle-holders, as a menial worker who acquired his ranch by marriage to the owner’s daughter. So the narrative suggests not that the cheap “Grade B movie” accurately imitates life in the case of Mott Snyth, but rather that Mott Snyth has taken his cues for behavior from such sources. In American Beauty, such asides are used more powerfully and with more complexity. For instance, Candace refers very early in the novel to “what the dreary writers call the Soil,” which indeed turns out to be the novel’s unironic subject (5). Though only a “dreary writer” romanticizes land, according to Candace, the writing of American Beauty fixates on one particular patch of land, the house that gets built on it, who builds it, and who tears it down. With a cheeky acknowledgement of the clichéd nature of her own subject matter, Ferber signals that she intends to trouble her romance even as she spins it. Indeed, those who understand the land and its fraught history are the heroes of the tale—Temmie Olszak, her son Orrange, and, to a lesser extent, Candace. The characters who idealize it without considering its past, by contrast—Candace’s millionaire father True, Temmie’s obstinate husband Ondy, the eighteenth-century Captain Orrange who stole the land in the first place—are old and old-fashioned, “dreary” obstacles to real progress, even as their whims generate the major events of the story.

Thus Ferber guides her readers through her novels, helping them comprehend the larger message of her novels within the local plots, which [End Page 76] invariably center on a “woman in love with a drunkard,” a man in some wayward form or another: a clever, energetic female protagonist with an unintelligent male boss, a shiftless son, a selfish husband whose sensitivities are unaroused by beauty or art. A Ferber heroine is independent, even defiant. (Clio Dulaine of Saratoga Trunk, for example, distinguishes herself amongst snobby society women unfavorably disposed toward her by taking a brisk morning walk—perhaps an allusion to Elizabeth Bennett.) And she is likely to be married to someone she shouldn’t be, someone “handsome” but “absolutely no good”—too uncurious, unattuned to the subtle beauty of nature or art to be her intellectual or spiritual equal. (In Clio Maroon née Dulaine’s example, bystanders gossip about her control over her powerful husband, tittering at the way she subtly pinches him to correct his uncouth behavior in public.) As one critic complained, Ferber “seems to feel men are only excess baggage in her tidy little feministic world. Thus in her books, without exception, women are the builders, men are picturesque—but really useless” (Nugent).

Though Ferber had little patience for “feminism” as such, as her earlier short stories mocked suffragettes as idle rich women seeking an excuse to have luncheons,17 the indignant critic identifies an undeniable corrective thrust in Ferber’s plots, the morals of which were always predicated by the fall of a patriarch and the triumph—if not fully realized, at least gestured toward and hoped for—of the ideals of the inevitably savvier matriarch. Pervus DeJong’s death in So Big leaves Selina free to modernize his primitive approach to running their farm with lucrative results; Ondy Olszak’s death combined with True Baldwin’s frailty of health in American Beauty allow Orrange Olszak and Candace Baldwin to embark on a fresh start. Come and Get It’s Lotta outlives two generations of suitors, to her great relief: middle-aged Barney dies in a freak accident, freeing her to marry his son Bernie, a bore (and a boor) whose funeral Lotta also eventually attends, looking “too marvelous in black” (502). Giant chronicles disaster after disaster for its main male character, until the final paragraphs bring hope in the form of his demise: Bick Benedict moans, “Things are…kind of slipping from under me” and that he’s “a failure”; Leslie counters that his failure makes possible a better future for their children, that “after a hundred years it looks as if the Benedict family is going to be a real success at last” (447). Thus in Ferber’s fiction husbands and fathers embody the core obstacles to be overcome by those closest to them. In so doing, each individual family will likewise fulfill the task of the new generations of America more broadly: to rectify the damage wrought by its predecessors.

American Beauty wastes no time simultaneously introducing its problematic patriarch and the thorny piece of American history it takes on. Cowed by illness and general obsolescence, and horrified at the Polish immigrant women he can see laboring in farm fields that used to belong to his friends and neighbors, True Baldwin fitfully lectures his daughter Candace on the virtues of his early rural life. His concern is couched in his conviction that [End Page 77] women’s labor should be invisible and done in their homes, so he scorns those he sees as ethnic and religious outsiders: “What right have [these Polacks] got in New England, anyway?” Candace responds warmly to her father’s tantrum, calling him “darling” and telling him to “relax”: “But, dear, the Poles must have paid their hard-earned dollars for [their farms]. And anyway, when you come right down to it, how did you precious Puritans get your land? Grabbed it from the Indians, that’s how.…Tell you what I think, Dad: I think those early New Englanders hated New England” (4–5). Candace skillfully manipulates True with her “mischievous meekness,” needling him with her flippant progressivism in order to renew his interest in New England so that he might be persuaded to undertake a restoration project in the region. The novel’s critique of US settler-colonialism is thus articulated within an intimate exchange that models how a sensitive, liberal-minded woman of the new generation might redress the sins of whatever wayward patriarch preceded her: by telling him exactly what he doesn’t want to hear in ever more soothing tones, until he can be convinced to fork over the resources she needs and he controls. Though it’s unlikely that True fully grasps the larger lesson Candace tries to teach him in their opening conversation, he does eventually agree to bankroll the rejuvenation of one particular patch of land with a thorny history—indeed, by the end of the novel, he is acting as if the project was his idea all along.

If Edna Ferber is the single largest-looming figure in middlebrow literature, as I have been arguing that she is, American Beauty is the single novel of hers that perhaps best represents what Ferber most cared about and excelled at, though others were much more popular. American Beauty centers on a centuries-old house in New England and the first and last generations of the family that was born and raised in it, from Captain Orrange Oakes, who would commission the building of the house by slave labor, to Orrange Olszak, who would commission its demolition by a young woman architect (Candace), herself the daughter of a neighbor of the estate (True). The title, taken from a description of the house’s “uniquely American beauty,” articulates Ferber’s muse in two words: her quest to express what was beautiful about America. Yet, true to Ferber’s commitment to social criticism, the title is also ironic, in that the house’s American beauty is brought about only through the ugly exploitation of labor, both its physical building and domestic maintenance. The house, repeatedly described as “the most beautiful in America,” along with everything in it, no matter how mundane (“the most beautiful knocker in America”; “the most beautiful fanlight in America” [23]), is physically embedded in America. It was “made of the bricks shaped from the very earth on which it stood, the wood in it was hewn from the forest’s timbers, the gigantic foundation stones were wrenched out of the soil or torn from its ledges” (41). The “very earth,” however, was ill-gotten, swindled from the Weantinock Indians who used to dwell there; the hewing, wrenching, and tearing were “herculean” feats performed by slave labor (42).18 “Land and slaves; peace [End Page 78] and plenty”—they are continually yoked together throughout the text (58). As Ferber tries to captivate us with the story of the Oakes and the house that went with them, she also occasionally reminds us that “uniquely American beauty,” though indeed impressive, is fabricated through theft and destruction. By the end of American Beauty, Candace and Orrange Olszak—she of a formerly poor Anglo lineage and he of mixed Puritan and immigrant blood, for Ferber the very picture of a resilient American generation—tear down the walls of “the most beautiful house in America” with the intention of starting fresh, using their vision and True’s wallet.

Ferber later regretted the “false” and “sentimental” ending to American Beauty, but restoration of order, reestablishment of harmony, and renewal of hope for the next generation are key to the satisfying endings of all Ferber stories (Peculiar 344). After convincing her readers of all that is unsavory about a particular portion of the American scene, Ferber’s novels resolve with confidence that new generations can atone for the old. Candace and Orrange will restore the farm to its former glory. Though there is no trace of the Weantinock Indians left, the young people’s respect for the land’s history and sensitivity to the nuances of its “American beauty” must suffice to constitute a recuperation. Likewise, the “success” Leslie envisions for her family in Giant’s final lines is to be brought about by a combination of basic eugenics and her son Jordan’s pursuit of a happy life for himself, benefitting from the resources of his wealthy father but cognizant of the collateral damage wrought by that wealth’s accumulation. Thanks to Leslie’s liberal, temperate influence, Jordan becomes an altruistic physician instead of landowner like his father; what’s more, Leslie sees his son by his Mexican wife, Juana (whose racist grandfather calls him a “cholo”), as a uniquely American symbol of the inevitable future reconciliation of the poor and prosperous, the racially privileged and the oppressed (445). Though characters like Angel Obregon and his wife remain in devastating poverty, the mere existence of Jordan and Juana’s offspring offers hope that, as families and individuals become more heterogeneous, society will come around in favor of tolerance. Keeping the more-progressive future Benedicts in the foreground and allowing the notion of a living wage for the present Obregons to fade into the background renders Giant’s ending sufficiently optimistic for Ferber’s purpose.

These restorative conclusions could perhaps be termed “feministic” in that they are predicated on the destruction of a patriarch, but Ferber’s feminism has more layers than that; the dead-patriarch trope is less a fantasy setting for the advancement of women than it is an exposure of the ways in which the heterosexual contract fails women who don’t outlive their husbands or fathers. In this respect, Ferber’s fiction differs from her anecdote in A Kind of Magic, for many of her women do not live “happily…forever after.” Though Ferber’s heroines are always innately gifted with some transcendent wisdom, or quickness of mind, they often wind up imbricated in, and even an [End Page 79] accomplice to, the failures of the patriarchs they attach themselves to. Each heroine’s limits are self-imposed, her maneuverings to improve her husband in a humanistic sense hampered by her unwillingness to sacrifice the security of his affection. In American Beauty, Orrange Olszak, though educated only through his mother’s efforts in defiance of his father’s protestations and having inherited from her alone his sensitivity and deep appreciation for the history of the farm where he was raised, is shocked that his mother is only fifty-two at her death, for “he had always thought her a very old woman” (302). Temmie Olszak, who dies at the kitchen table, looks decades older than her husband, worn down by her endless tiptoeing around his stubbornness and temper (which Ferber constantly attributes to his Polish ethnicity), cooking only his favorite foods, and physically standing between him and little Orrange when he tries to “cuff” him (246). Orrange was ignorant of the version of his mother who had arrived at the magnificent Oakes house as a young orphan, a vibrant force for positive change in the otherwise oppressive atmosphere of the failing estate, undeterred by her guardian aunt’s cruelty toward her. Hopeful about the possibilities for the restoration of her family home’s former glory, young Temmie had likewise been invested in rectifying the damages wrought by its greed. The confluence of these desires generated Temmie’s soft spot for the much-abused Polish farmhand Ondy Olszak, and their eventual matrimony. By marrying Ondy, Temmie simultaneously restores an Oakes matriarch to the house’s master bedroom and reaches out to those disenfranchised by Oakes carelessness.19 But, as Temmie’s weariness attests, her attempt to hold all of her competing interests together takes a toll, and her early death leaves her dreams for the farm unrealized until her son and Candace take up the project.

Unlike Temmie, who always handled Ondy’s temper with kid gloves, Giant’s Leslie begins her marriage in a frequent state of loud defiance of Bick and his colleagues, calling them “cave-men,” mocking their inflated perceptions of their own “massive brains” in a rousing speech (308). She even demands physical removal from the ostentatious house that so repulses her, moving the Benedicts’ day-to-day domestic life to the more reasonably luxurious guest house and leaving the mansion to loom nearby like a mausoleum of past Benedict capitalists. When Bick questions her behavior—“When the hell are you going to settle down and behave like everybody else?”—she responds, while holding in front of her like a shield a history book on the Spanish land grants, which preceded the Benedict dominance over Texas land, “Never” (313). But she capitulates immediately when he threatens to hit her and commands, “Get back into bed.” Her defeat in this scene colors her approach to him for the remainder of the novel, when readers learn that her reputation for chic aloofness among her acquaintances actually results from her constant repression of the disgust and unease she feels in her surroundings. An incident near the end of the novel reveals the extent of the deterioration of the once-vivacious Leslie’s morale. While waiting for service at a diner with her daughter Luz, daughter-in-law [End Page 80] Juana, and grandson, Leslie and her company are removed by the proprietor, who even punitively shoves the little boy to emphasize his point: “We don’t serve Mexicans here.” Where newlywed Leslie, who once passionately exclaimed to her husband’s associate that Texas’s Mexican families are “more American than you are,” might have protested such a gross display of racism, middle-aged Leslie fears her husband’s temper and begs Luz and Juana to conceal the event from Bick until after a sensitive party is over, effectively silencing Juana to spare Bick distress.

Ferber’s feminist argument thus goes beyond the elevation of talented individual women characters above the comparatively lackluster men in their lives, to a continuous critique of patriarchy and marriage as systems that limit both men and women, which she believes future generations will have the capacity to revise. As Rozia maliciously burns the antique Oakes finery in American Beauty, Clio burns her mother’s beloved furniture in Saratoga Trunk, and Lotta’s future in-laws become the gruesome casualties of their yacht’s combustion, so too, Ferber argues, will the women of the younger generations watch previous generations’ most precious institutions incinerate before rebuilding them. Yet while each of these stories ends with some restoration of harmony, and although the women characters are its catalysts instead of obstacles, they are nonetheless sacrificed in equal measure with their male counterparts along the way. By ignoring their impulses to agitate for dramatic social change in favor of a strategic, intimate approach to reform that they hoped would better preserve their immediate family harmony, Ferber protagonists fall short of the final push to an unambiguously happy ending; so too do Ferber’s books fail their feminist protagonists. As Karie speculates to Lotta in Come and Get It, “I guess it turns out your ma’s the one to blame, in the end” (348).

Ferber’s protagonists’ struggles to improve their environments without sacrificing the good humor of the men who are their points of access are awkwardly analogous to Ferber’s strategies for subtly edifying the readers who bought her books without sacrificing their good humor. Those who were unpersuaded by Ferber, however, didn’t appreciate being made the objects of her satire: “Connecticut was hopping roaring mad” about American Beauty (Peculiar 344) and Texas “scream[ed]” with “rage and anguish” at Giant (Prescott); she kept a lawyer on retainer to defend her in frequent libel lawsuits. One woman with the same surname as the family in American Beauty, astonished by the accuracy with which Ferber captured her family’s character, wrote to Ferber in 1931, asking “Are you an Oakes?” and promising to “readily forgive [her] for saying the Oakes nose is a hooked nose” if she confirms that American Beauty was based on her family history (Wright). Yet the contempt for certain character types that populate America in Ferber’s books is always in the service of recuperating and reaffirming the inherent good taste that Ferber associates with the middle class. Come and Get It’s Bernie, Lotta, and Karie order champagne with beef and demand ketchup in fine Paris restaurants while making inane [End Page 81] observations like “[Europeans] don’t have much use for bathtubs, but boy, they certainly know how to live”; “I’m sick of all this fancy stuff”; “Listen to that little kid speak French, will you!!” (385); meanwhile, back at their Wisconsin mansion, Tom Melendy marvels, “I’ve been in fourteen rooms—fifteen counting the kitchen.…There isn’t a single book in the house” (401). Ferber separates true middle-class values from the blustering of unscrupulous fools who happen to have money and leisure time, gesturing toward the cultural capital that is as essential as economic capital to class status. By prompting disidentification with the Glasgows, along with the Benedicts, the Oakes, and the Dulaines, Ferber prompts disidentification with the ruthless monopoly capitalist in favor of the well-rounded everyday American possessed of intellectual curiosity, critical thinking skills, and a healthy life-balance of meaningful work and pleasure. In the case of Edna Ferber, middlebrow is more than a convenient label for a tier of fiction; it’s a way of life.

Elyse Vigiletti
University Of Illinois At Urbana-Champaign
Elyse Vigiletti

Elyse Vigiletti recently defended her dissertation, “Reading the Middle: US Women Novelists and Print Culture, 1930–1960,” at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her work is also published in Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies.


1. Previous recovery movements in literature have underemphasized Ferber in favor of her more modernist contemporaries (Ferber jealously griped about the “goddess stuff” in critical praise for Willa Cather in a letter to her sister [qtd. in Gilbert 351]). Even contemporary reviewers who revisit Ferber’s work have been underwhelmed (see, for example, Jonathan Yardley’s 2006 article in the Washington Post that praises Giant the film but calls Giant the book “excruciating”).

2. By Publisher’s Weekly and New York Times figures, Ferber is only in the top twenty or thirty; however, these figures don’t include mail-order or book-of-the-month club sales in their analytics—two major areas of revenue for Ferber. The Bookman more regularly ranked her at the very top (“let the critics of the fictional taste of the masses laugh that off!” [Frank Parker Stockbridge, “The Bookman’s Monthly Score,” Bookman, June 1924]), but ceased its collations in 1933; J. E. Smyth implies that, were the Bookman’s model of aggregation sustained, Ferber would occupy the top spot (18).

3. Hutner, for example, purposely avoids the term. Rubin finds it useful, however, in that it overlaps with “middle-class” but is not synonymous with it.

4. Ferber is a more popular subject of film studies than of literary studies (see, for example, Smyth), but recent years have also seen the publication of a couple of books that feature Ferber prominently, and even one book-length study (see McGraw). Prompted by Ferber’s explicit interest in social justice, Ferber scholarship presently features contrasting approaches to the perhaps well-intentioned but often unfortunately executed racial themes in her work. Lauren Berlant repudiates the blackface in Show Boat’s minstrel scenes; Donna Campbell briefly concedes Cimarron’s similarly “stereotypical representations of Native and African-American characters” (33) but ultimately finds that Ferber “represented race in ways that disrupt the status quo” (42). Mollie Wilson refers to Ferber’s “vaudeville-era tolerance for ethnic stereotypes” (qtd. in McGraw 7) and Carol Batker characterizes Ferber’s depictions of non-white characters as “grossly racialized,” while J. E. Smyth argues that Ferber was “the only important American author to create mixed-race heroines who were active historical protagonists rather than passive, tragic mulattas or voiceless, vanishing Americans.” As I have shown, however, Ferber’s simultaneous progressivism and regressivism are the direct result of the inherent contradictions in Ferber’s middlebrow mode of writing—a feminism insufficiently intersectional but startling in its directness and so important to a whole tier of fiction. [End Page 82]

5. For more on the term and the category it designates, see Botshon and Goldsmith, Harker, Hutner, Kate Macdonald, and Rubin.

6. Darnton’s “communications circuit” (81) is instructive here.

7. Macdonald never devoted an entire piece to Ferber herself, and wasn’t generally very interested in women writers, for good or for ill. “Masscult and Midcult” is primarily a takedown of Ernest Hemingway for what Macdonald sees as his decline; he mentions Ferber only once, on the first page (along with her contemporary, Fannie Hurst), only as a defining example of the insidious “midcult.” Another example can be found in “By Cozzens Possessed,” wherein Macdonald mocks James Gould Cozzens for thinking himself distinguished from “the company of” a “notably untalented lady” like Edna Ferber.

8. So Big and Cimarron also feature briefly here. Dawn O’Hara (1911) and Fanny Herself (1917) were more amateur efforts published with modest success by Stokes; in The Girls, Ferber was still an up-and-comer; So Big brought her the legitimizing power of the Pulitzer; Show Boat cemented her crossover success in theatre and film; Cimarron finally introduced America to the Ferber it would know and love for the majority of her career, and announced that she was here to stay. By American Beauty, then, Ferber’s place in the book industry was well-established, and we can begin to see some patterns emerging.

9. Ferber’s early novella Dawn O’Hara preceded Roast Beef, Medium (1914). Her very first compilation was called Buttered Side Down (1912); unlike the Emma McChesney volumes, the stories it contained were discrete.

10. Doubleday wasn’t the first or only publisher to use mail order, but he perfected the system and deployed it most effectively. Though mail order services and the book clubs that went with them purported to guide the public in its selection of books, to teach their members how to identify books of quality, some critics were suspicious of them due to their close ties with the publishers; indeed, as the Literary Guild became more and more obviously a Doubleday marketing mechanism, it lost credibility and some of its membership. See Radway.

11. Indeed, many people found Ferber’s stories so authentic that they wrote to her and asked if she had somehow based her novel on them or their family’s lineage (Peculiar 389). See, for example, Wright.

12. “Edna Ferber Leases Park Avenue Suite,” New York Times, December 18, 1940; “Edna Ferber Is Improved,” New York Times, January 9, 1949.

13. Ferber’s niece, Julie Goldsmith Gilbert, belies Ferber’s claim to abject modesty; according to her, Kipling’s praise of Ferber was in fact “twice told” (305) and his “dogged” admiration of Ferber looms large in her biography (358). See Ferber: A Biography (New York: Doubleday, 1978), 11, 42, 180.

14. This review is overall fairly unflattering toward Ferber’s (largely panned) Great Son; it is, of course, careful to note that Ferber is “still single” at the age of fifty-seven. Smyth also cites this review on page 10 of Edna Ferber’s Hollywood.

15. She gripes in a letter to William Allen White, “I see by the papers…that no [sic] only am I not an American novelist, but that I do not exist. That has rather stumped me.” Dec. 16, 1930. Edna Ferber Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, WI.

16. Encouraging her, for example, to “stay in the ghetto where she came from” (Peculiar 340).

17. See, for example, the hopelessly daft women of “the movement” in Roast Beef, Medium, who make themselves ridiculous when they attempt to life-coach factory women.

18. We are told that one of them was named Esau, though he is only afforded two sentences of the story; the point seems to be that Ferber wants to push readers to think of the “Negro slaves” as individual people with names, but not to dwell on them to the point that we get distracted from the story of the beautiful house.

19. For more on Temmie as a character in American Beauty, see Edmunds.


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