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Critical Review by Francis Hackett
SOURCE: A review of The Girls, in The New Republic, Vol. XXIX, No. 370, January 4, 1922, pp. 158-59.
In the following mixed review of The Girls, Hackett applauds the realistic details of the plot and characters, but faults Ferber's "underlying sentimentalism and snappy technique."
At one time it looked as if nothing could drag Chicago into the focus of the novelist. It wasn't simply that Chicago didn't want to sit, in all its sprawling horror: it was also that the artist shrank from touching Chicago. Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, H. B. Fuller, Robert Herrick, Edith Wyatt—each of them roped the beast and yanked him forward, but there was a felt resistance and a not quite happy conquest. The sitter and the artist both remained, if not uncomfortable, certainly heroically strained.
Miss Ferber marks a difference. She is not in the least strained. Chicago to her is one of the richest, most natural, most established of themes. She doesn't feel it necessary to get the whole thing in: she knows precisely what slice of the bourgeois community she wishes to cut. At the same time she is aware of all Chicago. The city permeates her book [The Girls]. Not only that, it permeates the three generations of Chicagoans with whom she so buoyantly and glowingly deals. She abounds in her sense of a living community whose origins are not hidden under the innumerable transfers and liens and notations of history but are vividly exposed to anyone with a feeling for drama. She rejoices in this drama and has the clearest professional instinct as to the way to handle it. To let Prairie Avenue, and the transmogrifications of Prairie Avenue, go to waste, is a piece of negligence luckily impossible to Miss Ferber. Here, she seems to say, is History caught in the act. Here is Charlotte Thrift in 1860 kissing Jesse Dick good-bye as he marches off to war—marching off in front of the Court House steps in full sight of the Addison Canes, the Thomas Holcombs, the Lewis Fullers, the Clapps … And here, in 1917, is the grand-niece Charley, saying good-bye over dinner and dance at the Bismarck Gardens, (now the Marigold Gardens), saying good-bye to her own Jesse Dick. In 1860 the boy was disreputable because he was a Dick of "Hardscrabble," a poor white Dick. In 1917 he was disreputable because he was the son of Delicatessen Dick, and a poet. Disreputable, that is, in the eyes of that lower middle-class Anglo-Saxon respectability which domesticated itself on Prairie Avenue and built a brick church over its safety deposit vaults wherever possible. So Miss Ferber focusses the rich and delicious contrast in what, for the Chicagoan, must be called an historical novel.
It is done so tellingly, so appreciatively, so intelligently, that one is ready to dilate at great length on its good points. Miss Ferber does not, it is true, stand away from her Charley. She espouses Charley's generation just as warmly as she espouses Judge Emma Barton of the Girl's Court, "wise, humorous, understanding Emma Barton." Or just as warmly as she indicates a very human newspaper reporter who is Irish but is called Winnie Steppler. But in spite of this partisanship, which is really sentimental and demagogic and hampers the reader in forming his own convictions, Miss Ferber does possess a decided gift of creating character structurally. She shows this best in meeting that famous test of creative ability, the family. Her family is a living organism and its contingencies spring from their real centre, the parents' will to power.
To illustrate or dramatize that will to power, Miss Ferber does a daring thing. She telescopes life. She shows Charlotte Thrift defeated by both father and mother in her love for the boy who goes to the Civil War. Charlotte Thrift remains a spinster, a rebel by temperament but not effectual. In contrast to her is the practical sister, Carrie Payson. This woman, who becomes the head of the Prairie Avenue household and the real estate business after her husband decamps with the family fortune, is an excellent study of the managerial philistine. With her will to power, as usually happens in novels and sometimes in life, she has cirrhosis of the imagination. What Miss Ferber sees most acutely, however, is the incompetence that goes with her tyranny. Now this woman, executive and limited, has two daughters Belle and Lottie. Belle fulfills her philistine destiny by marrying successfully, though on the South Side. She becomes interesting only when the war smashes up her husband's crockery business and when she, in turn, tries to manage her daughter, Charley, into a profitable marriage.
Lottie is the shy, yielding, unmarried woman of thirty, very attractive. The second of "the Girls," she is a sort of plump and well-groomed Miss Lulu Bett. Lottie totes after freedom in a dilapidated family electric, but she is really her mother's chauffeur and slave and the nearest she flies to romance is when Rutherford Hayes Adler, a most winning youth, comes courting, only to be beaten off by mother. Lottie is revealed admirably in her Chicago surroundings. The celebrated meeting of her Reading Club in which spinsterhood is brutally vivisected by Beck Schaefer is one of the most adroit chapters in the book. But the third of "the girls," Charley, is Miss Ferber's largest contribution to the history of family tyranny. She is not revoltée. She isn't hysterical. She isn't excited about "the older generation trying to curb the younger." She isn't "fresh." She isn't tough. She is, as Miss Ferber delightedly depicts her, clear-eyed, strong-willed, competent and chic. Her speech and her acts reveal an adventurous and at the same time responsible character. Whether she goes to work at Shield's (Field's) or takes up dancing, allows dozens to court her or selects her one poet for herself, she is a model of the clean-cut, self-reliant youth that now dazzles, and apparently exasperates, the middle-aged world. Miss Ferber sees her as roselike. She describes her in her boyish slang, in her athletic slimness, in her freedom, in her perfect digestion, with something a little like adoring envy. At any rate, Charley is the shell with which the older generation is torpedoed or to be torpedoed.
Certainly Mr. Ben Gartz, the war-profiteer or goulash baron, is torpedoed by Charley when he comes saying it with candy, box seats and flowers. The portrait of this gentleman, painted in oil, is extremely well done, and all the better done because it is moderate. Ben Gartz, "a fat man, in a derby, at a picnic," is really heard by Miss Ferber. Unlike Mr. Sinclair Lewis, she does not strain to make her philistines super-typical. She quotes them accurately and delicately, toasting them without burning them. And her kindly paunchy bachelor with the wet kiss who thinks he's "different from most" is not more distinctly heard than Charley or her young poet or Lottie or Beck Schaefer. The extraordinary verisimilitude of speech is never lost all through the book, except possibly with the Swedish servant. And this quickness to respond to human inflection in speech is matched by a similar quickness to respond to gait, to pace, to form.
The sadness, then, is that at the last, on the home stretch, Miss Ferber wobbles horribly. She brings in a baby, Lottie's war-baby, which Lottie accumulates while doing war-work in France, after her declaration of independence. The nice boy-poet, Jesse Dick, is killed at the front, but that permits Miss Ferber to take her curtain with a trick baby on the stage. Well, perhaps not a trick baby, but certainly one of the least likely and most irrelevant of babies, for whom the proud mother can only blurb, "I'm not excusing it. There is no excuse. They were the happiest three days of my life—and always will be."
It's a miserable mealy-mouthed speech, and out of character. Charley, in addition, is not, as she might be, shown to us in one of those situations which tests the young generation for sympathy as well as for nerve. Here, it seems to me, Miss Ferber has paid the penalty of her underlying sentimentalism and her snappy technique. But that leaves most of The Girls intact. It is that fascinating thing, a novel of community, viewed with an enormous command of detail and a fine observation, a real enthusiasm for theme and for the bright race of life. Such infidelity as, to my view, it exhibits is essentially serious. The story, at the end, reveals the flatness of an alloy. Yet, doctored, true metal is there.
This section contains 1,430 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)