Edna Ferber | Critical Review by Louis Kronenberger

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Edna Ferber.
This section contains 967 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Louis Kronenberger

SOURCE: "Salt and Gusto in New Tales by Edna Ferber," in The New York Times Book Review, April 17, 1927, p. 2.

In the following mixed review of Mother Knows Best, Kronenberger contends that all of the short stories are enjoyable, but some lack originality and realism.

For sheer readability few writers can equal Edna Ferber. She writes so smoothly and brightly, with so much gusto, with so wide-awake a style and so clever a selection of detail that she routs all that is commonplace and casts out all that is dull. Her variety is remarkable, as any one must agree who reads the eight short stories in Mother Knows Best. Either she or her publishers, by the way, choose to call these stories "novelettes." It is true that most of them contain sufficient material for novelettes and even novels, but it is inescapably true also that all of them are constructed upon pure short-story principles, and three or four of them on that principle of ironic surprise which Maupassant inspired with "The Necklace" and "The Jewels" and O. Henry made popular with dozens upon dozens of his stories. Novelettes do not end as "Our Very Best People" and "Blue Blood" end: theirs is the ending of the modern American magazine story.

But naturally it is not what they are called but what they are which makes these stories important. Though all are interesting, though all are clever, though all are Edna Ferber, it seems reasonable to assert that four of the eight are really good, and that four artistically are failures. Four of these stories, at least, sacrifice something either in the way of truth or in the way of originality. In two of them the iron hand of the commercial magazine permits a hackneyed formula and a final ironic twist to rob the material of both originality and significance; "Our Very Best People" shows its ending almost from the start, follows a path that has long since been worn bare, and never for two seconds rings true, and "Blue Blood" adds to a thin main plot a hackneyed subplot only that it may end the story with a meretricious twist. The third of the unsuccessful stories, "Holiday," is unsuccessful because, lacking an organic plot, the superficial realistic detail and study of character which might have saved it from complete lack of meaning are joylessly void of freshness. It is a very unusual kind of failure on Miss Ferber's part. And "Consider the Lilies" falls down because, ironically enough, it should have been a real novelette and not a short story. Pali should have been made a full flesh-and-blood character if her reversion to type was to ring true; instead she was hurried through forty-five years of life, hastily permitted to indulge her instincts, and then hurried back to Chicago.

In her other four stories Miss Ferber has done her jobs handsomely. They are not stories which will greatly hearten those of us who feel that the short story in America today fails to express anything of real importance or significance or basic truth. All of them are simply superficial studies in character. But the surfaces are incomparable. Physically, socially, typically, these people—the mother in "Mother Knows Best," the two old ladies in "Perfectly Independent," the servant in "Every Other Thursday," the telephone company employee in "Classified"—live. They live with great clearness, with great force. They, supreme embodiments of types, are made through a wealth of skillful detail into breathing and living individuals. They have no depth, no soul, no temperament; so profoundly Miss Ferber, in thirty-odd pages apiece, can not go. But they live fully enough to make the stories they dominate interesting and vivid and real. They live fully enough to make those stories, not great works of art, but something more significant than reading matter. That is why they are the four successful stories in the book. For simply as reading matter, the other four are almost if not quite as enjoyable.

Many things contribute to make Miss Ferber so brilliantly readable. For one thing, her sense for detail is unerring. She takes the familiar, the graphic, the expressive in places and people and things and sets it before you, and the pleasure of recognition is undefeatable. She does not make the mistake of Fanny Hurst, with whom she is often rather unjustly compared; she does not dye and perfume her detail with comparisons and rhapsody and sentimentality. Her style is light and warm and salty. Her gusto is tremendous, yet she is relatively objective. Her irony is bright but never brittle. And above all, she is at once romantic and a realist. She isn't a sentimentalist, seeing things as they might have been—simply a romantic seeing as they might be at the same time the realist in her sees things as they are. A single paragraph from "Mother Knows Best" will illustrate her double point of view:

Something in the sight of this awkward white-faced child transforming herself miraculously before their eyes into the tragic mask of the buxom Coghlan, or the impish grotesqueries of the clownish Hite or the impressive person of Mansfield moved the beholder to a sort of tearful laughter.

How Miss Ferber longs to make the child-actress a thundering sensation then and there! But her head, not her heart, knows best. The paragraph continues:

Still, it cannot truthfully be said that there was anything spectacular about this, her first appearance on a professional stage. The opinion was that, while the kid was clever, she ought to be home in bed.

To those of us who are also strange mixtures of realism and romance, a method like the one above is a boon. We can have our cake and eat it, too. No one can afford to pass up such an opportunity.

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This section contains 967 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Louis Kronenberger
Literature Criticism Series
Critical Review by Louis Kronenberger from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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