Edna Ferber | Critical Review by Margaret Wallace

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Edna Ferber.
This section contains 755 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Margaret Wallace

Critical Review by Margaret Wallace

SOURCE: "A Connecticut Pageant by Miss Ferber," in The New York Times Book Review, October 18, 1931, p. 7.

In the following mixed review, Wallace applauds the vivid characters in American Beauty, but faults Ferber for emphasizing pageantry over plot.

In her newest novel, American Beauty, Edna Ferber has made yet another and more ambitious excursion into the annals of American history. The pageant of Colonial settlement she attempts to portray here in the life of a single family involves the founding and growth of a civilization and its decay and replacement by a new order.

The story is told in four deftly related panels. The first, set in 1930, depicts the return of the New England farm boy, True Baldwin, to the rocky fields he had deserted years before to make his fortune in the West. The second, a flashback to 1700, is centred upon the resplendent cavalier figure of Captain Orrange Oakes, who founded his manorial estate in Connecticut upon a thousand acres—a thousand beautiful, wild, fertile acres—purchased by barter from old Chief Waramaug himself. The third opens in 1890, when the Oakes family has already entered upon a slow but relentless process of disintegration, and when the State itself is divided in unequal conflict between the thin, watery, emasculate descendants of pioneer American families, and the coarse, vigorous, thrifty, land-loving and prosperous Polish immigrants. The fourth panel completes the cycle, returning to 1930 and to the purchase by True Baldwin of the Oakes farm, with Orrange Olszak, a Polish-American descendent of the original owner, as manager and overseer.

As always, Miss Ferber's interest in history is principally an interest in the revival of its pageantry and color. Captain Orrange Oakes is a splendid figure in costume.

Though his buff coat was of dressed leather, the hand-fashioned hooks and eyes down its front were of real silver. His falling collar was of linen, but it was tied with little tassels. The feather in his hat was dark in color—brown or black—but thick as moss, and his long doeskin gloves were embroidered in gold threads and colored silks. He actually paid fourteen pounds for every pair of his handsome double-channeled boots. There was leather enough in them for six ordinary pairs of shoes.

Captain Oakes is a magnificent and slightly cinematographic personage, astride his enormous black horse, riding before his family on the way to church, or supervising the building of his great brick house—

a proper house, such as the Oakes have always had. A house for a gentleman and a gentleman's family … b'gad! I'll live in no keeper's cottage sort of dwelling so that in every room in the house your nostrils tell you what's for dinner.

But of his mind, and of the motives that brought him from England to Massachusetts, and from Massachusetts to Connecticut, we catch only a slight glimpse. The real history is pretty thoroughly buried beneath the pageantry.

So it is throughout the novel. Miss Ferber creates a number of strikingly pictorial characters—the second Orrange Oakes, who returned to England to be hanged by Cromwell on Tower Hill; Judith Oakes, who, maintaining the pride and arrogance of the Oakes traditions, dried up into a stiff and slightly puckery New England spinsterhood; Amaryllis Oakes, who cast tradition aside and eloped with a wandering peddler, and Jothan Oakes, the ugly, agile little dwarf. But their background retains the two-dimensional quality of a stage setting. There is little in them of actual identification with the country whose growth they are meant to represent; little enough of the feeling tentatively expressed by Captain Orrange in a letter to his good friend, Christopher Wren: "It [Connecticut] has a resemblance to our own dear Kent, but the sky looms larger, the trees grow higher, the rocks seem more grim. It has quite another kind of beauty. A kind of American beauty."

The chronicle is carried out through successive generations of the Oakes family, with very little that is definite in the way of plot, or conflict, or even incident. American Beauty is really a succession of individual portraits, well drawn and effectively contrasted—the thin, tight-lipped New Englanders set against the rugged, full-blooded Polish peasantry; the slight, aristocratic figure of the last Tamar Oakes set against the warm, brown, coarse figure of her farm-hand husband, Ondia Olszak. Lacking plot, as it does, there was need of a centralization upon a single character to give the book force and unity; and this centralization also is lacking. American Beauty falls definitely below the level of Edna Ferber's best work.

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This section contains 755 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Margaret Wallace
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