Edna Ferber | Critical Essay by Margaret Lawrence

This literature criticism consists of approximately 13 pages of analysis & critique of Edna Ferber.
This section contains 3,732 words
(approx. 13 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Margaret Lawrence

Critical Essay by Margaret Lawrence

SOURCE: "Go-Getters," in The School of Femininity, Kennikat Press, 1966, pp. 183-209.

In the following excerpt from a book originally published in 1936, Lawrence focuses on the role of women in Ferber's writings, discussing the historical context in which Ferber's work first appeared and noting how she reflected and promoted women's new status in society.

Behind the war generation and the post-war youth lay long centuries of feminine silence and economic helplessness. The ghost of it still haunted the race. Emancipation was so recent, it was confusing. The ghost appeared in the confusion. When the emotionalism of the war faded, and the excitement of the new emancipation gave way before the necessity of making some program for women, a very real problem came up. There was a generation of women left over from the war. When the war casualties were counted, and the war-wrecked men were admittedly of terrifying numbers, it was seen that a whole generation of women would have to go through the remainder of their lives without any kind of what had been previously considered normal relations to men and to family. Two possibilities faced these women. They could take the place of the men who had died, or who were shattered. If they did not, the old men would carry on far beyond their time, and the world would be worse off than ever. Or they could look upon themselves as already dead along with their male contemporaries, and get whatever relief the dead presumably get in surveying the sufferings of the living. Sexually they could have no normal future. It was celibacy, or inversion; it was a "catch as catch can" sexual relationship with the strong men left, and this of necessity likely to be shared with other women, or it was relationship with the broken men who survived, or with the unfit who had not served, or with the very young if they could be had, or the very old. Whichever way the individual woman decided, there was no use at all in setting up once again the old romantic standard. It would be too painful. Also it would be futile.

It was fortunate, or unfortunate, whichever way we may choose to see it, that at the very time when a generation of women realized their sexual predicament, the sexual foundation of nervous disorders was broadcasted to the public. The subject of sex and all its ramifications in society became the dominating subject of contemporary thinking and writing. People had turned bitterly away from both national and international politics. There was no solution in sight. The deeper one delved into state relationships and humanity in the mass, the worse the general human situation appeared. People on the ebb from the illusionary emotion of the war accepted the hopelessness of things on a big scale. The interest in sex was in one sense a mark of a retreat from the large to the small. More than that, it was something that appeared to be new. War and social conflict were old subjects, and completely baffling to the human spirit, but men and women saw some possibility in a new attention to sex of arriving at some understanding of themselves in particular. They tackled sex with pioneering intensity. All the historic figures came up for reexamination. They were discovered to be historic neurotics. Women saw feminine history in a new light. They saw their contemporary situation in a new light. It was not a soft, flattering light. It was a light which threw into utter clarity all the difficulties before them. It convinced them of the need to revalue. It gave the revaluation the emotional purposefulness of opening up new territory. It intensified the original feminist rebellion. The little girl pals had taken one step in assuming sexual nonchalance. The go-getting women into which some of them evolved took another step in assuming a sexual determination and a corresponding determination to pull the world round into acquiescence concerning an entirely new type of femininity.

It happened at the same time that the commercial world became conscious of women. This fact made a world of difference for the go-getting female. The world was her dish. The great cosmetic firms and the great dressmaking firms sprang into commercial power almost overnight. The little girl pal had painted herself for her boy-friend. The go-getting woman painted herself for the sake of her own morale. The advertisers told her that a woman was only as old as she looked. Cosmetics, they went on to say, defeated time. The little girl pal dressed herself to remind her boy-friend that she was a good fellow. The go-getting woman dressed herself to remind herself that the world was her dish. The right clothes made a lot of difference to the woman approaching her prime. The little girl cut her hair in defiance against her elders. The go-getting woman kept her hair short because it was convenient, and also "youthifying"—a new word used by the advertisers. The little girl pal smoked because it was a shocking thing to do. The go-getter smoked because smoking was a kindly sedative, and also, so it was said, a help in the matter of fighting fat. For women had come to look upon fat as their worst enemy. Commerce helped them in that viewpoint. All kinds of contraptions appeared for women in their struggle against pelvic padding. The little girl had kept slim because it was boyish. The go-getter kept her weight down because the less she had to carry, the keener was she in the game. The little girl went pagan sexually as a gesture of contempt to her elders and their sense of propriety. The go-getting woman went after what sexual outlet she decided she needed because it was part of her equipment. No woman could afford to insult her glands.

The little girl pals looked at one another incidentally when there were no boy-friends around. The go-getters look at one another appraisingly.

The reason is obvious—the inherited sense of rivalry among women. This has been sharply intensified by the new rivalry in business and professional experience. The instinctive fear of a woman that any new woman might attract the attention of the man has added to it a new fear that every new woman may be getting along in the world better than herself. The old biological fear led women to imitate other women. If a particularly attractive woman wore her hair in a certain attractive way, the women who were subconsciously afraid of her followed the style. The old biological fear always made women examine one another interestedly. It was sound business. It was study of the competitor. The new fear has not pushed the old fear out, but has intensified and amplified it. One of the incidental, if not altogether main, reasons why women attend their own clubs and go to meetings and to social affairs is to take in the appearance of other women. It is to be seen in any public place, even upon trains and street-cars—women looking one another over. It is not seen among men. Men look at women in public places where both sexes meet. When they go to men's affairs they go in boyish good fellowship to foregather merely with their own kind. Women, except for the out-and-out declared nymphomaniac, do not in public places examine the men. Which shows that their minds are concerned with their competitors.

Men have sometimes said impatiently that women are like sheep; they do what any style leader or success leader does. This has been off the point. The point has always been respect for the dangerous competitor and her methods, and every woman who is honest with herself knows what the point has been. It is this constant watchfulness concerning competition which has made women difficult in general in their business relationships with one another. It is sound on a small scale. But it is unsound in larger issues. It tangles and complicates. It makes it hard for a woman to concentrate upon an impersonal issue, or in other words, to attend to the game for its own sake. It makes it hard for her to applaud when another woman makes a successful run. She relates that success to her own failure.

The feminists explain this tendency in their sisters as part of the inherited technique of the harem. They hope that after a few generations of feminism it will disappear. They make a rapid rationalizing twist, and point to the increased interest of women in the doings of women as a growth in their feminist appreciation. It is a very doubtful rationalization. It twists in a circle back to the old study of the competitor camouflaged.

The magazines are full of the work of enterprising women interested in this new phase of femininity. They are writing murder stories and stories of business, with possibly interrelations with the domesticity of women. They are writing history, or rather rewriting it. They are handling any kind of fiction and assignment they think an editor will tolerate. Most of them stand securely on two feet. One foot is modern and daring; the other foot is safely conventional, for the good reason that the magazines and their readers prefer conventionality. Most of them do not use characters; they use handy types. Most of them do not produce atmosphere; it is much easier to concoct a set-up. They invariably have their eyes on the screen, and when they write a story about a woman the mark of the screen star is upon her. They write with a background of a mahogany desk, a cable address, two telephones and stacks of memo sheets. They are business women making shrewd use of fiction because it is an excellent paying business once it is established.

Ahead of this go-getting fleet there are several women of definitely magnificent fiction proportions.

The first of them is Edna Ferber.

Edna Ferber appeared when women first appeared on a big scale in business and careers through the English-speaking world.

There were great candy-makers, great cosmeticians; there were great corsetières, great women dressmakers, great dieticians. There was an army of women selling insurance and real estate and all the things that women want to buy. There were lawyers and doctors and the odd female preacher. Every one of them felt joyously at the beginning of a great new era in history. They regarded themselves as pioneers.

This was the feeling of the years. It was the breath-taking decade after the war. Women drove cars and airplanes. They directed enterprises. They made money. The world was theirs. The magazines said so. If one judged by the advertising, there were no men in the world at all, or, at the most, men who were decorative appendages to such women as might still feel the need of them either in perpetuity or temporarily. It was the decade of hilarious divorcing. No woman had to stick [in] a relationship that bored her. She could make her own way. She could also make the man pay up for having had her a while. The law was on her side. It was a decade of strong women and adventurous women. It was as if all the stored-up female energy of the ages suddenly blew off.

Edna Ferber's first stories had to do with women who pushed their way into competition in business with men. She glorified the woman commercial traveler and the woman producer. They were case histories of actual go-getting women, and she related them by her astute journalistic sense to the subconscious opinion which all women were holding of themselves. The combination was excellent for her own bank account, and excellent stimulus for the progress of feminist enterprise, and excellent also for the increase of the primary documentary sources of the feminist movement. Unquestionably, future historians will turn to Edna Ferber for the gathering of vivid first-hand reporting of the time in fiction. She is, therefore, to an almost final extent, the supreme feminist.

Whether it was out of utter feminist conviction, or out of the accidental attraction of the keen journalist for good material, only Miss Ferber herself will know. But whatever the conscious, or subconscious, motivation might have been at the beginning, she stands now as the supreme fictional annalist of careerist women in the heyday of their careers.

She has used a characteristic technique which by a lucky strike related itself to the intellectual methods of the go-getting women of the first post-war decade. It is a shunting technique.

"Shunting" is a technique which allows the story to pull forward and backward leisurely.

It was what a lot of women were doing until they got up full steam to go ahead. It is what women in the past had done with their lives. More than that, it is the way women had thought. No woman had ever taken off immediately and cleanly and clearly into a career. She shunted around for years with biological possibilities. She gathered experience and the experience had inevitably to do with the career of some man before she was convinced that she should be at her own career.

This is what makes the shunting technique popular with women and native to them.

More than that, it is a technique which belongs to the new world and to commerce. The new world was opened up by railways, and the courier of the new world was the commercial traveler. Without any exaggeration it can be said that the rhythm of the new world was the rhythm of the train shunting up and down in railway-stations. The movement of the train got into the thinking and the talking of the commercial gentlemen who sat by the hour in smoking cars and exchanged stories with their fellow travelers. When they got back home to their wives and families the rhythm was still upon them, and all that they said was said in the shunting manner of their traveling.

Women started to go upon the road. They took the primary materials of millinery and dressmaking out from the big cities to the little towns and the villages. Laces and buttons and artificial flowers. Corsets and lingerie and ribbons. A new order of women. A change in the trade. They fraternized with the traveling men on the trains. They exchanged stories with them in the small commercial hotels all over the country. They spoke the same language. It was a language of sales approach and order lists and the conditions of trade. It was these women who as fiction material first attracted Edna Ferber, and before any other author had realized the story wealth of them, she tumbled into their portraiture, telling her stories in the manner of the good fellow sitting in the smoking room with the boys, and influenced definitely in her narrative rhythm by the shunting movement of the train. She was influenced also by another train effect. The commercial traveler telling a story was under the necessity to get his story told quickly. Some of the boys would have to get off at the next station. The superimposition of brevity eliminated all the decorative literary or philosophical additions to a story, and produced an interesting technical combination of bare story detail with a shunting movement from point to point instead of a general progression of plot.

This, so far as the new world is concerned, is a fundamental story form. The story in the new world is in its origin a traveler's narrative. Travelers who met casually on the road had no community of interest for conversation, and in place of the gossip usual to people contained in a familiar small community or group, they put the story. It was invariably struck in its beginning from some accidental comment, and shunted backwards and forwards from that comment into a sequence of events which had some relation to the thing which provoked the original comment.

This peculiar technique comes out of and belongs exclusively to a country which has only recently emerged from pioneer experience, and which is unequally developed. That is, there was always some vacant land in the great stretches of the North American continent which called out the people of pioneering temperament from the already settled districts and lured them away into the primitive delight of trekking and pioneering. So it follows, because of the law of the association of ideas and emotions, that the story form most intimately connected with these people would be the traveler's narrative told in the familiar traveling rhythm. Throughout the United States and Canada there were still places to which the traveling salesman came as a messenger from the big world. He was received as minstrels formerly were received in the great castles of the old medieval world. He represented movement and news as well as commerce. When Edna Ferber's stories began to be published, the motor-car was just beginning to be popularly available. The American people were on the edge of possessing machines to gratify their inherited taste for the trek, and also on the edge of receiving new entertainment through the ether and the silver screen, but neither of these was quite ready for the popular wide market when she swung into fiction. She caught the tide of familiarity. In her technique and in her material she was altogether American. She combined the new energy of women, which was a pioneering energy, and the trekking sense of the continent, and she did it with more concentrated fidelity, with deeper sincerity and more primitive simplicity, than any other American writer.

There is nothing in her stories borrowed from Europe. There is no shadow of sophisticated weariness. Sometimes there are touches of naïveté, but these touches come from the author's sense of the zest for living, which is the breath of any new civilization.

She writes as if none of the authors of Europe existed. From the classical standpoint she has no style whatever. But from the vital standpoint of how style is associated with the emotion of time and place, she has perfect style.

Apart entirely from her fidelity to the rhythm of primitive pioneer story-telling, and apart entirely from her absorption in the current of the American scene, Edna Ferber is of towering importance to the School of Femininity. She belongs to the great procession—Austen, the Brontës and Eliot—who presented the feminist picture.

Serena de Jong, the heroine of her greatest book, So Big, belongs with Elizabeth Bennett and Jane Eyre and Maggie Tulliver. Her other women are like the other women of Miss Austen, the Brontës and George Eliot. They are the Elizabeths and the Janes and the Maggies out in a new world on the make, selling lingerie, performing on show boats, running newspapers and raising prize asparagus, struggling with emotion and finding themselves relief in action. But there is one great difference, and it is the difference between the nineteenth-century lady and the twentieth-century woman—her women are not dependent upon men for the adequate conduct of their lives. Elizabeth Bennett, had she been disappointed in Mr. Darcy after marriage, would have been in an emotional whirlwind, and Miss Austen, had she tackled such a situation, would have been hard put to it to find a neat conclusion. Little Jane Eyre, if fate had not taken the wild and fascinating Mr. Rochester by the scruff of his unrighteous neck and handed him over to her, would have been a flattened out little mortal. Poor Maggie Tulliver had to be drowned after a purgatory of isolation because she had magnetism which she could not use to her own advantage. But Serena and all the women of Edna Ferber take erotic disappointment in their twentieth-century stride and do not expect anything from men. They say to themselves—men are like that—and find plenty to do besides looking around for another hero or getting drowned. And this in spite of the fact that they are women of deep emotions and strong passionate attachments. They observe their husbands; they mother their sons and their daughters, and expect no undue amount either of love or of great stature from any of them in return. Life to them is worth what it brings in experience. They live in the feminist era in the new world.

Serena de Jong, facing disappointment both in her husband and her son and raising the best asparagus in the State, is a symbol of the new woman. She is not a romantic figure in the old sense, yet she is a woman of new romance, courageous, real and vital.

In all Edna Ferber's work there is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with men which is characteristic of all the general writing of the modern School of Femininity in its present phase. It may be a half-way phase. The woman of the next phase may come to the conclusion that her real work for the race is to maintain at all cost and with great creative effort the illusion of romance and greatness in men. But for the present she seems to be of the general opinion that men are weak, or that at least the men of this period are not strong enough for the women whose strength has been bred of the feminist pioneering era. Serena de Jong met no man who was as strong as herself, and this is true of all Edna Ferber's women. It is the plaint of all strong women, and women for the time are through with the nursing of an illusion. There is too much to do in the big impersonal world. It is the tragedy which Olive Schreiner foresaw when she wrote The Story of an African Farm. Men would inevitably be a step behind the new woman. But it is an even greater tragedy than Olive Schreiner foresaw. She believed in the race. She taught that strong women would breed strong sons. Edna Ferber shows her women disappointed in their sons; for the sons are never quite so rugged in fiber as their pioneering mothers; and the conclusion is that strength needs more than one parent. So has the feminist story reached one of its plateaux of experience, and what is to be done about it? For nature created women normally incapable of happiness in companionship with men weaker than themselves. Mean-while there remains much of the world yet to be conquered for women, and this is the real love of the women she portrays in the height of their powers.

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This section contains 3,732 words
(approx. 13 pages at 300 words per page)
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