This section contains 1,527 words
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Critical Review by Katherine Woods
SOURCE: "Edna Ferber and Her America," in The New York Times Book Review, February 5, 1939, pp. 1, 30.
In the following review of A Peculiar Treasure, Woods favorably assesses Ferber's first autobiography.
It was a lovable country town in Wisconsin, in the early years of the century: tree-shaded, prosperous, civilized, and stimulating as such a town is bound to be if one has the keenness and imagination really to look at it. "Just to sit on the front porch and watch the town go by is something of an education" in an open-living American community like this. And the formal education of the remarkably progressive high school offered extracurricular attractions as well: plays, debates, dances, the weekly "forum" with its sociability that was so urgently important to its participants. At 14 one sang in one's church choir. But almost every one of the girls had a beau in the male choir at the fashionable Congregational Church (where the local drayman was nevertheless one of the ushers and passed the collection box). In the "stinging cold white Winters" one skated on the river, caught bobs for rides on snowpacked roads. There was a lot of fudge made, and corn popped, in the evenings. There were elocution contests—one's heart's delight. And one always somehow found time to read, anything and everything, a book a day, In one's home there might be anxieties and sometimes sadness, but such affectionate companionship, such lively fun! One lived along happily, part of the life—so characteristically American—of the Middle Western town. Only for this girl there were some differences.
She had the alert and energized mind of the born reporter, swift, incisive, undeceived and unforgetting.
And she was a Jew.
Edna Ferber's girlhood was very happy in this small town. And in the small town her autobiography actually focuses, though it draws vivid and memorable pictures from various other parts of the world. It is an autobiography which is intensely interesting in every incident, on every page: the success story of an American girl who made good; the mercilessly hardworking—albeit glamorous—career of a popular novelist and playwright; the story of a Jew. She reminds us of this last, repeatedly; otherwise we should forget it; and she does not want us to forget. Here, then, is her dramatic story, told with wit and humor and compassion, intensity and pride, and always with brilliant reporting. Edna Ferber's success is, of course, not surprising; what is surprising is that as a young girl she had no wish to write; she never thought of it.
Her gentle, sensitive, impractical Hungarian-born father had set up a store in Kalamazoo, Mich., and there the two Ferber girls were born. But the family did not stay in that town long. And soon her high-spirited young mother, who had rather shocked the neighbors at first by her dashing Chicago clothes and independent ways, set herself to helping her rather unbusinesslike husband in his work. Next to the author, it is Julia Ferber who is this autobiography's heroine: "a humorous, gay, shrewd woman with an amazing sense of values. She belongs definitely to that race of iron women which seems to be facing extinction in today's America; hardy, indomitable." Life with her could never be dull. Nor could it be fainthearted, even though the family, like so many American middle-class families, was often harried by business worries. It was when these were at their worst that Edna Ferber's father began to go blind.
She was consumed by ambition. Later she was to write with an eager social consciousness. But it was personal success which beckoned in those early hopes. The child of a theatre-loving family, Edna was determined to be an actress. She told her parents that she was going to "elocution school," and when they said she couldn't do that because they hadn't the money, she flounced out of the house in a "white-hot rage" and got a job as a reporter on the local paper at a salary of $3 a week. So, accidentally, as she says, and "in a storm," her career began. She was 17 then; and in all the years since, she says, "I don't remember a day when I haven't been writing."
Even so, she never thought of writing fiction in those newspaper days. Her whole ambition now was to be a good reporter. She was a good reporter. In all this life-story there is nothing more arresting than the memories and reflections of the years when Edna Ferber was a good reporter, until she drifted, almost, into the writing of fiction after an illness. By that time the writing habit was fixed. "Without in the least meaning or planning it," she stepped into creative fictional work. A little later Chicago stories were "tumbling one after another" out of her typewriter, and in the far-away New York, which she never dreamed then of visiting, magazine editors were accepting all her stories and asking for more.
Newspaper work had taught her to write, years of omnivorous reading had given her a vocabulary, strength of character made it natural for her to welcome struggle and turn even disappointment into a tool for progress. But observation was the gift—talent, if you like—with which she was born. In Chicago she looked for stories; her mind was trained to do that, almost unconsciously now. Yet long before that, back to some miserable years of childhood in a rough, ignorant, cruelly anti-Semitic mining town, her eyes had been wide open, her mind even then quick and vital in its grasp. She saw things that were strange, or vivid, or amusing, or horrible or, sometimes, too fantastic to write about; she writes about some of them here for the first time.
With the exception of Fanny Herself, Edna Ferber's fiction has never been autobiographical. She has seldom taken a character from life. She can claim the novelist's power of projecting herself into a situation, an environment, an emotion, without need for specific experience. Of the creation of "lifelike" characters, and its funny boomerangs, she has a number of amusing things to say. "The average reader seems incapable of realizing the existence of the imagination in writers," she remarks, and later, in telling the piquant tale of the writing and production of The Royal Family, she declares that the authors had "no particular theatrical family" in mind, and adds: "We did, however, plan to use one member of the Barrymore family—John; not as a whole, but bits of him. He was, of course, too improbable to copy from life." She did not describe any one particular house in American Beauty. It was not on the Mississippi that she gathered personal knowledge for Show Boat. But the flood in that book is a childhood memory of the Iowa River.
Farm women in Appleton, Wis., found their way into So Big, after that novel's chief character had been suggested by the sight of a woman in a Chicago truck market; and the paper mills of Appleton gave their grist to Come and Get It. The redoubtable Julia Ferber had experiences which were valuable to "Emma McChesney." A chance remark from Winthrop Ames aroused the interest from which Show Boat developed. A talk with Mr. and Mrs. William Allen White (themselves the type, she points out, of the best in America) was the unconscious beginning of Cimarron. The novelist's eyes have seen and her mind has stored wherever she has been. And her autobiography is packed with dramatic detail, always and everywhere.
Then, when she had written all these books and plays, she realized that she had really been writing chronicles of America (Rudyard Kipling in a letter stressed her "value as an historical painter"), and that that was as it should be. That was what she would choose to do. She loves all America, but especially the Middle West and the Far West stimulate and fascinate her; she loves the small towns; she loves what with poise and frankness she calls the "middle class"; she loves the freedom, the initiative, the courage and energy, the youth, the very wastefulness, of this country. She is not a jingo; she sees her country's faults and its present dangers. But she is a provincial American; a small town girl who has made good; an heir to the pioneer spirit; a passionate democrat.
To her own amazement, Edna Ferber burst into a speech in Union Square once, smashing down with hard facts and clear thinking upon an oratory which was shrieking of Russian "freedom." She has the same weapons against Nazism and anti-Semitism. But what she leaves with her readers here is something subtler and more pervasive than argument: the far stronger thing which is simple memory; not hers alone, but theirs as well. The small town which is the American background; the pioneer spirit which has been building America for 300 years—which of us has not such traditions, such pride? At its worst that spirit was ruthless and greedy; at its best it sought a real Promised Land. Pilgrim, Huguenot, Catholic, Quaker, Jew—here are our memories; here is the spirit of a nation; here is our peculiar treasure of democracy and freedom, to be guarded by us all.
This section contains 1,527 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)