Edna Ferber | Critical Review by Peter Quennell

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Edna Ferber.
This section contains 1,106 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Peter Quennell

Critical Review by Peter Quennell

SOURCE: "Impressions of a Best-Seller," in The New Statesman and Nation, Vol. XVII, No. 435, June 24, 1939, pp. 998, 1000.

Quennell was an American essayist, novelist, and critic. In the following review of A Peculiar Treasure, he praises Ferber as a keen observer and an honest and enthusiastic writer, rather than as a particularly accomplished novelist or insightful autobiographer.

From several points of view A Peculiar Treasure is an engaging book. It gives us a vivid sketch of an active and successful woman: it traces the outline of a busy and exciting career: it helps to explain the methods and psychology of a modern best-seller. It is readable, diffuse, slipshod, enthusiastic, entertaining, naive. Miss Ferber is not fatuously self-complacent. On the other hand, she is neither unduly self-critical nor exaggeratedly introspective and, looking back across her life, she can afford to feel satisfied. She is modestly pleased with her present position and proud of her ancestry. The peculiar treasure mentioned on the title page is the Jewish blood to which she attributes the strain of devoted diligence so apparent in her personal and literary dealings. From the same source, no doubt, she inherits her vitality, her somewhat exuberant sentimentality—relieved by a considerable degree of shrewdness—the touch of humility that appears in the narrative of her greatest triumphs. No reader is likely to begrudge her the success she enjoys. Miss Ferber's adult career began at the age of nineteen when she left her quiet Middle-Western home and started work as an early "sob-sister" on the Milwaukee Journal. Some of Miss Ferber's liveliest and best-written pages are concerned with her recollections of the Milwaukee background, the streets of that squalid, prosperous beer-brewing town, the fascinating world of the newspaper office, the police courts, the boarding houses, the people encountered. She was immensely overworked and exceedingly happy. In the end, over-exertion and under-feeding brought on a complete physical breakdown; Miss Ferber was obliged to retreat to Appleton and, during convalescence, she started to write a novel. Dawn O'Hara she admits was dreadful stuff; but it was at last published and ever since has been selling steadily. Her short stories—more meritorious and at that time even more successful—first propelled her down the slipway towards fame and fortune.

Her subsequent progress may be compared to that of some great transatlantic liner. Storms have come cannonading against the vessel's sides; there have been dark days, nasty moments, rain and thunder; but the schedule of performance has been manfully adhered to, the record preserved. Luckily for herself, she is in love with work—not necessarily with her own work, certainly with the idea of work in the abstract. Never impeded by diffidence or dilettantism, she has discovered in herself a means of diverting personal energy into creative channels, and from immediate experience producing saleable copy that both more important and less accomplished writers have often lacked. In composition, she seems to have eliminated an intermediate and—to judge by the biographies of such novelists as Flaubert, Tolstoi, Proust—uncommonly tedious and exhausting stage. Thanks, it may be, to her newspaper training, she is one of the best organised of modern novelists: no sooner has she received an impression than she is able to absorb it and, no sooner has it been absorbed, than it takes shape as a book, meaty, satisfying, solid, abounding in incident. No dismal periods of indecision and hesitation: no gloomy search for the inevitable in rhythm and epithet. Notwithstanding the hard work, it's been easy going …

So much for the limitations of Miss Ferber's method. There is a pleasing simplicity about her account of the circumstances through which her various stories have come to be written. For example, having just published a novel, enormously efficient and well-documented, about life in Oklahoma, she happens to be spending a week-end on Long Island. There, "walking towards us against the background of a spectacular sunset," whom should she catch sight of but a Polish market-gardener? The Poles, she learns, have ousted the old bankrupt New England families. Fifty years ago they began to arrive:

Half of New England's Polish now. They're wonderful farmers. They live in the old New England houses that were built in the 1700's by hand … Well, there it was. American Beauty. My holiday was over. Just as when Winthrop Ames had happened to say show boat to me, starting me towards the South and the world of the Mississippi and the floating theatre, and as William Allen White … had given me that first fascinating glimpse of the dramatic possibilities in Oklahoma, so now Walter Lippmann's brief comment set my imagination racing …

She struggled, Miss Ferber tells us, against the temptation. "I was tired; I didn't want to do that kind of book again … But the urge to write the New England novel was stronger than the desire to smother it. Perhaps I should have been stern about practising birth control on American Beauty. Conceived in careless love I hadn't meant to have it. But there it was."

So a new novel popped into the world and, like every novel Miss Ferber has yet published, it was born with a substantial platinum spoon in its mouth. Nor should one feel aggrieved at its early good fortune. As Miss Ferber remarks, while apologising for the immaturity of Dawn O'Hara, "everything I have written, from that time to this, with the exception of the novel Show Boat, which is frankly romance and melodrama, has had a sound sociological basis." That, of course, is why Miss Ferber's books are so very much more readable than most English stories of equivalent rank. She has never lost her enthusiasm for the American scene. Though her characterisation is seldom profound or subtle, though her mannerisms are often journalistic, she is swept along by the dignity and breadth of her subject-matter. In Europe, the second- or third-rate novelist is usually reduced to writing of fourth-rate characters, existing in conditions of precarious gentility or dubious intellectuality, sadly circulating in some all-too-familiar squirrel's cage; while Miss Ferber can draw on the resources of a gigantic continent, stocked with a dozen different races, full of extremes of wealth and poverty, where contrasts are dramatic and obvious as the landscape is vast. Well, Miss Ferber has had the wit to grasp her advantage, and the energy and tenacity to give her observations a literary form. None of her books may be really memorable, but none is worthless. What is more, she has derived tremendous enjoyment from writing them. Her latest book is not a masterpiece of autobiography; but its qualities by far outweigh the defects that derive from them.

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This section contains 1,106 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Peter Quennell
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