Edna Ferber | Critical Review by James Gray

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Edna Ferber.
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Critical Review by James Gray

SOURCE: "Edna Ferber," in his On Second Thought, University of Minnesota Press, 1946, pp. 154-64.

In the following review, Gray examines A Peculiar Treasure, contending that it is a forthright autobiography and reveals the particulars of Ferber's literary success.

Edna Ferber is an enormously gifted person. She is also a thoughtful analyst of human experience. This aspect of her intelligence she has seldom revealed in her fiction, which habitually takes a firm, possessive hold upon a heroine and leads her resolutely through a series of highly contrived incidents in a standardized siege against the citadel of success. Ironically, it is in Miss Ferber's autobiography, A Peculiar Treasure, that she fully reveals her talent for offering a detached and impersonal comment on the mixture of perils and pleasures in human life. Here she has made a carefully critical examination of the assets she brought to the task of writing fiction and of the high-handed use she has made of them.

"What there is to see, I'll see," was Edna Ferber's battle cry almost from the moment she was born. As a little Jewish girl she saw what there was to see in Ottumwa, Iowa, and that was plenty. It included a lynching performed at a street corner of the tough mining town in broad daylight. As a girl reporter in Appleton, Wisconsin, and in Milwaukee she saw what there was to see. And that was plenty, too, because her assignments included everything from covering murder trials to interviewing "Fighting Bob" La Follette.

As a prima donna in the world of popular letters, she saw everything in New York, Berlin, and Paris because she had not lost her curiosity and knew that everything noted with the novelist's insatiable appetite for detail might eventually come in handy in a book.

She has told all this in her autobiography, A Peculiar Treasure, her richest, most honest, and most searching story.

When a popular, competent craftsman turns his back upon the long years of constructing stories to satisfy the magazine audience and decides at last to tell about himself, he almost always writes a good book. All the experience of disciplining his material stands him in good stead. The dramatic instinct for finding the word, the phrase, the happening that will reveal character and light up the significance of a way of life has matured. But there is no longer any need to be sly and cunning in bringing the tale to a right conclusion. The pattern of the life exists. It has justified itself. All that is required is to chip away deftly what is irrelevant or repetitious and let the truth be shown. That is what Edna Ferber has done in this admirable autobiography.

In a curious way A Peculiar Treasure follows the formula of Edna Ferber's novels. It is a success story. As in So Big and Show Boat, the central character begins her life in obscurity, struggles resolutely, battles down the succession of emergencies that intervene between herself and triumph, and winds up at last in a Park Avenue penthouse. But the difference between Edna Ferber's own story and that of the characters she has created in fiction is that nothing in her upward climb seems fortuitous or contrived. Her triumph can be completely understood when the whole record is given with candor and courage.

Miss Ferber has been tremendously successful with her audience because she had qualities which, however imperfectly she revealed them in her early work, sprang out of self-respect. She had a proper reverence for her Jewish background, for the Hungarian forebears who she could still remember had been men of substance and achievement even when the bitter loafers in an Iowa town flung the word sheeny, at her. She had a proper confidence in her ability to make use of the opportunities offered by the prewar America into which she had been born.

Two other habits of mind brought her success in her middle twenties. One was the fact that she used the material of her own world in her fiction. She saw her mother, a sad, high-hearted woman, turn in and run the family store when her husband's sight began to fail. Out of that experience she created, with the large help of intuition, the first American business woman in fiction, the triumphant Emma McChesney, whom Theodore Roosevelt liked so well that he undertook to advise the author about what the course of the character's subsequent life should be. To American readers, Emma McChesney seemed like a brilliant new creation simply because Edna Ferber had the good sense not to take her characters off the hand-me-down shelf. Today, looking back over what she has written, Edna Ferber is able to see that what she did with her material was often tricky, sentimental, and unworthy of the fine urgency of the first creative impulse. But she profited nonetheless by that original desire to write honestly about American life.

The second thing that helped her was her dramatic flair. The little girl in Appleton won prizes for declamation. The mature woman says that she is still a frustrated Bernhardt because she has never been on the stage. But the harnessed lightning of insight which makes a play move is in the best of her stories.

Yes, this is a good book, revealing and humorous. But what is for me the most interesting part is the brilliant record of the early years spent in a difficult milieu, each trial of which was faced with a gay resolution.

As a Jew Miss Ferber is concerned, eloquently and with the greatest dignity, over the plight of her fellow people in other lands.

"All my life," she says in conclusion, "I have lived, walked, talked, worked as I wished. I should refuse to live in a world in which I could no longer say this…. It has been my privilege … to have been a human being on the planet Earth; and to have been an American, a writer, a Jew. A lovely life I have found it, and thank you, sir."

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This section contains 1,001 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by James Gray
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