This section contains 1,895 words
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Critical Essay by Robert van Gelder
SOURCE: "An Interview with Edna Ferber," in his Writers and Writing, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1946, pp. 360-65.
In the following essay, based on a 1945 interview, Gelder examines Ferber's views on the writing process.
Edna Ferber waited for the publication of her new novel, Great Son. Her hands and her talk were restless. The talk ranged over the hard drinking of some American writers and their wives: "She was like a little girl, a child, but after the cocktails and wine at dinner, she filled a whole tumbler full of Scotch and drank it down as I'd drink water; before long she looked like an old hag." The talk reached to Russia and Communism: "It's a good system for them; sure, it is. I visited there as a tourist and I know what they want. They want oranges and shoes and wrist watches and fountain pens and little cars to drive in. We have those things. What we want is here," said Miss Ferber, pointing to her heart, "and here," pointing to her head. Speaking of hearts, said Miss Ferber, she had recently come from Washington, where she had taken the "two-step," a physical test designed for young Navy fliers. The person being tested runs up and down two steps "about forty times, and the chart that they make afterward should be," said Miss Ferber wistfully, "all regular little cones." But hadn't the test been designed for the pick of the nation, the youngest, strongest, physically most perfect? "Yes, I suppose so," Miss Ferber said. "But the chart should be all regular little cones."
Miss Ferber spoke of "all the vitality that I have," but corrected herself to say, "that I had." She gives, however, an impression of great vitality. As she talks she acts, mimics, and though her eyes, which are striking, are alert for every response, they are not wary but have the look that expects and presumes response. One has the impression, watching her, of a person who after a fairly long and very full life-time has reached an edge looking down into uncertainty, but who has never before quite known uncertainty, who has always filled up that pit with competence and work and pride in work and success.
She said: "I want to write five plays before I die." Had she been working on one recently? "No, the last thing that George (George S. Kaufman) and I did was Bright Land, and that—as you probably remember—was a semi-flop. George and I haven't talked plays lately. I think I may try one alone."
She wants to write plays, she said, because there is some fun in doing them. "So much of the work on a novel is just lonely labor—the pile of manuscript that grows so very slowly as you slave through long stretches of description and narrative. But a play is all dialogue—that is, it is purely people that you are dealing with all the time. And I like to write dialogue.
"You know, it occurs to me as I speak, won't the new novels be largely dialogue? All swift pace and people? I've read that wonderful book, A Walk in the Sun, by Harry Brown, and it is great, it's magnificent. What a beautiful job!" She quoted lines of the dialogue spoken by a soldier who is longing for an apple, a soldier who is writing a letter in his head. "Can't you just see the boy as he says that? So young, so concentrating …"
The mention of youth brought more animation to her voice and manner. "The best thing we can do—that is, my crowd, my generation—is to clear out of the way, make room for the kids, the young people who are twentyish, the soldiers and their girls and sisters. My goodness," exclaimed Miss Ferber, "what books they will write! Because they are honest and their world is debunked and they see it straight and clear. They even think straight, think honestly, and they are not afraid. Out of all of the mess of the 1920's and the miseries of the 1930's these amazing young people—the greatest generation, to my mind, since the people in the covered wagons.
"My generation was afraid and so was yours. Afraid of sex and inhibitions—well, of course, I can take inhibition or leave it alone; I don't really mind an inhibition—that is, it can be useful. But, anyway, the new generation isn't for them or afraid of them. My crowd was afraid of so many things—of words and emotion, of love. We had to be shocked with love. But these people can talk about love simply, naturally, and admit they love a home, or a Mom, or a Dad. We couldn't possibly have done that without quotation marks. But their voices are quiet, and they are controlled; they say what they feel as they feel it. They are sound people.
"They are a great hope in a world that for years has been gripped by an all-pervading fear, a fear that is everywhere as though it were a great sound from the sky. It is fear that is behind the hate, intolerance, bigotry, the verbal and actual slitting of throats. You see it on the streets—a woman and child walk along and the child isn't quick enough crossing the street, so the woman shouts at it, 'Why don't you come on!'" Miss Ferber shouted (and an echoing sound in the next room indicated that her startled, white-coated houseman had dropped a plate or an ash tray) "The woman slaps the child. Now that's fear, nothing more. We all feel it, except the young people. Perhaps they can save us from terrible times."
To the question of why, as she was so conscious of this fear and of the need to exorcise it, she did not use it as a theme for a novel, Miss Ferber closed her eyes and slowly responded: "One doesn't quite know the method."
She did use that theme, she said, in her autobiography, A Peculiar Treasure. "Now you know—or rather, anyone who knows me knows—that if I lived to be 105 I wouldn't think it worth while to write my autobiography. I wouldn't do it. But with this theme, and feeling that I couldn't be entirely effective with the theme in a novel—because it is so vast, so overwhelming, so much our whole time—I decided to concentrate it in the story of the Jewish family that I knew best, and of course that was my own family. People like to know what is behind the scenes, they like a keyhole view, so I thought I'd give them that and this theme with it. I've had many, many readers.
"But as for themes in fiction—every one of my books has had a theme deep in it that was very important to me. I should say every book except Show Boat, which hadn't any theme, which was just fun. But the rest have—though I suppose not many people know it.
"They didn't know it because—I think—if you write with humor, with lightness, entertainingly, you're not counted serious. If your writing is easy and pleasant for a great many readers, a phrase comes to be used on you—a phrase that I've begun to hate with a deep, strong, almost nauseating hatred. I don't even like to say it, the silly hybrid!"
It developed that the objectionable phrase is "best-seller."
"I was going over the advance publicity for my new book and I found in there—'best-seller.' I said, 'Please! Why? Why, even by my publisher, am I dismissed as a best-seller? Show Boat, I said, 'was written in 1925. And this is the year 1945. So Big was written in 1923, and this is 1945. Cimarron, came along in 1928—and they all are reprinted in those wonderful little books that are sent to the soldiers—yes, the Armed Services Editions. Well, goodness,' I said. 'Do you call books best-sellers—which means out today and gone tomorrow—and is a hateful, slurring derogatory phrase—when those books are being read and reread down through more than twenty years—and are being printed in the tens of thousands right today?'
"I shouldn't tell you this, I suppose," said Miss Ferber. "I've never told anyone, not one soul, of what a man said of my work in a letter not addressed to me but that I saw. The man was an Englishman. He wrote of me—I'm embarrassed saying this; repeating this rather, because certainly I'm not saying this. I'm only quoting—that it was probable that I would not be appreciated in my country and in my time. The man who said that was Rudyard Kipling, and his letter is in the Doubleday, Doran offices. Another man, writing from England too, said the same thing. He was James M. Barrie."
Miss Ferber said that Great Son will be her last book in the field of historical fiction. "I want to live in today." She has been, she said, enchanted by certain phases in the development of this country, "by the figures—they were never people, but they were figures recognizable as people"—who had built the country, made it great. But now she was through with history. "I have that same feeling that I had when I finished with 'Emma McChesney.'"
"And that was?"
"Well, I wrote a good many stories about Emma McChesney. She was a good character and I was afraid to try a novel, and you know—when you write with some success you contract obligations. And Emma McChesney was so popular that she took care of my obligations. Of course, I was writing other stories along with those about her, but many of the others weren't really short stories—they were novels cut down. 'Old Man Minick' was a novel with a whole life crammed into a few thousand words. I had it in my mind that I was a short-story writer and no more. Yet my ideas were those that should go into a novel. It was as though I were taking enough clothes to fill a trunk and instead of putting them into a trunk put them into a suitcase. Then there I was sitting on the suitcase trying to close it. Ends of skirts and arms of blouses wouldn't go in, so I'd take the scissors and snip them off. That's what happens when you try to pack a novel into 5,000 words.
"Then a contract came from Cosmopolitan for more McChesney stories, and the line for payment was left blank. That meant that I could fill it in for any amount I wanted. Well, I knew that if I signed that contract I was a gone duck. I'd be writing Emma McChesney stories from then on. I sent back the contract unsigned and wrote The Girls—and became a novelist.
"What's in my novels that will last? Well, I don't know. I'm not so old yet that I reread what I've done in the past, mourning among my souvenirs. But I do know that what you are emerges; whether you are a writer or not, what you are becomes clear, and if you are a writer, then what you are is there in your writings for every one to read. As for me, if I don't last, if what I've done isn't good enough, I can't ever say I did it for the wife and kids. I've written what I wanted to write, and always the best I could do at the time."
This section contains 1,895 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)