Edna Ferber | Critical Review by John Barkham

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Edna Ferber.
This section contains 934 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by John Barkham

SOURCE: "Where It's the Biggest and Bestest," in The New York Times Book Review, September 28, 1952, pp. 4-5.

In the following favorable review of Giant, Barkham argues that the novel presents a scathing view of Texas, one that Texans will probably resent.

If you haven't read Edna Ferber's name on any new novel lately, it isn't (as you might have suspected) because she was relaxing on the royalties from Show Boat, Cimarron, Saratoga Trunk and other movie masterpieces made from her books. On the contrary, it was because Miss Ferber was brewing the biggest witch's broth of a book to hit the great Commonwealth of Texas since the revered Spindle blew its top. Miss Ferber makes it very clear that she doesn't like the Texas she writes about, and it's a cinch that when Texans read what she has written about them they won't like Miss Ferber either. Almost everyone else is going to revel in these pages.

For unsophisticated Easterners, Giant is going to be a guided tour to an incredible land unlike any they have ever seen before. (Texans, of course, have diligently fostered such a legend for years.) It outdoes anything our material culture has ever produced. Miss Ferber's Texas is the apotheosis of the grandiose, the culmination of that biggest-and-bestest cult peculiar to this side of the Atlantic. Whether it is recognizable to anyone inside of Texas is something else again. But Giant makes marvelous reading—wealth piled on wealth, wonder on wonder in a stunning, splendiferous pyramid of ostentation.

Her Texas was not altogether a surprise to this reviewer. Although he has not recently dallied at the Shamrock or shopped at Neiman-Marcus, he has run across oil aristocrats in the royal suites at the Savoy in London, the Grand in Stockholm and elsewhere, and has been suitably awed. And wasn't it Bob Ruark who recently told us in Esquire that in Texas even the midgets stood six feet high, and that you never met anybody there but rich millionaires and poor millionaires.

This is the Texas Miss Ferber has put into her bitter, brilliant, corrosive, excoriating novel. She refuses to genuflect to the lords of the oil wells or the barons of the ranches. Her Texas is a state where the skies are clamorous with four-engined DC-6's carrying alligator jewel cases and overbred furs, "where a mere Cadillac makes a fellow no better than a Mexican." An exaggeration? Perhaps, but one which Texans have put over.

It requires courage to take all this apart as scathingly as Miss Ferber has done; and in the process of so doing she paints a memorable portrait of that new American, Texicanus vulgaris, which is all warts and wampum.

She does this by marrying her heroine, Leslie, an elegant Virginian, to Jordan Benedict 3d, head of the Reata Ranch, whose frontiers stretch into the middle of tomorrow. When "Bick" brings his lovely, naïve bride into his cattle empire, he also takes with him a host of curious readers whose prying eyes are to be dazzled by what they see. It's world of its own, "all noise and heat, big men and bourbon, and elegantly dressed, shrill-voiced women who needed only three plumes to be presented as they stood at the court of St. James." Gradually Leslie becomes familiar with the gradations of Texas wealth: as cotton once snooted at the cattle rich, so now the cattle rich sneer at the oil rich—with Miss Ferber sneering at all of them.

For our author believes passionately that this glorification of wealth is a massive and dangerous symptom in our body politic. She makes Leslie say things like: "Here in Texas we have very high buildings on very broad prairies, but very little high thinking or broad concepts." Most of all she resents the treatment of the Mexican-American in his native Texas. To the monolithic men in cream-colored Stetsons and tooled boots whose daughters cost a heifer a day to keep in Swiss finishing schools, the Mexican is a sub-human to be used as a vaquero or ranchhand but kept out of public places meant for white folks. To point her moral she makes one of the Benedict children marry a Mexican, and subjects one of them to a supreme insult at a four-motor party.

Admittedly, this novel presents the Texan larger and more chromatic than life, but life-size is large enough. And it's true that people in big empty places like to behave as the gods did on Olympus. As for bigness, says Miss Ferber militantly, it's time Texans stopped confusing it with greatness. "Are sunflowers necessarily better than violets?"

It's easy to spend hours debating the rights and wrongs of this red-hot novel. It all depends where you come from and what you think of Cadillac-cum-Dallas culture. But no one can deny the explosive impact of this story. For all the slickness of its writing (and Miss Ferber is a past mistress of best seller style), Giant carries the kind of message that seldom finds expression in such chromium-plated prose. What's more, Miss Ferber states it with a conviction that carries the ring of sincerity. All this may make it impossible for her to revisit the great Commonwealth without the law at her hip, but at least she has written a book that sets the seal on her career.

It is possible, if other novelists rush in where Miss Ferber has not feared to tread, that the Houston-Dallas axis may replace Park Avenue-Bel Air as the symbol of opulence in our fiction. In that event, Giant—an October Book-of-the-Month choice—will become known as the first of our A. S. (After Spindletop) classics.

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This section contains 934 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by John Barkham
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