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Critical Essay by Ellen Serlen Uffen
SOURCE: "Edna Ferber and the 'Theatricalization' of American Mythology," in Midwestern Miscellany, Vol. VII, 1980, pp. 82-93.
In the following essay, Uffen explores the mythical aspects of Ferber's novels, focusing on her use of "larger-than-life" characters, the differences between her heroes and heroines, and the ways in which she uses American geography to reflect the essence of her protagonists.
The enormous popularity of Edna Ferber's novels lay in her ability to create a consistent fictional universe based in popularly known and accepted American mythology: plucky, self-reliant boys and girls gain success and fame in colorful settings ranging from the old Wild West to the new wilds of Alaska. All aspects of Ferber's work—plot, character, setting, style—partake of the myth. Other writers, of course, have also used myth, but more narrowly, as allusion, as metaphor, as extended literary motif and, often, as thematic contrast to the reality of the events being depicted. Fitzgerald, for one, mourned its loss in The Great Gatsby; Faulkner satirized it in Old Man; and "popular" authors have often played on its surefire ability to strike chords of longing in the reader. All of these writers, however, no matter what the relative merits of their work, implicitly view myth as just that—unreal, a product of literature, of historic tradition, as stories inextricably interwoven into the fabric of American culture. Edna Ferber, in the guise of implied author, differs in that she believes in mythology as reality, or more precisely, as paradigmatic real possibility. This belief almost naturally shapes the fiction. Moreover, since she accepts so unquestioningly her own reification of the fantastic, the audience can as well. Her quite childlike belief in a showboat universe still attracts us today by its charm, its naivete, and it attracted her contemporary audience as well by its wide divergence from the reality of the Wars and the Depression during which she wrote. Like children listening to fairy tales, we believe. In this response of her audience lies Ferber's basic appeal.
Ferber's use of mythology, perhaps the necessity for its use, may be explained in great part by the fact that she was raised as a Jew in the Midwest. Born in 1887, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, she moved with her family to the small town of Ottumwa, Iowa, in 1890. There she would spend the seven years which, she realized later, were "more enriching, more valuable than all the fun and luxury of the New York years" of her success [A Peculiar Treasure]. This "value" derived from a negative source, anti-Semitism. Continually subjected to the cruel bigotry of the townspeople, while still a child Ferber learned to fight back; she learned to dramatize, perhaps "melodramatize" herself as the persecuted one surrounded by inferior enemies, and she learned to make her own escapist world through reading and through "playing show," staging little theatricals for her family.
From Ottumwa, the Ferbers moved to Appleton, Wisconsin, where Edna was to live the next thirteen years of her life. The prosperous, lively, friendly town taught the Ferbers another side of America. It was here, it may be safely assumed, that Edna developed the love for America which would be so evident in her future work. Appleton, that is, created what may be thought of as the mood, or tonal aspect of her work—the enthusiasm and joy in America—and Ottumwa created the framework for its articulation—the dramatic structure. The actual content of the books developed later, through Ferber's many years of travel all over the United States.
Ferber, in all her travels, took great pleasure in the various types of people she encountered. This, too, becomes evident in her novels. Her fictional world focuses on its inhabitants. For this reason, her books tell simple, often similar stories, and contain little plot. Critics whose expectations have been formed on novelistic techniques quite different from Ferber's see this narrative simplicity as a fault. Witness the following overall summary from James Gray: Ferber's fiction, he tells us, "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" [On Second Thought, 1946]. The sense of Gray's summary is not entirely wrong, since it does describe one aspect of So Big, Show Boat, Cimarron, Saratoga Trunk, for just a few. What is wrong is the implied negative evaluation caused by his failure to take into account that Ferber's method concentrates not on plot, as he implicitly assumes, but on character portrayal. Since nothing may be allowed to overshadow character, the plot is intended as only one of a number of revelatory containers, so to speak. Moreover, since Ferber's aim is the revelation specifically of mythic character, traditional expectations will not hold here, either. She is not concerned with subtleties of feeling, nor does she intend the reader to investigate her people too deeply. Hers is characterization by tic, by literary leitmotif. Her heroes—and I use that word in its most traditional and popular sense—are indeed those of mythology, flat figures in any real sense, because known only from the outside. Her people do not think. Their world is one of action. They are rooted not to history, but to wherever they happen to be in the fictional present. They are larger-than-life in exploits, and even physique.
Although Ferber's authorial sympathies, as Gray suggests, seem to lean toward her women, her interest in mythic character nevertheless results in a strong concentration on the male character. Her men are spectacular, magnificent, expansive, attractive and, most important perhaps, self-consciously theatrical, all these traits befitting their mythic heritage. The gambler, the sonorously named Gaylord Ravenal, of Show Boat (1926), for instance, has both "a gift for painting about himself the scenery of romance," and a "sense of the dramatic" which "did not confine itself to the stage. He was the juvenile lead, on and off." About Clint Maroon of Saratoga Trunk (1941), we are told, in a style as expansive as the sense of its language, that "He was magnificent, he was vast, he was beautiful, he was crude, he was rough, he was untamed, he was Texas." He was also, according to his wife, Clio, "melodrama come to life." Another Texan, Jordan ("Bick") Benedict of Giant (1952), is "benign and arrogant. Benevolent and ruthless," "a figure of steel and iron and muscle." Vaughan Melendy, of the lesser-known Great Son (1945), is of "heroic stature," a "benevolent giant." But perhaps the most outstanding example of the quintessential Ferber hero is Yancey Cravat of Cimarron (1930). Ferber gives us the following description of Yancey's qualities, which include
great sweetness and charm of manner, an hypnotic eye … Something of the charlatan was in him, much of the actor, a dash of the fanatic … Yancey … was a bizarre, glamorous, and slightly mythical figure. No room seemed big enough for his gigantic frame; no chair but dwindled beneath the breadth of his shoulders. He seemed actually to loom more than his six feet two. His black locks he wore overlong, so that they curled a little about his neck in the manner of Booth….
Ferber's women, in contrast, are vastly different from her men and inhabit a plane much closer to reality. In context of the novels, they provide steadiness and security; they are the keepers of traditional American values; they are the workers, the depiction of whom Ferber was so proud. They help their men with great, but quiet strength. Selina De Jong, for one, of So Big (1924), married to an unsuccessful truck farmer,
literally tore a living out of the earth with her two bare hands. Yet there was nothing pitiable about this small energetic woman…. Rather there was something splendid about her; something rich, prophetic. It was the splendor and richness that achievement imparts.
Ferber's books are replete with courageous, dependable women like Selina: Sabra, wife of the fabulous Yancey; Pansy, of Great Son, in love with the married Vaughan Melendy, the father of her son; Leslie, of Giant. These women are sympathetic, even admirable. We see the events mostly through their eyes and it is a perspective whose validity we do not question.
In the novels of another author, perhaps these women would be heroines. Here, however, they are overwhelmed by the sheer magnificence of the men, and this is because Ferber is a bit in love with her own heroes. She wants them to hold center stage. Sometimes a woman tries to take over the stage, but the author sternly forbids it. When Chris Storm, for instance, of Ice Palace (1958), granddaughter of the two heroic, male figures of that novel, threatens to burst out of her role, she is told by an older, wiser woman, who interestingly uses the language of fiction for the purpose, that she is in danger of becoming "A rounded character," when "Everybody ought to have anyway one slab side." And Ferber also makes sure that Clio Maroon is put into her place when necessary. She, perhaps more than any other of Ferber's women, possesses the extravagance and flambuoyance of the men. But despite the vitality with which Ferber endows her, we are told by an intrusive authorial voice possessed of highly suspect psychological acumen, that "Like all domineering women she wanted, more than anything in the world, to be dominated by someone stronger than she." That single statement takes the fire from Clio and returns it to Clint where we are meant to understand it belongs.
Ferber herself seems, at times, to be somewhat embarrassed by her own attitude toward her women. As if to compensate for her odd authorial anti-feminism, she makes an attempt to bring her men down a peg by assigning them certain flaws—stubbornness, power madness, irresponsibility. But Ferber is so much taken by heroism that she (consciously or not) overcompensates. That is, she gives her men as well a certain childlike amorality, the charming innocence of the American Adam and this works, conversely, to mitigate—in fact, excuse—whatever else is imperfect about them. So Purvis De Jong's pride and stubbornness may be destroying both himself and his family, but how can we think too badly of a man who has "about him the loveableness and splendor of the striken giant"? Nor are we free to follow our own feminist instincts and hate Yancey Cravat for leaving Sabra and their children for months and years at a time: it is, after all, in character for adventurous men to follow adventure. Even his relatively conservative townspeople—the novel's chorus—agree. They are shocked by the casualness of his departures and returns, yet they cannot stay away when he does return:
Perhaps he represented, for them, the thing they fain would be or have. When Yancey, flouting responsibility and convention, rode away to be gone for mysterious years, a hundred men, bound by ties of work and wife and child, escaped in spirit with him; a hundred women, faithful wives and dutiful mothers, thought of Yancey as the elusive, the romantic, the desirable male.
The reader, part of the chorus, greets Yancey as whole-heartedly as everyone else upon his return. Our fictional universe had indeed become dull without him.
In Giant, a similar situation exists: Yancey's irresponsibility is here Bick Benedict's power madness. It is diagnosed by his physician father-in-law, a sympathetic and, therefore, trustworthy character, as "dedication." Even Jett Rink, also of Giant, as close to a villain as Edna Ferber ever created, will not be allowed the role of bad guy. He is coarse, brutal, savage, sadistic, yet he, as much as Bick Benedict, is a "living legend," and along with Bick, another symbol of Texas. It also does not hurt Ferber's purpose that he is in love with Bick's wife, Leslie. If women readers are meant to identify with Leslie, to hate Jett would be tantamount to undermining our own attractiveness. Ferber counts on her readers' vanity. Her novels, for all their oldtime melodrama and theatricality, are plays without villains. The myth remains pristine.
The theatricality of the novels is, in fact, precisely what works to sustain our belief in the myth and in the men who live it. The characters, that is, function in an undeniably fictive universe. But paradoxically, in the reading, the very consistency and, thus, self-containment of the fiction makes it "real" for the moment. We can enter Ferber's books completely; our own reality never threatens, nor does it even beckon. Her enticements are not of our world and that is exactly why they are enticing. Interestingly, within the books, when a version of reality which is similar to ours does begin to beckon—usually in the form of those "traditional" women—Ferber does not allow it even then to defeat the fiction. The audience roots for the men, for romance and for myth, and the author responds. The women may retain our intellectual sympathy, but our emotional and, for the space of the reading, more substantial sympathies, lie with the larger-than-life men leading extraordinary lives.
We, Ferber's readers, are as much a part of her theater as her characters. She writes for an audience she recreates in every book, for a giant show-boat audience, composed of "naive people. That which they saw they believed. They hissed the villain, applauded the heroine, wept over the plight of the wronged." Interestingly, in one incident, the show-boat audience becomes so much a part of what they are viewing that when a potential villain begins to unleash his villainy on a stage beauty in distress, a member of the audience takes aim with a gun. The onstage villain, seeing the offstage gun aimed in his direction, "released his struggling victim. Gentleness and love overspread his features, dispelling their villainy." Just as the fictional actor responds here to the wishes, albeit crudely expressed, of the fictional audience, so Ferber in her work responds to her larger, real audience's wishes. We want no villains. The scene in Show Boat, like the earlier advice given to Chris Storm, is an odd example of technical explanation, Ferber's brand of self-literary criticism.
The theatrical milieu, then, can be understood overall not only as a metaphor modifying her characters' fictional mode of existence, but also as a distancing device, functioning to separate us as much as possible from our own reality, while, at the same time, enabling us, as much as possible, to enter into the fictional reality. The novels in themselves illustrate and mirror this function. The characters consciously play-act, as if to remove themselves even from their (too-real) fictional reality. Clint Maroon's acting is constantly referred to, as is Yancey Cravat's. In Show Boat there is even a "real" love scene acted out on stage between Gaylord and Magnolia, as if to imply that the theatrical milieu is somehow a more appropriate and, perhaps, safer one in which to function. This moves us a step further into the fiction.
But Ferber's dramas are well-made ones, and so, within her large system, she also employs various smaller distancing devices. If we are to believe in the myth which she presents through her characters, the stage must be more populated in order for it to appear as complete and as self-contained as our world. Accordingly, there are many minor actors, character types, or literary walk-ons. Some of these people are as fantastic as the leads, albeit writ much smaller and much more rapidly. Show Boat, as might be expected, contains an entire cast of minor characters, among whom are Andy, Magnolia's hearty, slightly comic father (played in the 1951 movie, with a fine eye for casting, by Joe E. Brown); Parthy, her shrewish, yet slightly comic mother; and Windy, the tobacco-chewing, eccentric, "best pilot on the rivers." In Cimarron there is Dr. Don Valliant, "the most picturesque man of medicine in the whole Southwest," with a name to match. American Beauty contains its own side show: Jot Oakes, "one of those jolly little dwarfs you see in German gardens—a gnome, stepped out of Rip Van Winkle's long sleep"; and Big Bella, "a heathen Buddha … with the body of a giantess, the bones of a behemoth." Saratoga Trunk, for one last example, has the elegant, black servant woman, Kakaracou, and the bizarre dwarf coachman, Cupidon.
Ferber's other distancing devices are more subtle and, much like her earlier blanket aim in creating a larger-than-life world, distinctly different from ours and, therefore, posing it no threat, so her other techniques are also aimed at "saving" her audience fear and anxiety. Although we are meant to "identify," the identification must never threaten discomfort. This is why Ferber presents many of her stories in flashback form, a more sophisticated, novelistic version of "Once upon a time…." When a character in a flashback is presented on page one, we can be sure, whatever will befall, that the character has survived. Subsequent threats to life, limb and livelihood become much less threatening than they might be in another narrative and this comforts us. We can relax, for instance, when the eighty-nine-year-old Clint Maroon appears with his seventy-nine-year-old wife, Clio, at the outset of Saratoga Trunk, or when we are told by the narrator of So Big, with unquestionable omniscience, that Selina's son would become "in later years … the Dirk De Jong whose name you saw (engraved) at the top of heavy cream linen paper." Things, rest assured, could not have been awful if these people appear both alive and prosperous at the end. We can comfortably read on.
Ferber makes sure that our comfort lasts from chapter to chapter. Accordingly, she allows little unplesantness and even less suspense, both potential anxiety-causers. She must allow some unpleasantness—such is part of life—but unlike when it occurs in our own lives, here we can prepare for it. If we are to be treated to any serious unpleasantness, we are told at the beginning of a chapter how the present incident will end. If a character, for example, is to die, we know it immediately and, even then, Ferber's actual presentation of the event saves us even further. When Captain Andy of Show Boat meets a violent death during a river fog, we see it through the confused and bewildered eyes of a child, his granddaughter. The event thus loses its sharpness and terror for us as well as for the child. Or death can sometimes, as in Cimarron, be presented as a romantic result of heroism. The death of Yancey lends the final, melodramatic flourish to his life. He catches a can of nitroglycerine, thus saving many lives, and dies in the arms of his wife, Sabra, whom he has not seen for many years, reciting the words of "Peer Gynt, humbled before Solveig." We are hardly saddened by this. More likely, the reader's response fits the mode of being of Yancey: "What better way to go?," we ask in chorus, playing our role in the novel.
Like the unpleasant incidents in her books, Ferber's variety of suspense is hardly calculated to make us lose sleep. Quite the contrary, her suspense is fun and, at times, even open-ended. If, after Yancey Cravat's spectacular introduction, we are told that his past is "clouded with myths and surmises" and that "Rumor, romantic, unsavory, fantastic, shifting, and changing" floated about him, who cares? Not to know, in this case, is more fitting—and titillating. It would be a disappointment to know for sure that someone who has been compared to Ulysses and Jason was born in the same, mundane manner as the rest of us. And, in a similar vein, since we know that Dirk De Jong will succeed (and why isn't his mother happy about it?) and that Magnolia will eventually marry Gay Ravenal, we can freely indulge our maternal and romantic fantasies, respectively, and wonder how these events will come about. But not why. Motivations are clear in Ferber's mostly black-and-white universe. If not, the narrator's omniscience can be relied upon to provide them. No need to trouble ourselves. "Nuances," Edna Ferber's narrator tells us early in her canon, are "not for show-boat audiences"—nor, then, are they for us, her extended show-boat audience.
Ferber's final distancing device and the one which serves also as the ultimate backdrop for the playing-out of the myth, is physical setting. Traditionally, the American myth has been associated with the specific setting of the land. That is why our heroes—and Ferber's—are pioneers of a sort. They are conquerors of the "wild" West and Southwest and, in more modern history and in Ferber's later books, tamers of Alaska as well. Many of the settings are natural spectacles, but even the relatively "quiet" locales have a part in the myth. Selina De Jong makes her small Illinois farm yield vegetables for which she would become famous; the tobacco farm land of the Connecticut Valley in American Beauty (1931) is conquered by its workers. Even Saratoga, perhaps the least naturally flam-buoyant of Ferber's locales, is presented, through the eyes of Clio Maroon, as a place in which "were gathered the worst and best of America," in effect, a microcosm of the land and its inhabitants.
Ferber, in her presentation of setting, is confronted with a tactical problem. For practical novelistic purposes, the settings must be allowed neither to overwhelm nor even to compete with the characters, but since they are so much a part of Ferber's myth, nor can they act simply as dead scenery. What Ferber does, finally, is not only to present her settings in as spectacular a manner as her characters, but to make them indistinguishable in importance one from the other. The scenery functions as a backdrop that is as well an extension of the people it contains—all American and all, in their various ways, magnificent. The entire first chapter of Great Son, for instance, is taken up by a description of Seattle and, in counterpoint, of Vaughan Melendy. "Himself of heroic stature," we are told of Melendy,
he fitted well into the gorgeous and spectacular setting that was the city of Seattle. Towering and snow-capped like the mountains that ringed the city, he seemed a part of it—as indeed he was. Born into this gargantuan northwest region of towering forests, limitless waters, vast mountains, fertile valleys, he himself blended into the lavish picture and was one with it.
Seattle and Melendy, however, are no less spectacular and dramatic than Yancey Cravat and his world, the wild and exciting Oklahoma Territory of Cimarron. Or the immense vitality of Alaska and its inhabitants in Ice Palace. Nor are any of these locales to be outdone by the Texas of Giant. The land and its people—Bick Benedict, Jett Rink, and many, more minor figures—are huge, violent, beautiful, mythic. Even Leslie Benedict, new to Texas and overwhelmed and a bit frightened by its extraordinary size and strength, as she is by her new husband's, is lured by it. She finally realizes, while witnessing Bick take part in a cattle-branding episode, the primitive (and almost Laurentian) essence of the land, the real meaning of Texas:
To Leslie it was a legendary scene, incredibly remote from the world she had always known. A welter of noise, confusion; the stench of singeing hair and burned flesh … she began slowly to comprehend that in this gigantic melee of rounding-up, separating, branding, castrating there was order; and in that order exquisite timing and actually a kind of art. Here, working with what seemed to her unbelievable courage and expertness, were men riding running leaping; wrestling with huge animals ten times their size; men slim heavy tall short young old bronze copper tan lemon black white. Here was a craft that had in it comedy and tragedy; that had endured for centuries and changed but little in those centuries.
A ballet, she said to herself. A violent beautiful ballet of America.
Ferber plays even further on her spectacle by greatly emphasizing its visual qualities. She is as much in love with her settings as with her heroes and provides us with exciting scenes galore: the flood in Show Boat, the great train fight in Saratoga Trunk, the gunfights in Cimarron. But this graphic use of locale and equally vivid presentation of action has led Ferber to be disparaged by reviewers and critics for writing what appear to them to be movie scripts rather than novels. This means, in effect, that her writing tends to be theatrically mannered, broad in gesture, sweeping in scene, magnified life, so not really life. Myths, however, are precisely this. So whether Ferber wrote with movies in mind, or whether her stories lent themselves quite naturally to film, is of no real account. Nor does it matter that her settings may differ to some degree from the reality, which they do. Ferber's knowledge of them, in fact, was often garnered through library research. But her books, by her own admission, were meant as "escapes," from reality for both herself and her readers. [In an end-note, Uffen quotes Ferber from A Peculiar Treasure regarding the composition of her novels: "… I wrote them, I suppose, as an escape from the war. Unless the writer went back to another day he found himself confronted with the blood and hate and horror of the years between 1914 and 1918. I had never deliberately thought this out; I seemed automatically to turn away from this mad and meaningless hate and slaughter to a lovelier decenter day. In doing that I quite unconsciously followed the inclination of the reading world."] Her larger-than-life people in their larger-than-life worlds, provide just that. They fulfill their promise.
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