Edna Ferber | Critical Essay by Blanche Colton Williams

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of Edna Ferber.
This section contains 3,195 words
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Critical Essay by Blanche Colton Williams

SOURCE: "Edna Ferber," in her Our Short Story Writers, Dodd, Mead & Company, Inc., 1941, pp. 146-59.

In the following essay, which is a chapter from her book originally published in 1920, Williams discusses Ferber's short stories.

Few critics have accused Miss Edna Ferber of preaching a doctrine. "Me'n George Cohan," she wrote in 1912, "we jest aims to amuse." But few would deny that her stories possess qualities sane and wholesome. And the philosophy on which they are built is Work, with a capital W—Carlylean Work.

It is not remarkable that the joy of work illuminated throughout her scintillant pages has been forgotten in the display itself, as the great cause of a Fifth Avenue night-parade may be a matter of indifference to the observer who "just loves pageants and processions, anyway." The flying flags, the drum-beat of the march, the staccato tread, the calcium reds and yellows may obscure the slogan bearing banner. It is remarkable that the inciting force of Miss Ferber's triumphant march has been neglected by the student of underlying causes. There are those of us who believe it to be the significant word she has chanted to the sisters of her generation.

To one who has followed her stories from the beginning, Miss Ferber would seem to have undergone a silent communion with herself, and after asking, "What shall my writing stand for?" answered unhesitatingly, "Work!" In the Emma McChesney stories, which require three volumes—with one or two overflowing into succeeding collections, she emphasizes the beauty and joy and satisfaction that are the need of labor. And her second published story was an Emma story: "Representing T. A. Buck" (American, March, 1911). It succeeded "The Homely Heroine," her first, published in Everybody's, November, 1910. This fact, again, may escape the reader of her first volume, Buttered Side Down (March, 1912), which although it groups a number of her representative "working" characters in "The Leading Lady," "A Bush League Hero," and "The Kitchen Side of the Door" yet presents variations of the main theme. As for example, the last-named cries aloud that the busy-folk on the kitchen side are more respectable than the tippling ladies and gentlemen (by courtesy) in front. But Roast Beef Medium (1913), including stories written and published before some of those in the first volume, essays to sound what becomes a trumpet call in Emma McChesney and Co. (1915).

Hortense of "Blue Serge" thinks:

"If you're not busy, you can't be happy very long."

"No," said Emma, "idleness, when you're not used to it, is misery."

And Miss Smalley of the same story:

I've found out that work is a kind of self-oiler. If you're used to it, the minute you stop you begin to get rusty, and your hinges creak and you clog up, and the next thing you know you break down. Work that you like to do is a blessing. It keeps you young.

And the author herself (in "Sisters Under Their Skin"):

"In the face of the girl who works, whether she be a spindle-legged errand-girl or a ten thousand dollar a year foreign buyer, you will find both vivacity and depth of expression."… She begins this story by asserting: "Women who know the joys and sorrows of a pay envelope do not speak of girls who work as working girls." The whole story hangs on this thesis.

When Emma visited her son, Jock, and her daughter-in-law, Grace, and her grand-daughter, Emma McChesney, charming elderly women came to call.

They fell into two classes:

… the placid, black-silk, rather vague women of middle-age, whose face has the blank look of the sheltered woman and who wrinkles early from sheer lack of sufficient activity or vital interest in life; and the wiry, well-dressed, assertive type who talked about her club work and her charities. In their eyes was that distrust of Emma which lurks in the eyes of a woman as she looks at another woman of her own age who doesn't show it.

And the volume ends with this final statement (in "An Etude for Emma"): "… there's nothing equal to the soul-filling satisfaction that you get in solo-work."

Miss Ferber has expressed sincerely her own beliefs in these and other passages, and throughout the larger structural values of her stories: in Emma's continuous struggle with the game of life, exemplified in a series of individual conflicts; in her efforts to make of Jock a man, and in her great service to the T. A. Buck Featherloom Petticoat Company. In an article entitled "The Joy of the Job" (American, March, 1918), she says she is sorry for any woman who can play when she wishes. "Play is no treat for an idler." She works, according to her statement, three hundred and fifty mornings a year; she may play golf on the three hundred and fifty-first. It is not that she lacks desire to play, as the pink and green sweaters stream past her door. But the habit of work and the satisfaction that comes from having worked are such that she knows the eighteen holes of golf would be dull and flat once she deserted her typewriter for the links. "And that's the secret of the glory of the work habit. Once you've had to earn your play, you never again can relish it unearned."

From Kalamazoo, Michigan, where she was born August 15, 1887, Edna Ferber moved at an early age to Appleton, Wisconsin. There she went to "grade school" and to "high school," and there at seventeen years of age she began work on The Daily Crescent, the youngest reporter of her time. "It was a harrowing job," she admits, including as it did for her day's work "everything from the Courthouse to the Chicken Pie Supper at Odd Fellows' Hall, from St. Joseph's Monastery to the crippled flagman at the railroad crossing up in the chute, from the dry goods store to Lawrence University." Small wonder she learned humanity. When a critic suggested that her tales possessed an insight into human nature "which, if not genuine, is very well stimulated," her retort was forthcoming: "Humanity? Which of us really knows it? But take a fairly intelligent girl of seventeen, put her on a country daily newspaper, and then keep her on one paper or another, country and city, for six years, and—well, she just naturally can't help learning some things about some folks."… It is but logical that human interest leads all other qualities of her fiction.

Miss Ferber has told how from a hammock on her father's porch, where she spent much time at a season when she required rest—or as she phrases it, when the shop-sign read "Closed for Repairs"—she studied the passing townspeople. Life became for her a great storehouse in which at desire she may now enter, and from the shelves of which she may take down whatever she needs.

She was correspondent for two Milwaukee papers in these years of 'prenticeship and, later, for The Chicago Tribune. And she finished before she was twenty-four her first novel, Dawn O'Hara, her experience with which speaks for her artistic and literary ideals. For she threw the script into the waste-basket, whence her mother rescued it. This work, to some extent autobiographic, was published in 1911 and brought its author immediate success. After its publication she found ready market for her short stories.

Many of these first tales depend for background upon Appleton, which becomes "our town" in "The Homely Heroine," "The Leading Lady," "Where the Car Turns at Eighteenth"—spite of its title—and "A Bush League Hero" (all in Buttered Side Down). "A Bush League Hero" was written after a summer of watching the Bush League team play in Appleton, as Miss Ferber wrote the Bookman critic who expressed amusement over her naïveté in connection with the sport of baseball. By and by, in succeeding volumes, Appleton, Beloit, and Slatersville gave way to Chicago and New York, and even to cities of other countries. But Chicago and New York are her preferred settings, as St. Louis and New York are Fannie Hurst's.

Her earlier stories, like her later ones, are about men clerks, women clerks, milliners, traveling salesmen and saleswomen, cooks, stenographers, leading ladies, household drudges, advertising specialists—the list is incomplete. No writer shows greater growth in storymaking than Miss Ferber—one need only compare Roast Beef Medium with any of the later McChesney stories—but she has never been "strong on plot." As she herself admits she does not know—and presumably cares less—what a plot is, she can hardly feel her confessed ignorance to be a handicap. In fact, she goes so far now and then as to twit the critic who insists upon plot as the sine qua non of a story. In "The Eldest" (of Cheerful—By Request, 1918) she makes her critic, you will remember, a Self-Complacent Young Cub, who says: "Trouble with your stuff is that it lacks plot. Your characterization's all right, and your dialogue. But your stuff lacks raison d'être—if you know what I mean." To which she retorts: "But people's insides are often so much more interesting than their outsides…." And it is with people she succeeds best. "The Eldest," for instance, when it appeared some years ago in McClure's, was praised by Franklin P. Adams as the best short story of the year. Yet the plot is worn thin: a lover comes back after many years, only to marry the sister, the younger sister, of his former sweetheart. The interest lies in the character of Rose, the drudge, the slave, the living sacrifice, eternally new as eternally old. In the same volume, "The Gay Old Dog," which has been reprinted at least twice, faithfully portrays a loop-hound, as he would be known in his Windy City, the young man grown old through sacrifice, the counterpart of "The Eldest." Gallant Emma McChesney, cheerfully fighting to hold down a man-size job—knowing it requires six times as much work from a woman as from a man to draw for her the same salary—sprang into existence as the ideal of the modern business woman. She will reflect this particular age in her own particular so long as popular interest holds; after that time she will serve for the antiquarian. She is the heroine of Roast Beef Medium, of the five stories in Personality Plus (1914), of which her son is the hero, and of Emma McChesney and Co. (1915). From the number, or chapters, of the last-named, one may select diverting so-called stories. No reader will find fault with "Chickens," displaying the strong mother hand of this charming saleswoman; nor with "Pink Tights and Ginghams" "featuring"—as Emma would say—her sympathy for her sex; nor with "Broadway to Buenos Aires," proving her business acumen, her boundless energy, and her zest for a fight; nor with "Thanks to Miss Morrissey," wherein after all she reverts to an old-fashioned sort of woman. But the truth is that the author is a novelist in her method. She leaves the reader with memories of her people, as novels do and should do, not with memories of a story. The individual tales of Emma's prowess dwindle in comparison with the fabric he creates out of Miss Ferber's generous distribution of scraps and his own pleasurable tedium in piecing them together. They are ultimately forgotten in the whole pattern. Mrs. McChesney has become real to her creator. In addressing a class at Columbia University, Miss Ferber said quaintly, "When Emma walks in upon me, I must give her my attention!"

Even the early stories of Miss Ferber emphasize for the first time in fiction a motive as old as the stomach of man: food. Pearlie Schultz, the Homely Heroine, wins her first—and doubtless her last—kiss through her noodle soup, her fried chicken, and hot biscuits; Jennie of "Maymeys from Cuba" succumbs, in her hunger, to a Scotch scone, after mouth-watering descriptions, by the author, of a corner fruit-stand and the grocery department of a big store. If you would be made ravenous, O weary of palate one! read "Maymeys from Cuba." And if you would recall the days of yore read the description (in "The Kitchen Side of the Door") "of a little world fragrant with mint, breathing of orange and lemon peel, perfumed with pineapple, redolent of cinnamon and clove, reeking of things spirituous." Of a world where "the splutter of the broiler was replaced by the hiss of the siphon, and the pop-pop of corks and the tinkle and clink of ice against glass." Perhaps after this devastating passage, the point should be made that no better temperance story has ever been published; beside it, most others look like ready-made propaganda.

Nor does the author forget the negative aspect of this food business. Emma McChesney, who first appears in "our town," dying—in her travel-weariness—for something "cool, and green, and fresh," is informed by the waitress that the menu offers "ham'n aigs, mutton chops, cold veal, cold roast"—to which Emma hopelessly interrupts, "Two, fried." Spectators at the performance of Our Mrs. McChesney will not forget Ethel Barrymore's winning question about the prospect for supper, the desk clerk's "Hungarian goulash!" nor Ethel's "My God!" as she departed stairward.

Keats's feast in The Eve of St. Agnes has long been praised by epicures, in art, if not in food. The marvel is that no one between Keats and Edna Ferber so emphasized the gustatory appeal. She continues it, with subtle discrimination, in "The Gay Old Dog." He was the kind of man who mixes his own salad dressing. "He liked to call for a bowl, some cracked ice, lemon, garlic, paprika, salt, pepper, vinegar, and oil, and make a rite of it."

So does Miss Ferber make a rite of food as her generation makes of it a ceremonial. Three titles out of six covering her stories suggest eating, the latest of which is humorously reflective, unconsciously so, perhaps, of reduced rations ensuing upon the war: Half Portions (1920). Or is it indicative that the author is losing her own zest in food? Some years ago she thought in terms of food comparisons. For example, to the Editor of The New York Times, she wrote: "I'm the sort of person who, when asked pointblank her choice of ice-cream, says, 'Chocolate, I think—no, peach! No—chocolate! Oh, I don't know.' That being true, how can you expect me to name off-hand the story which I consider the best short story in the English language?" [The New York Times, January 25, 1914]. It may be mentioned, in passing, that she lists Maupassant's "The String" and "The Necklace," O. Henry's "An Unfinished Story," Jesse Lynch Williams's "Stolen Story," and Neil Lyon's "Love in a Mist" among those she has preferred—at various times. In her article, "The Joy of the Job," note the conditions upon which the "chicken salad is a poem, the coffee a dream, the French pastry a divine confection." Be it understood that all this is quoted in admiration.

Miss Ferber compensates her reader for lack of plot values by her character interest, as has been observed, and also by interest in immediate detail. And this is but another way of saying that she entertains by her style. She probably worked like a young fury, through newspaper training and through conscious study of word composition, to achieve her brilliant pyrotechnics. In her first collection, she is guilty of the absurd, "'No, you don't!' hissed Gus." She had still to learn, apparently, that hissing requires a sibilant sound. Or, if she meant to burlesque faintly, her purpose is not obvious. In her first book, again, she refers too frequently to the trite, or the prevalent trick. "The short November afternoon was drawing to its close (as our best talent would put it)" … "'Better bathe your eyes in eau de cologne or whatever it is they're always dabbing on 'em in books.'"… "As the novelists have it, their eyes met."… "As the story writers put it, he hadn't even devoured her with his gaze."… Her later stories have hardly outgrown this habit of jerking and calling halt to the steady march of the narrative, or these interruptions for which no contrasting cleverness and originality can compensate.

This author, like Mr. Joseph Hergesheimer, probably grew up with The Duchess. But her sardonic references to the lady leave doubt as to her opinion. She knew her Martin Chuzzlewit, her Jane Eyre, her O. Henry, and her Bible. Her admiration for George Cohan is genuine. She depreciates, by implication, the "balled-up" style of Henry James. Dickens and O. Henry are her forbears in humor, as the Holy Scriptures back her philosophy….

From a sort of cavil against New York, Miss Ferber finally came to New York—no, "came on" to New York, with her heroine in "Sun Dried." Then, her first story in Emma McChesney and Co. gets away from Manhattan. Her love for travel and her journalistic ability to profit by new scenes are reflected in "Broadway to Buenos Aires" no less than in her own photographs and fact articles. "The Guiding Miss Gowd" (of Cheerful—by Request) testifies to an acquaintanceship with Rome, as the photograph of Miss Ferber stepping from the porch of a summer house in Hawaii is proof of her presence there. "Ain't Nature Wonderful?" (McClure's, August, 1920) creates the certainty, as well as her photograph facing an article she wrote for The American, of December, 1916, that she knows the Rockies.

All her stories belong to the O. Henry school, but like her younger sister, Fannie Hurst, she has stolen away and farther on, bearing with her from the modern wizard only the trick of catching interest or the turn of a phrase. If O. Henry had never opened "Hearts and Crosses" with "Baldy Woods reached for the bottle and got it," perhaps she might not have begun Cheerful—by Request with "The editors paid for the lunch (as editors do)." But life has expanded in the decade and more since O. Henry's passing; it swings in arcs beyond the reach he needed to compass all of it he would. This one of his successors has widened the sweep, as the lover of New Bagdad would have done had he lived.

Half Portions is a varied assortment of new tales, as Cheerful—by Request gathers up old and new. The best are, as one would anticipate, stories of character, wherein the "story"—from a technical point of view—is usually negligible. "Old Lady Mandel" is but the summing up of the career of a professional mother. Yet "One Hundred Per Cent," besides bringing Emma back, happens to be one of the first-rank patriotic stories published in the progress of the War. "April 25th, as Usual" marks the height of her accomplishment for 1919. After its appearance in The Ladies' Home Journal it was voted by the Committee from the Society of Arts and Sciences one of the best among thirty-two stories of the year, and was reprinted in the Society's annual volume—The O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories.

Miss Ferber stretches a continually expanding canvas; she is prodigally wasteful of whole novels in stories like "The Gay Old Dog" and "Old Lady Mandel." The novel, we venture to predict, is the field wherein she will ultimately "lay by" her most important work.

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This section contains 3,195 words
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Buy the Critical Essay by Blanche Colton Williams
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