Ferber was a feminist, a conservationist, a crusader for minorities and immigrants, and a staunch believer in the work ethic and American culture. Strong women characters rising above the limitations of birth and gender dominate her novels; most men in her works are weak, and many desert their women and children. She describes and condemns mistreatment of African Americans, Jews, Latinos, and Native Americans. Results of unrestrained capitalism and wasteful exploitation of natural resources are decried. Her novels celebrate regional culture and history in an effective and pleasing style that clearly reflects her journalistic background. Characterization, however, is less effective and plots tend toward melodrama and coincidence.
All of Ferber’s novels were commercial successes, and many remained in print for decades after publication. Her first novels, Dawn O’Hara: The Girl Who Laughed and Fanny Herself, are strongly autobiographical. They remain interesting because they show Ferber’s literary growth. Background material in Great Son is sketchy, characters are stereotypic, and the plot is contrived. At the time of its writing, Ferber was preoccupied writing World War II propaganda. Her final novel, Ice Palace, is a political tract of little literary merit; Ferber was ill at the time of its writing.
Ferber expected this book to be a best-seller and considered it her best novel. The story recounts six decades of Chicago middle-class history and intergenerational conflict. Charlotte Thrift, forbidden to marry an unsuitable boy, loses him to death in the Civil War. She never marries. Her unmarried niece, Lottie, under her mother’s domination, keeps house for her mother and aunt. Lottie finally rebels, joins the Red Cross during World War I, has a brief affair, and returns with her illegitimate daugher, whom she passes off as a French orphan. Charly (Charlotte), Lottie’s niece, falls in love with a poet, who is killed in World War I, and moves in with her aunt and great-aunt. All three are strong personalities, while their men are either incompetent boors or scoundrels.
Ferber’s first best-seller effectively contrasts humble life in the Halstead Street Market with that of pretentious Chicago society. A genteelly reared orphan, Selina Peake, goes to teach school in a community of Dutch market gardeners, where she must adjust to a brutal existence. Her only intellectual companion is thirteenyear- old Roelf, the artistically talented son of the family with whom she lives. After a year, she marries kindly Pervus DeJong, an unimaginative, unenterprising widower. They have a son, Dirk, nicknamed So Big. After Pervus’s death, Selina makes their farm a thriving success. She sacrifices all for So Big, who, after a few years as a struggling architect, shifts to a banking career and high society. In contrast, Selina’s first protégé, Roelf, becomes a famous sculptor. At the end So Big finally realizes that his life is empty. Although the novel was critically acclaimed, characterization barely develops beyond stereotypes, and many anecdotes are clichés.
Show Boat describes life aboard late nineteenth and early twentieth century Mississippi River showboats and their cultural significance. Magnolia Hawkes, daughter of Captain Andy and Parthenia Hawkes of the showboat Cotton Blossom, marries Gaylord Ravenal, a charming professional gambler. After Captain Andy’s death, Magnolia, Gaylord, and their daughter Kim move to Chicago, where they squander Magnolia’s inheritance. Magnolia, deserted by her wastrel husband, becomes a successful singer and raises Kim to become a successful serious actor. Parthenia inherits and successfully operates the showboat. Parthenia, Magnolia, and Kim are all protofeminist career women. Captain Andy, though competent and wise, defers to Parthenia in almost everything. African Americans are presented as patient, upright, and hardworking people. A tragic incident of miscegenation and the injustice of southern law balance the romanticized account of the showboat life, which is charming.
Cimarron is set in Oklahoma between the 1889 land rush and the 1920’s oil boom. Sabra Cravat begins life as a genteel, impoverished southern girl but ends up an assured newspaperwoman and congresswoman. Her husband, Yancey Cravat, a flamboyant lawyer-newspaperman of dubious background, starts grandiose projects, performs heroic acts, and upholds high ideals, but he accomplishes little. Desertion of his family clears the way for Sabra’s rise. These characters exemplify the tension between those who “won” Oklahoma and those who “civilized” it. Also, interaction between Native and Euro-Americans is perceptively treated.
Ferber rhapsodically describes the Connecticut landscape in this novel, in which abuse of land and resources is chronicled. Polish immigrant culture is sympathetically presented, and the indigenous New Englanders are depicted as played-out aristocrats. Judy Oakes and her niece, Tamar Pring, are strong, stubborn women devoted to their aristocratic background and ancestral home. Their hired man, Ondy Olszak, a kindhearted, hard-working, unimaginative Polish immigrant, maintains the farm at just above subsistence level. Tamar seduces and marries Ondy, and their son Orrange combines Ondy’s peasant vigor and Tamar’s cultural sensibilities. Although Orrange inherits the farm, Ondy’s family forces him to sell. Millionaire True Baldwin, who, as an impoverished farm lad, had aspired to marry Judy Oakes, buys it. Baldwin’s architect daughter, Candace (Candy) Baldwin, sexually attracted to Orrange, then hires him to manage the farm.
Come and Get It
Ferber draws heavily on her own background in this story of resource exploitation, unrestrained capitalism, and social contrast. After lumberjack Barney Glasgow fights his way up to a managerial position at the mill, he marries his boss’s spinsterish daughter. Timbering and papermaking thrive under his direction, until he is fatally attracted to Lotta Lindaback, granddaughter of his longtime lumberjack pal, Swan Bostrom. Barney’s daughter, frustrated by unacknowledged desire for her father, marries a dull young businessman. Bernard, Barney’s son, pursues Lotta when Barney restrains his own passion for her. Barney then fights with Bernard and expels him from the house. Immediately afterward, Barney and his family are killed in an explosion. Bernard marries Lotta and builds an industrial empire in steel and paper. Lotta, meanwhile, enters international high society. The Great Depression forces Lotta’s return toWisconsin, where her twins come under the influence of Tom Melendy, an idealistic young man of a mill-hand family. Rejecting their parent’s materialism, they return to the simple Bostrom ways.
In this story, Ferber decries the evils of unrestrained capitalism and the decadent snobbery of New Orleans high society. She also promotes women’s causes and natural resource conservation. Illegitimate Clio Dulain and Texas cowboy-gambler Clint Maroon join forces to extort money from Clio’s aristocratic father. Then they move to Saratoga, New York, where Clio sets out to snare a rich husband. Although she entraps railroad millionaire Van Steed, she drops him for Clint when Clint is injured fighting for Van Steed’s railroad, the Saratoga Trunk. Thereafter Clio and Clint become railroad millionaires but idealistically give their wealth to charity. Clio subtlely manipulates Clint in all important matters.
Ferber’s flamboyant version of Texas history and culture exemplified the Texas mythology and earned violent protests from Texans. Ferber’s typical strong female central character, Leslie Lynnton, daughter of a world-famous doctor living in genteel shabbiness, is swept off her feet by a visiting Texas rancher. Transported to his gigantic ranch, she finds her husband ruled by his spinster sister, Luz. Luz dies violently, and, with great skill and wisdom, Leslie guides her man through repeated crises as the great cattle and cotton “empires” are hemmed in by vulgar oil billionaires. The original Texans, Mexican Americans, are shown as deeply wronged, patient, dignified, and noble. However, the book’s end leaves ongoing problems unsolved.
Long fiction • Dawn O’Hara: The Girl Who Laughed, 1911; Fanny Herself, 1917; The Girls, 1921; So Big, 1924; Show Boat, 1926; Cimarron, 1930; American Beauty, 1931; Come and Get It, 1935; Saratoga Trunk, 1941; Great Son, 1945; Giant, 1952; Ice Palace, 1958.
Short fiction: Buttered Side Down, 1912; Roast Beef Medium, 1913; Personality Plus, 1914; Emma McChesney and Co., 1915; Cheerful—By Request, 1918; Half Portions, 1919; Mother Knows Best, 1927; They Brought Their Women, 1933; Nobody’s in Town, 1938 (includes Nobody’s in Town and Trees Die at the Top); One Basket, 1947.
Plays: Our Mrs. McChesney, pr., pb. 1915 (with George V. Hobart); $1200 a Year, pr., pb. 1920 (with Newman A. Levy); Minick, pr., pb. 1924 (with George S. Kaufman); The Royal Family, pr. 1927, pb. 1928 (with Kaufman); Dinner at Eight, pr., pb. 1932 (with Kaufman); Stage Door, pr., pb. 1936 (with Kaufman); The Land Is Bright, pr., pb. 1941 (with Kaufman); Bravo!, pr. 1948, pb. 1949 (with Kaufman).
Nonfiction: A Peculiar Treasure, 1939 (revised 1960; with new introduction); A Kind of Magic, 1963.
Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.