Peculiar Treasure

Edna Ferber’s autobiography, first pub’d in 1938 then re-released in 1960 with a new introduction by Ferber. The book suffers from one fatal flaw—Ferber didn’t know the ending before she started to write. This is how she constructed all of her fiction, starting at the end and then heading towards it, which makes me suspect this was a critical ingredient to her wildly successful writing. The autobiography drags, she spends too much time in certain areas, namely after she begins to attain success, dallying in her theater rehearsals and rewrites too much for my taste.

The early stuff is good, her journey from Kalamazoo, MI to Ottumwa, IA to Appleton, WI where she spent her teenage years and serendipitously wound up in journalism instead of acting. A walking tour pamphlet in Appleton erroneously states that “her senior essay was so impressive that the editor of the Appleton Daily Crescent offered her a job.” It wasn’t her essay, but the fact that she had won a state speech-making contest. “The winning of the state contest had put me, so far as that small community was concerned, in something of the position of the college athlete who easily gets a job selling bonds in a broker’s office,” writes Ferber.

Several phrases from her books kept popping up, like “just so much velvet.”

She travels, a lot, the benefit of not having saddled herself with husband or children. She gags on Hollywood but gushes over SF: “But San Francisco! There was a city! It seemed to me then, and it seems to me now, one of the half-dozen great cities of America; a city of distinction, of flavor, of the quality which excites the visitor.” She goes much further afield, Hawaii, Russia, Europe; when she “settles down” for a few months it’s either in Chicago or NYC. About LA: “I learned that no one walked in Hollywood. This is still true, almost twenty [ed: and 100] years later. Just a few months ago people passing in motorcars stares and pointed at this strange biped walking along the palm-lined avenues of Beverly Hills.”

“Under the influence of the music and a moon and a highball poured from a Prohibition hip flask I became engaged a number of times and hastily wrote to break it off the next morning before I started the day’s grist of writing… I wanted perfection. All old maids are perfectionists. That’s why they’re old maids… I wish I could be tactful enough to say that I regret not having married. I must confess that I know no woman with whom I should want to exchange places.”

On love of writing: “Life really can’t utterly defeat a writer who is in love with writing, for life itself is a writer’s lover until death; fascinating, cruel, lavish, warm, cold, treacherous, constant; the more varied the moods the richer the experience.”

On hearing praise of a work long finished:

A writer doesn’t tire of hearing people say they like his book or play. He loves hearing it. But the difficulty is this: by the time the reader has read it or the playgoer has seen it, the writer has laid it away in lavender. To him it is a ghost. If his response to flattery or appreciation seems absent-minded, forced and even churlish it is because he scarcely knows what you’re talking about. The thing is remote, finished, beyond his reach. His mind, imagination, emotions, creative powers are concentrated on the new thing he is trying to write. Still unconquered, that fresh work is tugging at him, deviling him, eluding him when he tries to pin it down. It grins up at him from his dinner late; it walks with him on the street; it prods and pinches him when he tries to sleep,k it leers at him from the pages of other people’s books; it insinuates itself slyly between him and the person to whom he is talking; it jabbers at him when he himself is talking. Only that interests him, claims all his attention.

She has her shortcomings, partially excusably by the age she was living in, but still sexist, cheap, and racist. She constantly refers to the journalism work she did as “man’s work,” to brag about how hard she worked. When she does research for Show Boat, she spends four days with a traveling troupe and at the end sends the host a copy of her book with a check. He doesn’t cash the check until several years later when his boat sinks. “I wish [the check] had been double in size.” Well send him another one, lady! She also has a cavalier attitude about her cook/maid, Rebecca:

A widow, she has a son, Waters Turpin, by her first marriage, whose first novel got reviews that would have made me jealous if I hadn’t been so pleased, and whose second novel bids fair to rival the first. Novels of American Negro life, they are; but none of this Sambo stuff. Rebecca has taken a quiet pride in this achievement, but she never refers to it, and on the Sunday morning that brought us the New York Times’ superb review of her son’s book, These Low Grounds, my waffles and maple syrup were as crisp, as golden, as toothsome as though no undue excitement marked the day.

Warts and all, I am enjoying her fiction. On the lookout for her collected short stories now.