Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Edna Ferber and the Problems of the Middlebrow

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Edna Ferber and the Problems of the Middlebrow

Article excerpt

Contemporaneous writing about the redoubtable Edna Ferber anticipates her eventual neglect. Ferber's 1968 obituary in the New York Times hailed her as "the greatest American woman novelist of her day"--no mean designation, despite the gender qualifier, considering that her "day" included such figures as Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein, and Willa Cather--making much of the fact that her books were "required reading in schools and universities." Yet, like much contemporaneous writing about her, it also registers a certain reservation about her long-term import, conceding that "her novels were not profound," damning them with the faint praise of "minor classics." Within a few short years, the name "Edna Ferber," which once stood for an entire swath of literary achievement, was unrecognizable (Gilbert 12). Although during her lifetime she had some consistently loyal champions among prominent reviewers and editors, much of Ferber's critical reception has had a recurring arc: effusive praise, coupled with inevitable condescension based on the very same virtues that were praised. Writing in 1941, Margaret Wallace calls Ferber almost the only writer who seems to be "actually writing in technicolor [sic]"; Yet, for Wallace, Ferber's verve can't quite replace a "fuller knowledge of history or keener sense of character analysis." Orville Prescott can't help liking 1952's Giant, a "brisk, clever, constantly moving story." And, although Prescott dismisses his misgivings about Ferber's "brisk" stories' lack of "depth" as "needless carping" without detailing them at length, he goes on to articulate a central tension of Ferber's career, predicting with startling accuracy what would be her legacy: "[a]fter the last page is read surprisingly little remains in the memory." Edna Ferber, the "well-dressed lady novelist" (Nichols)--a delineation which she courted but also disdained--was "interesting" (Prescott); Edna Ferber was "a historical painter" (Woods); Edna Ferber was "brilliant" (Barkham), according to writers in the country's most widely circulated periodicals. Yet for some elusive reason, in the blunt words of one critic, "she ha[d] not achieved greatness," so indeed after her last page was written, few remembered her at all (Parker 448).(1)

Given the swiftness with which Ferber fell into decisive obscurity in the decades directly following her death, it's easy to forget the staggering potency of her literary celebrity in the first half of the twentieth century. By some measures, Ferber was the top-selling American author of the twentieth century, despite a modest output of twelve novels, two autobiographies, and assorted volumes of short stories and plays over a half-century. (2) A Ferber novel was sometimes a Pulitzer contender, once a winner, and very often a blockbuster film, sometimes two--with Ferber's name in lights right alongside those of James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor (Smyth 223-26). Despite tremendous commercial success in her lifetime, however, dissonance in her critical reception plagued Ferber, and anxiety about its duality permeates her work, from its production, to its distribution, to its content.

The problems of Ferber's legacy exemplify the problems of the tier of mid-century literature sometimes called "middlebrow." Though the term is far from stable, middlebrow is generally used to describe books produced for a bourgeoisie that read for leisure but not frivolity, seeking the Arnoldian balance of edification and delight. Scholarship on this tier of fiction has grown in the last few decades, notably Joan Shelley Rubin's foundational Making of Middlebrow Culture (1992) and Gordon Hutner's more recent and more comprehensive What America Read (2009), which studies "middle-class realism." (3) Since work on the middlebrow tends to take a broad view of mid-twentieth-century print culture rather than focus on individual careers or texts, Ferber hasn't emerged as a single figure for extensive study within that framework; the current, growing body of scholarship on Ferber more commonly invokes "women's culture" (Berlant), domesticity (Edmunds, Zink), Jewish studies (Batker, Shapiro), "class" defined more broadly (Haytock), or focuses on Ferber films (Smyth). …

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