Season 2 Episode 6: Book Chat - Edna Ferber

Below is a transcript of the podcast for those who would rather read a blog post:

I decided to read Wuthering Heights again (because I love everything Bronte almost as much as everything Austen) at the end of June and finished on July 4th. The date is significant because when I went looking for my next read, I thought I would give American classics another chance. I love British classics especially from the 19th century and have since I was in high school yet I consciously avoid American classics.

The blame lies with sophomore English lit and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Not just The Scarlet Letter, which I really disliked, but his other works especially The Marble Faun which I had to read and present to the class and was such torture that I refused to read any 19th and early 20th American author for the past 4 decades.

It was bad.

I thought I’d start revisiting American classics with The Grapes of Wrath because I love other John Steinbeck books especially East of Eden but couldn’t find a copy anywhere, probably because it’s assigned as summer reading at least in this part of the country. I read an excerpt in high school and hated it (not as much as Hawthorne, but close). I thought it was worth another look almost 4 decades later.

I eventually found a copy while visiting my parents in Texas, but in the meantime, I picked up Giant by Edna Ferber at my library from their small classics section. I love this movie (James Dean, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor, oh my) so figured I was safe choosing this book to start my summer of American classics.

Boy was I ever!

Published in 1952, Giant is the story of Leslie Lyntton of the genteelly impoverished Lyntton’s of Virginia who marries Jordon “Bick” Benedict of Benedict, Texas. A classic fish out of water story, the Texas of Giant is big, hot, and racially charged. The romantic tension between Leslie and Jett (Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean in the movie) is quite minor in the book, but the division between the white landowners and the Mexican laborers is not just a backdrop but a significant part of the story.

Texans did not like this book when it came out and may still not be happy with it. They are not portrayed in the best light especially seen through the lense of an eastern liberal.

Leslie, in classic eastern liberal fashion (and I know since I’m an eastern liberal), wants to know why the Mexicans live in shacks, don’t own ranches, can’t intermarry with whites, and lots of other injustices. The social aspect of this segregation comes to a head when Leslie and Bick’s son Jordan marries the Mexican daughter of one of Bick’s ranch hands, and they have a child.

This is the 50s and it doesn’t end well.

Giant also addresses the post WWII oil boom and how it affected the white class system in Texas, especially how the owners of large ranches were forced to subdivide to maintain their livestock and land in the wake of the oil boom. However, her book Cimarron (which I read after Giant) deals with the Oklahoma land run, the treatment of Native Americans in this country, and the discovery of oil on a large Oklahoma reservation. You can imagine just how happy the government and the white landowners where when the land they thought was worthless (and gave to the Indians), proved to have the most oil in the region underneath.

While the movie Cimarron isn’t that good, the book is incredible. It’s a western with a female lead character even though the title refers to her husband as well as the Oklahoma panhandle.

In fact, all of Ferber’s books have titles that refer to men but female main characters who definitely break traditions. She even drops the F bomb in each book (that’s feminism) which is really something since she wrote these books almost 100 years ago..

After Giant and Cimarron, I read two other of Edna Ferber’s books, So Big and Showboat. I’m sure most of you are familiar with the musical Showboat and the book is even better with more emphasis on the issues of race in the south, but So Big is probably more obscure. Ferber won the Pulitzer prize for this novel in 1925, and it’s my favorite of her books. The main character, Selena Peake De Jong, takes a job as a school teacher in a rural farming community in Illinois after her father, a professional gambler, is accidentally shot to death in a gambling hall. (This character is mentioned in Showboat which is kind of cool.)

Selena lives with a family of Dutch immigrant farmers at first and becomes close to both the mother and one of her children, Roelf, the oldest son. Roelf is twelve, no longer attends school, but is obviously bright (he reads the dictionary at the dinner table) so Selena starts lending him books from her small collection.

Not long after her arrival, Selena falls in love with Pervus, another Dutch farmer. Roelf is jealous of Pervus in the way only a young teenage boy can be, and he rejects Selena’s friendship once she quits teaching and marries Pervus.

Not long after, Selena bears a son named Dirk. The title refers to Dirk and the game mothers play with their children when they ask, “How big is baby?” followed by the child saying “So Big!”. Dirk gets the nickname So Big after playing this game so often and so well as a young child.

While I’m not a fan of the title - it really doesn’t relate to the theme of the book at all - this book is a great read, and Selena one of my favorite characters ever. Selena is widowed early in the book and has to raise Dirk on her own. She keeps the farm which was barely financial viable under her husband’s management, changes crop selection and location, takes her produce to market (never done by a woman at the time), and creates a small farm to table agribusiness before Alice Waters was born.

Along with the continued theme of strong women is the contrast between art and commerce, and that’s the real theme of this book. After leaving home when his mother dies, Roeff pursues art in Paris and returns to Illinois after World War I as a fairly well known painter. At the same time, Dirk becomes a weathy bond trader. Guess which man finds the most favor with Selena?

Edna Ferber writes strong independent female characters and places them in the Midwest during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her heroines not only face but challenge social inequity and injustice that is sadly very similar to what many Americans face today. They’re also feminists who tackle adversity as only strong women can!

Get to a library, a bookstore, or an online retailer and order an Edna Ferber novel then let me know what you think about this wonderful yet somewhat neglected American author!

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