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Awkward Edna

Lost Books

Stephanie Butnick
August 05, 2011
(Joanna Neborsky)
(Joanna Neborsky)

“Lost Books” is a weekly series highlighting forgotten books through the prism of Tablet Magazine’s and’s archives. So blow the dust off the cover, and begin!

Edna Ferber, born in August 1885 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, seems destined to have been an outsider. Best known as the woman behind the books behind the wildly successful films Show Boat and Giant—the latter starring screen icons Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean—remains largely obscured in literary history, though Ferber’s creative output was quite vast. “Perhaps this neglect is fitting for a writer whose most memorable characters were loners and underappreciated visionaries,” Mollie Wilson posited in 2007.

Another reason for Ferber’s fleeting literary legacy was her complicated relationship with her own Jewishness, hints of which emerged in earlier works but was most clearly crystallized in the largely autobiographical Fanny Herself, published in 1917. “All my life I have been proud of being a Jew,” Wilson quoted Ferber as having once written. “But I have felt that one should definitely not brag about it.” Her almost manipulatively tactful approach to being Jewish—she implied that Jews should embrace, and exude, the more advantageous elements of their stereotypes—belies an early 20th-century American cultural reticence to draw attention to one’s heritage. “For some reason or other one flashy, loud-talking Hebrew in a restaurant can cause more ill feeling than ten thousand of them holding a religious mass meeting in Union Square,” Fanny cautions her brother in the book.

“Like Fanny Brandeis, Ferber boasted a gift for caricature that was born of her being ‘set apart.’ She lived up to the challenge she set forth in Fanny Herself—she embraced the ‘genius, sympathy, and understanding’ that were her ‘birthright,’ and she demanded success on her own terms,” Wilson wrote. Yet it was her refusal, perhaps rooted in discomfort, to bring her religion into her fiction that ultimately cost Ferber a wide, enduring audience.

Read So Big, by Mollie Wilson

Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.