Perhaps less well-known today than in her own time, Edna Ferber was a prolific writer. Her works include twelve novels and eight plays, a selection of novellas and short stories, and two autobiographies. Today, however, her works are largely remembered for their film or stage adaptations.
Ferber was born in 1885 in Kalamazoo, Michigan to Jewish parents who operated a general store. As business faltered, they moved among Chicago, Iowa, and Wisconsin. In her travels, she experienced extremes in how she was treated as a Jew. Unable to afford college, she begin writing by taking a job as a reporter, before turning to fiction and leaving her family for New York City.
Her career first took off in 1911 with a series of stories about Emma McChesney, a successful businesswoman. It was the first time a character like this was depicted in popular American literature. She would continue to write these stories throughout her career and they helped earn her praise as the best female American novelist.
But Ferber wished to pursue other forms of writing. In the 1920s, she entered into a partnership with George S. Kaufman, establishing her career as a playwright with works such as The Royal Family (1927) and Dinner at Eight (1932). Her novels were all best sellers, beginning with So Big, which sold 3 million copies and won a Pulitzer in 1924. Show Boat, written in 1926, was adapted into a film as well as a musical, still widely produced today. Ferber’s characters come from a variety of demographics –Jewish, African American, Native Americans – and she comments on how they are treated in American society. She has a reputation for strong female characters and trenchant criticism of the capitalist system.
Toward the end of her life, Ferber developed a nervous disorder, and the effects it had on her mental state can be seen in her second autobiography, A Kind of Magic. She died of stomach cancer in 1968.