The author Adriana Trigiani turned me on to the writer Edna Ferber. Not personally – we’ve never met – but in a short passage in her novel, All the Stars in the Heavens. I discovered the novel and ultimately Ms. Ferber from another friend whom I have never met – Blair Brown, who is one of my favorite audiobook narrators. In preparation for driving more than two thousand miles in a week, and wanting something new, I looked for audiobooks narrated by Blair Brown or George Guidall and expanded my horizons a bit. I was not disappointed.
In response to a question posed on Goodreads, Ms. Trigiani wrote, “The anecdote in All the Stars in the Heavens was imagined from an observation of Ms. Ferber’s when she traveled through Europe in the early 1930’s and noted the deep political changes that had occurred in Germany. Ms. Ferber wrote “Beware the clowns” as she observed that the people, in general did not take the leaders too seriously, rather focused on their entertainment value as showmen.” (https://www.goodreads.com/questions/680781-does-anyone-know-if-the-edna-ferber-quote)
When I came across the “Beware the clowns” scene in Ms. Trigiani’s novel, I had to stop the audiobook and switch to another so I could go back at the next rest stop and write down Edna Ferber’s name for further research. Here’s the result of that research.
Edna Ferber was born in 1885 in my adopted hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan, although economic opportunity and anti-Semitism forced her family to move repeatedly around the midwestern U.S. until they were able to settle in Appleton, Wisconsin. She was a prolific writer of novels, short stories and plays and we have all probably seen the fruits of her labors on screen or in high school musicals.
She wrote or co-wrote such giants of the American lexicon as Giant (see what I did there), Show Boat, Cimarron, Dinner at Eight, and So Big for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1925. She also wrote two memoires. A Peculiar Treasure (1939) centers on her life as a child and a young woman and A Kind of Magic (1963) which deals with her later life. She never married or had children and had words of wisdom for such situations. “Being an old maid is like death by drowning, a really delightful sensation after you cease to struggle.”
Ms. Ferber would have been in her mid to late forties when extremist leaders were gaining support in Europe. Already a successful writer, she used her position to criticize those on the world stage for whom she had contempt, but as a Jew, she stayed away from Europe during the worse of the attacks on her heritage. Years later, she wrote in A Kind of Magic, “There is an interesting resemblance in the speeches of dictators, no matter what country they may hail from or what language they may speak.”
One wonders what Ms. Ferber would make of some of the world’s current leaders.
She died during the height of the Vietnam War in 1968. She died five years after John F. Kennedy was assassinated and during the violence and struggles for civil rights in the U.S. She died when both the Soviets and the Americans could wipe out life as we know it and six years after it almost happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis. She lived through the hope that comes from watching a nation come together to defeat evil during World War II and she died while the United States seemed to be tearing itself apart trying to keep fellow citizens oppressed and marginalized if they didn’t look or act like those with the power and money.
Edna Ferber’s novels and plays often contained strong supporting characters who overcame discrimination and abuse based solely on their appearance or heritage. As a Jewish woman who came into adulthood in early twentieth century America, she undoubtedly had many experiences from which to draw the creative juices for those characters. Another Ferber quote which hints at the life of a Jewish-American writer is “One can summon courage and fortitude to face tragedy; irritations and frustrations are a cloud of mosquitoes that nip and sting and drive one frantic.” Of course, we can all relate to that one.
And I wonder if the time for summoning that courage and fortitude is coming again. Having emerged from a worldwide, devastating recession, we now find ourselves with an increasing number of dictatorial leaders and very vocal minority populations from which they draw their power. During World War II, the powers of good (as the winners like to think of themselves) united against a common enemy and defeated it.
Now, unfortunately, the common enemy appears to have shifted to those who attempt to move from homelands mired in war and/or poverty to parts of the world where they may be able to live in safety and freedom. The common enemy for many, but not a majority, of the people in several of the world’s most prosperous nations is the refugee.
When they arrive in the wealthier nations, today’s refugees are being denied rights, concentrated into facilities incapable of supporting a basic quality of life, separated from their children, sent back into areas in which their lives have been threatened, and sometimes killed for throwing rocks in protest.
That looks suspiciously like the pogrom against the Jews in 1930’s Germany and the internment of Japanese-Americans in the United States. Those in power crammed those they hated in tiny, unsanitary living spaces and one wonders how Edna Ferber would feel today. Or perhaps we don’t have to wonder. “People in big empty places are likely to behave very much as the gods did on Olympus.” (1952, Giant)
Yup! That about sums it up.