From the history of Appleton: Edna Ferber

Danielle Dahlke

Appleton native Edna Ferber wrote novels, poems, and even worked for a newspaper.

Edna Ferber is a name that isn’t bound to ring many bells to the Lawrence community. Indeed, few Lawrentians or even Appletonians recognize the name of the Appleton native and Pulitzer prize winner. Ferber’s accomplishments were many and varied. Her works total two autobiographies, collections of short stories writtenfrom 1911 to 1963, 13 novels, and eight plays, many of these works referring to her childhood life here in Appleton. In 1924 she won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, So Big. Two years later, in 1926, she wrote Showboat, and the novel was then made into a classic Broadway musical and three motion pictures. The publishing of Giant in 1952 led to a film starring James Dean, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor.

Born in 1885 in Michigan, Ferber made the move to Appleton with her family when she was 12 years old. Her school writing experience included the editorship her high school newspaper, but it was her extremely well-written senior essay that enticed the editor of what was then the Appleton Daily Crescent. He offered her a position as a reporter at the age of 18.

Ferber’s plan at the time was to attend the Northwestern School of Elocution, but her family’s inability to afford such costs forced her instead to join the new and uncommon force of working women. She accepted the position as reporter, where she earned three dollars per hour.

Later, Ferber was fired from the Crescent and began to write for the Milwaukee Journal, but she soon had an anemic and emotional breakdown that caused her to cease working there.

Over this period, she began her first novel and her first short story.

Ferber disliked the novel, now considered a classic; however, a determined agent brought it into circulation when she found a publisher to take it on in 1911.

The novel, Dawn O’Hara, The Girl Who Laughed, is the tale of a Milwaukee newspaperwoman and her daily trials on and off the job.

Ferber’s first published prose, titled “The Homely Heroine,” appeared in Everybody’s Magazine, and sold for a price of $50.60.

By the time these works were published, Ferber had applied to the Chicago Tribune, seeking a position as a reporter once more. When she was denied employment because they did not hire women, it seemed her only option was to continue writing fiction. Such was the beginning of this Appleton woman’s career as a writer.

Many of Ferber’s major literary works can be found at the Seeley G. Mudd Library, located in the Wisconsin Collection on the fourth floor. They include American Beauty, Giant, and Show Boat, among others.

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