(Editor’s note: The Chronicle is pleased to bring back Hilary Daninhirsch’s popular series, “Retro Reviews.” Throughout 2014, Daninhirsch will review Jewish-themed books by noted authors in literary history that have been out of print for decades, remain in print but are hard to find or have, or have made the quantum leap to e-books. The series is a great way to shed new light on old classics and perhaps find a new audience for these works. If you have a suggestion for an old title ready for a retro review, contact Daninhirsch at her address below.)
The irony of reading an almost 100-year-old book on an e-reader was not lost on me, though “Fanny Herself,” by Edna Ferber, was perhaps a crystal ball into the ascent of women in business over the latter half of the past century.
The book tells the story of a young woman’s humble beginnings as the daughter of shopkeepers in the small fictional town of Winnebago, Wis., and her transformation into a successful Chicago businesswoman.
A prolific author and playwright, Ferber was born in Michigan in 1885 and raised in Appleton, Wis. She penned many works, from short stories to novels to plays, and won the 1924 Pulitzer Prize for “So Big.” Two of her other books, “Showboat” and “Cimarron,”were adapted into a Broadway musical and an Academy Award-winning film, respectively.
Nonetheless, it was “Fanny Herself” that was her most autobiographical novel, the only one that had Jewish themes. From the book, the reader might gather that Ferber had internal conflicts about being Jewish, though she has been quoted as being proud of her heritage. The Jewish community that Ferber portrayed in the novel were German-speaking, austere, and class-oriented. Fanny and her mother actually exchanged Christmas presents and she did not adhere to a kosher diet.
Ferber postulates that to get to know Fanny, you first have to know her mother, Molly Brandeis. The Brandeises are general store owners in the Midwest. When the patriarch passes away, leaving behind a wife and two children, Molly not only becomes a single parent, but she turns the store into a successful enterprise. She wants more for Fanny than to work at the store after high school.
Nonetheless, Fanny becomes extremely well versed in running a business, a skill that will prove to be invaluable in the future.
When Fanny’s brother, Theodore, has an opportunity to study violin with a maestro, necessitating them to send him off to New York, there is no question that the women of the house have to make the financial sacrifices so that the male can achieve success.
After Molly dies, Fanny, who is barely out of her teens, makes the bold decision to sell the business and house then move to Chicago, where she lands a prestigious position as a buyer with a large mail order company, rising in the ranks over the years.
Fanny is portrayed as headstrong, even brash, but the reader has to admire all of the chutzpah she demonstrates throughout the book, making million-dollar deals with heads of companies and daring to tell her superiors what they could do better in the workplace. At times, Fanny is often a little too perfect (the reader might wonder if she ever makes a mistake), but Ferber’s likely goal was to represent Fanny as a groundbreaking feminist.
Ferber does have a sense of humor, though. When Fanny rescues a little boy named Clarence from a group of bullies, Ferber observes:
“There are few things that a mischievous group of small boys cannot do with a name like Clarence. They whined it, they catcalled it, they shrieked it in falsetto imitation of Clarence’s mother.”
Fanny attempts to fast for the first time, more to challenge herself than because of a sense of religious obligation. When Fanny and her friend sneak out of services during Yom Kippur, Ferber floridly describes what they find in the friend’s kitchen:
“There was one giant platter devoted wholly to round, plump cakes, with puffy edges, in the center of each a sunken pool that was all plum, bearing on its bosom a snowy sifting of powdered sugar. There were others whose centers were apricot, pure molten gold in the sunlight.”
Fanny appears to be conflicted about her Jewishness, viewing it as a handicap. She lies to her boss about her religion, but regrets it afterward. Her friend Clarence represents Fanny’s conscience, continually reminding her to view it as an asset:
“We Jews have got a money-grubbing, loud-talking, diamond-studded, get-there-at-at-price reputation, and perhaps we deserve it. But every now and then, out of the mass of us, one lifts his head and stands erect, and the great white light is in his face.”
Ferber sometimes steps outside the narrative to speak to the reader, using a literary device known as “authorial intrusion,” though it is minimal and not as intrusive as the name would imply. The ending seemed to be forced and did not ring true, but overall, the novel is a pleasing read.
A gifted writer and popular in her generation, the writings of Edna Ferber are worth re-exploring. “Fanny Herself” is sheer delight from start to finish, and while some of the language may be dated, the themes are not only universal but current.
(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
“Fanny Herself,” by Edna Ferber, first published in 1917.”