I Confess: The playwright Martin Sherman on Edna Ferber

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The Independent Culture
Between the ages of 10 and 15 I swallowed books whole. Mostly the classics of American literature like Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway . . . but the one who stayed with me was Edna Ferber. Nearly all her books - Showboat, Cimarron, Saratoga Trunk and Giant - have been made into films and musicals. They're potboilers and they're all weepies, but what makes them extraordinary is how feminist they are. They're always about an independent young woman who falls in love with a glamorous man from an unusual cultural background. She always winds up becoming the strongest member of the society she joins and fighting for something honourable . . . although I have a nasty feeling there's a lot of talk about Robber Barons whenever she's up against a rich capitalist (which she usually is).

Somehow Ferber manages to draw a very true picture of the individualism that helped shape America, with the working class rubbing up against very great riches. It's strange, but in all the books, the heroine's children are a source of great disappointment to her. They never live up to her sense of strength or ethics. Somewhere inside it all there's a parable about the growing-up of America.

My problem is that I'm terrified to re-read her. What if it's all much closer to the films than to my memory of the books . . . On the other hand, maybe a reappraisal is in order.

Martin Sherman is the author of 'Bent' and 'Madhouse in Goa'. He was in the confessional with David Benedict.

(Photograph omitted)