I’ve been working on a project where I am reading every book that has won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I recently read His Family, which won the very first Fiction prize for Ernest Poole. As part of this endeavor, I try to take a look at what the year in publishing was like. It helps me place the winner in that landscape, for one thing. For another, it helps me get a sense of whether or not the winner really deserved its prize.
1917, the year His Family was published, turned out to be a big year for American literature. Edna Ferber was among the authors who released books that year for a novel I had never heard of: Fanny Herself. But I have heard of Edna Ferber before–mainly because just eight years after Fanny Herself was published, Ferber won a Pulitzer Prize of her own for her novel So Big, but also because she wrote the books that the movie Giant and the musical (and later movie) Showboat were adapted from. Curious, I looked into Fanny Herself and the premise intrigued me. I decided to read it.
The novel begins establishing a unique conversational format, one where Ferber is in direct dialogue with the reader. In the preface, she pokes fun at the established tropes of biographical novels and how male they usually skew. Then she tells the reader that she is going to introduce our titular protagonist by introducing us to her mother, Molly, instead. For it is only really possible to understand the hero’s journey (of sorts) that Fanny is about to embark on by first getting to know her mother.
Living in Winnebago, Wisconsin, Molly Brandeis inherits a store named Brandeis Bazaar when her husband dies while both of her children are young. Molly had always had a better head for business than her husband anyway, so under her leadership the store began to thrive. But the demands of the store take up a great deal of Molly’s time and energy–especially when Fanny’s brother, Teddy, exhibits a proficiency for music that will take a lot of money to support. Not only does Molly have to devote herself to her work in order to support herself and her children, but she also has to make a sort of Sophie’s Choice about which child she will work to push ahead in the world. Unfortunately for Fanny, Teddy is the more obvious candidate at the time owing to his musical ability and, well, his maleness. And so Molly and Fanny endure years of hard self-denial in order to send Teddy to New York. For his part, Teddy is the perfect embodiment of clueless male privilege.
It’s not a spoiler to reveal that Molly passes away in Fanny’s early adulthood because in the conversational opening, Ferber informs her reader that Molly will exit the story soon enough. From there, the novel sends Fanny out into the world to find her own fortune in the world of business–and begins to juggle a multitude of topics without letting a single ball slip. There’s Fanny’s identity as a woman during the time of women’s suffrage (the suffrage movement makes a more explicit appearance late in the book that feels quite emotional). There’s the fact that Fanny is Jewish. There’s World War I, which is never shown or discussed in detail but. makes a big impression on this world even at a remove. And perhaps most significantly of all, there are the realities of industrialism.
One of the things that is most surprising about Fanny Herself is how it still feels remarkably relevant and urgent, even more than a hundred years after it was published. A great deal of this is due to how humane the story is and how innately perceptive Edna Ferber was about what it felt like to be alive and adrift in a changing world. The same year this was published, Sinclair Lewis published a novel called The Job that promises to dive into the realities of a woman attempting to break into the world of business. In fact, the jacket for the first edition of that book boldly proclaims that it is “Perhaps the first novel to give the REAL day-to-day life of women on the job, in the world of offices–and in love.” I attempted to read The Job and only made it four chapters in. Like many masculine novels of its day (including Ernest Poole’s), The Job feels like a political pamphlet masquerading as a novel. It’s desperately straining to make a point to the reader–and meanwhile, a book by a female author came along and did everything The Job professes it wants to do, but without any of the strain and effort.
It may also be a bit disturbing that a century after this book was published, we’re still stuck dealing with a lot of the same problems. Part of Molly’s burden with the store is that her small community business is threatened by mail-order catalogs that promise convenience and affordability. When I was a child, the threat had changed to superstores like Borders, Barnes & Noble, Home Depot, and Walmart. And today, it’s still relevant because of the threat online retailers like Amazon pose to small businesses across the country. But I suppose we can take heart that every threat to small business over that century has ultimately failed to eliminate them completely.
Fanny Herself also deals with grief and the ways it can exhibit itself in surprising ways. Molly Brandeis had a profound impact on her daughter. Molly’s community spirit, business savvy, giving nature, kindness, and hardworking attitude defined who Fanny grew up to be. But after Molly is gone, Fanny tries her best to reject those attributes, believing they never got her mother anywhere.
And so, Fanny sells her family store and goes to work for one of the mail-order catalogs her mother had been so worried about. And although her position in the company is hampered by her womanhood, Fanny proves alarmingly adept at the world of business. But at what cost?
In a way, Fanny Herself is also about finding a way to survive and maintain your humanity in a world that has been designed (ironically, by humans) to remove that very humanity. A world where you may be forced to sell out your ideals just to be able to afford to survive. And that is also something that is still relatable. I have many friends and family members who have taken jobs just for the benefits (namely health insurance). I work my job because it pays our mortgage. And I’ve known people who went to work for Amazon for the paycheck even though they don’t believe in what the company stands for. I don’t blame them for this–it’s a rigged system that we live in. But Edna Ferber navigates this dynamic with surprising grace, eloquence, and style. Because Fanny Herself never feels like anything other than a good, funny novel. It shows you the complicated nature of the world without beating you over the head with a message. And it shows you that maybe every person can find a way to marry their passion with their profession.
In case you can’t tell, I loved this novel. And I want more people out there to discover it, because even among Edna Ferber’s works it feels pretty unknown. It’s a gem waiting for more people to find it.