Grant Martin Overton.

The women who make our novels. online

. (page 19 of 23)
Online LibraryGrant Martin OvertonThe women who make our novels. → online text (page 19 of 23)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

she's a superb short story writer, one of the best in
America, one of the dozen best.
| You are all wrong. The supremely interesting fact
about Edna Ferber is this: She invented the Tired
Business Woman.

When writing about Miss Ferber why be dull?
Why go in for the higher criticism ? As for the lower
criticism, we hope we are above it. Certainly she is.

To get back to name, dates, etc. : Chicago, Des
Moines and Appleton, Wisconsin, all have a stake in
Miss Ferber's success. Kalamazoo doesn't vocif-
erate. It doesn't have to, for she was born there and
though seven cities claimed Homer dead it will be
no use for seven or eight or six places to claim Edna
Ferber living. Kalamazoo will see to that; Kala-
mazoo, Michigan, where she made her debut the
only debut that's really worth making on August 15,
1887. That is why we shall speak of her very re-



spectfully. She is a month older than we are and a
month is everything.

The daughter of Jacob Charles Ferber and Julia
(Neuman) Ferber. Educated in the public and higK
schools of alas for Kalamazoo! Appleton, Wis-
consin. At seventeen she became a reporter on the
Appleton^ Daily Crescent "the youngest real reporter
in the world." She has it on us. We were almost
nineteen when but never mind. Appleton, we hear,
soon became too small for Miss Ferber. Appletons
have a way of doing that, or isn't it rather that the
Edna Ferbers have a way of growing too big for the
Appletons? Anyway, Miss Ferber went to Milwau-
kee and then to a big Chicago daily, the Tribune, to
be exact. In Milwaukee she worked on the Journal.
Dawn O'Hara, her first book, was written in the time
she could spare from newspaper work. After it was
completed she did not like it. It was her mother who
rescued the manuscript from the wastebasket and sent
it to a publisher, the same person mentioned in the
dedication of the novel: "To my dear mother who
frequently interrupts and to my sister Fannie who
says 'Sh-sh-sh!' outside my door."

The best piece of work Mrs. Ferber ever did ! The
book took publisher and public by storm. It came
out in 1911 and in the same year the new American
author attained the dignity of twenty-four years. Our
copy of Dawn O'Hara is marked "eighth edition,"
but as it is a reprinted copy that may understate, or
rather under-indicate, the book's success. A few
thousands one way or another hardly matters among
so many thousands of copies sold!


Without pressing the autobiographical idea too hard
it is perfectly evident that much of the background of
Dawn O'Ham is from Miss Ferber's own experience,
notably the settings in Milwaukee. How she could
ever have been so dissatisfied with her story as to dis-
card it utterly any present-day reader will be puzzled
to imagine. It is extremely well told. It is full of
the perfect human humorously human quality
which lifts so many of Miss Ferber's short stories into
high place. Take this passage:

"The Whalens live just around the corner. The
Whalens are omniscient. They have a system of news
gathering which would make the efforts of a New
York daily appear antiquated. They know that Jenny
Laffin feeds the family on soup meat and oatmeal
when Mr. Laffin is on the road ; they know that Mrs.
Pearson only shakes out her rugs once in four weeks ;
they can tell you the number of times a week that
Sam Dempster comes home drunk; they know that
the Merkles never have cream with their coffee be-
cause little Lizzie Merkle goes to the creamery every
day with just one pail and three cents ; they gloat over
the knowledge that Professor Grimes, who is a mar-
ried man, is sweet on Gertie Ashe, who teaches sec-
ond reader in his school ; they can tell you where Mrs.
Black got her seal coat, and her husband only earning
two thousand a year ; they know who is going to run
for mayor, and how long poor Angela Sims has to
live, and what Guy Donnelly said to Min when he
asked her to marry him.

"The three Whalens mother and daughters hunt
in a group. They send meaning glances to one an-


other across the room, and at parties they get together
and exchange bulletins in a corner. On passing the
Whalen house one is uncomfortably aware of shad-
owy forms lurking in the windows, and of parlor cur-
tains that are agitated for no apparent cause."

Beautiful! Gardiner of Harvard could have turned
it inside out for you and have shown you just where
Miss Ferber impinged on your sensations and how
and to what end. . . . But the thing shows the facil-
ity of her best work. Are the Whalens important to
the story of Dawn O'Hara? They are not. They
are merely figures on the canvas, amusing but unim-
portant people, no more than "brushed in" but brushed
in with a firmness of touch, a fidelity of detail, a
humorous artist eye that is, as we say, "taking" or
"fetching" and wholly delightful.

Since 1911 with short stories and a book a year
there is nothing to chronicle but a progressive and
uninterrupted success. Nothing except the Tired
Business Woman. Make no mistake; this creation of
Miss Ferber's is not a feminine counterpart of the
Tired Business Man. The T. B. W. does not go to
musical shows and sit in the front rows. She does
not telephone home to the husband that she is sorry
but important business will detain her downtown this
evening. She does not bring home old friends unex-
pectedly to dinner, or worse, not bring them home to
dinner. She is man-less but not because she need be.
She is unmarried or a widow. She has a boy, like
Jock McChesney, and finds the task of making a man
of him, in outside hours not devoted to earning their
living, a woman-sized job! Give Edna Ferber credit


for this, that she has done as much as the cleverest
feminist to make the world see the self-reliant woman
as she is, and not as the world deduces she may be.
A woman, yes, and a mother, yes! But a regular
person above everything else. Read, or re-read, Emma
McChesney & Co. with this in a corner of your mind
and you will be thankful to Miss Ferber when you
have finished. Some thanks, too, may go to Ethel
Barrymore, whose impersonation of the Tired But
Admired (and admirable) Business Woman of Miss
Ferber's fiction reenforced the lesson of the book with
the ocular demonstration of the play.

Miss Ferber is going forward. The evidence of it
will be found in the stories contained in her latest
book, Cheerful By Request (1918) and perhaps par-
ticularly in the story in that volume called The Gay
Old Dog. At thirty-one she has her best years as
literary records go before her. No painstaking ap-
praisal of her work would be wise at this time. In
the next two or three years she may overshadow
everything she has done so far. We hope so. Be-
cause then, bearing in mind that month's initial dif-
ference, we shall have high hopes ourselves!


Dawn O'Hara, 1911.
Buttered Side Down, 1912.
Roast Beef Medium, 1913.
Personality Plus, 1914.
Emma McChesney & Co., 1915.


Fanny Herself, 1917.
Cheerful By Request, 1918.

Published by Frederick A. Stokes Company, New
York, except Cheerful By Request, which is pub-
lished by Doubleday, Page & Company, New York.



MRS. FISHER is, we think, the only novelist
of whose work we shall say nothing. Why?
Because it "speaks for itself"? Certainly
not. Every one's work does that. No, because it
does not speak sufficiently for her.

You are asked here and now to think of her not as
a novelist but as a woman. For as a novelist we could
say of her only the obvious fact, that she is a top-
notcher judged by any and every standard. The
woman who could write The Squirrel-Cage does not
need any critical tests applied to determine the worth
and genuineness of her work, nor the sincerity of it.
What she does need, or rather, what her readers and
all readers need, is a reminder of her role as teacher,
helper, friend. She is one of those fine people whose
work makes the plain word "service" a shining and
symbolic thing. "Service" is no longer a word but a
ritual and a liturgy.

We shall give an outline of her life but as the
friend who prepared it for us says in a letter enclos-
ing it : "It does not do justice to her very useful war
work." This letter further says, with simple truth:

"She has been one who has not broken down under
the strain but has gone on doing a prodigious amount



of work. First running, almost entirely alone, the
work for soldiers blinded in battle, editing a maga-
zine for them, running the presses, often with her own
hands, getting books written for them; all the time
looking out for refugees and personal cases that came
under her attention; caring for children from the
evacuated portions of France, organizing work for
them ; tKen she dropped all that and ran the camp on
the edge of the war zone where her husband was sta-
tioned to train the young ambulance workers; and
while there she started any number of important
things reading rooms, etc. Then she went back to
her work in Paris. Just now she is at the base of the
Pyrenees, organizing a Red Cross hospital for chil-
dren from the evacuated portions.

"All this is reflected, or I should say the result of
her experiences is reflected in her Home Fires in
France, just published this fall. It is just what the
title says, and I don't know anything that has been
written anything like it. There isn't any bursting
shrapnel in it, no heroics or medals of honor; it is
merely full of the French women and some Americans
who have done the steady, quiet work of holding life
together until the war should be over. Steadily they
try to reconstruct what the Germans have de-
stroyed. ... It is the best thing she has done."

It and the deeds back of it. When you read Home
Fires in France you will understand why one man
who read proof on it exclaimed :

"If every one knew this book as I know it there
would be no doubt of it selling 100,000 copies at



With The Squirrel-Cage, published in 1912, Mrs.
Fisher became a novelist. It was followed by two
books on child training, A Montessori Mother (1913)
and Mothers and Children (1914), and then the teach-
er resumed the role of storyteller with The Bent Tztrig.
Before The Squirrel-Cage Mrs. Fisher was merely
the author of a few textbooks. After it she was an
important figure in American fiction.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher is thirty-eight years old,
a bachelor of philosophy and a doctor of philosophy,
mistress of six languages, author of twelve books,
mother of two children. She and her husband, John
Redwood Fisher, captain of a Columbia football team,
himself a critic and writer, divided their time before
the war between a farm near a little Vermont village
and occasional excursions to New York, Rome or
some other metropolis. In 1915, Mr. Fisher joined
the ambulance service and went to France. Mrs.
Fisher was at work on Understood Betsy, but as soon
as that was finished she followed her husband to Paris
with her children. Since then she has been absorbed
in war relief work which has ranged from running an
establishment that prints books for soldiers blinded in
battle to managing five peasant women cooks and
buying supplies for a large training camp for ambu-
lance drivers. Mr. Fisher is now a first lieutenant in
the United States Army in France.

Mrs. Fisher was born in Lawrence, Kansas, where
her father was president of the University of Kansas.
As a high school girl in Lawrence she made friends
with an army officer on the staff of a nearby war col-
lege. He taught her to ride horseback and introduced


her to his hobby, higher mathematics. This friend-
ship has lately been resumed in France. The young
army officer is now General John J. Pershing.

Dorothea Frances Canfield, or Dorothy Canfield,
became an undergraduate in Ohio State University,
of which her father (James Hulme Canfield) was
president at that time. Her degree of bachelor of
philosophy came from Ohio State University. When
Mr. Canfield moved to New York to be librarian at
Columbia University his daughter took up postgrad-
uate work there, specializing in the Romance lan-
guages, and won her degree of doctor of philosophy.
For three years, from 1902 to 1905, she was secre-
tary of the Horace Mann School. Her associates all
her life have been cosmopolitan in the proper sense of
that word. Her mother, Flavia (Camp) Canfield, is
an artist of some attainment and with her Dorothy
Canfield spent a good deal of her life abroad. The
result one result was friends of all nationalities
living pretty much all over the world. Mrs. Fisher is
consequently a person of broad sympathies, but the
predominant quality in her seems to be a clear-headed,
hearty New England Americanism. At one time or
another she has picked up a good knowledge of
French, German, Italian, Spanish and Danish. French
she acquired as a child tumbling about in the Paris
studio of her mother. Now her children are learning
their French in Paris.

After their marriage in 1907, Mr. and Mrs. Fisher
left New York and went hunting for a working and
living place far away from the city. On the side of
one of the Green Mountains, near the little village


of Arlington, Vermont, they found a fair approxi-
mation of what they were after. The old house al-
ready on the farm they made over to suit their needs
and wishes. A spring branch on the mountain side
was boxed up and the water piped down to the house.
An electric lighting plant was installed. A study en-
tirely separate from the house was built. Mr. and
Mrs. Fisher make no effort to have the farm culti-
vated. That is, they didn't in the good or bad old
days before the war. They were on it to live and
work, but not to bury themselves in agricultural de-
tails. The nearest approach to tilling the soil was
the garden, the re-foresting of the mountain side with
baby pine trees, and the rejuvenation of an ancient
saw mill to work up the scrub timber.

Arlington is "in no sense a literary rural com-
munity." The village has only a few hundred people
in it, is two miles away from the Fisher farm, and
its post-office has few manuscripts to handle either
way. In 1911-12, for variety, Mr. and Mrs. Fisher
went to Rome for the winter. It was there that she
made the acquaintance of Madame Montessori. An
American publisher was having trouble with the trans-
lation of Madame Montessori's book about her peda-
gogical system. Knowing that Mrs. Fisher was an
excellent Italian scholar and that she was already on
the ground, the publisher arranged for her assistance
with the translation. Almost every day of that win-
ter Mrs. Fisher was at the Casa di Bambini (Chil-
dren's House) looking after the translation and help-
ing to entertain and to explain the Montessori system
to commissions sent from England, France and other


European countries. The direct result of that winter
was Mrs. Fisher's A Montessori Mother, a simplifi-
cation and adaptation, in her delightfully easy and
half -humorous style, of the Italian system to the needs
of American mothers. Besides being published in the
United States, Canada, England and India this book
has been, translated into five foreign languages.

Mothers and Children appeared the next year and
four stories The Bent Twig, Hillsboro People, The
Real Motive and Understood Betsy preceded Home
Fires in France. Understood Betsy was promptly
translated into French, as was Hillsboro People, a col-
lection of New England short stories which sold in
the tens of thousands here and abroad. Mrs. Fisher
is a frequent contributor to French periodicals as well
as to the principal American magazines.


Corneille and Racine in England, 1904.
English Rhetoric and Composition (with Professor
G. R. Carpenter), 1906.

What Shall We Do Now? 1906.
Gunhild, 1907.
The Squirrel-Cage, 1912.
A Montessori Mother, 1913.
Mothers and Children, 1914.
The Bent Twig, 1915.
Hillsboro People, 1916.
The Real Motive, 1917.
Understood Betsy, 1917.
Home Fires in France, 1918.

Published by Henry Holt & Company, New York.



ON March 17, 1918, the author of this book had
the pleasure, as editor of Books and the Book
World of The Sun, New York, of printing
what is certainly the best account extant of Amelia
E. Barr within a reasonable length. Although the
article was unsigned it was the work of Mr. A. El-
wood Corning, who had been a neighbor of Mrs. Barr
at Richmond Hill, Long Island, New York. It was
based upon a personal visit and interview. This chap-
ter is really nothing more than a reprint of Mr. Corn-
ing's article with one or two slight changes to include
the six months which have elapsed since its appear-
ance and prior to the appearance of this book. To
Mr. Corning, then, the credit of this chapter.

Amelia E. Barr struck the popular taste more than
thirty years ago with her Bow of Orange Ribbon.
She is one of the most prolific of present-day writers
of fiction. Her latest novel, The Paper Cap, published
in the fall of 1918, brings the number of her books
up to over seventy, and this does not include hun-
dreds of short stories, a poem a week for fourteen
years, written for Bonner's Ledger, or the numerous
newspaper articles, essays and verses of the first four-
teen years of her literary life.



On March 29, 1918, Mrs. Barr entered her eighty-
eighth year. In the precedin'g twelye months she had
published three books, and shortly before her eighty-
seventh birthday (or the birthday which made her
eighty-seven years old!) she completed a fourth in
manuscript! This was The Paper Cap, the scenes of
which are laid in Yorkshire, England, where the nov-
elist spent a part of her childhood. Mrs. Barr thinks
it one of the best stories she has written. The paper
cap of the title is that of the workingman and the
story centers around his fight for the suffrage. It
was really a contest between the hand loom and the
power loom.

It was about 4 in the afternoon when Mr. Corning
reached Mrs. Barr's study on the visit which preceded
the preparation of his article. Mrs. Barr had been
writing since 7 that morning, with only a brief inter-
mission for luncheon, and was not feeling, she de-
clared, so well as usual. "This is one of mamma's
blue Mondays," said her daughter. But after she had
begun to discuss current events, some incidents of her
early life in Texas and above all the war Mrs. Barr
became animated. She is an interesting and enthusi-
astic talker with positive views, a power of unusually
apt expression and a mind keenly alert. Convinced
of a fact, she utters it with passionate force.

On this particular afternoon the manuscript of The
Paper Cap was lying on her writing table. "It will
be done to-morrow/' she said with the spirit of one
who looks upon the completion of a work which has
required much thought and painstaking labor. She
pushed the manuscript toward Mr. Corning; it was


as free of corrections and interpolations as if it had
been freshly copied from a former draft. Mrs. Barr
seldom changes what she first writes and always uses
sheets of yellow paper, finding this tint more restful
to her eyes than white.

When weary of building stories she hands the
manuscript over to a stenographer to be typewritten.
Mrs. Barr writes with a lead pencil. Going to a
drawer she brought out a box full of old pencil stubs,
some of which dated back to the days when she was
writing The Bow of Orange Ribbon. A few years ago
six or seven of these stubs were given to as many
friends, who had them tipped with gold and made
into shawl pins.

In personal appearance and dress Mrs. Barr is
typically English. She has a large face and marvel-
ous physique, is rapid of movement and lithe of step.
A flowing gown of some delicate shade is usually
worn loosely over a lace petticoat, and a beribboned
cap of lace and rosebuds or sometimes cowslips rests
becomingly on her silvery hair.

But the most striking characteristic of this remark-
able woman is the retention of so rfmch youthful vigor
and optimism, which she attributes to her English
ancestry. Born at Ulverton, Lancashire, England,
March 29, 1831, Amelia Barr is descended from a
long line of Saxon forebears, of whom the men for
generations had been either seamen or preachers of
the Gospel. Her father, the Rev. Dr. William Henry
Huddleston, was a scholar and a preacher of elo-
quence. The child's early education was largely under
his supervision. As he was a regular contributor to


English reviews, the little daughter was brought up
in a literary environment.

Before she was six she is said to have known inti-
mately the tales of the Arabian Nights, and nothing
pleased her more in those days than to be the recipient
of a new book, a pleasure seldom afforded her. She
would often accompany her father on his preaching
itineraries through the fishing villages and thus be-
came a lover of the sea, from which she doubtless
formed impressions which have disclosed themselves
in her fiction.

At eighteen she was sent to a Free Kirk seminary in
Glasgow, where she remained until her marriage to
Robert Barr in July, 1850. For three years the young
couple lived in Scotland. Here Mrs. Barr made the
acquaintance of Henry Ward Beecher, who years
later was able to help her begin her career as a writer.

Failure in business compelled the Barrs to come to
America. They first came to New York, where the
future novelist saw for the first time to her great de-
light ready-made dresses and oranges, a fruit not
easily procurable in the north of England or Scotland.

The Barrs with their two little daughters soon went
West, locating in Chicago. After a time misfortune
drove them South. They went first to Austin, later
to Galveston, Texas. The history of these eventful
and sorrowful years is told in Mrs. Barr's autobiog-
raphy, The Red Leaves of a Human Heart.

In Austin success was sandwiched in with failure,
disappointments and heartaches. In those early days
on the frontier there was a great scarcity of many
things which went to make up home life. When Mrs.


Barr came to America she had been told that she was
going into a desolate and savage country in which
there were none of the comforts of life and where
none could be obtained. So she brought with her a
great assortment of useful articles, such as needles,
tape, sewing cotton (linens, silks, etc.). Finding that
they had more than they wanted of such things, the
Barrs traded some of them for tea and other staple
articles of food.

Despite vicissitudes Mrs. Barr never neglected her
reading or the daily instruction of her children. The
noon hour was reserved for study and at that time no
one was permitted to disturb her. She could be seen
daily sitting with a young baby on her lap by the open
door of her log house partaking of the noonday meal
and reading at the same time. In all, Mrs. Barr had
fifteen children. Three daughters are now living, one
the wife of Kirk Munro, the popular writer for boys.

In ,spite of her large family Mrs. Barr found time
to accomplish things outside household duties. Dur-
ing the Civil War, for example, articles of amusement
were few. One was put to great inconvenience in
securing games. So Mrs. Barr, an enthusiastic whist
player, painted a pack of cards, which were to those
who remember them a most real counterpart of an
original set.

At the close of the war the Barrs moved to Galves-
ton, and there, in 1867, Mrs. Barr experienced the
overwhelming sorrow of her life. Yellow fever en-
tered her home. The whole family was stricken, and
before Mrs. Barr herself had fully recovered she suf-
fered the loss of her husband and three little sons.


After endeavoring to support herself and three
daughters in the South she came with them to New
York in the fall of 1869.

One day she was asked if she could write stories
and replied that she had often written them for the
amusement of her children but had destroyed them
after they had served their purpose. She promised
to try again and received $30 for the effort.

"What, $30 for that article ?" she exclaimed. "Why,
I can write three or four of them a week."

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 19 21 22 23

Online LibraryGrant Martin OvertonThe women who make our novels. → online text (page 19 of 23)