Edna Ferber's Giant was a bestseller in 1952, the first year it was published. Americans swarmed to read the latest offering from Ferber, an author whose presence on the bestseller list was not uncommon. Giant was vintage Ferber, boasting a blend of great storytelling with poignant commentary on American social issues. It also included some of the author's most popular and recurring themes, and used as a backdrop the author's familiar setting of the United States. The societal faction Ferber addressed in this novel was Texas high society, a subject that sparked the interest of readers across the country. Moreover, Ferber's often brutal attack on the arrogance and discriminatory practices characteristic of these Lone Star contingents initiated enough controversy within and without Texas to further catalyze sales of the book. Ironically, critics' assaults on the validity of Ferber's claims in Giant caused the novel to sell even more copies. The release of the motion picture Giant four years after the publication of the novel reinvigorated sales of Ferber's acclaimed work and reaffirmed its position as a bestseller. Thus, from Ferber's renown as an author, to the curiosity of Americans that stemmed from the interest and controversy surrounding the work, to the production of a movie version of the book, a conglomerate of factors contributed to the success of Edna Ferber's Giant and reveal much about American bestsellers.
Ferber's writing career essentially began in 1910 when her story "The Homely Heroine" was published in "Everybody's Magazine." In her early years as a writer she published several collections of short stories, including "The Emma McChesney Stories." In 1924, her novel So Big placed her in distinguished company by capturing the Pulitzer Prize. Two years later she published her next bestseller, Show Boat, and in the three decades following this novel she wrote a myriad of short story collections and novels, including the popular American Beauty and Come and Get It. Indeed, by the time Giant was published in 1952, Ferber had established herself as one of the most prolific and widely read authors of her time. It came as no surprise then, that the release of her Texas saga at the twilight of her career was accompanied by widespread sales. Not only was the novel critically acclaimed by many and an entertaining read, but it rode on the coattails of its author's reputation to near the top of the bestsellers list.
The trend of a writer's notoriety augmenting the sales of his or her works is not an uncommon one with bestsellers. Indeed, it is a pattern that still exists in contemporary culture. Books written by modern-day authors such as Tom Clancy and Stephen King almost assuredly become bestsellers simply because of the fame and fan base their writers have garnered through their careers. Though the book may not be up to par with the author's previous works or even measure up well against the works of an individual's less reputable peers, readers will buy it based on their affinity for the writer's earlier novels. In regard to Ferber's Giant, this reality holds true. The novel was not without its detractors, and critics made claims as to Ferber's regression in her ability to write as well in the later years of her life. Her renown with American readers was intact, however, and her popularity drove Giant past her negative reviewers and up to a position with her earlier best selling works. As this success shows, a new novel by a preeminent author can transcend criticism and a lack of pure literary merit because of the dedication and anticipation of its previously established readership.
Themes present in Ferber's earlier works manifest themselves in Giant through her controversial observations and criticisms of the wealthy in Texas. Phoebe Lou Adams explains this in a 1952 review of the book:
Two themes not usually classed as entertainment have appeared in most of
(Ferber's) novels. One is the corrosive effect of money, and the other is the evil of group prejudices. Texas, rich and frankly anti-Mexican, was made to order as a showcase for these topics.
"The corrosive effect of money" and "the evil of group prejudices" were topics addressed in popular Ferber novels preceding Giant, such as the story of the settling of Oklahoma and the discrimination against American Indians that Ferber portrays in 1930's Cimarron. The characteristic Ferber blend of fun-to-read storytelling with a thematic consciousness of modern day society was a fusion that proved to be successful in Ferber's novels prior to 1952, and one that once again proved fruitful in Giant. Thus, the novel proves that the success of a new book from a best selling author cannot only be augmented by the writer's reputation, but can also be sustained by recognizable and contemporarily applicable themes.
Ferber's affinity for writing about distinguished areas of America was the background for her works that helped vault Ferber's novels to best selling status. For instance, the mighty Mississippi River is the setting for her Show Boat, and Alaska is the site of her Ice Palace. As a result, Ferber's novels were known for being very American, and indicative, for the most part, of the people and land that define the United States. Not surprisingly, Ferber's focus on her nation's makeup was a huge draw for readers, who indulged in reading stories about the country in which they inhabited and to which they could personally relate. Another best selling author whose appeal to American geography and people is James Michener. With novels like Chesapeake, Texas, and Alaska, Michener has a reputation, much like Ferber's in her time, as a writer who puts his homeland at the heart of his books' setting and characters. In fact, one advertisement's claims of Michener's Alaska as being "a 1,100 page novel as monumental as its subject" is strikingly similar to John Barkham's review of Ferber's Giant as "the apotheosis of the (Texas) grandoise." Through their success in appealing to nationalist pride in the land and people of the United States, Ferber and Michener elucidate how important such a characteristic can be to the sales of an American novel.
The controversy and reactionary effects of Ferber's attack on the wealthy in Texas provoked further interest in Giant and, in turn, boosted its sales. Pulling no punches, Ferber criticized issues at the core of the arrogance and superficiality that typifies Texas society. The Texans' discrimination against the native Mexicans, or Tex-Mex people, their infatuation with size as equated to worth, and the inferiority of women in a society dominated by men were the three main issues Ferber addressed throughout the novel. The Dictionary of Literary Biography sums up the author's views on Texas, stating:
She seemed to think that Texans regarded their state as superior to the rest of the
United States, and this attitude conflicted with her own ideas about America.
Ferber saw America as an amalgamation of different religions and ethnicities,
none any better than the others, and resented the chauvinism which she found in
The Lone Star state glorified as a territory of vast, natural beauty and a traditionally mannerly and orderly way of life was thus exposed by a woman disgusted by its upper class's elitist tendencies and crippling segregation. Needless to say, the state's champions were aghast at Ferber's gall in her attack on Texas' shortcomings, but her fortitude in the expression of her beliefs lit a fire of curiosity throughout the American readership.
Critics of Giant responded with a rebuttal against the legitimacy of Ferber's claims, arguing that she was in no position to offer an accurate account of the true lifestyle of those with wealth and status in Texas. Yet these detractors' responses merely fueled the fire of public interest initially lit by the controversy of Ferber's attacks, and did little to slow the book's sales or popularity. Further, there were enough advocates of the author's research upon the Texas lifestyle that spoke up to support her claims. One such critic was William Kittrell, who wrote, "Miss Ferber has done a lot of homework on this book, and there is some meat in it." In short, the initial uproar over Ferber's societal assaults and the critical arguments concerning the verity of her claims culminated into widespread interest in Giant among the American public. The Texas-based novel thus displayed the powerful influence that public contention can have on the popularity of a bestseller.
By benefiting from its controversial topics, Giant belongs in the category of those bestsellers whose hubbub surrounding their publishing augmented their sales. Another example of a novel that profited from the same sort of public clamor is Grace Metalious' Peyton Place. As opposed to the vastness of Texas that was the focus of Ferber's novel, Metalious' primary concern was small town New England. Yet much like Ferber, Metalious' book also exposed underlying wrongs that prevailed behind the publicly accepted picture of society, a mirage the book calls the "straitlaced New England of the popular imagination." The controversy surrounding Peyton Place propelled the novel to the top of the bestseller list and Metalious into the public spotlight. Both Ferber's and Metalious' works offer prime examples of how the status of some bestsellers can be attributed, at least partially, to the public outcry and brimming curiosity that drive them to the top of the sales charts.
The release of the motion picture Giant in 1956 brought Ferber's novel back into national prominence and reveals another key factor concerning bestsellers. The popularity of the movie upon its release was due in large part to its inclusion of James Dean as the character of Jett Rink. Dean was only played a leading role in three major motion pictures before his untimely death in 1955. But with his performances in an adaptation of John Steinbeck's East of Eden and the classic Rebel Without A Cause, the public was in great anticipation over the release of his final picture. The late actor was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in Giant, and the film solidified his status as the quintessential young Hollywood icon. In turn, the movie drew widespread attention once again to Ferber's novel. And though the picture did not vault her book back into the ranks of bestseller in 1956, it nonetheless enhanced sales of the work and fortified Giant's position as an American classic.
The ability of a motion picture to augment the popularity of a work of literature after its initial publication has been a reliable trend since films first became a staple of American entertainment culture. A contemporary example that parallels the influence of Warner Brothers' Giant is the 1993 movie adaptation of John Grisham's The Firm following the novel's stance as a bestseller in 1991. Starring Tom Cruise, one of the most popular and talked-about actors in Hollywood, the film made millions at the box office and increased sales of Grisham's novel. The movie proved what many pictures, including Giant, before it had; that a motion picture adaptation of a best selling novel can heighten the demand for the work once again.
So Edna Ferber's Giant reveals much about the popularity and status of the American bestseller. For one, it is a novel that, like many preceding and proceeding it, benefits significantly from its author's previous works and resulting reputation as an entertaining and enlightening writer. Following this pattern, the book focuses on thematic purposes that have captured the Ferber reader in earlier writings. Further, the background of the work fits another description of many great American novels, for it is set in the homeland of its readership. The characteristic of some bestsellers perhaps most contributory to Giant's success is the existence of controversy and opposing arguments surrounding the book's publication, and the blossoming curiosity of the American public that this uproar directly causes. And finally, like many best selling works, the release of other multimedia entities, such as a motion picture, augments the sales and continued affinity of the reader for the novel. Indeed, Ferber's Giant discloses that the road to the bestsellers list is not one that happens by chance or merely one or two characteristics. Rather, it is a distinguished position only achieved through a combination of the novel's attributes and the appropriate public response to its publication. And this necessary amalgamation that vaults a book to high status is true in contemporary culture just as it was before the writing of Ferber's Lone Star classic.
ENTC 312 Database
Dictionary of Literary Biography
Contemporary Literary Criticism
Peyton Place, by Grace Metalious
Giant, by Edna Ferber