Edna Ferber: Rediscovering a Literary Giant
When candidate Donald Trump first promised to build a wall, my mind flashed to a scene from the 1956 film Giant, staring James Dean, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor. Rock Hudson’s character in the scene—Bick Benedict—is an aging, wealthy Texas rancher, who reaches a sudden epiphany when Sarge, the diner’s owner, refuses to serve a Mexican-American family.
Bick at first takes a diplomatic approach, politely asking Sarge to be nicer to the family he’s about to kick out of his diner. Sarge refuses and the situation escalates into a graceless fist fight, complete with a stirring military rendition of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”
Up until that point in the film, Bick had accepted the racist conventions of his Texas rancher-culture, arguing with his wife Leslie—Elizabeth Taylor’s liberated and unconventional character in the film—over her more enlightened perception of race relations on the Texas border.
Early in their marriage when Bick learns Leslie has visited the segregated and impoverished Mexican-American community where his ranch employees and their families live, he tells her, “You're my wife, Mrs. Jordan Benedict, and I'm asking you right now -- when are you going to settle down and behave like everybody else? It's none of your business, fixing the world. Why don't you join a club!"
But by the time Bick faces off against Sarge in that diner, Bick and Leslie have a Mexican-American daughter-in-law and a grandson Sarge calls a “papoose.” Racism suddenly becomes personal for Bick.
The fight doesn’t go well for him. It ends when Sarge lands one big punch, sending Bick flat on his back, smashed into a broken table and bowls of green salad. Sarge unceremoniously drops a sign on Bick’s chest which reads: “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.”
Yet as Leslie tells Bick at the end of the film, this fight had at last—after more than twenty years of marriage—made him her hero. “You want to know something, Leslie?” he replies. “If I live to be ninety, I will never figure you out.”
Back to the Book
For me, living now in a Trumpian world, Giant has never seemed more relevant. And as racist rhetoric reached unimaginable levels in 2017, and calls for “the wall” became less a racist fantasy and more a racist reality, I decided to go back to the movie’s source—Edna Ferber’s Giant, published in 1952. I’d read it as a teenager. In fact, I’d read many of Ferber’s novels in high school: Showboat, Cimarron, Saratoga Trunk, and Giant.
The Giant I read in the late 1960s or early 1970s was a yellowed paperback with a picture of Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor on the cover. Mother had probably bought it in the 1950s after the movie was released, then stored it with her paperback copy of Gone With the Wind in the top left-hand drawer of the guest bedroom dresser. Apparently both books were too racy for a preacher’s wife to display on a bookshelf.
Now all these years later, I wondered if the diner scene was in the novel. I couldn’t remember. Did Edna Ferber tackle issues of racism, sexism, and greed in her original? Would I be disappointed in the novel? The movie, after all, remains one of my favorites.
I wasn’t disappointed, although the diner scene, strictly speaking, was added to the film by its director George Stevens. But a confrontation in a “roadside lunch room” occurs in the closing pages of the novel too. Bick isn’t in this scene—only Leslie, their daughter, and their Mexican-American daughter-in-law and grandson. The four of them sit down at a “metal table with chairs upholstered in scarlet imitation leather.”1
From behind the counter, a man’s voice tells them, “’We don’t serve Mexicans here.’” Leslie asks for an explanation, and the man tells her, “’Our rule is no Mexicans served…. So—out!” As a parting shot, Leslie’s daughter calls the diner’s owner a “son of a bitch,” but there’s no fight—only frustration and resignation. Leslie shepherds the family back out to the car and they leave the shiny, new lunchroom hungry.2
Later, Leslie sums up the situation this way: “’We’re furious because of what that ignorant bigot did. But we all know this has been going on for years and years. It’s always happened to other people. Now it’s happened to us.’”3
From Leslie’s perspective, “it’s the world that matters,” and her family—including her husband Bick—should have been outraged at this kind of racism all along, not simply when it was directed personally at them.4
Ferber’s scene isn’t as dramatic as the film’s version, but its point is deeper and perhaps even more relevant in 2018 than in 1952.
Ahead of Her Time
As I reread Giant, I discovered scene after scene where Ferber makes similar points. Leslie is shocked by the living conditions in the Mexican-American community where ranch employees live. She questions the low wages ranchers pay them and the corrupt political system that manipulates every aspect of their lives. Over the course of the novel, Leslie sets to work—one woman taking on an entire culture.
In one of my favorite scenes, Leslie watches a “Mexican family”—husband wife, and children—observing artifacts and paintings in the Alamo. She stands there “in the room that had become a sort of shrine to the arrogant swaggering giant—Texas—“ and wonders how the Mexican parents interpret that history for their children: “the brave white Americans rising superior over the dark-skinned Mexicans.” Leslie asks herself, “which was right and which was wrong?... And which was aggressor and which defender?”5
Much later in the novel, when Bick and Leslie’s son chooses to practice medicine with a Mexican-American doctor serving Mexican-American patients, one of their old friends—a judge and Texas political insider — says, “’I suppose Jordy’s starting off using the Mexicans like a clinic, more. For experience—observation—so forth.’” Bick doesn’t respond, yet he recognizes, at least internally, the underlying racism in the judge’s observation.6
At the end of the novel, Bick is quietly enlightened by the changes in his own family but unwilling to take a public stance. Leslie, on the other hand, remains an activist. When Juana, Leslie and Bick’s daughter-in-law, says, “’The school for the Latin children is a disgrace,’” Leslie replies, “’I know…. We must just keep on working.’”7
Leslie is a character ahead of her time—both within the context of the novel, and now within the context of political activism in the 21st century. She is determined to persist.
We Must Just Keep On Working
Although Ferber had taken on racism, sexism, and greed in her earlier novels, she was attacked as never before for these themes in Giant. As she wrote in her memoir, A Kind of Magic: “Headlines in black letters two inches high streamed across the pages of Texas newspapers. This Ferber is a liar and a criminal. We think she ought to be caught and hanged here in Texas and we’ll arrange the hanging and choose the people to hold the rope. The drop should send her through a sheet of glass below the scaffold so that she’ll be cut into hamburgers when she falls. She’s an idiot. She doesn’t know Texas. She’ll be shot if ever she dares to show her face again in Texas. Letters. Telephone calls. Animal rage.”8
This kind of attack sounds unsettlingly familiar more than sixty years later. The themes and ideas Ferber tackled are still with us—but they’ve spilled over beyond Giant into a larger, more polarized national debate.
Now all these months later, I understand why events back in 2016 sent me first, to that scene from the film in Giant, and then on to the novel itself. As Leslie advises in Giant, we must just keep on working to create a more enlightened, compassionate, and diverse society with opportunities for all. There’s nothing dated or old-fashioned about this idea.
When Ferber died in 1968, an obituary in the New York Times acknowledged that her books were vivid and demonstrated a “sound sociological basis.” But, the writer complained, her work was not “profound.”9
And yet, to quote another great American writer initially dismissed for similar reasons, what is more profound than the “unfinished work” ahead—for all of us?10
1. Edna Ferber, Giant (HarperCollins e-books, 2013), 375.
2. Ibid., 375-376.
3. Ibid., 378.
5. Ibid., 248-250.
6. Ibid., 366.
7. Ibid., 372.
8. Edna Ferber, A Kind of Magic (New York: Doubleday), 173.
9. _____, Giant, 391.
10. Abraham Lincoln, “The Gettysburg Address,” http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm.