Thursday, May 3, 2007

Edna, unedited

The "Lost Books" essay I wrote about Edna Ferber (and directed you to earlier this week) was reposted at Nextbook because her novel Show Boat "has just been re-issued in a handsome facsimile of the 1926 first edition." I didn't write that sentence, obviously, since it wasn't the case when I wrote this essay, and so I can't attest to the handsomeness of the new edition firsthand, but it has to be better than the edition on my shelf. When I was researching that piece, I worked from a beat-up Fawcett paperback printed in 1971 or shortly thereafter. It had tiny print, a musty smell, and a torn front cover -- which unfortunately did not do much to obscure the cover illustration, a hideous, borderline-psychedelic collage of playing cards, women in large hats, riverboats and other plot elements. A Google search has turned up nothing, but when I get my hands on a digital camera I will have to show you what it looks like, because trust me, this cover puts the "mar" in "mass-market paperback." (Did you like that? Should I have gone with "ass" instead? I was torn.)

Anyway, I am glad that Edna's once-popular novel is being rereleased, since its greatness is questionable but its significance is not. And I think facsimile editions are a smart way to go, especially for an author as stuck in her own time as Ferber seems to be. She wrote at a weird period in fiction history, and from a weird perspective; her influences and models are clearly Victorian/late 19th-century, but her audience was very 20th-century, and modern society was her favorite subject. The result is an odd narrative voice -- idiosyncratic, and not entirely under her control -- and an even odder clash between the modernity she keeps claiming and the old-fashioned references she keeps making.

Show Boat shows its age on the very first page, where Ferber, doing her best Dickensian commentary, discusses the unfortunate Christian name of the novel's eventual protagonist, Kim Ravenal. A woman named "Kim"! Can you imagine! Ferber describes Kim as "the absurd monosyllable which comprises her given name" (the consequence of having been born on a riverboat traveling through Kentucky, Illinois and Mississippi) -- and this goes on for four paragraphs. Maybe this material killed in 1926, but if you've ever met, or heard of, a woman named Kim, you may find Ferber's opening more bewildering than ingratiating. One more example: later in that chapter, she observes (of Kim's mother, Magnolia): "Yet here she was -- and had been for ten years -- leading an existence which would have made that of the Stratford strollers seem orderly and prim by comparison." Even Google has no idea what that means.

Ferber was an interesting woman -- though how her existence compared to that of the Stratford strollers, I cannot say -- and I think I liked reading her two memoirs (A Peculiar Treasure and A Kind of Magic) better than any of her fiction. In every case she seems to be writing mostly about herself, no mater what her ostensible subject is, and it can be uncomfortable to watch her work out her issues with overbearing mothers, unmarried women and so on in story after story. She also writes about the creative process a lot, and refers to the art of the novel in her narration in not-so-organic ways. So it can be a relief to read her in her own voice, when the only story she's telling is her own. Also, as a fiction writer she was drawn to exotic locales and subject matter, but she had more to say about the cities she'd lived in, Chicago and New York, and so most of her novels visit one or both at some point in the story (however inorganic that might be). It's at those moments when she shines most vividly, as in this passage from Show Boat (discussing the popularity of gambling in Chicago):
New York, eyeing her Western cousin through disapproving lorgnettes, said, "What a crude and vulgar person!"

"Me!" blustered Chicago, dabbing futilely at the food and wine spots on her broad satin bosom. "Me! I'll learn you I'm a lady."
Ferber's satire remains sharp, even when her targets are quaintly historical, and happily you can find it in most of her books. It is a fascinating window on an era (and on one outsized personality), and so I like the idea of reading Show Boat in a facsimile of the first edition, rather than in a mass-market reissue. Rather than dressing it up as something it's not (a romance novel, a breathless page-turner, a good beach read), make it look like what it is: a book widely read at a certain period in history, whose popularity may tell us something valuable about American culture in the 1920s. When you're reading from a page that looks like it was printed in the 1920s, you can't help remembering that what you're reading was written for an audience of another time. Meanwhile, preserving the original punctuation and spelling is time-saving for modern editors (especially for an author whose punctuation was as erratic as Ferber's), and sometimes adds a touch of charm: when the McChesney stories were first published, "phone" was considered slangy enough to merit a little apostrophe in place of the dropped "tele-."

There's another reason to favor facsimile editions of classic works: any typos and textual errors will be the fault of the very first editors -- the ones who turned out text on big typesetting machines, and therefore had a better excuse for the occasional mis-set character -- and your publishing company won't be expected to catch them. New technology has given us the means to introduce new errors -- the garbled passage from Middlemarch I blogged about seems to have resulted partly from an electronic drag-and-drop function gone haywire -- and spellcheck can't stand in for a real life proofreader. So if you do choose to turn out new editions of old books, and you don't plan to hire a proofreader, a facsimile edition may be the most honorable way to go. I read Giant, Saratoga Trunk and So Big in their 2000 Perennial Classics editions, and I should probably applaud Perennial for reprinting them at all. The covers are attractive and inviting, even if they do seem to imply that Ferber won the Pulitzer Prize for all three books (she actually won in 1924, for So Big). But if they wanted to do Edna a favor, they might have hired a proofreader. I submit these three sentences from So Big:
"...We leave the university architectural course thinking we're all going to be Stanford Whites or Cass Gilberts, tossing of a Woolworth building and making ourselves famous overnight."
Tossing off, of course. That's an easy one. Next?
The widow stepped agilely into her own neat phaeton with its sleep horse and was off down the hard snowless road, her head high.
That was a "sleek" horse, I'm guessing? And my favorite, from that same page (50, if you're playing along at home):
Selina would smile and not rather nervously, feeling you, frivolous, and somehow guilty.
My best guess is that "not" should be "nod," and "you" should be "young." But I'm open to other ideas. Publishing companies of the world, repeat after me: spellcheck is not a proofreader!

On the other hand, I read Fanny Herself and Personality Plus (the latter a collection of short stories about Emma McChesney, Ferber's popular businesswoman heroine) in facsimile editions from the University of Illinois Press. It would be a stretch to call these "handsome," at least from the outside (seriously, canary yellow? Whose idea was that?), but the old-fashioned type and the engraved illustrations are a very nice complement to the text. But flip over Fanny Herself and check out the back cover -- you can do this virtually using Amazon's "search inside" feature -- where the book is given the subtitle The Business Adventures of Emma McChesney. Looks like somebody forgot to cut that part when they copied-and-pasted the back-cover copy from Roast Beef, Medium. Whoops.

So, to sum up: Edna Ferber? One of a kind. Publishing new editions of her out-of-print works? Admirable. Proofreaders? The undervalued heroes of the literary world. Hug one today.

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