What writing is…

The “quick Christmas break research project” that I began two and a half years ago keeps leading to new things, most of which I’m recording at my Newspaper Heroes on the Air site (jheroes.com for short), which is primarily about the golden age of radio drama, and how print journalists were portrayed on the radio. But some of the radio adventures I document there were based on movies, some on history books, biographies or novels, and some on movies that were based on books.

All of those themes will fit into my fall course on Portrayal of the Journalist in Popular Culture. So I have gone from the early “research” of falling asleep listening to Superman, Green Hornet and Soldiers of the Press episodes to checking the film and print sources of the radio dramas,  watching the movies, reading the novels, paging through the histories and biographies, looking up the old newspaper stories, and once in a while finding a jewel of a quote like this:

Only amateurs say that they write for their own amusement. Writing is not an amusing occupation. It is a combination of ditch-digging, mountain-climbing, treadmill and childbirth. Writing may be interesting,absorbing,exhilarating, racking, relieving. But amusing? Never!
–Edna Ferber, A Peculiar Treasure, 1940, p.5

I guess that’s reason enough to my meandering train of thoughts spill over into this “Other Journalism” blog, making it more of a “my summer reading” discussion.  A Peculiar Treasure is an early autobiography by Ms. Ferber, an author I hadn’t read until a radio item led me to a movie, which led to one book, then another and another and another.

Ferber was born in 1885 and lived until 1968, almost 30 more years after deciding to turn introspective and write that biography… which touches on her ancestors’ lives in Hungary and Germany, her parents lives in Chicago, and her birth in “that faintly improbable-sounding town called Kalamazoo, Michigan.”

“… In that way perhaps I may be able to discover what I am doing at a typewriter in a penthouse apartment on top of a roof on Park Avenue, New York.”

The books, plays and movies that got her to that penthouse interest me, too, as do her reflections on being Jewish in early 20th century America, growing up with the publishing world in New York and the movie world of Hollywood. (She also wrote ShowBoat and Giant, among other less-newspaperish works.) But my main interest is journalism and the way journalists are portrayed in her books, in preparation for my  course in the fall. So my new summer reading is books by and about Edna Ferber. And I wasn’t surprised to find where her writing career began — although 17 was an earlier age than I expected:

“There never had been a woman reporter in Appleton. The town, broad-minded though it was, put me down as definitely cuckoo. Not crazy, but strange. Big-town newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and the Milwaukee Sentinel employed women on their editorial and reportorial staffs, but usually these were what is known as special or feature writers, or they conducted question-and-answer columns, advice to the lovelorn, society columns or woman’s pages. But at seventeen on the Appleton Crescent I found myself covering a regular news beat like any man reporter. I often was embarrassed, sometimes frightened, frequently offended and offensive, but I enjoyed it, and knowing what I know today I wouldn’t swap that year and a half of small town newspaper reporting for any four years of college education…. I learned how to sketch in human beings with a few rapid words, I learned to see, to observe to remember; learned, in short, the first rules of writing.”
–Edna Ferber, A Peculiar Treasure, 1940, p.103

My own starting point with Edna Ferber was a pair of radio adaptations of a movie made from one of her novels, part of my investigation of more than three dozen radio adaptations of movies with journalists in them. Even though the radio scripts of “Cimarron” were short on details, they  featured a fascinating “newspaper” couple: a gunslinger-lawyer-editor, and his semi-abandoned wife, who takes over the newspaper and builds a career that takes her to Congress.

They have the unlikely “frontier” names of  Yancey and Sabra Cravat, and you can hear the rather thin radio adaptation of the Cimarron story at jheroes.com. For the 1931 Academy Award winning film adaptation, you will have to look elsewhere — but don’t settle for the 1960 version, which strays far from Ferber’s original. I went from there to the original novel, which has much more to say about American myths and themes like race, region and “the frontier,” than either movie attempted. The tale of the film adaptations itself is fascinating, told in another book on my summer shelf, Edna Ferber’s Hollywood.

From there, a little biographical and  bibliographical searching easily uncovered the fact that Ferber started writing as a 17-year-old newspaper reporter, and that her first novel was also about a young woman with a newspaper job, Dawn O’Hara, the Girl Who Laughed, which is now out of copyright and available in free e-book and LibriVox audiobook editions.

My most recent discovery: Not only was Ferber a newspaper reporter before becoming a Pulitzer-winning novelist and playwright, now she has become a somewhat fictional creation herself! A gentleman named Ed Ifkovic has turned her into a character in a series of mystery novels that involve even more famous people she knew, or might have known. The cover of one has James Dean, one of the stars of the film adaptation of her book, Giant. Another features escape artist Harry Houdini, and is set back in Appleton, Wisc., where Ferber got her start as a reporter right out of high school. That, of course, got me curious and clicking on Google again…

Fiction? Here, from the Appleton Public Library’s Edna Ferber page, is the young Ms. Ferber’s 1904 interview with Houdini.

mild-mannered reporter who sank into computers and the Web during graduate school in the 1980s and '90s, then taught journalism, media studies and Web production, retiring to write and play more music.

Posted in History, j-heroes, Journalism, Newspapers, popular culture, writing

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