If we think about Edna Ferber at all today, and we should, it’s likely as a writer whose novels were the fodder for works that have become better known than the books they came from, not only Giant, but also Show Boat (1926) and So Big (1924) and Cimarron (1929) and Saratoga Trunk (1941). Ferber belongs squarely to the tradition of the popular writer of big-scale narratives that sprawl over years, an honorable job occupied today — at its best — by the likes of Amor Towles and Donna Tartt, and for which there is always some critic around to tell us that this is not literature. The question of whether “literature” can ever be what gets people reading in the first place and, more crucially, keeps them reading, is not one that tends to arise in what Terry Southern once called “the Quality Lit Biz.”
And yet, in its withering critique of its subject, and in Ferber’s sly subversion of genre conventions while still delivering a thoroughly entertaining read, Giant is a fascinating novel, a wasp disguised as a possum. Ferber lures the reader in with a love story, provides the conflicts and bust-ups and reconciliations that mark it as such, all the while refusing almost all the satisfactions one associates with love stories.
On the surface, Giant fits squarely within the romantic tradition of a headstrong man taming a rebellious woman, who ends up all the happier for it. Only, by the time Giant was published, there had already been a couple of decades of pushback undermining that model. Two decades before, screwball comedies like My Man Godfrey (1936) and Bringing Up Baby (1938) and The Lady Eve (1941) had featured romances wherein the male characters are so befuddled that they’re almost relieved to let the heroines run the show.
The biggest blow to the model of dominating man and subservient, adoring woman came in 1936 when Margaret Mitchell published Gone with the Wind. Audiences loved Scarlett O’Hara, in both the book and movie versions, precisely because she was such a schemer and thus, as much as the conventions of her time would allow, the equal of Rhett Butler. Theirs was less a love story than a partnership of piratical egos, both out for themselves, amused and excited to find their opposite-sex incarnation. For all the outrage about the movie as a piece of Lost Cause propagandizing, film historian James Harvey came closer than anyone to grasping its appeal when he characterized it as a “tough comedy.” Gone with the Wind is the only Hollywood epic with something of the cheerful cynicism and snappish sarcasm that had characterized the best movies of its decade. Do you know anyone who enjoyed it for Ashley and Melanie?
The relationship in Giant between Virginia-by-way-of-Ohio socialite Leslie Lynnton and Texas cattleman Jordan “Bick” Benedict isn’t the avaricious union of Rhett and Scarlett. It hews more closely to a sweep-her-off-her-feet story. Leslie meets Bick when he’s a guest in her family home and, in short order, marries him and relocates to Reata, his enormous Texas ranch. There she raises a family and spends her married years trying and failing to change her husband. She loves him nonetheless for his headstrong, shallow self.
Provincialism in some people is quaint, but Bick’s limited worldview has all the charm of a Cadillac outfitted with steer horns on the grille, blasting down a two-lane blacktop at 90 miles per hour. He’s not a bully and only occasionally a boor. But nothing gets in his way and anything that tries to is in danger of getting run over.
Bick doesn’t change, but neither does Leslie. She never gives in to Bick. She never blunts her criticism of the awful conditions in which his Mexican workers live, the starvation wages he pays them. Eventually, both improve (under Leslie’s influence, it’s implied), but for every appeal Leslie makes to Bick’s (extremely limited) sense of decency and fairness, he responds with some variation of “those people have their own way of doing things.” Leslie doesn’t fall for that. She knows poverty and sickness aren’t folkways. But she’s also a bit of a sucker.
The first thing Leslie does when she meets Bick, as her father’s guest in the family home, is to stay up all night reading about Texas, soaking up its history. And she doesn’t sugarcoat it when, the next morning at breakfast, she greets Bick with, “We really stole Texas, didn’t we? I mean. Away from Mexico.” She’s not trying to provoke an argument. She’s just stating the facts, and who, she wonders, can dispute facts? But a short while later, she’s gushing, “It’s so fascinating. It’s another world, it sounds so big and new and different. I love it. The cactus and the cowboys and the Alamo and the sky and the horses and the Mexicans and the freedom. It’s really American, isn’t it. I’m — I’m in love with it.”
And for all the ways she will challenge Bick — to treat his workers as people, to be less dogmatic about the futures he envisions for their children (Bick sees their son, Jordy, who wants to be a doctor, taking over the family cattle business and their daughter, Luz, the one really suited to business, as a Texas wife) — Leslie succumbs to the colorful romance of Texas life, both the history and storybook versions, and never wakes up from it. Oh, she’ll have her moments of revulsion: passing out at a barbecue in her honor when she sees the guests reaching into a mesquite-grilled calves’ head to scoop out “the solid gelid brains and placing them on fresh pieces of bread with a bit of salt sprinkled on top.” And she never accepts that a woman shouldn’t have a say in the men’s business of politics. But the romantic hold that her husband — and, through him, Texas itself — has on her finally overwhelms the common sense of the life she left behind. She does get Bick to agree to build a human-scaled house for the two of them, something airier and more pleasant than the dark manse filled with hunting trophies and paintings of Herefords and chairs the size of couches and furniture adorned with horns.
But if you read carefully, you realize that, other than the new house, Leslie never gets one thing she wants, not even the books she wants to order from Brentano’s to supplement Reata’s “library,” which consists of issues of The Cattleman’s Gazette, a Webster’s Dictionary, copies of A Girl of the Limberlost and The Sheik. (The particularized poverty of those selections — a trade journal, an unconsulted reference book, a children’s classic, and a racy best seller — conveys the withering wit Ferber cushions in what appear to be plain descriptions.) “Oh, you won’t do much reading out here,” Bick says when Leslie asks for some new volumes. “Here in Texas there’s so much more to do. You won’t have time to read.”
But she does have time to become something like the author of her own romance. She translates what she’s read and the sheer size of what she sees — everything, from the land itself to the platters of food borne out for every meal, exists on a mammoth scale — into a kind of romance in which Bick is a hero big enough to belong in such vastness. She doesn’t abandon her principles, but her stubbornness never turns into rebellion. Eventually, having won the man who fires her imagination and desire, she settles into domestic comfort, known for being outspoken but no real threat to the order of things.
In her 1978 biography of her Great Aunt Edna, Ferber’s niece Julie Goldsmith Gilbert quoted the author talking about her initial visit to Texas:
The whole region was as virile and fascinating as it was vast. It was all drawn on a scale larger than life. There was about it a tremendous vitality. It was incredible that a whole people could possess such energy, such self-complacency, such enthusiasm for living in the midst of this hurly-burly of heat, dust, glare, great distance and much discomfort.
I mean no disrespect to Ferber when I say that that has to be one of the greatest pieces of public relations any writer has ever come up with, even though she does manage to slide “self-complacency” in among the other adjectives. In any event, Texas didn’t buy it. Texas reviewers hated the book, seeing it, quite correctly, as a slam on their home state. And there’s no doubt that the book does have more than a touch of the condescension so often shown by the literary establishment to Texans (and Southerners in general).
Ferber was a member of the Algonquin Round Table, but she was not a woman born to privilege. Her father was a poor Hungarian Jewish storekeeper in Michigan, where she was born, and she grew up in Chicago; Ottumwa, Iowa; and Appleton, Wisconsin, where she graduated from high school, briefly attended college, and began her writing career as a reporter. Still, she was a true sophisticate (you didn’t get to co-author plays with George S. Kaufman if you weren’t), and it is a sophisticate’s cold eye that informs Giant.
Almost 70 years have made it easy to see what’s missing from Giant — specifically, any sense that the state could produce anything beyond the self-satisfied and largely ignorant characters who strut through it as exemplars of outsized “vitality.” If, when Giant was published, the book was all you knew of Texas culture, you’d have no idea that, in the years to come, the state would produce musicians like Buddy Holly and Ornette Coleman, Freddy Fender and Willie Nelson; scholars like Annette Gordon-Reed; politicians like Barbara Jordan and, above all, Lyndon Baines Johnson, the only tragic modern president, praised by Ralph Ellison in 1965 as “the greatest American President for the poor and for Negroes.”
But if what Ferber shows us in Giant isn’t all of Texas, it’s certainly not too little to draw the portrait she does, and the strength of the book is that she doesn’t suspend her sophisticated worldview by treating the characters as common folk somehow exempt from criticism. It doesn’t take long to realize that the title of the book is intended to be ironic. Size seems to be all that anyone talks of, and the main thing used to glorify the state: the acreage of ranches, the number of cattle, the mockery of distances that elsewhere would seem considerable (“Far!” Bick says of Reata’s distance from the train station. “It’s only ninety miles.”) In Ferber’s treatment, the bigness seems finally to denote emptiness more than anything else. The characters seem not so much equal to the landscape as puffed up by it, braggarts at home in a place that suits them. There is nothing here but size. The only time anyone is conscious of competing with a city like New York is when Bick mentions to Leslie that he hears that Neiman Marcus makes Saks and Bergdorf look like a trading post.
Just as Bick can’t envision a desire for books, so no one can seem to see the need for any kind of culture. To complain that the Texas of Giant offers no symphony, no museums, no theater would be playing right into the hands of those who were ready to call it a snobbish book. But its cities don’t offer the chance to see a touring musical or even go to the movies. Texans in Giant are entertained by and interested in only Texas. Nothing else seems necessary.
It might be too easy, too convenient, to see, in the prejudices and ignorance of Ferber’s characters, their not giving a damn for the way things are done anywhere else, the very things that have allowed present-day Texas to be so arrogant as to pass an anti-abortion law that attempts to circumvent judicial review or one of the most restrictive voter-suppression laws in the country. But the parallels are too strong to ignore just because they are easy to see. Ferber ends the novel with Bick and his cohorts scheming to suppress the votes of the largely Mexican field hands who have come to the region to work the jobs offered by the oil boom.
Stevens ended his film (a wonderful film, maybe the most intelligent and purely enjoyable of all ’50s epics) quite differently than Ferber did her novel. In the movie, Bick loses a fight to a short-order cook who will not serve Bick’s Mexican daughter-in-law and his Mexican American granddaughter. A white man becoming indignant about racism only when he is suddenly exposed to its reality is exactly the kind of scene progressive thought today would claim as itself an example of racism. But Stevens, a classic Hollywood liberal, knew that change is a political process that only comes when people who are not directly affected by oppression or prejudice see the moral necessity of joining with those who are demanding redress. Lyndon Baines Johnson knew that as well, saying in his great 1965 speech in support of the Voting Rights Act:
There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans — not as Democrats or Republicans — we are met here as Americans to solve that problem. […] Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.
The key to Giant comes early on, when Bick and Leslie return to the ranch after their honeymoon. Leslie has been kind to the Mexican boy sent to meet them, and Bick tells her, “Making a fuss over that Mexican boy. We don’t do that here in Texas.” When she says, “this still is the United States,” Bick answers, “You’re a Texan now. Please remember that.” A little later, there’s talk of Texas law containing a provision allowing the state to secede from the union if it ever wants to. The thing is, the Texas depicted in Giant never really belonged to the United States in the first place.
What Ferber saw in Texas was not just a state eager to keep women and racial minorities in their place but one that proudly considered itself separate from — better than — America. And thus, she unknowingly grasped one of the key truths at the heart of Trumpism — the other great pandemic of our present moment. For the truth is that Trumpers hate America: they hate its precepts, its principles, the way it has worked steadily and bravely (albeit imperfectly and with frustrating slowness) to include in its promised freedoms the people not considered by those who wrote its founding documents.
It’s a cliché to say that the America Trumpism pines after, the nation for whose restored “greatness” it is willing to countenance any brutality, is a place where to be anything other than white, heterosexual, Christian, and preferably male is to be considered a threat, unworthy of legal protection, and ripe for persecution if you make “true” Americans feel uneasy. But partly because so many people assume that snobbish condescension is the same thing as deserved contempt for willful ignorance, there has been a reluctance to acknowledge that Trumpism, by working to make the law an extension of its various bigotries, is empowering contempt for the basic virtues of the American project. It’s well past time to acknowledge that there are some things worth being snobbish about. We can’t pretend that the sympathy we show for people never given the chance to learn, held back by socioeconomic conditions or systemic racism, is somehow violated when we show contempt for those Hillary Clinton aptly and correctly dubbed “deplorables.”
There is now a populist political movement, and not just in America, that tells anyone who ever feels resentful toward the educated, anyone who distrusts any new idea, that they have been right all along. That’s the movement that Giant, in its depiction of a self-satisfied (white) empire with no interest in anything outside itself (and for only some of the people inside), seems to catch in its nascent form. The lines that best serve to describe this novel’s afterlife, the way the cultural mindset it depicts is lived now, were written by Ferber herself in her 1938 autobiography, A Peculiar Treasure, when she describes what she saw in 1930s Europe: “It was a fearful thing to see a continent — a civilization — crumbling before one's eyes. It was a rapid and seemingly inevitable process to which no one paid any particular attention.” As well as anything I’ve read, those lines sum up what it feels like to live in America today, the almost complete lack of urgency about the ongoing attempts on the right to make it into a fascist state.
Writing after World War II, Cyril Connolly said of the war — not merely the regimes that had been defeated but the war itself, the undeniable and degrading necessity of having to engage in it and to experience its brutal inhumanity — that it was opposed to “every reasonable conception of what life is for, every ambition of the mind or delight of the senses.” The anti-achievement of the spiritual descendants of those who inhabit the Texas of Giant is to have made this opposition obscenely alive in peacetime.
Charles Taylor is the author of Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You. He lives and writes in New York.