Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Adventure classics -- So rich, brash and Texan


by Edna Ferber


Does anybody but me read the text that serves as filler between advertisements and social register photos in the Dallas Morning News’ FD Luxe Sunday magazine? I flipped through the glossy this week, looking more at the pictures than the words, but went into a fit of giggling at the final essay, proposing initiation rituals for would-be Texans newly arrived from other states. Number 1 on the initiation list -- “Read Edna Ferber’s Giant.”

The novel is the story of Eastern intellectual Leslie Lynnton and her marriage to Jordan “Bick” Benedict, owner of the multimillion acre Reata Ranch. Mutually swept off their feet, Leslie and Bick return to Texas in the 1920’s. Leslie applies her brand of civilization to her husband while he applies twentieth century technology to his family’s nineteenth century brand of ranching. The resulting cultural and social clashes will tear their marriage and family apart.

Hey, I’ve lived in this state most of my life and I still can’t figure out whether Texans regard Ferber’s 1952 muckraking story about our super-rich as satire, gospel truth, or simply one helluva page turner. Whatever we think of it, it’s now as much part of our lore as the Alamo, cattle drives, and oilfields.

But it wasn’t always so.

The subject of Texas, “improbable; brash, overwhelming, hospitable, larger than life,” had fascinated Ferber for at least a decade before she wrote her bestselling novel’s depictions of the fantastically rich alongside descriptions of grotesque poverty, oppression and racism.

“Whenever Ferber was repelled by something, she was also fascinated,” was the verdict of 
of a Ferber biography written by her great-niece, Julie Goldsmith Gilbert.

Texans, on the other hand, were at first more repelled than fascinated by Ferber. “To say that in 1952 the impact of Giant created a tumult not only in the book world but in the real world of the United States would not be an exaggeration,” Gilbert wrote. “The entire state of Texas felt impugned by it, and it created in displaced Texans a surge of nationalistic nastiness.”

By the time the movie version of Giant appeared in 1956, the state’s attitude had begun to change. Admittedly, the movie was less intent on muckracking than Ferber’s novel. And it starred incredibly handsome (and not yet out of the closet) Rock Hudson as Bick Benedict; incredibly beautiful young Elizabeth Taylor as Leslie; and incredibly young, beautiful and sexy James Dean in his swan song performance as Jett Rink, the villainous oilman everybody loved to hate.

Is it any wonder that when the new Texas legend of TV’s Dallas appeared a few decades later, the villain who romped away with the show boasted the initials “J.R.”? Forget earnest Leslie and Bick. Greed, power and J.R. Ewing were in.

A few more decades (and a revivial of Dallas) later, Texas politicians recycle the brash Texas image, forgetting it was ever reviled. And a glossy Sunday magazine whose front cover celebrates the lipsticks of cosmetic queen Mary Kay Ash can end with a 
tongue in cheek recommendation for Ferber’s long-ago Giant.

You don’t even need to ask, do you, whether Giant is available on Amazon, in both book and movie versions?

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues a June of books about Texas and the Southwest with Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, House Made of Dawn.)

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