Though it now boggles the mind, when Edna Ferber’s classic potboiler Giant was first published in 1952, it scandalized Texans from the Pecos to the Sabine. Critics ripped the novel, a hard-nosed satire of Lone Star mores, and Ferber herself to shreds in papers across the state. The Houston Press suggested she be lynched. And The Dallas Morning News headline on Lon Tinkle’s review read “Ferber Goes Both Native and Berserk: Parody, Not Portrait, of Texas Life.” Reviewers outside the state also thought she’d been a trifle tough on Texas. John Barkham, writing in The New York Times, described Giant as “the biggest witch’s broth of a book to hit the great Commonwealth of Texas since the revered Spindle blew its top.”
No stranger to controversy (Ferber was the author of such nervy, “socially relevant” works as Show Boat and So Big, which was awarded the 1925 Pulitzer Prize), she seemed to revel in the stink she’d caused. Through the strength of its galloping sales, Giant became one of those rare novels that manage to provoke the public beyond the pages of book reviews. Even non-literary Texans were out for her hide. Ferber loved, for instance, recounting a story from those quaint pre-cellphone days when people were paged by bellboys and over loudspeakers, and she, while lounging poolside at a Beverly Hills hotel, heard herself summoned to the telephone: “Telephone call for Edna Ferber,” a voice rang out. “Miss Edna Ferber to the telephone.”
Suddenly, a markedly Texan male popped up from a chaise. “Edna Ferber!” he drawled. “The author of Giant! Why I’d like to murder her!” After finishing her telephone call, Ferber sallied up to the man, and introduced herself. “How do you do?” she said. “My name is Edna Ferber, and I’ve heard you’d like to murder me.” Inevitably, the pair got on like gangbusters.
Reading Giant today, it’s difficult to understand what all the fuss was about. That’s not meant as a dig. Giant is, in many ways, a powerful novel and a gripping read, and very much ahead of its time regarding South Texas race relations. It has charm and intelligence and swagger, and even some fairly profound sociological insight. That’s the upside. On the down, the book’s Texans can seem cartoonish. All the men eat steak for breakfast, and have oil wells and a million acres and ridiculous nicknames like Jett or Bick. And all the women have spunk, and heaving bosoms, and a tendency to fly off to Neiman’s on a whim and a private plane. In other words, Ferber’s Giant is Yosemite Sam City.
However. In a post-George W. context, who among us wouldn’t gladly settle for cartoonish representation? Remember back in the ’80s or ’90s, when a trip to Paris, for a proud Texan, meant wincing while sneering foreigners, with their awful, unshaven Gallic mugs, shouted unbearable things like, “Eh, he he, chew arr from Tech-sas, no? Where ees your oil well?” But now, who among us wouldn’t return to the halcyon days of being presumed a vulgar, hyper-American hick, rather than, say, being grilled about waterboarding and Guantanamo Bay? Ah, to be an overdressed New Money hayseed again, and have supper-club pianists play, once more, that mortifying theme song from Dallas.
There was always something about Dallas that rang false. But, though they’re seeped in stereotype, Giant’s characters are eminently recognizable. The wildcatting Jett Rink is a ringer for Glenn McCarthy; the venerable Benedict clan bears more than a passing resemblance to the Briscoes; the Conquistador Hotel is Houston’s glamorous old Shamrock Hilton; and Reata Ranch is the fabled King Ranch. At the time of Giant’s publication, many reviewers suggested that Ferber’s exaggerated choice of fictional subjects had resulted in a boorish, overblown book. But looking back on it now, I think she did a fairly commendable job of conveying the truth and spirit of our state. One of Ferber’s most admirable insights is that Texan-ness is essentially performative. That Texans “talk Texan” when abroad, just “as a certain type of Englishman becomes excessively Oxford.” It’s a secret that all great Texans know, and it may explain, to some degree, the hostility Ferber encountered poolside in Beverly Hills. After all, as Giant—in its broad, unsubtle strokes—yelps and yee-haws from the rooftops, Texas possesses magic. Texans are magicians, and no magician wants published the secrets of his tricks.