August 8, 1999
Los Angeles Times
August 8, 1999
By Carla Kaplan
Although she was one of the most famous, and certainly the most highly paid, of this century’s writers–celebrated, feted, interviewed and profiled–Fannie Hurst has long since ceased to be a household name. From the 1910s through the ’40s, Hurst’s blend of sentimental realism and progressive social commentary seemed to dominate the American cultural scene, and her writing was as likely to appear in the pages of leading newspapers as she was in the conference rooms of the White House, where her friends the Roosevelts gave her an open invitation. Top publishers vied for anything with her name on it. Hollywood clamored for everything she wrote, whether love story, tale of immigrant struggle or vision of the sexual and domestic oppression of middle-class women. Journalists sought her opinion on everything from Zionism (which she opposed) to divorce laws more favorable to women (which she advocated). Today, Hurst may still be familiar through the surviving handful of the films adapted from her work (there have been 28), which are still shown on late-night and cable television: “Humoresque,” “Back Street,” “Young at Heart” and “Imitation of Life” (based on her most well-known and controversial novel of the same name). But those who want to read Hurst’s 18 novels will need to scour second-hand bookshops or look for scholarly editions.
This state of affairs challenges a biographer. Should one attempt to explain a sea change in literary and popular taste, maybe even try to argue one’s subject back into the canon? Or should one, instead, leave such accounting to the historians and literary critics and focus on the writer’s life? In her lively and engaging biography, Brooke Kroeger (whose previous book concerns the life of daredevil feminist reporter Nellie Bly) reconciles these options by offering a fascinating account of Hurst and her cultural moment, showing how literary reputations rise and fall and how they may be very deliberately built as well. Part of Kroeger’s project, as her subtitle “the talent for success” would suggest, is to demonstrate Hurst’s own self-fashioning. And though the person Kroeger presents to us proves difficult to like, Kroeger’s Hurst not only engages our attention as an interesting and famous woman at the center of the political and cultural life of her time but also provokes larger psychological and social questions. What comes across most sharply is both Hurst’s particular genius for managing her own success and her persistent discomfort and anxiety about what she set out to engineer.
Perhaps no other American writer’s popular acclaim has ever seemed so assured. As Kroeger so aptly puts it, Hurst had “‘Aura with a capital A.” With short stories bringing in $4,000 apiece, novels and films earning from $35,000 to nearly $100,000, a weekly column, radio broadcast, national lecture fees and huge sums for serialization rights, Fannie Hurst commanded the kind of money few writers even dream of. “Almost from the start,” Kroeger writes, “celebrity pay accompanied her celebrity status.” Hurst was a consummate publicity hound, a “pig for success” in her own words.
With what Kroeger describes as equal parts “vitality” and “feverish restlessness,” Hurst obsessed over her popularity, constantly weighing it against a friend’s casual remark that it might be better to “be a classical failure than a popular success.” What good did it do her to be well-loved, with a seemingly inexhaustible market for her work, if critics continued to deride it as “sentimental,” “labored,” “overwrought,” and sometimes “mawkish,” “garish,” “obvious,” “careless” and “trite” as well? Why, in spite of all her fantastic success, did Hurst seem destined to disappoint? “I would rather regret what I have done than what I have not,” Fannie Hurst proclaimed in her autobiography, “Anatomy of Me.” This bold spontaneity, Kroeger shows, rarely described Hurst or her writing. There is constraint where one hopes for candor, excess where spareness would do, control and conventionality where abandon seems called for. But Kroeger refuses to act as Hurst’s apologist, presenting her instead in all of her complicated–and fascinating–contradictions.
As Kroeger makes clear, Hurst’s single-mindedness was frequently disquieting. At times, Hurst seems so beset with calculation and drive that every move looks staged. And Kroeger shows this drive at its worst, depicting, for example, Hurst’s reluctance to alter her writing or touring schedule in response to her parents’ deaths.
Carla Kaplan is a professor of English at USC. Her books include “The Erotics of Talk: Women’s Writing and Feminist Paradigms” and the forthcoming ” ‘Feather-Bed Resistance’: The Letters of Zora Neale Hurston.”