Roast Beef, Medium: The Business Adventures of Emma McChesney – Edna Ferber (1913)

This was a short story (well, more of a novella really) about a traveling sales woman who travels the mid-West selling petticoats. It is set during the early years of the twentieth century, and so to have a single (actually divorced! Shocker!) woman traveling by herself across the Plains of America was quite a big deal to read about. Additionally, as a commentator pointed out, this was written before women even had the vote, so it was cutting edge at the time.

Having researched a little about Ferber, it seems that she had a penchant for writing about strong female characters who had to come up against a challenge or discrimination somehow, and this certainly fits the bill for Emma McChesney, the feisty heroine in this tale. McChesney has been married and is now divorced with one 17-year old son. She has been working in sales for some years, and is very good at it, although the many male counterparts feel threatened by her and see her as either someone to be seduced or to beat, sales-wise.

She, on the other hand, is very capable of standing up for herself in the male-dominated world of traveling sales. She takes hotel clerks to task for giving her the crappy rooms (as she is a female), and she rebuffs the various attempts to either seduce her or remove her from her colleagues. She is not some Sweet Young Thing – she is mid-thirties and can definitely defend herself.

She is defiantly independent among the men in her field, and knows with confidence that she is one of the best salespeople out there. This is recognized a few years later, when she is given a leading role in the home office of her company (in tandem with the son of the founder), and although the son is the director on paper, Emma is the de facto leader when it comes to action. In fact, she is the leading force of pushing the firm to develop new product lines when fashions change and sales of petticoats fall.

Emma does not suffer fools gladly, as the saying goes, and I think this was a really edgy novel when this was published. To me, Emma is a bit rough around the edges and too honest at times (even rude and a bit of a blowhard), but considering her line of work and the time she was living, perhaps it was the only way to succeed then. Ferber (the author) was quite young when this was published (in her twenties), and I think she must have been quite a firecracker to have dreamt up Emma in the first place.

The odd title, by the way, refers to Emma’s recommendation for traveling salespeople to always stick to the tried-and-true with regard to menu when traveling. Just order “Roast beef, medium” and you wouldn’t have the digestive problems common to new salespeople (in her experience).

Ferber went on to write a lot more novels, and had some of her books turned into plays and musicals, even winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1925 for her book, “So Big”. So, it seems she was quite a bigwig, but I had not ever heard of her before I started digging around on the net. Shame really, as I think she was an important writer and early feminist.

There are another two volumes out there that focus on Emma’s continuing life – just FYI. I might look at these at some point in the future, but for right now, I have had enough of Ms. McChesney.

Good book and easily found at girlebooks, librivox and Project Gutenberg.

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