On the Road Again
MARCH 08, 2013 by SARAH SKWIRE
Edna Ferber, Roast Beef, Medium, Echo Library, (1913) 2008, 94 pages.
At about the same time that Sinclair Lewis was publishing his business stories in the Saturday Evening Post, Edna Ferber was publishing hers in the American Magazine. Ferber—who would later become famous as the author of Show Boat and Giant—wrote a series of stories about the indomitable Emma McChesney, who travels the Midwest as the top sales representative (or “drummer”) for the T. A. Buck Featherloom skirt and petticoat company.
On the sales circuit, Emma faces all the challenges familiar to today’s road warriors: indifferent food, noisy and stuffy hotel rooms, and lost luggage. In addition, she faces some challenges that are particularly familiar to female business travelers, such as the overly persistent invitations for drinks and dinner. (Still others are quaintly historical, such as looking for somewhere to dry her freshly washed and starched handkerchiefs.)
Roast Beef, Medium collects the first ten Emma McChesney stories—others are collected in two further volumes—and introduces us to McChesney as a thoroughly accomplished, well-respected drummer. The first story, in fact, finds her dining on the meal specified in the book’s title, because she “knew the digestive perils of a small town hotel dining room as a guide on the snow-covered mountain knows each treacherous pitfall and chasm.” Roast beef, medium, is not exciting, but it is reliable. It is not a meal that will destroy one’s health or ruin one’s business calls in the morning. It is exactly this kind of wisdom, gained during her years on the road, that makes the McChesney stories such fun to read. She is not some fragile young thing, new to the rigors of business. She’s at the top of her game, and she knows it. She is a known and respected—and feared—competitor.
When a brand-new salesman from another company chats her up over dinner, she agrees to take a long walk with him and she talks “from the great storehouse of practical knowledge which she had accumulated in her ten years on the road. She told the handsome young cub many things for which he should have been undyingly thankful.” When he isn’t, and when he kisses her, she recoils in shock, tells him that anyone could tell he is a married man, and spends the remainder of the story reminding him what he owes his wife.
Each McChesney story focuses on another encounter she has on the road. One of my favorites is “Representing T. A. Buck,” where we find Emma McChesney in an uncharacteristically maudlin mood. Annoyed by a buyer who is more interested in her than in her stock, suffering from a bit of spring fever, and just generally a little blue, she wanders into the hotel music room after dinner. There, a fellow traveler is playing Mendelssohn so movingly that she bursts into silent tears, longing for the kind of bucolic domesticity she has never had. When she finds out that the pianist is another drummer for a competing skirt and petticoat manufacturer, her domestic daydreams instantly disappear beneath a flood of competitiveness and entrepreneurial spirit. As the story ends, she and the pianist are racing to see who will be able to get to DeKalb first to pitch their goods to Nussbaum at the Paris Emporium.
Ferber’s stories are funny and tender, but as we should expect from the author of Show Boat, they are also unflinching about the realities of life for a woman in the early twentieth-century business world. McChesney’s rivals impugn her reputation and suggest that she is able to make so many sales because she bribes buyers with sexual favors. When T. A. Buck dies and T. A. Buck, Jr., takes over the company, he decides to test her morals by offering to let her keep her job if she lets him “make love” to her, as Ferber’s turn of the century slang expresses it. And everywhere she goes, she is confronted by men and women, and sometimes her own exhausted desires, telling her that the road is “no place for a woman.”
As it is the sage and experienced, tart and tired voice of Emma McChesney that makes these stories such a treat, there’s no better way to end this column than with a sample of her voice. Here is Emma, newly made business manager and partner, on being told she cannot possibly go on the road again.
“Don’t argue, please. If it’s no work for a woman then I suppose it follows that I’m unwomanly. For ten years I traveled this country selling T. A. Buck’s Featherloom Petticoats. My first trip on the road I was in the twenties—and pretty, too. I’m a woman of thirty-seven now. I’ll never forget that first trip—the heartbreaks, the insults I endured, the disappointments, the humiliation, until they understood that I meant business—strictly business. I’m tired of hearing you men say that this and that and the other isn’t woman’s work. Any work is woman’s work that a woman can do well. I’ve given the best ten years of my life to this firm. Next to my boy at school it’s the biggest thing in my life. Sometimes it swamps even him. Don’t come to me with that sort of talk. . . .This is my busy day.”
The next time I fly for business I want a seat next to Emma McChesney.