Ferber, Edna Entries

Show Boat

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You know that seminal story from your childhood? The one you watched/read/listened to so often that your parents were ready to bribe you out of doing so again in order to save their own sanity? For me, that story was Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's Show Boat. Specifically, a tape-recording of Show Boat that my dad dubbed for me off a library CD. I still have that tape; I listened to it so often as a kid that any articulation the bass may have had is completely worn away to a muddy "wahmmm" sound that threatens, during emotional passages, to swamp everything else. My huge early Walkman and that Show Boat cassette went with me everywhere at the age of seven or eight. I remember listening to it lying in the grass of our backyard; cleaning my room; riding in my grandparents' RV. Show Boat introduced me to such diverse concepts as the power of a reprised melody, the localized economies of post-Civil-War America, the pernicious "one drop of black blood" doctrine, and the deep cultural nostalgia, even on the part of Northerners, for a lost Old South. Whenever "Old Man River" came on, I would make a point of stopping whatever I was doing, closing my eyes, and letting the music envelop me as I "contemplated the evils of slavery." That was how I put it to myself: contemplating the evils of slavery. I'm not sure where I got this idea, and I kind of wish I'd confided the practice to an adult, who could perhaps have suggested a more concrete way to fight present-day racism, but there you go. That's how I rolled.

I've toyed with reading Edna Ferber's 1926 Show Boat, upon which my childhood favorite is based, ever since I found out about its existence around the age of seven. I even checked it out of the library, but the word "miscegenation" was slightly advanced for my second-grade vocabulary. I recently decided to give it another go and I'm glad I did, even if Ferber's writing isn't something to which I would normally be drawn.

Ferber is at her best when describing generalities, ways of life, as in this passage about the tawdry, hackneyed, yet beloved show boat performances:

The curtain rose. The music ceased jerkily, in mid-bar. They became little children listening to a fairy tale. A glorious world of unreality opened before their eyes. Things happened. They knew that in life things did not happen thus. But here they saw, believed, and were happy. Innocence wore golden curls. Wickedness wore black. Love triumphed, right conquered, virtue was rewarded, evil punished.

They forgot the cotton fields, the wheatfields, the cornfields. They forgot the coal mines, the potato patch, the stable, the barn, the shed. They forgot the labour under the pitiless blaze of the noonday sun; the bitter marrow-numbing chill of winter; the blistered skin; the frozen road; wind, snow, rain, flood. The women forgot for an hour their washtubs, their kitchen stoves, childbirth pains, drudgery, worry, disappointment. Here were blood, lust, love, passion. Here were warmth, enchantment, laughter, music. It was Anodyne. It was Lethe. It was Escape. It was the Theatre.

The swelling emotion here, the wry yet heartfelt romanticism directed toward the lives of certain kinds of white folks on the Mississippi of yesteryear, make it easy to understand what attracted Kern and Hammerstein to this material. The reader can practically hear the string section already. I get the impression that most of Ferber's strong feeling, most of her motivation for writing the novel, came from a desire to evoke a lost, rowdy, rough yet lovely lifestyle. She does this effectively, but at the cost of developing most of the characters beyond stock "types" (the impetuous young girl, the dashing Southern riverboat gambler) or polishing the dialogue to a believable level. The plot moves a bit jerkily, with an awkward piling of disconnected anecdotes on top of each other. And Ferber seemed reluctant to let her characters actually speak, instead of merely describing how they spoke and the kinds of things they said.

There was one character I did find vibrant and believable, about whom I really cared, and she was a surprising exception: Parthenia Ann Hawks, shrewish mother of the main character, Magnolia. Edna Ferber's entry on Wikipedia has one of the shortest "Personal Life" sections I've ever read, and it begins "Ferber had no children, never married, and is not known to have engaged in a romance or sexual relationship with anyone of either gender." Given her own preference for the single life, I was at first surprised at the harshness of her portrayal of Parthy, who remains a kind of spinster even after her marriage to Magnolia's father, Captain Andy Hawks. Parthy is described in viciously satirical terms: a fun-hating tyrant, obsessed with cleanliness and order, who nags and scolds her father, and then her husband and daughter, whenever they suggest something remotely enjoyable. Yet, as the novel progresses, one realizes that there is a certain affectionate humor in Ferber's portrayal, lurking under the antipathy: Parthy does enjoy herself on the show boat, as loathe as she may be to admit it, and as she gradually adapts to river life, she becomes the most incongruous and by far the most dynamic character in the novel.

Despite its shortcomings, I did quite enjoy Show Boat. If nothing else, it was interesting to analyze the ways in which Kern and Hammerstein chose to adapt the plot to the musical stage. Julie, for example, the character who is discovered to have mixed blood, was originally part of the "character team" rather than, as in the Kern/Hammerstein version, the beautiful leading lady - a less Romantic but slightly more interesting setup. In both versions, Magnolia encounters Julie again years later in compromising circumstances, but Kern/Hammerstein alter her from a competent, well-dressed bookkeeper in Chicago's leading brothel, to a pathetic, tattered drunk. Both of these outcomes are equally shocking from Magnolia's perspective, but I thought Ferber's version was substantially more optimistic (and again, less Romantic) in terms of Julie's life after she leaves the show boat. Similarly, Kern/Hammerstein have Magnolia reunited, in the end, with her estranged gambler husband, whereas in Ferber the break is final. I preferred the Ferber version of all of these plot elements: she shows a refreshing respect for un-beautiful women making their own way.

Also notable, of course, is Ferber's treatment of race. Both novel and musical suffer from the casual racism of their time; "Negroes" are treated as picturesque bits of scenery rather than humans, and even when individual black folks emerge, they are portrayed as eye-rolling and childlike. This, despite the best efforts of both productions to be anti-racist: including a miscegenation plot with a sympathetic mixed-blood character in 1926-27 was a daring statement, and the spirituals of Jo and Queenie (the show boat cooks) are an important source of solace and revenue for Magnolia in both versions. Ferber's novel, though, has no equivalent to the most famous Show Boat song, "Old Man River": it does not attempt to foreground, in the same way, the hard, demoralizing labor of African-American people, or the systemic oppression of black folks under white rule ("you gets a little drunk, and you lands in jail"). There are even moments in Ferber when the reader is meant to cheer Magnolia for exercising her white privilege, as when she aggressively insists that a black doorman let her into a house we want her to enter. It's debatable how anti-racist even the Kern/Hammerstein version manages to be - it does, after all, use the words and melodies of a white Jewish duo from New York rather than incorporating actual slave or southern songs. But I'd say it gives it a better shot than the source material.

In any case, I'm glad finally to have read the novel behind the drama, and I'll be interested to see, next time I break out the old cassette, whether having read Ferber's novel affects my perception of its musical offspring.

(Show Boat was my seventh book for the 9 for 2009 Challenge.)

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography