The Narrator of Edna Ferber’s Show Boat: A Speculative Reading (Part I)

Show Boat dust jacket

A facsimile of the dust jacket for the first edition of Show Boat.   Via.

The dust jacket for the first edition of Show Boat (1926) is fascinating to contemplate.  Laid flat as it is here, you can see how the procession of people moves from left to right, up the Cotton Blossom‘s gangplank to the very edge of the book’s front-right edge, their movement seeming to invite the reader to open the cover and process into the novel.  The paddle-wheel itself, though, is out of the frame; the gangplank rests not on the deck of the boat but on the text of the jacket blurb that describes the novel.  The Cotton Blossom itself is not exactly invisible (the novel’s title tells us it is there), but neither is it yet seen.

This procession toward an unseen boat that nevertheless serves as the titular character of the novel fits, I think, the reader of the book that this dust jacket enveloped.  As a novel, Show Boat itself seems on its surface to be rather conventional, its style often quite gaudy and given to flights of sentimentality.  It is, as it were, a bit show boat-like in quality.  But when we look closer at certain crucial moments in the story it tells, the novel’s narrator, ostensibly a rather ordinary third-person omniscient narrator, suddenly reveals herself** to be ignorant of important matters.  At best, she seems uninterested in knowing the truth of those matters, but it may also be the case that she would simply not rather know the truth.  Or, she does know the truth but will not say them out loud.

While it is difficult to say precisely what is the narrator’s relationship to that knowledge, there is no doubt that those matters, as it happens, are part of Show Boat‘s persistent subtext of secretiveness regarding race.  We encounter this secretiveness despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that much of the music and plays at the heart of the Cotton Blossom‘s troupe’s repertoire originates in minstrelsy, a genre whose trappings are dependent on the exaggerated-verging-on-offensive mannerisms of African-American speech and gesture.  Moreover, it is a secret regarding race that serves as the catalyst for the novel’s (and the musical’s) most famous moment, the revelation that Julie Dozier and Steve Baker, two members of the boat’s acting troupe, are a miscegenated couple.  But even as Andy Hawks, the Cotton Blossom‘s captain, sends the couple away from his boat, the subtext of racial secretiveness accompanies the rest of the novel’s plot, Magnolia’s transformation into a noted singer of songs associated (correctly or not) with 19th-century African-American folk music who performs them in an “authentic” style, shaping the novel’s subsequent action but otherwise never examined directly.

This post and one following it will explore that subtext, beginning, here, with an attempt to firm up the novel’s hazy chronology.  Because Show Boat is, as much as anything else, a celebration of nostalgia, we can safely assume that Ferber intentionally wants to impart a dreamy feel to the novel’s events.  However, nostalgia also happens to facilitate the maintaining of secrets about race, and not just in this novel, either. Whether this facilitation is also Ferber’s intention is difficult to say, but the effect is undeniable.  It seems equally undeniable to me that once we have a firmer chronology for the novel, it begins to reveal its possible secrets–or, better put, we can see that the novel has secrets that no one in it seems especially interested in but which are of the utmost importance.

What time is it on board the Cotton Blossom?

A blurred sense of calendar time is an appropriate backdrop for a novel suffused with nostalgia.  Show Boat‘s narrator and characters seem blissfully unconcerned about which years they move through.  The theatre season being tied to the year’s seasons more than to calendars, the narrative makes far more reference to specific months and their accompanying weather than to the years those months comprise.  Still, by means of various time references in the text, we can begin to work out the novel’s chronology.

Show Boat‘s opening scene is a recounting of the birth of Kim Ravenal, the daughter of Magnolia Ravenal (nee Hawks) and her husband Gaylord, in 1889, one of the few specific years we are given in the novel (7***).  During this scene, we learn that Andy Hawks, Magnolia’s father and the owner and captain of the Cotton Blossom, has had “thirty-five years of experience on keel-boats, steamboats, packets, and show boats up and down the great Mississippi and its tributaries” (12).  Assuming we can take that span of time more or less literally, we can determine that Andy began his tenure as a river man in the mid-1850s.  The second chapter, via its brief sketching out of how Andy came to meet his wife Parthenia, provides us with further, if scant, information for our chronology.  Andy, “drifting up into Massachusetts one summer [the only time reference given in this episode], on a visit to see his kin, had encountered the father, and, through him, the daughter” (21).  They marry after a courtship, though we are not told how long the courtship was or when, precisely, they marry.  Magnolia, we are told, is “not born until seven years after their marriage” (22) and, later, that “[i]t was years before Captain Andy could persuade his wife to take a river trip with him on his steamer down to New Orleans and back again, bringing the child” (23); this trip occurs during “the latter ’70s” (24).  Magnolia meets Gaylord when she is sixteen, and they marry when she is eighteen, shortly after Easter (134-135).  Assuming Magnolia to be 19 when she gives birth to Kim in April of 1889, that would make her birth year 1870, her marriage sometime after Easter Sunday (April 1, as it happens), 1888.  Her parents’ marriage would then have occurred in 1863.  Allowing, then, for a prudent courtship prior to their wedding, we can surmise that Andy and Parthenia first met, at the latest, in the summer of 1862.

Given Show Boat‘s subsequent attention to the seasonal rhythms of life on the river, we would be correct in wondering (assuming we are able to keep track of these spans of time and the stated ages of characters) why Andy is “drifting up into Massachusetts one summer,” even to visit “fisherman kin” (who, curiously, are never mentioned again), the summer being the mid portion of the river transport season.  The answer to that question would be, “the Civil War,” but we would look in vain in Show Boat for that explanation.  The fact of the war should also lead us to wonder why someone of Andy’s talents and abilities as a riverman is not serving in either army**** at this time.  But it will not be until Andy becomes the owner and captain of the Cotton Blossom, sometime during the late 1870s-early 1880s (that is, after the official end of Reconstruction), that the narrator mentions the war for the first and only time: “In all the hurried harried country that was still intent on repairing the ravages of a Civil War, [the troupe and crew of the Cotton Blossom] alone seemed to be leading an enchanted existence, suspended on another plane” (51).

Granted, the war does not give shape to Show Boat’s central action, which, I would claim, begins with Magnolia’s first riverboat trip in the late 1870s, when she is about seven years old.  But the above passage indicates that it is certainly part of the Cotton Blossom‘s patrons’ collective experience, even as the riverboat’s troupe and crew float on that other plane, over/past/in denial of that shared experience.  Moreover, no one in the novel offers any explanation as to why Andy happens to be in Massachusetts in a summer in the early years of the Civil War rather than on the river–a fact which is, after all, indirectly responsible for the engendering of Magnolia, the novel’s central protagonist.  It is true that the war disrupted civilian riverboat traffic; indeed, that is the reason why Samuel Clemens eventually became a writer rather than remained the riverboat pilot he’d just finished training to become.  But, is Andy deliberately avoiding serving?  Is he unable to serve, for some physical reason?  Perhaps he marries Parthenia in hopes of having a child and thus receiving some dispensation from the draft board.  Whatever the case, no one in the novel, including the narrator, offers even a hint of mystery or scandal that might serve as even a veiled explanation.  In like fashion, the war is not so much forgotten as it is ignored, or possibly repressed as, perhaps, signaled by Andy’s recurring claim that the Cotton Blossom‘s crew and cast are “just one big happy family.”

Show Boat is not silent with regard to Andy’s family history but, as I hope to show in Part II of this post, its narrator does not seem especially interested in determining the truth of that history, even as she insinuates a bit of skepticism regarding it.  To interrogate it more closely, though, would undermine the novel’s desire to traffic in antebellum nostalgia; indeed, the outing of Julie Dozier and Steve Baker as a miscegenated couple is, on board the Cotton Blossom, the one disturbance of the boat’s otherwise placid nostalgic pool of calm.

In that scene in which Julie and Steve’s secret is revealed, we are given a hint, when Sheriff Keener says, “I kind of smell a nigger in the woodpile here, in more ways than one” (90), that Julie is almost certainly not the only person of mixed race passing as white on board the Cotton Blossom.  Our attempt to firm up the novel’s chronology in this post reveals that the date when Andy first meets Parthenia introduces the question of why he is there in 1862-63.  In the post to follow, a closer look at the particulars of how the narrator describes Andy’s history and Parthenia’s response to it, and Parthenia’s subsequent vigilance of Magnolia when she is in the presence of the black staff of the boat, lead to the inference that Andy Hawks is very likely passing (though there is also the possibility that he may not know his ethnicity for certain)–and that Parthenia at the very least suspects this.  Equally of interest, as I said before, is the narrator’s odd positioning relative to all of this.  Clearly omniscient, on these matters she seems uninterested in knowing the truth.  Meanwhile, beneath (quite literally) all of this, enabling the narrator’s and characters’ lack of interest in these matters, is the brute fact of the Mississippi River and its tributaries and, more to the point, the Cotton Blossom‘s ability to travel upstream as well as downstream.  In Show Boat‘s jacket art, the other unseen-yet-constant presence, in addition to the riverboat itself, is the river.  As in Huckleberry Finn, this novel is obsessed with the various features of its setting; also as with Twain’s novel, though, the river becomes, in Lauren Berlant’s words from a slightly different context, “an apparatus of forgetting” (414).*****  Or, more accurately, in both those novels at least some of their respective characters fervently hope, even if subconsciously, that it become such an apparatus.  More on all of this in Part II of this post.


**For convenience’s sake, I will be referring to the narrator using the feminine pronouns.

***Edna Ferber, Show Boat, in Ferber, Show Boat, So Big, Cimarron: Three Living Novels of American Life (Doubleday, n.d.).  All citations are from this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text.

****Though he and Parthenia have a cottage in Thebes, Illinois, Thebes itself is located in deep southern Illinois, a region of the state that was more Southern than Northern in its sympathies if not in its political loyalties.  Moreover, Andy’s own affinities incline more toward Southern than Northern culture–witness, as only one example, the name his daughter is given, Magnolia.

*****Pg. 414 in Berlant, “”Pax Americana: The Case of Show Boat,” in Cultural Institutions of the Novel, Deidre Lynch and William B. Warner, eds., Duke UP, 1996, 399-422.

One thought on “The Narrator of Edna Ferber’s Show Boat: A Speculative Reading (Part I)

  1. Pingback: Show Boat, Huckleberry Finn, and Intertextuality | Domestic Issue

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