This is not the promised Part II of the previous post but, instead, an elaborating on the following passage from that post:
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.
In no place do the characters in Ferber’s novel mention Twain’s novel; indeed, it would be very surprising if they were to do so, seeing as most of Show Boat‘s action takes place before or right around Huckleberry Finn‘s American publication date of 1885. Moreover, as of my writing this post I do not know if Ferber had Twain’s novel in mind as she composed hers. Even so, the correspondences between these novels are striking.
In the world of the novel itself Andy Hawks begins his career as a riverman in the 1850s, about ten years after the time in which Twain’s novel is set. We can fairly say, then, that these novels’ respective worlds’ starting points, at least, are contemporaneous with each other. However, I want briefly to point out that, as alluded to in the quoted passage above, these novels have more in common with each other than the same chronological starting point, or even their shared setting of the Mississippi River.
To begin with, we see that Huck’s regard for steamboats as almost-fantastic spaces of wealth and freedom could very well have served as a frame on which Ferber builds Show Boat‘s world. When Huck and Jim come upon the wreck of the Walter Scott, Huck seeks to persuade Jim to explore it by saying, “[W]e might borrow something worth having, out of the captain’s stateroom. Seegars, I bet you–and cost five cents apiece, solid cash. Steamboat captains is always rich, and get sixty dollars a month, and they don’t care a cent what a thing costs, long as they want it” (86).** Steamboats represent freedom for Jim as well, though in a rather different way: recall that Huck’s and Jim’s initial plan is to float on their raft to Cairo, Illinois (coincidentally, in the same county as what Show Boat tells us is Andy Hawks’ home town of Thebes), then book passage on a steamboat heading up the Ohio River into free territory, where Jim will then stay and earn money to bring his wife and children back with him. However, they float past Cairo in a dense fog and from that point have no choice but to keep going downstream, deeper and deeper into slave-holding territory. In Show Boat, however, the Cotton Blossom‘s ability to travel upstream as well as downstream seems, among other things, like an indirect fulfillment of Huck’s and Jim’s plan–not to mention Huck’s preferred strategy of deferring his deciding on a definitive course of action. (Huck’s preference for deferral will come to affect Jim most directly, and cruelly, in the novel’s last quarter, when Tom Sawyer appears at the Phelps place and, rather than tell Huck and Jim that Jim had already been freed by Miss Watson in her will, sets into motion his elaborate reenactment of The Count of Monte Cristo.) I will have more to say on this theme of deferral in the promised Part II of the previous post.
However, it was while I searched for an image from Huckleberry Finn to accompany this post that I was reminded of a prominent feature in Twain’s novel that is also at Show Boat‘s heart: the centrality of performance–of acting and disguise. Most obviously, the King and the Duke pretend to be Shakespearean actors or the brothers of dead people when they perform on shore; and, of course, we never learn their actual names during the course of the novel. But long before those confidence men make their appearance in the novel, Huck has already made his running away from his father look like a murder, dressed like a girl, and protected Jim with various lies; later, at the Phelps place, he will pretend to be Tom Sawyer. In many of its episodes, in other words, Huck both hides and explores his identity as a poor white adolescent boy while also engaged in an incredible act of legal and social daring. In much the same way in Show Boat, Magnolia Hawks will become enamored of acting while, as a young girl, she watches the acting troupe perform on the Cotton Blossom. She is especially drawn to Julie Dozier, the woman of mixed race who is passing as white and whom we are told is, perhaps not so coincidentally, the best of the actors on the boat. Soon after Julie and her husband are forced to leave the boat, Magnolia both takes on many of Julie’s roles and begins to perform spirituals in a style heavily influenced by the black crew members she has seen and heard singing. Magnolia’s performing choices become all the more fascinating if it is indeed true that her father is of mixed race: a possibility I will discuss in another post.
As I implied in my previous post on Ferber’s novel, I do not think Show Boat is a great novel that has not received its due. For a novel that is the source text for an oft-performed musical that itself has been filmed three times, however, it is surprisingly understudied. Nor am I in any way suggesting that Show Boat‘s artistic achievement approaches Huckleberry Finn‘s. Even so, I do think that by comparing these features of the two novels, we can begin to see both what makes Show Boat‘s text so fascinating, and perhaps gain some insight into both novels’ still-powerful hold on the American cultural imagination.
**All quotes are from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, introduction by Justin Kaplan, foreword and addendum by Victor Doyno, Random House, 1996.