“It probably was true”: The Curiously Incurious Narrator of Edna Ferber’s Show Boat

Edna Ferber

Edna Ferber

 Note: This is the long-promised Part II of a post on Show Boat that began here. In that post, I suggest that trying to firm up Show Boat‘s chronology introduces questions that might not have occurred to the reader to ask beforehand, because the narrator makes that chronology almost absent: just what is Andy Hawks’ family background; and does that background have anything to do with his being in Massachusetts in 1862 or ’63 instead of serving on a military warship on the Mississippi in either the Union or Confederate army?  I further suggest that on these questions the novel’s narrator, who is otherwise a conventional omniscient 3rd-person narrator, seems curiously incurious.

In this part of the post, then, I want to do what I hope is an attentive reading of these few pages of Chapter Two to show why these questions occur to me.  As of this writing, I have no theories as to why the narrator chooses this strategy–or even if it is a strategy on their part. However, I believe I have a starting point for beginning to think about how the narrator positions theirself relative to the uncertainties surrounding Andy’s–and, by extension, Magnolia’s–ethnicity.

That starting point gets dramatized in a well-known passage from the diary of Mary Boykin Chesnut (1823-1886), a South Carolina woman who kept a diary of her life in Charleston during the Civil War years.  Though her husband was a member of a prominent planter family and an official in the Confederate government, Chesnut herself was opposed to slavery and so cast a critical, often scathing eye on the peculiar institution, as here:

God, forgive us, but ours is a monstrous system, a wrong and an inequity! Like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines; and the mulattos ones sees in every family partly resemble the white children. Any lady is ready to tell you who is the father of all mulatto children in everybody’s household but her own. Those, she seems to think, drop from the clouds.from “A Plantation Mistress Decries a “Monstrous System”,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed January 27, 2019, herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/712, emphasis mine.

What fascinates me about this passage is Chesnut-as-narrator’s complex position relative to the social dynamic which she describes here.  Chesnut knows that these women know, or at least strongly suspect, that their husbands have fathered children by the house servants or by slave women elsewhere in the area.  At the same time, as Chesnut notes by indirection, they are not ready to give voice to their suspicions except via their projecting their sense of betrayal by pointing out the illicit offspring of other husbands.  But all of this occurs within a space outside of which Chesnut-as-observer tries to position herself.  As the beginning of the excerpt makes clear, she despises slavery; thus, her comments here are those that an outsider to and critic of slavery might make.  Yet, before and during the war she kept those views to herself and, indeed, she and her husband were full participants in that system: they too owned a house in Charleston, itself certainly staffed by young female black house servants.  Chesnut herself tacitly acknowledges this through her use of the first-person plural possessive pronoun; moreover, because she kept her anti-slavery opinions a secret, to speak out against the “monstrous system” might cast suspicions upon her.  But there is also another possibility.  I want to note here that I have no knowledge of Chesnut’s husband’s participation in the widespread practice of white men’s seducing/raping enslaved black women. Still, reflective and self-aware as she is, it may very well be the case that she is also describing herself or, more precisely, her own reticence, in the bolded passage.

Though the following passage from the conclusion of Show Boat is very different in tone, I think we can locate some of Chesnut’s same awkward reticence in this exchange between Magnolia and her daughter Kim (who speaks first).  Magnolia has just told Kim and her husband, Ken, that Parthenia had bequeathed them a sizeable sum of money in her will:

“I can do the plays I’ve been longing to do–Ibsen and Hauptmann, and Werfel, and Schnitzler, and Molnar, and Chekhov, and Shakespeare even.  Ken!  We’ll call it the American Theatre!”

“The American Theatre,” Magnolia repeated after her, thoughtfully.  And smiled then.  “The American Theatre.”  She looked a trifle uncomfortable, as one who has heard a good joke, and has no one with whom to share it.  (230-231)

It is a strange moment.  Of all people with whom Magnolia could share this joke about the irony of Kim’s proposed name for a place that would showcase, apparently, only European theater works, it should be her own daughter.  Kim was quite literally born on the Cotton Blossom; Magnolia had wanted to name her Mississippi but instead settled on constructing her name from the first letters of the three states (Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri) whose borders intersect in the precise place in that river where Magnolia gave birth to her.

Throughout Show Boat, we find a similar complexity of narrative positions made so by the narrator’s or a character’s reticence.  To return to the excerpt from Chesnut’s diary quoted above, the position occupied by Andy’s wife Parthenia seems to approximate Chesnut’s “any lady” of the bolded passage.  The novel frequently depicts Andy as charming and flirtatious with women who board the Cotton Blossom; so far as we know, however, he is never unfaithful to Parthenia.  Even so, her vigilance with regard to Magnolia–in particular, her policing of Magnolia’s time spent with Julie and with the black members of the Cotton Blossom‘s crew–may arise from her deep but unprovable suspicions about Andy’s ethnicity.  Perhaps we can read Parthenia’s behavior, then, as a sign that she regards Andy’s racial ambiguity as itself an implicit transgression, creating uncertainty and instability within their relationship–and, if indeed he is the product of a miscegenated relationship, that relationship itself would have been transgressive. We can know none of these things with any certainty, based on what the novel’s narrator sees fit to tell us.   Yet, at least within the world of the novel as the narrator presents it to us, Parthenia chafes against life on the boat but clearly remains a full participant in that life; she keeps the books and, after Andy dies, continues to run the Cotton Blossom as her husband had.

To begin to see how all of this comes to pass, I want to take an (admittedly-tedious-seeming) close look at those pages of Show Boat in which Andy meets and begins to court Parthenia.  Her father is a fisherman, which accounts for how Andy, whom (the narrator says) has fishermen relatives in the same town, comes to meet her and have meals at her and her father’s house.  The narrator tells us that she has little patience for men; they, for their part, reciprocated by not trying to socialize with her.  Apparently, though, something in Andy’s manner attracts her as he watches her cook:

Then, too, Nature, the old witch-wanton, had set the yeast to working in the flabby dough of Parthy Ann’s organism.  Andy told her that his real name was André and that he was descended, through his mother, from a long line of Basque fisher folk who had lived in the vicinity of St. Jean-de-Luz, Basses-Pyrénées.  It was probably true, and certainly accounted for his swarthy skin, his bright brown eyes, his impulsiveness, his vivacious manner.  The first time he kissed this raw-boned New England woman he was startled at the robustness with which she met and returned the caress.  (21-22)

One does not have to have read many novels and stories in which miscegenation and/or passing figure to know that a description such as the one Andy offers for himself here would not be at all out of place in them.  The exotic heritage on, significantly, the mother’s side (in miscegenation narratives, it is almost always the mother who is black or of mixed race) is offered as an explanation for the person’s appearance and behavior.  (It is a rare moment in Show Boat when Andy’s stature and behavior are not described as “simian” or in other ways compared to monkeys.)  But more remains to be said about what remains unsaid in the novel about this passage.

Note the first and last sentences of this quoted passage, framing as they do the the brief description of Andy’s proffered family background.  They suggest two things.  The first is that Andy offers this description not spontaneously but in response to someone’s questions–whether from Parthenia herself or from her father, it is hard to say.  In the phrase “Andy told her,” “told” is ambiguous.  While it could simply mean that Andy offers this information unprompted, Parthenia’s later suspicious nature regarding the backgrounds of people leads me to believe it more likely that Andy offers his story after some prompting.  The second thing, as suggested by the last sentence’s description of their first kiss, is that the allure of Andy’s exotic background serves in part to woo Parthenia.

But what of Show Boat‘s narrator in this passage?  Even if Andy’s explanation appears, at least for now, to satisfy Parthenia, the narrator seems less credulous.  Something about the phrase “his real name was André” suggests to me that what follows it is offered by way of confession, almost as though something about him belies an earlier offered explanation.  This might be Andy’s accent; the narrator tells us later that his “French strain . . . on the distaff side did not save him from pronouncing the foreign names of Southern rivers as murderously as did the other rivermen” (33).  To my ear, going by the phonetic pronunciations given in the text, he pronounces them as a Louisiana Cajun would.  But most suspicious of all is the phrase “It probably was true,” which affirms Andy’s claim without placing the full weight of independent confirmation behind it.  Though the narrator speaks these words, we cannot know exactly on whose behalf they are said.  In any event, no one returns to re-examine the question more closely, though the narrator will mention Andy’s French heritage in passing (no pun intended) as the novel moves forward.

It is also conceivable that Andy does not know for certain whether the account of his background is in fact true.  If his parents are a mixed-race couple, they would have very good reasons indeed for hiding the truth, even from their son.  Whatever the case, though, circumstantial evidence from elsewhere in the text–Andy’s “drifting up into Massachusetts” during the Civil War to visit “fishermen kin” who are never mentioned again; his revelation that he “played the nigger” (his own description) on a show boat when he was “seventeen or eighteen” (40); and, most curiously, his ambivalent and ambiguous behavior on behalf of and towards Julie Dozier when she is revealed to be of mixed race–all would suggest that, at the very least, Andy is uncertain as to his own racial background.

Show Boat‘s omniscient narrator, meanwhile, floats above all these ambiguities much like the Cotton Blossom‘s troupe and crew seem to float on another plane above “the hurried harried country that was still intent on repairing the ravages of a Civil War” (51).  The narrator could easily clear up these mysteries or, for that matter, explore them more deeply (one can imagine what Faulkner might have done with these same characters and plot elements), but chooses not to.  Indeed, to do so would be to distract from this novel’s true theme, which is not race but nostalgia for the American theater of the Cotton Blossom: American melodrama and early vaudeville that has one of its roots in the minstrel show.  So, then, like Magnolia’s unspoken unease with her daughter Kim’s plans for an “American Theatre” that, as she imagines it, would not include American plays, we as readers of this text filled with traces and hints of this nation’s pain-filled racial past feel more and more discomfort as we realize that the narrator’s ignoring those traces and hints is by design.

A Part III is to come.

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