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.

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