Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Some early comments on Show Boat

In a recent post, I briefly mentioned that I'd run across a 3-in-1 edition of Edna Ferber novels at a used bookstore and that I was quite pleased about that for book-project reasons. I've been reading Show Boat now for a couple of days, and I must say, it's an intriguing novel thus far. I didn't say "great," mind, but it definitely has my attention. And so, as another fulfillment of my chief purpose in the blogosphere as regards the arts, which is to read and watch things most people have long forgotten existed, much less read or watched, and then tell you good people about them, I thought I'd share with you some initial impression of what I've read so far.
The novel opens with the famous (in the world of the novel) Kim Ravenal not liking her name but thinking that, given that her mother had wanted to name her "Mississippi," things could have been much worse. From there, the novel shifts abruptly away from Kim and begins relating the childhood of Kim's mother, Magnolia, and Magnolia's parents, the Puritanesque Parthenia and the happy-go-lucky born riverman Andy. What makes it intriguing is its--there's no other way to describe it--perky tone.
Here is a not-at-all atypical example:

When he and Magnolia had time to range the countryside in a livery rig, Andy would select the smartest and most glittering buggy and the liveliest nag to be had. Being a poor driver and jerky, with no knowledge of a horse's nerves and mouth, the ride was likely to be exhilarating to the point of danger. The animal was always returned to the stable in a lather, the vehicle spattered with mud-flecks to the hood. Certainly it was due to Andy more than Parthy that the Cotton Blossom was reputed the best-fed show boat on the rivers. He was always bringing home in triumph a great juicy ham, a side of beef. He liked to forage the season's first and best: a bushel of downy peaches, fresh-picked; watermelons; little honey-sweet seckel pears; a dozen plump broilers; new corn; a great yellow cheese ripe for cutting. (72-73)

And on and on like that, with no "story," so far, to speak of.
The tone is intriguing because, thus far, this is the happiest miscegenation narrative I've ever come across. But that could be because, so far, miscegenation per se isn't even a factor in the narrative. I'm a quarter of the way into it, and the narrator has mentioned but not dwelled on Andy's darkish complexion and explained that he has Basque blood in him, and for all I know so far, that may be true. Magnolia is, so far, an innocent, vivacious young girl with zero romantic inclinations . . . except toward the Mississippi River.
We get an early clue in Show Boat--the first page, in fact, that the river will be a significant symbol for the novel. In the same passage where the narrator tells us that Magnolia had wanted to name her daughter "Mississippi," we are also told that she had settled on "Kim," the letters of which stand for Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri, any state of which she might have been born in: she was born on the river on board the Cotton Blossom, which happened to be at the confluence of those states' boundaries at the time. In other words, Magnolia's naming of her child--both the desired name and the eventual name--indicate that she thinks of her child to be a citizen of no fixed place. Her place of birth is not a city and state, but the river, which properly speaking belongs to no one political space.
That is, as it happens, the same space the river demarcates in my country's one indispensible novel on race, Huckleberry Finn. (I've mentioned Twain's novel quite often in this blog; the curious can have a look at these three posts.) Twain's use of the river is as more of a stage and plot device for his novel; but it's nevertheless true that the rather mundane fact that the Mississippi flows south forces Huck to confront the choices he's made regarding aiding Jim's running away in a way that no Abolitionist tract (or pro-slavery tract, for that matter) ever could. Ferber's use of the river is more overtly symbolic, as we see here:
[D]irection and management were as fuile when applied to [Magnolia] as to the great untamed Mississippi that even now was flouting barriers; laughing at levees that said so far and no farther; jeering at jetties that said do thus and so; for that matter, roaring this very moment in derision of Magnolia Ravenal herself . . . (12)

I'd be the last to claim that Ferber is Twain's equal as a writer, but their choosing the river as the setting for their respective novels and incorporating the idea of theatre and play as themes in their novels about race are, as the attentive reader might suspect, significant matters for me to consider as I think about my project.

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Angelica said...
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