Friday, June 15, 2007

Denial on the Mississippi?: The strange career of the narrator in Show Boat

I find narrators of stories fascinating. Most of us pay them no mind, especially if they happen to be third-person narrators. But they are of the utmost importance: it doesn't matter who the characters of a narrative are or how compelling their stories are, if some entity doesn't feel compelled to relate that tale, it doesn't get told. And consider this rather crude analogy. The narrator provides a window through whom we see the world of the story . . . or at least that portion of that world available to the narrator. Just as usually happens when we look through windows, much of the time we forget the narrator's presence. As distinctive as Huck Finn's voice is, I sometimes forget that he is his own story's narrator. But every once in a while, we encounter, as it were, a speck of dirt or a stain or a flaw or crack in the glass itself, drawing our attention away from the story being told and toward the medium through which we're being told it.

Such for me is the case with the narrator of Edna Ferber's immensely popular 1926 novel, Show Boat. A third-person narrator usually limited to Magnolia Ravenal nèe Hawks' point of view, it often exhibits qualities more common among omniscient narrators, but at other times--at one crucial moment in particular--is not able to report on what Magnolia is thinking. Ordinarily, I wouldn't be too concerned about these inconsistencies. I would just chalk them up to inattentive writing and editing and then be on my way. But these inconsistencies most often occur when race is at issue in some form or fashion in the novel. This, I think, is of significance in a novel that isn't about race per se but whose most dramatic moment is unquestionably the moment in which it's revealed that Julie Dozier is of mixed race and her white husband Steve Baker draws blood from her finger and then sucks it so that he too "becomes" black according to the letter and spirit of "one-drop" laws. It's also of significance when Magnolia unaccountably finds herself drawn to Julie, when the narrator drops hints that other characters--most prominently Magnolia's father Andy, the captain of the Cotton Blossom (the show boat of the title)--might be passing for white, and when Magnolia's mother Parthenia seems not to question--or perhaps want to question--Andy's ethnicity yet constantly polices Magnolia's contact with the black crew members of the Cotton Blossom and tries to keep her away from Julie when she and Steve are forced to leave the boat after the revelation of their miscegenated status.

Add to all this such things as the narrator's descriptions of Julie, prior to the scene just described, that come straight out of any number of "tragic mulatto" narratives of the 19th century, Andy's revelation that he had once worked in blackface in a minstrel show1 and his strange ambivalence toward Julie, the fact that, despite a fairly long flashback describing how Andy and Parthenia met and courted in the mid-1860s, no mention of the Civil War appears there or anywhere else in it, and a narrative voice that alternates between sympathetic and overtly racist descriptions of African-Americans, and you have (I think) a novel whose narrator is as complex and conflicted as you're likely to find in American literature. If there is a more oddly-narrated novel about race out there--apart from, interestingly, Thomas H. Dixon's blatantly-racist The Sins of the Father--I haven't run across it.

First disclaimer: If you think that, like most English majors with some letters after their names, I'm making way too big a deal about a novel that isn't even all that good (or, just making way too big a deal about a novel, period), I'm not entirely unsympathetic to that position. But, well, this is what I was trained to do, and I like doing it every once in a while.

Other disclaimers--and some actual text to look at, below the fold.

I'll be quite frank: Ferber is not a sophisticated novelist, and Show Boat is not a sophisticated novel. As I say above, this business about the narrator may be due to nothing more than sloppy editing. But I can't help being intrigued by it, for the reasons I stated in my first post on Show Boat: it's set for the most part on the Mississippi, as Huckleberry Finn is--and, for the most part, on the very sort of boat Huck and Jim had planned to catch a ride on for their trip up the Ohio. Acting figures prominently in both--more specifically, in each there's some exploration of the convergences between acting and race. But all that will have to wait for another post.

The other thing that intrigues me is that, despite her enormous popularity in the first half of the 20th century--and the popularity of Show Boat in particular--there's a surprising dearth of scholarship on Ferber. Her personal life and career, and the characters she tends to create (strong women, sometimes married, sometimes not, but not "needy" or helpless types), would seem tailor-made for feminist and pop-culture types. So, my other excuse for this is that I'm not trying to argue for her greatness but draw some attention to features of her work that are curious and (if I'm lucky) significant. My strong hunch is that they might prove to be.

Finally, I hope no one makes the mistake of thinking that what follows is anything more than sketched out. It's hard to write lengthy texts on a blog, especially texts that try to make an argument. But I hope that this makes some sense, and I hope that if you have questions, you'll ask them in the comments.

Okay: some text:

The first concerns Andy Hawks, who at a time that the narrative doesn't specify but which can be determined, through textual clues from elsewhere, to have been the mid-1860s, "drift[ed] up into Massachusetts one summer on a visit to fishermen kin" (21); this is when he meets Parthenia. Here is the narrator's report of Andy's ethnicity as he relates it to her:

[He] 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 probably was true, and certainly accounted for his swarthy skin, his bright brown eyes, his impulsiveness, his vivacious manner. (21-22)
For someone like me, who got out of grad school by writing about miscegenation narratives, a passage like this is critic's catnip: Andy's exotic genealogy through the mother's side and his equally-exotic skin color and manner are the sort of thing that appear again and again in narratives dealing with miscegenation, as initial ways of accounting for a character who is subsequently revealed to be of mixed race. The fact that the narrator had earlier described Andy as having "a trick of talking very fast as he clawed the mutton-chop whiskers first this side, then that, with one brown hairy little hand" that made him appear "grotesque [and] simian" (13) only heightens my suspicions about this passage. But note that clause "It probably was true," simultaneously affirming and casting some doubt on Andy's accounting of himself. It's difficult to tell, moreover, whether this is something Andy in fact knows this to be true, has been told this and believes it or, rather, it is a deliberate invention on his or his parents' part.

So: certainly as far as the narrator is concerned, there is some ambiguity and ambivalence about Andy's origins. Even more intriguing for me, though, is what Parthenia makes of this story. The narrator will make one more passing reference (no pun) to his ethnicity; meanwhile, nowhere does the narrator record Parthenia's response to this information, much less whether she believes it.

Meanwhile, what to make of passages such as these?

Magnolia, as a child,
learned to strut and shuffle and buck-and-wing from the Negroes whose black faces dotted the boards of the Southern wharves as thickly as grace notes sprinkle a bar of lively music. (20)
but compare that to this description of the head cook and his assistants in the galley whom Parthenia confronts over what she regards as their waste of food:
A simple, ignorant soul, the black man, and a somewhat savage; as mighty in his small domain as Captain Andy in his large one. All about him now were his helpers, black men like himself, with rolling eyes and great lips all too ready to gash into grins if this hard-visaged female intruder were to worst him. (23)
And back and forth the narrator veers like this, from pleasant to not-so-pleasant stereotype, apparently approving simultaneously Magnolia's attraction to black people and, in particular, to Julie, and Parthenia's policing of Magnolia's interactions with them, and not quite knowing what to make of Andy.

What to call this narrator's perspective? I'm tempted to call it nostalgia, and even to assign the adjective "antebellum" to it. But its inconstancy of perspective makes it something other than the "moonlight and magnolias" sort of nostalgia. In the footnote below, I mention the possible links between the narrator and the tradition of minstrelsy, so that's something to explore and think about more. I have more rereading and thinking to do before I can draw a firm conclusion about this. But there are other things I want to consider, as well: the parallels regarding the function of the Mississippi in this novel and Huckleberry Finn; the link(s) between passing and acting (it is no coincidence that Julie is deemed the best actor aboard the Cotton Blossom) and, for that matter, Magnolia's attraction both to Julie and to acting.

But all of will have to wait till another post, you'll be pleased to know. If you've read this far, I sincerely thank you.

Part II is here.

1About all I have space and time (not to mention knowledge) to say about minstrelsy here is that its cultural history and legacy in this country are by no means decided. The most-common view, as put forth by Eric Lott in his 1993 book Love and Theft, is that minstrelsy was severely reductive in its depictions of black people and is responsible for many present-day stereotypes of African-Americans. While poking about in the library yesterday, though, I ran across William J. Mahar's 1999 study Behind the Burnt Cork Mask, which seeks to argue that minstrelsy--specifically, blackface itself--allowed performers to offer critiques of dominant culture without the performers' being attached by their audiences to those critiques. Right now--that is, as of the writing of this little footnote--I frankly see Show Boat's narrator as perhaps being in blackface as well, in a figurative sense--that image would certainly serve to get at some of the questions I have about him/her. I can't explore this further, though, till I reread the novel more closely . . . and, for that matter, decide what I think about minstrelsy.


Winston said...

Woah... I believe this to be your magnum opus, at least here in blogville. Lots of work and time on this one. I do admit to reading everything down to the fold, and then a couple more paragraphs before I had to start scanning, not because it was uninteresting, but for brevity of available time.

I know that it falls far short of the intellectual level of your subject and analysis, but as I read I was for some reason reminded of one of the most effective uses of first party narration I have ever seen or heard on television. Other than football in the fall, and the occasional news show or movie, I basically do not watch TV. One of the cable channels has been running two episodes per night of Wonder Years from syndication, and Roomie has gotten hooked on it. I never watched the show when it was first aired, but she somehow got me to start watching it with her now.

Not only is it a very good production that most adults can relate to from their teen years, but it makes effective use of narration by the protagonist, strategically and surgically spliced into the live action.

Sorry, I know this is quite different than the point of your discourse, but I needed to write these thoughts before I lost them, and this provided a convenient place. Thank you

John B. said...

Thanks for this, and for reading as far as you did.
Your comment about The Wonder Years (another example of what you describe, though I personally can't stand it, and yes I realize I'm in the minority here, is that film A Christmas Story) actually gives me a chance to say something quickly about narrators that doesn't quite get said above: It's easy to recognize 1st-person narrators as inherently "limited"--they can know only what they know; they have prejudices and biases; etc. I think most readers, though, have a harder time seeing those same qualities in 3rd-person narrators, since they aren't part of the narrative's action: we usually assume them to be neutral; to borrow a phrase, they report and we decide. But, really, how can that be, given that we have no other source for the narrative but the narrator? It'd be difficult to imagine a truly neutral narrative--and even if such a thing existed, would we want to read it?
As I say in the post, though, most of the time we assume that with 3rd-person narrators, we're getting the straight dope on what's going on, unmediated by another conscience . . . except that literally everything we're reading is the direct result of a conscience's choosing what to describe and how to do so. That's a matter of no small consequence, no matter the narrative (fiction or non-fiction) in front of us.

R. Sherman said...

The good news for us, it would seem, is that your light teaching load this summer give you time for posts like these.

The bad news for you is that you're wasting them on us and not submitting them to peer-reviewed journals.

This narrator stuff is interesting and something I hadn't thought about much. I'm off to ponder No Country For Old Men's use of first and third person narrators.


John B. said...

Thanks for the kind words, both here and above.
Actually, I'm treating this post as something like a rough draft. It's here because I needed to write something with a sense of an audience in mind; just mulling over this stuff while walking along the Little Arkansas wasn't getting me anywhere. So: not a waste. But I do appreciate your concern.

Camille said...

"Ah ha," she says, finally understanding the context of the comment you put on the KB's Baby Wallet post. She hopes you appreciated the KB's response to your question.

She is also wondering if you are going to connect the ideas of miscegenation with Gawain's critique of American culture, because it seems to her that the eclecticism would be a natural, um, byproduct of all that, er, mixing.