Saturday, July 14, 2007

Denial on the Mississippi?: Part II--the river as engine of nostalgia in Show Boat

Map from Mississippi River Cruises

Note: Part I of "Denial on the Mississippi?" is here.

While I was away from "here," I had occasion to do some more thinking about Edna Ferber's novel Show Boat and make a substantial start on an essay that, with luck, might appear in print somewhere. This is part of a version of that essay. I don't know whether the fact that, with the exception of passing references to it, I've not (yet) found a substantial piece published on it in the past ten years bodes well or ill for its chances in the academic journal marketplace, but at least no one can argue that the marketplace is overrun with Ferber criticism generally.

As I noted in that earlier post, that critical silence is itself curious to me, given Show Boat's subsequent history of innumerable revivals as a stage musical and its three film versions. There is something in its story that continues to appeal strongly to a mainstream American audience. I myself don't have any firm theories as to why this is the case--either the dearth of scholarship or the reasons for its appeal--though I'll mention the work of a scholar regarding the latter. However, the more I have thought about and tried to write on this novel, the more I think that scholars interested in American popular culture from the early decades of the 20th century would find it an intriguing novel.

They'll also find it a frustrating novel, if their experience turns out to be anything like mine. It doesn't appear to make any sort of argument, either about Life or American culture (except, perhaps, very obliquely toward its conclusion); it champions no causes, either noble or offensive; its characters don't change for the better or worse as events occur; it even seems to leave us free to like or not like its principal characters. It simply is. Therein might lie one reason for the lack of critical discourse on Show Boat: it's a hard novel to talk back to in an academic manner. Perhaps I'm just weird, but it's Show Boat's very blankness that has grown on me over the past couple of months. Surely, something, some mechanism, some force, some set of assumptions operates behind that blankness that a better reader than I can tease out and present as a way of beginning to explain why, for a very long time now, what Lauren Berlant terms the "superstructure" of Show Boat (consisting of the novel and its various stage and cinematic treatments) has appealed to American audiences for so long. But aside from Berlant--a very good and very smart reader indeed--no one has yet come along to do this sort of work. So, my poor reader(s) and (knock on wood) the greater academic world are stuck with my efforts for the moment.

Below the fold: some tracing out of Berlant's work and the direction I head in from that, along with a circling back to a passage I quoted in Part I. Apologies in advance for the length of this post and for the inclusion of some turgid prose--mine as well as others'.

Berlant's essay is called "Pax Americana: The Case of Show Boat," which is the last essay in a book called Cultural Institutions of the Novel. Her essay's larger subject is the relationship between sentimental fiction and historical realities, Show Boat serving as a model of that dynamic:

The disguise of "feeling" as a thing distant from and superior to public-sphere norms of instrumental rationality requires the modern sentimental text's central moments of instruction and identification to appear only as sublime ephemera, fragile temporal material of feeling and memory that constantly escape becoming knowledge that might inform, even revolutionize, the institutions and the common sense of official culture. These are the contradictions of modern American feminine sentimentality: a commitment to and revulsion caused by excesses of feeling in a world of politics, instrumental reason, and public-sphere mediation; the adoption of the commodity form to express the overwhelming predicament of subaltern identity in the face of the taxonomic and material violence of national capitalism. (399)

Berlant's first sentence is the one I am more interested in here for the moment, for it offers an explanation as to why the Civil War (and here I need to correct an earlier claim I made) merits only one mention in Ferber's novel, despite its chronology's having what I would argue is its beginning during the war, and then only to note, post-Reconstruction, that even as its audiences still struggled to recover from the war, the crew and actors of the Cotton Blossom "alone seemed to be leading an enchanted existence, suspended on another plane" (51). That first sentence of Berlant's also goes a long way toward explaining Show Boat's blankness that I mentioned above. Berlant goes on to argue, via a truly fine reading of "Ol' Man River," that what Show Boat's "superstructure" is interested in rendering ephemeral are "both . . . the suppressed and displaced history of American slaves and . . . the context of white misapprehension, the white will-to-not-know that supports the fantasy norms its romantic fictions express" (411). Thus, Berlant concludes, the history of Show Boat is "the history of the development of an apparatus of forgetting" (414).

Here is where my poor contribution parts ways a bit from Berlant's work. Though it incorporates some observations specifically about the novel, her essay is more concerned with that apparatus's history of development and, thus, moves away from certain of the novel's particulars that the stage and film versions don't dwell on. As I have thought about Ferber's novel, though, to my mind one "apparatus of forgetting" is already present throughout the text: the Mississippi River and its tributaries, the other plane on which the Cotton Blossom's crew and acting troupe lead their enchanted existence. The development of that apparatus of forgetting isn't something that emerges in the interim between the novel's publication and its stage and film adaptations. As has also happened with our popular memory of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn (odd, isn't it, how Jim rarely if ever gets mentioned along with these two), the Mississippi, not because of but despite its location and hydrology, seems always already at an imaginative remove from our nation's painful historical and cultural realities.1 Even within the world of Huckleberry Finn itself, it's not hard either to imagine Huck wanting to be on that other plane regarding the dilemma he finds himself in with Jim, or to imagine the atmosphere of the Cotton Blossom as being like something Huck could easily have fantasized.2 It should surprise no one, once we gain the perspective of hindsight, that when Parthenia Hawks, Andy Hawks' wife, asks what time it is at one point on her first trip on the Cotton Blossom, it is Julie Dozier who responds, "What does it matter?" (54)

What Huck and Jim and, in Show Boat, Julie and her husband Steve Baker hope for but inevitably fail in achieving is escape from the ramifications of the legal and social politics of race. Huck and Jim's raft and the Cotton Blossom have to put in sooner or later. But even as this is their wish, for others in Show Boat the trope of racial ambiguity also provides, along with a good bit of not-so-latent anxiety, what appears to be an erotic element.

What follows are a couple of sentences from Show Boat that I quoted in Part I of "Denial on the Mississippi," this time including a couple of other sentences to frame the ones originally quoted:
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 probably was true, and certainly accounted for his swarthy skin, his bright brown eyes, his impulsiveness, his vivacious manner. The first time he kissed this tall, raw-boned New England woman, he was startled at the robustness with which she met and returned the caress. (21-22)

The phrase "It probably was true," as I mentioned before, affirms without confirming as fact Andy's explanation of his ethnic heritage, thus leaving in the narrative an uncertainty that the narrator ignores from that point on but which, I argue in my essay, manifests itself in Parthenia by way of her close surveillance of their daughter Magnolia when she is socializing with people that Parthenia knows or (in the case of Julie) suspects of being black. But it would also seem implicit in the passage I just quoted that Andy's story, whatever her doubts as to its veracity, also attracts her to him.

How to reconcile this apparent admission of the erotic attraction of racial ambiguity for the very people who would (and do) restrict or forbid or condemn such tendencies in public (as Parthenia herself does many, many times in the course of Ferber's novel)? There is also the matter, in the novel's famous scene of Julie's and Steve's exposure as a miscegenated couple, of how Andy behaves toward them (the short answer: ambivalently); of why it is that Magnolia, characterized throughout the text as a Daddy's Girl, is (according to the narrator) unaccountably drawn to Julie; and most perplexing of all, why, when Julie and Steve are forced to leave the Cotton Blossom, genuinely traumatizing Magnolia, literally no further mention of her trauma is given voice in the novel. And finally, there is the matter of Magnolia's later gaining of fame and fortune by singing African-American songs and spirituals "authentically"--that is, in the manner of the black people she had learned the songs from. Through it all, the river remains unchanged in the eyes of either Magnolia or the narrator--unvexed, even. Finally, there's the no-little-matter of a question Camille raised in a comment on Part I of this post that I've also been mulling over.

But all that will have to wait for another post (or so).
1Think, for example, of Abraham Lincoln's famous statement upon hearing that Vicksburg had fallen to Union forces in July of 1863: "The Father of Waters again flows unvexed to the sea." Lincoln's language, it seems, does more than merely announce the opening of a major waterway for Union forces that effectively cut the Confederacy in half. Implicit in the remark is, at the very least, an anthropomorphizing of the river; more, his use of an indigenous people's reverential name for the river perhaps is intended to confer the aura of sacredness upon it.

2American landscape's effect(s) on our nation's collective imagination, whether the Mississippi or Rip Van Winkle's Katterskill Mountains or what have you (think of Emerson's inimitable phrase from "Nature," "In the woods is perpetual youth"), surely is a crucial component of American Romanticism, which Toni Morrison, following Michael Rogin's discussion in his book on Melville, Subversive Genealogy, argues really came into its own at the very time that national debates regarding slavery were at their most heated. Berlant's essay doesn't address any of these matters, but it would not be difficult for someone so inclined to make the link between her arguments and Rogin's critique of Romanticism.
I personally am not so inclined; some of the very strongest criticisms of slavery--and, for that matter, our collective complicity in perpetuating it if we do nothing (I'm speaking in particular of Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience")--emerged directly out of American Romanticism. To understand Transcendentalism only in terms of escape from the world that is too much with us is, I think, to understand it only partially.


R. Sherman said...

I'm not going to try to make a coherent comment, as I'm still trying to digest this.

One thing stands out, though. You talk about the "blankness" of the Southern narrative and I'm probably misreading it. But, Showboat perhaps is like all Southern people. We take the good times and bad and just shrug our shoulders and move on.

Yeah, we know about black people and we know there are certain rules, but we live our lives anyway and hope things, just like the river, keep moving along without stopping to bother us.

If it does, we deal with it.

And shrug our shoulders and move on.


John B. said...

Thanks for dropping by and for the plug at your place.
Re "blankness": I agree with your take on Southern culture. What I was referring to there was that the novel doesn't even seem to present that (the take-it-as-it-comes approach to living) as something its characters come to understand . . . unless, via its narrator's frequent evocations of the Mississippi's changing-yet-unchanging nature, we're supposed to intuit that. Now: one could argue that that was in part the intent of "Ol' Man River"--to give voice to something that remains unvoiced in the novel, and I'd go along with that. What I'm interested in doing, as I noted, is getting behind that blankness. No one's up to anything consciously nefarious in Show Boat--just something, you know, Southern, that its participants, by virtue of their being in the midst of that world, are less likely to be self-conscious about it.

dd said...

Hmmm. I haven't read this book but I do identify with the blankness you describe. I think if you watched the film "Babydoll" (a Tennessee Williams story) it would provide an interesting counter to Showboat. Showboat probably features a class of characters we all know of - scoundrels, good ole boys, belle's et al - people who came down the river or the coast to land in the south. The railroad brought many immigrants who created the lines and then settled inland... who eventually outfarmed these rivah people and who hold title to much of the best farmland today. After watching dozens of films at the "reel south" film festival it was the one that rang the truest.

John B. said...

Thanks for stopping by.

I seem to recall that you mentioned Babydoll in a comment you left on one of my Welty posts. I'll have to look for it. As I read your comment here, it reminded me of the film Junebug: it too has a narrational blankness to it that makes you have to watch as well as listen. If you're curious, I wrote a post on it here.

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