Edna Ferber’s novel Show Boat is reminiscent of poet Walt Whitman’s work, in that it seeks uncritically to evoke and to celebrate a time, a place, a people, and a culture in American history. Like novelist Willa Cather, Ferber also explores the human roots of a region’s culture and shows how lives intersect with and are shaped by the geographical realities of the land. Also like Cather, Ferber features strong women characters and traces their significance to the generations. Show Boat also shares affinities with writer Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) in its setting among the small Mississippi River towns in the latter part of the nineteenth century. In such ways, Ferber continues a tradition of American literature. Show Boat, however, is unique in focusing specifically on the phenomenon of the floating theater and how it had affected both actors and audiences.
In 1927, the year after Ferber published Show Boat, the novel was made into a musical play by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. The play was an immediate and lasting success, eclipsing the book to such an extent that virtually all critical commentary following the play’s first production has been of the play, the films based on the play, and subsequent adaptations. The cultural impact of Ferber’s work, which has been considerable, is therefore based on interpretive adaptations of her novel.
The play emphasizes and sensationalizes certain elements of the novel, distorting Ferber’s original vision. The themes of miscegenation and feminism, for example, minor and only incidental in Ferber’s novel, have been magnified in the various subsequent scripts and screenplays to add political currency to the original story. The play also has been harshly criticized by some for its “Uncle Tom” characters, who, incidentally, do not appear in Ferber’s novel. It is thus important for readers to distinguish between the 1926 novel and the more dramatic (and melodramatic) 1927 play that made Show Boat most famous, or infamous.
In the novel, Ferber does not preach about or take sides regarding socioeconomic issues prominent at the time the novel is set. However, Show Boat does sympathetically contrast the careless vagabond life of the showboat players and the colorful people who knew and worked the rivers of the Mississippi basin with the repressed, Calvinist, and structured lifestyle of New England. The river itself is a metaphor for the life that surrounds it: easygoing, untamed, perennially variable, and uncritically tolerant. The showboat represents music, gaiety, and glamour to the pioneers in hamlets along the tributaries of the Mississippi and Ohio in the post-Civil War period: a form of escape not only to the local audiences but also to those who live and work on the boats. Ferber idealizes the warmth, enchantment, laughter, and music of the showboat, as well as the passion, lust, blood, and drama of the theater that continues even after the performance ends. She considers the showboat to be a form of medicine that alleviates the often-drab monotony and drudgery of everyday life for ordinary people.
The comedies and tragedies of human life aboard the showboat are seen in all their diversity in this novel, much as one would view the flotsam floating down the river during and after a flood. Objects humorous and horrific, poignant and reprehensible, are swept along in the flood to appear briefly; they then...
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