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    The Novel  
Key Figures
The Story
The Musical: Part I
The Musical: Part II
Works Cited



Flappers. Prohibition. Jazz. Lindbergh. Valentino. 1920 to 1929, more affectionately known as the "Roaring Twenties" or the "Jazz Age," is possibly the first decade in American history to have such a distinct and identifiable culture. In an era erupting with a sense of novelty and pride, America enjoyed a patriotic high following World War I and tried to find new ways to define and celebrate itself. Minority groups sought to promote their own agendas: women earned the right to vote and began to assert themselves in a new radical image, and African-Americans found creative outlets for their emotions in novel new music and art forms. While some defined the 1920's as completely liberating, other groups saw the time as a triumph for "100% Americanism," enforcing extreme restrictions on the culture, such as the prohibition of alcohol, gambling, immigrants and non-white "others." These were the two rival worlds that produced the fabled culture of the Roaring Twenties: complete with prohibition, progress, jazz, independence, and racism. With so many images and ideas, it is very difficult to find a contemporary portrait that captured such a broad canvas. Even the most esteemed popular culture icons of the 1920's, such as literature like Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby or Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt, are far too localized to encompass such an overwhelming presentation of American culture. Yet the respected female novelist Edna Ferber took on this ambitious project in her widely successful novel, Show Boat.

In the 1926 novel, Ferber, like Lewis or Fitzgerald, wrote with a self-conscious look at her contemporary world, yet she did so by presenting a history of one of the prominent aspects of the Twenties; the entertainment industry. In doing this, Ferber deliberately tries to present a panoramic view of American culture. As she herself describes on title page of the first edition:

The earlier parts of the story take place on the Cotton Blossom Floating Palace Theatre, a show boat on the Mississippi. The background aboard the Cotton Blossom is panoramic. Twice a year the unwieldy boat was towed up and down the mighty river and its tributaries; it was a familiar sight from New Orleans to the cities of the North, from the coal fields of Pennsylvania to St. Louis, and stirring presentations of "East Lynne," "Tempest and Sunshine," and other old dramatic favourites, by the actors and painted ladies of the Cotton Blossom troupe, are still remembered in Paducah, Evansville, Cario, Cape Giradeau, Natchez, Vicksburg, Baton Rouge, and many other towns and cities.

Following the fortunes of the Hawks-Ravenal family, the story then carries us to the notorious "Gambler's Alley" of earlier Chicago, and then to the modern theatrical centre of America, the Times Square district of New York City."

Ferber's ambitious novel not only covers a lot of geographical territory. She reaches into areas that had previously been taboo in mainstream American fiction; like sympathetic portrayals of the victims of racism, broken marriages and abandonment, due to the husband's addiction to alcohol and gambling. These issues are included in the story most likely due to their resonance in Ferber's contemporary society and to 1920's audiences.

Following the influx of immigrants at the turn of the century and the emerging presence of minority cultures, race began to take on a more significant role in 1920's society. Although there was some progress in tolerance, groups such as the Klu Klux Klan florished and the mainstream white America generally tolerated racist sentiments. This can be shown by the continued popularity of blackface in shows such as Amos and Andy. In regards to the racial issues that would be present in 1920's society, Ferber portrays the majority and minority viewpoints, even though her ulitmate sympathies are with the latter. Edna Ferber herself was Jewish, and was the victim of a good deal of anti-Semitism. This undoubtedly contributed to her novel's sympathies toward the plight of her African-American characters. (Even though the mere fact that she includes racial epithets and faithful slave-like characters is enough to make some modern audiences pass off the novel and subsequent adaptations as racist, for not conforming to today's standards). Nevertheless, Ferber acknowledges the struggle of the African-American workers aboard the Cotton Blossom, even though she glamorizes the river atmosphere in general. In one scene, her protagonist Magnolia, takes music lessons as a child from a white man, but Ferber reveals that she learned far more of "real music from black Jo and many another wharf minstrel than she did from hours of the heavy-handed and unlyrical George." (p. 124) This moment is striking in terms of the development of popular music leading up to the 1920's and in the assimilation of black culture into mainstream society via the appeal of the Harlem Renaissance. (Although it was ironically intended to set apart black culture.) This sentiment would also be pivotal in the musical adaptation of the work, as it works in to the big number, "Ol' Man River." Yet the foundation for that particular song seems to be present in a similar scene, in which Magnolia listens to Jo sing to her: "Jo, the charming and shiftless, would be singing for her one of the Negro plantation songs, wistful with longing and pain; the folk songs of a wronged race, later to come into a blaze of popularity as spirituals." (p. 120)

Ferber also presents racial sympathy during a dramatic incident involving miscegenation (marriage between races). Magnolia's idol, Julie Dozier,is exposed as being racially mixed, which would make her marriage to her husband Steve illegal. Yet before the port's town sheriff arrives, Steve dramatically pricks Julie's finger and sucks the blood, so he can honestly declare that he too has black blood inside him. Thus the sheriff leaves the couple alone, yet Julie and Steve regretfully leave the Cotton Blossom for their own safety and that of the acting troupe.

Despite the romantic elements in the story, it is not an average romance in which "love conquers all." Steve and Julie eventually part ways, although for unstated reasons, (presumably stress caused by their situation). The marriage between the romantic hero and heroine of the story, Magnolia and Gaylord Ravenal also turns sour. This would have been something with which the audiences of the Twenties could also identify, as the divorce rate started to climb in the decade, when a majority of marriages were starting to be based on love, rather than security or social position.

The parts of the story that deal with Gaylord's addiction to alcohol and gambling certainly ties in to the Jazz Age, in regards to the prohibition act, which was passed in 1919. Thus it would naturally seem that Ferber agrees with the law, as her romantic hero's vices ruin his marriage, then his life. Yet she does show the opposite side of the coin with the puritanical fundamentalism of Parthenia Ann Hawks, Magnolia's mother. Parthy contrasts her fun loving husband, the show boat's Captain Andy Hawks with her stern and persistent preaching to him and all the vice-ridden people she encounters in her travels. Although she is an important and enigmatic character, She is not idealized, which is consistent with Ferber's desire to show a "panoramic" picture of life in America, with characters representing all different types.

By the end of the novel, the torch of the strong, independent heroine has passed from Parthy, (who continues her rule over the show boat when she is widowed by her husband during a storm), to Magnolia, (who continues her singing career and raises her child after her husband abandons her), and finally to her daughter, Kim. Kim Ravenal at the end of the novel enjoys success and fame as a Broadway star on the 1920's stages, and embodies the Flapper sprit and mentality that is synonymous with the Jazz Age. Ferber's novel acknowledges this aspect of 1920's society, but urges her readers not to forget the strong women who preceded them and upgraded their responsibilities by winning the right to vote, perhaps so that they will not squander it.

Edna Ferber's novel, Show Boat sets itself apart from the urban 1920's in its initial setting and period, but the novel is firmly grounded in the period in which it was written. The issues she presents in it all resonate loudly in the Jazz Age, and she makes the parallel obvious throughout the book, as she passes back and forth from the flashback narratives of the nineteenth century to the 20/20 hindsight commentary, similar to Victor Hugo's technique in his novel Notre Dame de Paris. Ferber even drops contemporary names and images that would be instantly recognizable for 1920's audiences. In discussing the food that is prepared on the show boat, she mentions that Kim would later use the same recipe to entertain her friends: namely "Ethel Barrymore, or Kit Cornell or Frank Crowninshield or Charley Towne or Woollcott." (p. 119) The later is the famed theatre critic Alexander Woollcott, who is responsible for introducing Edna Ferber to Jerome Kern, a prominent musical composer who was itching to try something new.

Next: The Musical



From the 1994 Broadway Production



Young Edna Ferber



From the 1994 Broadway Production



Howard Keel as Gaylord Ravenal in the MGM Movie Version



A 1939 reprint of the novel

© 2002 Patricia Searl