A few months ago I came across a came across a copy of the 1926 novel, Show Boat, by Edna Ferber. Being someone who both enjoys the theatre and likes to read, I determined to set aside some time and explore the somewhat dated work. I knew that Show Boat had been adapted into a very successful Broadway play and a movie of the same name, and I also recognized Edna Ferber as being a significant American of letters, though oddly I had never been exposed to her writing in high school or college - and that is with a fairly significant background in the study of literature.
Doing some basic research on Edna Ferber I quickly learned that she had won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1924 novel, So Big, and another novel which she wrote a few years later, Cimarron, was made into a movie which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1931. Several of Ferber's other works also made it to the big screen, including the 1956 film, Giant, which starred Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean.
Ferber's 1926 novel, Show Boat, made its way into movie theaters as well, but only after a long and very successful detour onto Broadway. She was reportedly shocked when composer Jerome Kern suggested turning the novel into a stage musical - and feared that the substance of the novel would be lost in the frivolity of a musical. Kern and his partner, Oscar Hammerstein II, however managed to convince her to let them set her serious tale of life on a show boat to music. The songwriting duo proved to be successful, and Show Boat made it's way to Broadway as the first, or at least most significant until that time, musical production to tell a serious story. It set the stage, so to speak, for the emergence of Oklahoma! more than a decade later.
Show Boat (the novel) tells the story of three strong women and how the pull of the rivers shaped their lives. The first was Parenthia Ann Hawks ("Parthy') who was well on her way to becoming a stereotypical old maid schoolteacher when she met Andy Hawks. Hawks eventually married the rigid and uncompromising woman and took her to live in a small Missouri town next to the Mississippi River where they produced and began raising a daughter, Magnolia Hawks.
Andy Hawks worked on the crew of riverboats and instilled a curiosity and love of the rivers into Magnolia. Although Andy often appeared brow-beaten by the indomitable Parthy, he eventually defied her by secretly purchasing a weather-beaten old show boat, the Cotton Blossom, with his life savings. As he determined to sail off down the river on his new investment, Parthy decided to try and regain control of the situation by taking Magnolia and traveling with Andy on the show boat. Parhty, being a school teacher, knew that she could provide Magnolia with an education while they spent the better part of each year bringing entertainment to the people who lived in the hamlets and cities along the river banks.
But it was the rivers themselves that provided most of Maggie Hawks' education. She grew up studying the ever-changing twists and turns of the great rivers and interacting with the people who lived along the waterways and depended on them for their basic survival. She had no playmates, but made do by being in the constant company of the boat's actors and entertainers as well as the locals who came to see the shows of the Cotton Blossom. Eventually, and over Parthy's staunch objections, Maggie began acting in the company's productions.
The third woman to be touched by the rivers and life on the show boat was Kim Ravenal, the daughter of Maggie Hawks and her gambler husband, Gaylord Ravenal. Kim was born on the Cotton Blossom while the boat was struggling in serious flood waters. Her birthplace was on the river roughly at the point where Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri meet - hence the name "Kim."
The three-generation story was long and complicated and covered a great many years, much in the manner of major novels of the last century - but it maintained a high level of interest and gave a good description of both life on the river and society in general. It presented a particularly poignant view of racial attitudes of the times, and, in the style of Twain, used the vernacular which tends to make for uncomfortable reading today. And Ferber, like Twain before her, successfully captured a moment in America that she had the good fortune to glimpse in her youth.
Show Boat is but a fragment of the great American tale, but it is a fragment well worth preserving.