Show Boat is High Romance; Edna Ferber Goes Barnstorming Down
the Old Mississippi
by Louis Kronenberger
New York Times, August 22, 1926 page BR5
"Show Boat" by Edna Ferber, 398 pp. New York: Doubleday, Page & Co.
We need not be sentimentalists to regard the past with a romantic eye. It is the
normal way of regarding it. The past is, at first hand, romantic. Disenchantment
comes only when we reconstruct it laboriously with the aid of history books and
contemporary documents, or when we treat it in terms of the present. Flaubert
pored for many years over source-material, and "Salammbo" is not romantic. John
Erskine brought Helen up to date, and "The Private Life of Helen of Troy" is not
romantic. But in general the realists have considered their own age and the
romanticists and earlier one.
At a time when realism is all but monopolizing literature, one experiences a
sensation of delightful relief in encountering "Show Boat." It is gorgeously
romantic – not in the flamboyant and artificial manner of the historical romance
which twenty-five years ago, under the titles of "Janice Meredith" and "Richard
Carvel" came definitely labeled before the American public; not staggering
beneath a weight of costume and local color. "Show Boat" comes as a spirited,
full-breasted, tireless story, romantic because it is too alive to be what the
realists call real; because it bears within itself a spirit of life which we
seek rather than have; because it makes a period and mode of existence live
again, not actually different from what they were, but more alluring than they
could have been. "Show Boat" is romantic not because its people and events
violate any principle of possibility, but because they express a principle of
selection. Miss Ferber has chosen the brightest colors and let the dull ones go.
She has avoided the contrasts by which the brightness would fade into the common
light of day. "Show Boat" is dominated by one tone as Hergesheimer's "Balisand"
is dominated by another.
After the days of Mark Twain, the Mississippi holds small place in American
literature. Now it reclaims its place, happily as the scene of later days than
Mark Twain's. River travel such as he described had fallen off with the coming
of railroads, and Captain Andy Hawks of "Show Boat," facing the fact in the late
'70s but satisfied by no life save that of the river, compromised with buying a
show boat – one of those floating theatres which moved form town to town for a
one or two night stand, by day approaching the town with calliope screaming and
flags flying, by night shining with hundreds of lights above the river. On board
with him was his wife Parthy, a hard, gaunt New Englander who should have been a
spinster; his daughter Magnolia, at first a child, later on the ingénue of his
troupe; the troupe itself, all "picked" characters for the purposes of the
novel; and, when the time was ripe, that most engrossing and romantic character
of all – Gaylord Ravenal.
Magnolia Hawks was as much in sympathy with her spry half-Gallic little
father as his wife was out of it. Parthy Hawks mistrusted the show-boat
existence, though in the end her repressions conquered her and made her the show
boat's worst slave. She also mistrusted Gaylord Ravenal, who came aboard it to
act, only because he fell in love with Magnolia. She found out all about him,
but she could not keep Magnolia from marrying him. They stole off and were
married in a small river town, Ravenal paying the minister with his last $10.
How enjoyable a figure he is from start to finish and how flawlessly he comes up
to every requirement of his romantic part! Exiled from New Orleans for killing a
man in self-defense; aristocratic and nonchalant, perfectly groomed, a cool,
inveterate gambler, leading Magnolia, in after years when Andy Hawks had been
drowned, to a see-saw existence in Chicago, fluctuating with his gains and
losses at faro – a delightful figure from start to finish, and a delightful
finish, when he lives Magnolia $600 and goes away forever.
The third generation in Magnolia's family is her daughter Kim; and though she
brings the story up to modern times, she leaves its tone of romance unimpaired.
She becomes a great actress in the New York City of today, moving about in a
social milieu in which appear such actual figures as Woollcott and Broun,
Crowninshield and Swope, Katharine Cornell and Ethel Barrymore, all of them
glimpsed fleetingly. But Miss Ferber carries her story further, makes it swing
full-circle. When old Parthy dies, having made half a million with her show
boat, Magnolia goes back for the funeral and feels the call of the past. She
can't leave the "Cotton Blossom," and down the Mississippi, presumably in this
year 1926, she goes with it, stopping on June 2 at a town called Lulu. By
bringing the story of the show boat up to date Miss Ferber almost makes the cord
snap; but it holds somehow, perhaps because Magnolia herself makes the last
All art is a luxury in the sense that it fills a place beyond the physical
necessities of life, but some art there is which is entirely ornamental, which
does not reveal life, or probe character, or feed the soul. "Show Boat" is such
a piece of writing – a gorgeous thing to read for the reading's sake alone.
Some, perhaps, will conscientiously refer to it as a document which reanimates a
part of the American scene that once existed and does no more. But this writer
cannot believe it is that; rather it is a glorification of that scene, a
heightening, an expression of its full romantic possibilities. There was, no
doubt, a gallant Andy Hawks in the old days, and a Magnolia, and more Gaylord
Ravenals than one; there was such a scene as that recorded of Julie Dozier when
she was discovered to have negro blood; there was a Parthy Hawks who ran a show
boat down the river, an indomitable woman who formed an anomaly among show boat
proprietors; but they were never the one group who lived on the "Cotton
Blossom." Plenty of prose intermingled with the poetry of the true scene, plenty
of realism with the romance. And all these things, of course, Miss Ferber knew
before and while and after she wrote "Show Boat."
But Life, here, gives way unrestrainedly to Art. And Art functions in one
tone – the romantic. Some will not submit to this, and will object to a piece of
melodrama here, a wild coincidence there, an unconvincing character somewhere
else. That will be an esthetic mistake. Let us accept the delightful lives these
people lead. All in all, when you look back upon the story it is amazing how
little that is exciting and complicated has happened; this is biography rather
than "plot." Miss Ferber has told her story without stint, a long free-breathing
story, safe from the careful selectiveness and lacunation [sic] of modern
schools of writing. It never becomes sentimental; at times it is high romance,
at times light romance, at times comedy; but it is never melancholy romance.
There is no sighing after the shows of yesteryear. With "Show Boat" Miss Ferber
establishes herself not as one of those who are inaugurating first-rate
literature, but as one of those who are reviving first-rate story-telling. This
is little else but an irresistible story; but that, surely, is enough.
© 1926 The New York Times