Clare Spark: The Subtle Racism of Edna Ferber and Oscar Hammerstein





Clare Spark is a historian, with degrees from Cornell University (B.S. ‘58), Harvard Graduate School of Education (M.A.T. in Science Teaching ‘59), and UCLA (Ph.D.’93).

1929 poster for Showboat film

Liberals like to think of themselves as anti-racists, and struggle valiantly to distinguish themselves from blood and soil (Blut und Boden) Nazis, the hereditarian racists par excellence. But there are more subtle, more insidious forms of racism, because they masquerade as antiracism, for instance in one kind of “environmentalist” logic or in primitivism/exoticism. (For the racism inherent in “multiculturalism” see http://clarespark.com/2011/03/28/index-to-multiculturalism-blogs/. Briefly, it is believed that there are no universal ethics or universal facts, for diverse languages and cultures create reality, and no one culture is better than another, nor is it legible to “the Other.”)

In this latter “environmentalist” variety, it is imagined that different climates and material conditions literally molded their diverse populations. These non-whites, upon discovery, exert a fascination for travelers and other fantasists, for the primitives are associated with the inexhaustible bosom of mother Earth, or with the release of those “spiritual” or erotic (or even aggressive) instincts supposedly repressed by such as the hard-driving, uptight money-maddened Hebraic Puritans of cold and rocky New England and their Yankee brethren in Philadelphia and New York. Different environments, it was thought even by such “advanced” anthropologists such as Franz Boas, produced different skull formations, and presumably differing human types. (For the reception of Boas into progressive race pedagogy, see http://clarespark.com/2010/07/20/german-romantic-predecessors-to-multiculturalism/, especially the enthused melding of Boas with 18th century German Romantics of the Aufklärung by Bostonian educator J. Mace Andress, 1916.)

Almost everyone who writes about American musical theater credits Oscar Hammerstein II for the precocious antiracism of the musical Showboat, (1926), followed by several film versions, the most famous one released in 1927. He is also the acclaimed lyricist of the stage musical South Pacific (1949), then translated into film in 1958, with his lyric for “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” covered by every liberal singer imaginable, eager to distance themselves from nativist yahoo Republicans.

I consulted Paul Osborn’s “Final script” for the 1958 movie, dated June 10, 1957, to see if the movie version, like the play (and unlike Michener’s original Tales of the South Pacific) had Lieutenant Joe Cable renounce his conventional life in Philadelphia for the sexual charms of Liat, the younger than springtime daughter of Bloody Mary. The script makes it clear that the song itself has converted Cable away from “My Girl Back Home” (a song dropped from the original stage play). What follows are my notes from the movie script:

First Cable remembers what he has left behind:

(p.103)”My Girl Back Home”

“My girl back home/ I’d almost forgot/A blue eyed kid/ I liked her a lot/ We got engaged/Both families were glad/ And I was told/By my uncle and Dad/That if I was clever and able/ They’d make me a part/ Of a partnership/Cable, Cable, and Cable.

How far away/Philadelphia P.A./Princeton, N.J./How far are they/From coconut palms/And banyan trees/And coral sands/ And/ Tonkinese”

p.106 Following the singing of “You’ve Got To be Carefully Taught,” there are “Directions: speaking, going close to Emile, his voice filled with the emotion of discovery and firm in a new determination.” Cable speaks: “Yes, sir, if I get out of this thing alive, I’m not going back there! I’m coming here. All I care about is right here.”

Significantly, the reference to Liat (in “My Girl Back Home”) follows references to the physical environment of a South Pacific island, and even then she is not individuated with a name, but collapsed into her race, the Tonkinese (now known as Vietnamese).

Return now to Showboat, the best-selling 1926 novel of Edna Ferber. I had assumed that the theme of miscegenation, the very core of white supremacist angst, would be part of Ferber’s psychological attractions. But no. It is true that Julie, the mulatto played by Helen Morgan in the film version, is a major character who sings such standards as “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine” and “Bill”, but in Ferber’s novel, Ferber’s Doppelgänger Magnolia, is attached to Julie as a projection of herself, a showboat actress and maternal figure with black hair, plain features, and a sallow complexion.  As Julie and her blonde husband are driven out of Lemoyne (where she was born and known to be part Negro), (hysterical) Magnolia runs after her, and Ferber writes, “…And when they finally came together, the woman dropped on her knees in the dust of the road and gathered the weeping child to her and held her close, so that as  you saw them sharply outlined against the sunset the black of the woman’s dress and the white of the child’s frock were as one.” (p.153)

But more, Magnolia’s  hyper-Puritan business-like, “frigid” and “fanatical” killjoy mother, Parthia Ann Hawks, is the antitype to the spirituality of Jo and Queenie, the major Negro characters in the book. Magnolia hovers about them as a refuge from the hypocritical Mother, a strict Calvinist, secretly thrilled by wickedness. Queenie feeds Magnolia’s body, while Jo feeds her soul. “…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.” Magnolia asks Jo to play “I Got Shoes” and Ferber even includes the score of the song, followed by “The longing of a footsore, ragged, driven race expressed in the tragically childlike terms of shoes, white robes, wings, and the wise and simple insight into hypocrisy: “Everybody’s talkin ‘bout Heav’n ain’t goin’ there….” She then asks for “Go Down Moses.” “She liked this one—at once the most majestic and supplicating of all the Negro folk songs—because it always made her cry a little. Sometimes Queenie, busy at the stove or the kitchen table, joined in with her high rich camp-meeting voice. Jo’s voice was a reedy tenor, but soft and husky with the indescribable Negro vocal quality. …purple velvet muffling a flute(120-122).” Later, Magnolia will sing these and other spirituals to her daughter Kim, when she is ill, imitating the “soft husky Negro voice. (291)”

Edna Ferber, an admirer of FDR during the Depression, should be grouped together with regionalist artists and poets of her time, reaching out to the wretched of the earth, to “the common man,”  not to the militant industrial working class or their intellectual allies in the Red Decade. Here is a passage from Showboat that she even quotes in her first autobiography A Peculiar Treasure (1939). She is describing the appeal of the showboats to the denizens of the Mississippi shores, especially those of the South: “They forgot the cotton fields, the wheatfields, the cornfields. They forgot the coal mines, the potato patch, the stable, the barn, the shed. They forgot the pitiless blaze of the noonday sun; the bitter marrow-numbing chill of winter; the blistered skin; the frozen road, wind, snow, rain, flood. The women forgot for an hour their washtubs, their kitchen stoves, childbirth pains, drudgery, worry, disappointment. Here were blood, lust, love, passion. Here were warmth, enchantment, laughter, music. It was Anodyne. It was Lethe. It was Escape. It was the Theatre.” (104-105)

Ferber was a great fan of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. But there was even more to Ferber’s primitivism that links her to Hammerstein’s fairy tales. Writing of the audience for the showboat’s plays and songs, “They made a weird spectacle of the commonplace. The whites of the Negroe’s eyes gleamed whiter. The lights turned their cheeks to copper and bronze and polished ebony. The swarthy coal miners and their shawled and sallow wives, the farmers of the corn and wheat lands, the backwoods poor whites, the cotton pickers of Tennessee, Lousiana, Mississippi, the small-town merchants, the shambling loafers, the lovers two by two were magically transformed into witches, giants, princesses, crones, gnomes, Nubians, genii. (102-103)”  For related blogs see http://clarespark.com/2012/03/21/wilsonian-internationalism-as-our-town/, and http://clarespark.com/2012/04/12/the-donkey-serenade-and-buffetts-rule/.



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