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Critical Review by Donald Davidson
SOURCE: "Edna Ferber," in The Spyglass: Views and Reviews, 1924–1930, edited by John Tyree Fain, Vanderbilt University Press, 1963, pp. 70-4.
An American poet, literary critic, social commentator, and historian, Davidson is best known as a member of the Fugitive poets—a group of southern American writers that included John Crowe Ranson, Robert Penn Warren, and Alan Tate—and as a member of the Agrarians—a group that included many of the Fugitives and promoted the idea of agrarianism (as opposed to industrialism) in their writings on politics, social criticism, and economic theory. In the following review, originally published in the Nashville Tennessean on August 22, 1926, he praises the descriptive, panoramic elements of Show Boat, but concludes that the novel, like all of Ferber's work and, indeed, "most novels by women," lack depth.
Edna Ferber explained in So Big that cabbages are beautiful, and a multitude of readers, including the Pulitzer Prize committee, agreed with considerable exhibitions of pleasure. In Showboat, her new book, she tells us that the Mississippi and Ohio rivers are beautiful, or were beautiful in the days of the 1870's when floating theaters went leisurely up and down Southern rivers; that the life of people moving on or around these rivers was beautiful; that Chicago was at least partly beautiful in the bad, mad days of Gambler's Alley, and that modern theatrical New York with its cut-and-dried sophistication is rather feverishly unbeautiful.
That is to say, both So Big and Showboat are differently pointed adventures in Miss Ferber's determined search for the romantic element in American life. Selina Peake, the heroine of So Big, was placed by unfortunate circumstances in a dull world of cabbages and stolid Dutch farmers; she refused to be defeated, and bravely made the commonplace romantic. Showboat presents the obverse of the same theme. Here again Miss Ferber's people (and shall we say Miss Ferber herself) flee from dullness. They escape to the Cotton Blossom Floating Palace Theater and are removed from the boredom of a stationary existence. They enjoy the changing pageantry of river banks and river towns; they have a colorful world of their own. And Magnolia Ravenal, the heroine of Showboat, is the creature of this world, a flesh-and-blood symbol of the universal human yearning after the exotic, a wistful gypsy pertinaciously clinging to her own dreams. Thus while Sinclair Lewis and the Main Street school condemn American life, Miss Ferber follows the lead of those who extol it, at least in the manifestations of its immediate past. It is interesting to observe that she, like Sherwood Anderson recently, has been drawn in her new novel to the "magnet-South" significantly described by Whitman. And here again Southerners have left their own rightful and native themes to be exploited by alien hands. Decidedly, the "newness" of the novel Showboat is that it depicts the river life which nobody has touched since Mark Twain, and at that a phase which Mark Twain, so far as I remember, did not explore.
To describe the book more definitely I find it very handy to quote from the title page of the beautifully bound and excellently printed copy furnished me. This says:
The Time—from the gilded age of the 1870's, through the 90's up to the present time. The Scene: The earlier parts of the story take place on the Cotton Blossom Floating Palace Theater, a showboat on the Mississippi. The background—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 favorites, by the actors and painted ladies of the Cotton Blossom troupe, are still remembered in Paducah, Evansville, Cairo, Cape Girardeau, Natchez, Vicksburg, Baton Rouge and in many other river towns and cities.
This panoramic feature gives the author a grand opportunity for descriptive work, and she makes the most of it. The novel is as much pictorial as dramatic. It evokes a mood of lazy contemplation through which scenes and people move gracefully transfigured into romantic shapes. Edna Ferber writes vividly and deftly, never too much, always just a right amount, perhaps too tastefully so. And her style has a richness and flexibility I do not remember to have observed in her work before. Episodes merge gently into each other. There is no frenzy or dash, no splashing of emotion. All is subdued, restrained, measured, carefully turned, almost retrospective. The book has structural peculiarities which may bother a few impatient readers. Miss Ferber uses very deftly the back-and-forth type of narrative which Joseph Conrad liked so much. But in her hands this device does not serve for quite as powerful ends as in Conrad's novels. And here and there one sees marks of the "serialized" novel!
Magnolia Ravenal, Miss Ferber's heroine, grows up on the showboat, a yearning, inquisitive child, and such she remains all her days. She is romantic and rather selfish, but doesn't achieve any great dignity. Even when she makes a reckless marriage with the gentlemanly gambler, runs away to lead a rocky up-and-down existence in Chicago, and narrowly escapes being sucked into the "underworld" of those days, she is still just childish, wistful, innocent. She is surpassed by her parents, two creations vastly more interesting. Captain Andy Hawks, the playboy owner of the floating theater, and that indomitable Puritan housekeeper, Parthenia Hawks, the solidest person in the book. The various minor characters, including the urbane gambler-actor, are well done, but Captain Andy and Partheny have the real stuff of life in them. Their queer mating, their odd administration of the floating theater, their opposite philosophies of life are treated in a somewhat Dickensian, almost slapstick manner. But there is an exuberance about them that Miss Ferber does not allow her other characters. They are fun.
Some major criticisms might be made. The ending of the book is quite incongruous. Miss Ferber becomes ironic and satirical in treating theatrical life in New York, with Magnolia's daughter, Kim, depicted as a successful readymade actress. Miss Ferber does not play fair, either, in introducing at various points in the narrative certain prescient references to the Negro spirituals so popular nowadays.
It seems an illegitimate foresight, even a truckling to the mood of the moment, to equip her heroine with a perhaps unnatural admiration for "I Got Shoes," "Go Down, Moses," and "Deep River." It is a cheap trick. And Miss Ferber's pictures of Southern people, though always interesting, are generally in the conventional, sentimental vein. A more general fault is that the book seems always on the point of becoming very serious, without ever really becoming so. Miss Ferber delicately skirts the edge of tragedy, never plunging in. Just so much tears, so much pathos, so much wickedness, so much ugliness—just enough to make us faintly aware that all might not be quite as beautiful as it seems, and then, plenty of movie sunshine to dash away the clouds. It looks as if Miss Ferber had carefully mixed her ingredients for a large popular audience. And I will not question her right to that audience, and it would not make any difference if I did. Showboat will please lots of people, and why shouldn't it? Doubtless it will be a best seller, and who cares if it is? I'll prophesy right now that it will be chosen by the Book-of-the-Month Club.
At this point one remembers what some notable critics have said about the superiority of women novelists over men novelists in America. Didn't somebody say once that Dorothy Canfield, Willa Cather, Elinor Wylie, Edna Ferber, Ellen Glasgow, et al., had made a much better showing than any similar number of men novelists in this country? Maybe it is only the masculine ego which makes me unwilling to concede this superiority. At any rate, I for one do not see it. I certainly see the defects in the work of Theodore Dreiser, James Branch Cabell, Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos and others. But their writing has a substance which I do not find in the novels by women. Dreiser, for example, is as crude as an old fence post; neither he, nor any of the men except Cabell and Thomas Beer, have anything like the finesse and clear serenity of Willa Cather or Elinor Wylie. But they somehow go deep. They get down to strata that the women seldom reach. Perhaps it is too obvious a comment to say that the men have "virility," and too foolish a derogation to claim that the ladies are … well … ladies! Still I can't help wondering whether any of the women have written a novel as solid, as strong, as portentous, as Dreiser's An American Tragedy. I don't believe so. Shall I say, then, that the men have (convention prohibits me to use an Elizabethan term, so I choose a rural word) … "innards"? Maybe so, maybe not. At any rate, Edna Ferber's books, charming as they may be, have no … "innards."
This section contains 1,518 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)