Show Boat

by Edna Ferber. New York: Doubleday, Page & Co. 1926. 12mo. viii+ 398 pp. $2.00.
IT would be rather too solemn to treat Show Boat as a ‘serious novel.’ As a picturesque and entertaining narrative, it will certainly have thousands of readers who will accept it uncritically as a readable story; and theirs is the best mood in which to approach it. To uncritical readers the fact that it has many faults of style and invention will make no particular difference. They will not care that the author rarely gets very far beneath the skin of her characters; that the more elaborately she portrays her personages, the less real they seem; that her descriptions of the Mississippi are picturesque rather than poetic; and that her narrative of life on the show boat and elsewhere seldom rises much above clever reporting. They may even forgive such lapses of taste, such false smartness, as this description of a kitchen range: ‘And what a stove it was! Broad-bosomed, ample, vast, like a huge fertile black mammal whose breast would suckle numberless eager sprawling bubbling pots and pans.’
The moderately sophisticated reader, however, remembers with regret better things in Emma McChesney A Co., The Girls, and So Big, when the malady that, someone has called ‘adjectivitis’ was not so pronounced and the pursuit of effectiveness at any price had not led the author into so many insincerities. But he can still recognize that Miss Ferber has presented a richly colored and vigorous picture of some aspects of steamboat life on the Mississippi not already drawn by Mark Twain and Charles D. Stewart, and that here and there her art achieves genuine humor or genuine power. In portraying the taciturn pilot, Windy, she attains the one, and in the chapter on Julie and Steve the other. Indeed, in this chapter the novel reaches for a moment genuine dramatic power and pathos. A remarkable one-act play could be made of it.
The first two thirds of the novel are an Odyssey of the adventures of a traveling company of players on the great river and its tributaries, centring in the fortunes of the family of Captain Andy Hawkes and his wife Parthenia. The family consists of Magnolia, their daughter, Gaylord Ravenel, their son-in-law, and Kim Ravenel, their granddaughter. Andy is excellently drawn, Parthenia considerably overdrawn. But the book is essentially the story of Magnolia: her girlhood in the floating theatre, her chance adoption of a stage career, her marriage with the dashing but worthless Ravenel, and her subsequent adventures in the gambling district of Chicago and the theatrical district of New York. The collection of materials so various and extensive must have required great industry, and perhaps it is because of the severity of the task that Magnolia seems never wholly to emerge as the massive figure she is intended to be. For she is obviously intended to be one more of the masterful but lovable women whom the author so much admires. At the very end of the novel, Kim says of her: ‘Is n’t she splendid! There’s something about her that’s eternal and unconquerable— like the River.’ It is the natural sentiment of an admiring daughter, but seems a little extravagant to a reader who has formed his conceptions of the River by reading earlier masters.