The Clare Spark Blog

April 24, 2012

The subtle racism of Edna Ferber and Oscar Hammerstein II

1929 poster for Showboat film

(This blog follows https://clarespark.com/2010/08/22/south-pacific-and-liberal-guilt/.)  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 https://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.” For the genealogy of “the Other” see https://clarespark.com/2014/09/08/why-progressive-social-psychologists-make-us-crazy/.)

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 https://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. (Ferber’s mother’s name was Julia).  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. (On Twain and disenchantment see https://clarespark.com/2012/01/31/the-numbers-game/.) 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 https://clarespark.com/2012/03/21/wilsonian-internationalism-as-our-town/, and https://clarespark.com/2012/04/12/the-donkey-serenade-and-buffetts-rule/.

For shocking materials on Ferber’s family relations and her similarly surprising views on such questions as the rising tide of color (reminiscent of Lothrop Stoddard) or the archaic cultures of American Indians, see her great-niece’s biography: Julie Goldsmith Gilbert, Ferber: A Biography (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978). Usually, descendants guard private papers of controversial ancestors assiduously. In this case, Gilbert indicts, by extension, an entire class of actors, authors, playwrights, and movie producers revered today by most liberals and Democrats. They were the fabulous wits I was trained to adore growing up. But most interestingly, the transformations from Ferber’s novels to mass media or theater seemed to bother her not in the least, even though her social criticism was attenuated in favor of Romance, for instance in the film version of her novel Giant. I thank John Podhoretz for telling me about the  Gilbert book. (For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2012/05/10/androgyny-with-an-aside-on-edna-ferber/.)

 

May 16, 2011

Questions for education reformers

Bernard Mandeville’s most famous work

I have been corresponding with Eva Moskowitz,  a leader in NYC education reform. She is involved with the Charter School movement (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charter_schools), and has a well-researched critique of the “therapeutic” culture that has distorted our education system since the late 19th century, most recently in the emphasis on “self-esteem” in the multicultural curriculum. Her book illuminated for me some of the “progressive” precursors to New Age thinking, a psychology cult that is particularly strong in California, and which is both silly and dangerous.

What follows are some of my initial thoughts about obstacles to reforming our schools, with some special attention to the charter school movement, though that is not the focus of this blog. I have included links to earlier blogs on this website.

1. Fragmentation of the professions:  because of the way that college education evolved, the holistic “philosophic” approach of such thinkers as Bernard Mandeville (an influence on Adam Smith) or Locke or other enlightened thinkers has gone out the window. None of the greats would have looked at schools in a vacuum. See for instance my notes on Charles Sumner (https://clarespark.com/2009/10/05/charles-sumner-moderate-conservative-on-lifelong-learning/) or my posting on Walter Lippmann (https://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/).
For instance, can we talk about schools without a consideration of the welfare state and its particular policies? Or the aim of many “liberals” who seek “stability” and “social cohesion” at the expense of learning how to master life skills? And what about those religions that teach submission to authority without ever distinguishing between legitimate authority and arbitrary authority? In a pluralistic society, are vouchers the only solution to the problem I have posed? Are some religious schools enemies to an intellectually vigorous polity?

2. Is teaching a profession, or are teachers workers? When I was in school (first round, mid-50s), the burning question was whether or not teachers were a profession. In medieval times, there were artisan guilds that strictly enforced the quality of their product and there were tight restrictions regulating entry into the guild. But teachers unions do not aim for a better product (do they?) but seem to be focused on protecting teachers from measurement. Are teachers like factory workers in the 19th century? I don’t think so. Charter schools are reforms within the public education system, and were the offspring of Albert Shanker of the AFT.  Should the teachers unions be broken, or can charter schools fire incompetents and reward energetic and effective teachers?

3. On overcoming multiculturalism. See https://clarespark.com/2011/02/11/undoing-multiculturalism/. But there is another one that lays out the precursors to today’s institutionalized MC: https://clarespark.com/2010/07/20/german-romantic-predecessors-to-multiculturalism/.  The remedy to MC, I believe, is the teaching of fact-based science, but also the history of “scientific racism.”That would uncover the racialist premises of MC. Moreover, it could clarify the difference between national identity based on a common set of laws (Gesellschaft), versus “national identity” based on group cultural character (Gemeinschaft and its exuded “Zeitgeist”). The latter is mystical and collectivist, the former is materialist and concrete. As I have shown in all my work, the German Romantics, from Herder to Hegel to Fichte, advocated a philosophy that led to state worship and ultimately laid the basis for the Nazi racial state. There was a big Herder revival in the Third Reich, while the new “race pedagogy” supposedly inspired by Franz Boas relied on Herder at the same time (1916) that Randolph Bourne was advocating hyphenated Americanism in opposition to the melting pot of the big cities.

4. On curriculum development and rigor. With the exception of some of America’s Founding Fathers, no elite has ever been unequivocally dedicated to an excellent popular education for all. The liberal foundations were organized to prevent revolution from below, even before the second world war. Redistributive justice (as opposed to commutative justice) was their mantra. They didn’t care about learning and uplifting the population to become responsible citizens in a democratic republic.  Enter social studies and the “progressive” rejection of the 19th century as dominated by heartless laissez-faire capitalists who mowed down everything in their paths.

A high school graduate who does not understand markets, monetary policy, accounting (including cost-benefit analysis) and competing economic theories cannot vote with wisdom or even defend her or his own interests. They will be prey to demagogues practiced in promoting conspiracy theories (e.g., antisemitism/”the money power”, “white skin privilege”) and diverting the masses from understanding how wealth is created and how economies expand.

Are today’s “experts” in child development competent to instruct the reformer about what is possible to teach at different ages? According to my correspondent, the “experts” discourage strong content at early ages. Speaking personally, I was hugely bored throughout my public school education. From at least the French Revolution on, European and American elites have feared the effect of mass literacy and numeracy, and did not sit idly back while new classes and individuals threatened them with dispossession. I am not writing this with my old red hat on. It applies to everyone. Compare contemporary American education with that of the education of European aristocracies. From early childhood on, they were made aware of world affairs, learned foreign languages, music, art history, read great essayists, poetry, and learned the art of managing the lower orders (politics). They detested America as the land of savages (i.e., those who had escaped their control and were rising to challenge them from afar).

The point of this last paragraph is to suggest that we are systematically underestimating the capacity of “ordinary people” to learn. There were many dumb aristocrats (see Disraeli  novels for a good yuk), and yet they managed to reproduce their rule through clever co-opting of threats from below. American elites did the same with the civil rights movement, fusing the integrationists with the black power militant types. The result? Victimology and the dumbing down of American education, with a spicy dash of primitivism—the rejection of Puritanism a.k.a. middle class values enforced by women, and the fantasy that [orgiastic] tribal societies unleashed the repressed instincts. There are critics from the Far Right who are tirelessly attacking American education for its shallow content; Charlotte Iserbyt is one of them. Like Nesta Webster, a fascist and antisemite (see https://clarespark.com/2009/09/20/jungians-on-the-loose-part-two/), for Iserbyt the enemy is “materialism,” an epistemology that she believes erases “free will.” Within such a pseudo-critical framework, fundamentalist to the core, it is impossible to teach history or science, and Iserbyt, for one, is hotly opposed to the charter school movement. Such persons should not be shrugged off as fringe critics, for a large part of the American electorate shares similar anti-intellectualism–it is the legacy of populism.

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