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/.)

 

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April 2, 2012

Touch me, touch me not

Rick Santorum has been accusing his Republican rival Mitt Romney of being “out of touch” with the folks, unlike Santorum, whose class origins are claimed to connect with the working class, though Santorum has been either an attorney or a politician all his life; moreover his parents were middle class (a clinical psychologist and a nurse; the only claim he has to throbbing in time with coal miners is a brief residence in West Virginia and in Butler County, Pennsylvania, plus a blood connection to his grandfather; i.e., this is blood and soil talk)*.

Count on the Obama re-election campaign to reiterate Santorum’s constant critique of the ostensibly patrician Mitt, contrasting their humble populist candidate with the silver-spoon Romney. The latter’s class origins will make him an enemy to the People. (Indeed, Romney père’s name was dropped on last night’s episode of Mad Men.)

This blog is about the propaganda value of the phrase “out of touch.” Its opposite, being “in touch” is a feel good phrase that rhymes with “connecting” with the [irrational] electorate, a quality that Romney’s enemies will claim he also lacks.

Apart from the focus on the class background of the candidate (a consideration that is irrelevant to the policies proposed by either the Democratic or Republican platforms in 2012), the notion that there is an animal known as “the people” that longs to be petted by its owner is worth considering, especially as the tactic reminds us of the most shameless demagogues in history.

With whom or with what is our next President to be “in touch”? Do we have a Volk, a people’s community in the US? Should El Jefe strive for the appeal of our loving, touching mothers and other objects of desire? Shall we wilt without the ministrations of a parental surrogate, perhaps one who strokes our prejudices, no matter how distorted? For more of this, see https://clarespark.com/2013/10/31/gossip-and-the-gullible/, especially “Connecting vs. connecting the dots.”

Dunne in fur

“When you shall see flowers that lie on the plain,
Lying there sighing for one touch of rain;
Then you may borrow,
Some glimpse of my sorrow,
And you’ll understand
How I long for the touch of your hand.”

[Lyrics, Otto Harbach, Music, Jerome Kern (Roberta, 1933). See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roberta. Irene Dunne starred in the movie version, 1935]

*[From ABC News, 2-17-12:] “…Both Santorum and Ann Romney began their speeches at the Oakland Park Lincoln Day Dinner here talking about how the hard work of their grandfathers has shaped their lives.

“I talked about my grandfather a lot because he came here to this country and I talk about he worked in the coalmines until he was 72 years old and sort of coal mined his way to freedom,” Santorum said of his grandfather, Pietro Santorum, who came here from Italy during Mussolini’s rise. “But what I didn’t mention, what I failed to mention was when my grandfather first came he actually came to Detroit and worked in the auto factories for two years.”

Santorum then said his grandfather lost his job, returned to Italy and then came back to southwest Pennsylvania to work in the mines.

“And it’s those roots, those roots growing up the grandson of a coalminer, growing up in a steel town in Butler, Pennsylvania, that have forged me as someone who understands the greatness of our country and the importance of the industrial heartland of America,” Santorum said.

Although this was a Party event, Santorum is pushing a working class message he’s hoping will connect with struggling Michiganders — a state with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country– and has been hit hard by the economic downturn.” [end newspaper excerpt. For a related blog on manipulating an audience see https://clarespark.com/2010/11/18/harvards-alpha-dogs/.)

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