YDS: 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 12, 2012

The Donkey Serenade and Buffett’s Rule

 Illustrated: Joe’s parents sing “A Fellow Needs a Girl” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro (1947).

For The Donkey Serenade, see this clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RyHNlfT6B9E&feature=related.

With apologies to Rudolf Friml and the lyricist who named this delightful 1936 song to a mule (mules being the infertile progeny of horse and donkey!), my blog will try to pull together what may seem utterly disparate themes: the pseudo-scientific Buffett Rule (cooked up by POTUS), the related notion of “the fair share” (another Obama Revival of an old refrain), Melville’s Whale Song, and the fairy tales of Oscar Hammerstein II, the State as love object, Tales of the South Pacific and its spin-offs, Oscar Hammerstein’s mom, and Romance as the glue that holds society and psyche together. Can this odd chorus line have legs? Maybe it will be too non-linear for some readers.

But first, a nod to the “Whale Song” with which Melville ended the Extracts to Moby-Dick: “Oh, the rare old Whale, mid storm and gale/ In his ocean home will be/ A giant in might, where might is right,/ And King of the boundless sea.” In the first (London) edition, these are the last (ironic, surely) word in the text, whereas in the American edition, numerous changes were made: Melville added an Epilogue allowing Ishmael the narrator to survive, and the Extracts were moved almost to the front of the novel. This makes a huge difference, for the notion that “might is right” encompasses the greatest debate in world history. That is, Leviathan (or the State, not a good thing in Melville’s view—see his chapter  “The Whiteness of the Whale” and the several quotes from Hobbes in the Extracts) defines what is and what is not moral or just, what is a right and what is a duty, universalist ethics be damned.

So if the President, bereft of rational reasons to drastically increase taxation upon “the rich” trots out “the fair share” meme, are we not entitled to look back on the phrase’s emotional resonances? I asked my Facebook friends to riff on what they thought “fair share” means, and the responses varied, but several mentioned parental apportionment of toys to siblings. It is my view that when people hear the phrase “fair share” they respond as a child might, resentful of the attention given either to older or younger siblings, and wanting the parents to “level the playing field” through “sharing” or “redistribution.” Of course Marxists ostensibly live by the rule “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” but that was so abstract as to justify the allocation of resources by whatever bureaucrat was in charge of the command economy du jour. Catholicism after Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum partly echoed this view in order to stave off a repetition of Jacobin-style red revolution.

[From the King James Bible, 1 Corinthians,13:11] “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” (The next line warns, I suppose, that we shall not see clearly, either the world or ourselves, until we meet Christ face to face in heaven. These are not my views, but the proposition is one with which Melville struggled all during his writing career, for instance in the opposition of Ishmael and Ahab. Paul’s is a warning against empiricism/materialism/vanity, while Ishmael’s survival strikes a blow for piety and submission to the King of the Sea. As for the Promethean and antiracist/abolitionist Ahab, he was out for the truth, and hurled his defiance at Kings and Churches who would block his vision.)

Assimilated and Christianized as Oscar Hammerstein’s family undoubtedly was, young Oscar held tight to his favorite things, especially to the lost beautiful gentile mother (of Scottish and English descent), who not only died during his adolescence, but put him out to live with other relatives when her second child was born, for her health was fragile.

Although postwar theater critics made much of Oscar Hammerstein’s preternatural sympathy for “the common man” including “people whose eyes are oddly made,” (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g4cqTBA6L44*) his collaborations with Richard Rodgers have nothing to with the hard-bitten naturalism and realism of nineteenth century authors and painters, let alone the rough, modernist songs of Brecht and Weill (and somewhat carried forth by the ever disillusioned Stephen Sondheim). Rather, Hammerstein was a fabulist, whose ever-praised “integration” of words and music or stage dialogue with musical numbers was not about adult love at all, but rather about the lost paradise of his mother’s touch and attention. Such favorites of his and his biographers tell the story: “What’s The Use of Wond’rin’” (Carousel) and “A Fellow Needs a Girl” (Allegro). The object of the male’s fantasy life is the “girl” who mirrors back his idealized self, while “all the rest is talk”. As for the paradisaical Bali Ha’i, that is the wet dream of the sexually repressed James Michener, whose famed Pulitzer Prize winning “tales” drastically distorted the real lives of characters he met as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, and who were further reshaped in the greatest musical ever, R & H’s South Pacific (1949).

Betta St. John and Tabbert

To wind up this blog, the major theme of the modern musical theater is Romance (including the return of the lost object: the beautiful mother who has spread her attention too broadly), and is now realized in the formerly forbidden theme of miscegenation, which can apply to class as well as race.  By appealing to the audience’s longing for an impossible unity (of the fragments of self, of classes and “races” and genders and sexual preference), popular culture makes “healing” and “unity” not a distant paradise, but a possibility in the here and now, should we elect another Democratic (progressive) President, one who attains family harmony through a yearly potlatch on April 15. And who enforces this fantastic cohesion of self and society? Who else but Leviathan and the Rule of [reformed] Buffett? Such are the skills of the new, new Promethean. (For more on Lieutenant Cable and unity, see https://clarespark.com/2012/04/24/the-subtle-racism-of-edna-ferber-and-oscar-hammerstein-ii/.

*In the original Tales of the South Pacific, the Princetonian and Philadelphian Lt. Cable can’t bring himself to marry the Tonkinese Liat, ever, but in the R& H musical, that renunciation of his class and “race” takes place, to the consternation of those who called it a communistic play. Of course, in all versions of South Pacific, Cable is killed off, but the solidarity of humanity, along with its ethos of self-sacrifice for the good of “the People” is reaffirmed.

BIBLIOGRAPHY.

Block, Jeffrey. Richard Rodgers. New Haven and London, 2003.

Ewen, David. Richard Rodgers. N.Y. 1957.

Fordin, Hugh. Getting to Know Him. N.Y. 1977.

May, Stephen J. Michener’s South Pacific. Gainesville Fla. 2011.

Michener, James. Tales of the South Pacific. N.Y. 1947.

Secrest, Meryle. Stephen Sondheim: a Life. N.Y.  1998.

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