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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August 22, 2010

“South Pacific” and liberal guilt

The first Lt. Cable: John Kerr and friend in her native habitat

On August 18, 2010, PBS’s “Live From Lincoln Center” broadcast a highly touted revival of the award-winning musical of 1949, South Pacific, with music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers and Hammerstein, and book by Joshua Logan, a tale synthesized and reimagined from the short stories of James Michener. For some reviewers, this was the musical that changed Broadway, and such commentary as existed was directed at the performances of its leading actors. The reviewers I read loved it, as well they might, for one could feel edified by its didacticism regarding sexual contact with “the Other” (as scholars now term miscegenation): as a ploy to get audiences on board the anti-racist bandwagon, the change of heart tactic has a long history.  This blog attempts to question the silence about the ideology of the play and/or its revival. Warning: I thought the show’s “book” was awful as realism and if anything, gross and obvious propaganda, though charming as any fairy tale.

There are two love affairs that are intertwined in the play: a young Navy nurse from Arkansas (Nellie Forbush) is romanced by an older man, Emile De Becque, a French planter. They are both white people, though Nellie is appalled to discover that Emile has fathered two mixed-race children by a Polynesian woman,  now deceased. We know nothing about his business, or her class position, only that she has died, and that Emile’s having had sex with a darker-skinned woman is what appalls Nellie (not his “adorable” [half-breed]children, who in this performance looked more black than Polynesian).

In a related plot of almost equal moment is the “tragic” outcome of Navy Lieutenant Joe Cable’s affair with the teen age daughter of “Bloody Mary”–an enterprising local who virtually pimps out her daughter Liat to the classy Lt. Cable, whom we discover, is not only a Princeton grad, but comes from a Main Line Philadelphia family. It is not clear what is tragic: the refusal of Cable to marry Liat after he sleeps with her, or his death on a dangerous mission to locate the Japanese Navy and Air Force, so that the American troops on the island can finally see some action. [Did anything like this ever happen? From what I have read, the war in the Pacific was brutal beyond imagining and always so.]

It is Lt. Cable who sings “You’ve Got To Be Taught” to Nellie, who imagines that her revulsion against sex with the Other is inborn. The lyrics are brief and a favorite with moralistic theater people, and echo every anti-racist “progressive”: “You’ve got to be taught/ To hate and fear/ You’ve got to be taught from  year to year/ It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear/ You’ve got to be carefully taught./ You’ve got to be taught before its too late/ Before you are six, or seven or eight/ To hate all the people your relatives hate/ You’ve got to be carefully taught/ You’ve got to be carefully taught.” The lyric is as taut as a Brecht poem at his most didactic, and in the context of the play, bizarre, given that Nellie does not “hate” either her French planter or his Polynesian wife, but is simply revolted at the thought of their coupling.

Before I go on, note that Cable is upper-class and can’t bring himself to marry Liat. He will be killed in combat, while the [Everywoman] “hick” Nellie will be reunited with Proust-reading Emile at the end, with tears streaming down the audience’s cheeks (one suspects) as amor vincit omnia. This is a nice populist touch, implying perhaps that though Lt. Cable mouths liberal sentiments, when faced with the prospect of either leaving his Philadelphia family forever to remain in the South Seas, or bringing the island girl home to Mamma and Poppa, he fails the moral test, giving instead of himself, his grandfather’s watch, which Bloody Mary, the very picture of outraged honor, flings back at him.

I had not seen the original South Pacific, but did see the first two R and H productions of Oklahoma! and Carousel, which at the time were also praised as landmarks in the Broadway theater. What made the former a landmark was the supposed novelty of making race relations and social criticism the subject of a musical play. Oh how soon the critics forget. Not only were there numerous social commentary/anti-racist musicals in Broadway theater (Showboat, Of Thee I Sing, As Thousands Cheer, Porgy and Bess–to name the ones that come to mind) before the second world war, but when we locate South Pacific in a larger political context, its timing is suggestive.

Besides the obvious optimism of the life-affirming Nellie, the U.S. military had promised a fairer postwar distribution of the goods of this world to its enlisted men if they would fight; plus in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) the rule of law was also averred; moreover, the ignominious collaborationist and generally wimpy French needed rehabilitation, especially in light of the increasing penetration of the French Communist Party after the war; and the U.S. and the Soviet Union were competing for the hearts and minds of the Third World, with Soviet charges of pervasive racism grounded in the real situation of minorities in America. Let us recall that the armed forces were not integrated during that war, and the presence of black sailors dancing and singing with white sailors in the Lincoln Center revival is anachronistic.

Finally, and here is the most adventuresome comment on this analysis of the social message of South Pacific: racism as either a biologically grounded orientation (polygenesis?) or as an evil message that must be constantly reiterated through teaching, to take hold, is problematic. There is an old debate in U.S. history as to whether racism preceded slavery (because it was part of the cultural inheritance of the West), or whether it emerged as a result of subordination and competition in the labor market (Oscar and Mary Handlin’s argument). Moreover, theories of ethnocentrism allege that we feel more kinship with our families of origin and then the tribe or neighborhood than we do with the faraway. I find that latter suggestion intuitively plausible, which is why I favor integrationist strategies, not separatist ones, to combat racism.

Corrections: August 22. My sister Barbara reminds me that the first Lt. Cable was William Tabbert, a splendid singer, who died at an early age from a heart attack. Also, she thinks that Lt. Cable decided to return to Liat instead of returning to his upper-class family. I missed this line (though it can be heard on a video of “You’ve Got to Be Taught,” and I have not compared the original drafts of the musical or film versions. The illustration for this blog  is from the movie version, censored by the Legion of Decency; whereas Michener’s Tales describe a torrid affair, the film stopped at Cable’s shirtless torso. For more on the politics of Oscar Hammerstein and South Pacific see https://clarespark.com/2012/04/12/the-donkey-serenade-and-buffetts-rule/. And also https://clarespark.com/2012/04/24/the-subtle-racism-of-edna-ferber-and-oscar-hammerstein-ii/. The latter is a must-read for those interested in the finer points of miscegenation-fears. Also, I have the lyrics for a song dropped from the original South Pacific, telling us more about Cable’s class fears.

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