Monday, November 29, 2010

Edna Ferber's Show Boat

I can’t recommend this book for everyone, but when I found a first edition of Show Boat in an antique store, I couldn’t resist. That it was published in 1926 (by Doubleday, Page & Co.) should give everyone a clue about what rests between the covers: Purple prose, and lots of it.

Very few modern readers are like me–I love prose, particularly if it’s done well. Good prose isn’t intended to be read at the lightning speed readers tout today. It’s intended to be performed. Orated. The words are to be tasted; sentences should be swirled on the tongue like a fine wine. The rhythm is set by sentence length, the pace by punctuation, the intensity by word-choice.

Prose is musical, beginning softly and rising to a crescendo and fluttering back to the earth like a leaf in autumnal death. And it’s a lost art in today’s let’s get on with it! society.

The only other modern person I’ve found who appreciates prose as much as I is Ursula K. Le Guin. The examples she used in her Steering the Craft–prose from Jane Austen, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Virginia Wolfe–are excellent choices for performance prose.

Edna Ferber’s style is curious. She managed, somehow, to wrest a story about the bonds of family, the pull of the Mississippi River, and the blood-deep desire to perform, from page after page of character and setting description. She opened and closed the book with Kim Ravenal, a character who had little to do with anything in between; she wove past, present, and future with amazing disregard to structure. Yet the novel still made sense.

And she loved lists. The bulk of her descriptions contained an amazing number of lists. Consider the introduction of a play performed on the Cotton Blossom Floating Palace Theatre:

Now the band struck up. The kerosene lamps on the walls were turned low. The scuffling, shuffling, coughing audience became quiet, quiet. There was in that stillness something of fright. Seamed faces. Furrowed faces. Drab. Bitter. Sodden. Childlike. Weary . . .

The curtain rose. The music ceased jerkily, in mid-bar. They became little children listening to a fairy tale . . .

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 labour under the pitiless blaze of noonday sun; the bitter arrow-numbing chill of winter; the blistered skin; the frozen road; wind, snow, rain, flood . . . Here were blood, lust, love, passion. It was Anodyne. It was Lethe. It was Escape. It was the Theatre.

And the chapter closed.

Her lists weren’t restricted to setting descriptions. Here is the reader’s introduction to Parthenia Hawks, wife of the show boat captain and mother of the main character, Magnolia Hawks Ravenal:

This lady’s black hair was twisted into a knot . . . Her face and head were long and horse-like, at variance with her bulk. This, you sensed immediately, was a person possessed of enormous energy, determination, and the gift of making exquisitely uncomfortable any one who happened to be within hearing radius. She was the sort who rattles anything that can be rattled; slams anything that can be slammed; bumps anything that can be bumped.

Personally, I got a kick out of many of her lists, but I don’t recommend this style of writing for anyone who wants to be published–and read–today. But I’d love to see modern prose, short and utilitarian as it is, mount to something akin to the purple hue of the past. Fewer words can be used to describe the theater scene or to illustrate Parthy’s indomitable spirit, and if writers choose the right words, these descriptions can be even more powerful--not as musical, perhaps, but powerful.
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