Since reading Edna Ferber’s novel, I’ve been enthralled by the history of showboats. From the 1880s to the 1920s, these floating theaters travelled up and down American waterways, bringing drama and music to river frontier towns. Their arrival would cause a stir, with actors parading up and down dusty streets to announce the evening’s fare. As the sun set over the river, townsfolk made their way to the docked theater, drawn like moths to the flickering lights. In Ferber’s own words, "Here, I thought, was one of the most melodramatic and gorgeous bits of Americana that had ever come my way. It was not only the theater — it was the theater plus the glamour of the wandering drifting life, the drama of the river towns, the mystery and terror of the Mississippi itself..."
Ferber was an author well ahead of her time, whose novels dealt unflinchingly with racial issues, and whose female heroines achieve apotheosis not through romantic conquest, but by self actualization. Like the history of American showboats, Ferber’s story is largely forgotten today. But she remains a true literary great: an artist who defied anti-semitism and misogyny to take her rightful seat at the famed Algonquin Round Table, and whose jaunty cap boasts the proud feather of a Pulitzer Prize. We share a hometown of Kalamazoo. I hope that her legacy remains in the airways, and that whatever was in the water of her time is still running through those pipes today.
Find a copy of Ferber's Showboat here.