Summary of Show Boat by Edna Ferber

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

Edna Ferber's 1926 novel 'Showboat' tells the story of three generations of performers on a Mississippi riverboat. The novel was the basis for a Broadway musical adaptation and three film versions depicting this colorful time period in American history.

Background Information

Edna Ferber, American author and playwright, got the idea for her novel Showboat while attending the opening performance of her play ''Minick,'' co-written with George S. Kaufman. The show was interrupted by a swarm of bats that had been nesting under the chandeliers in the theater. As you might imagine, alarmed theater patrons, cast, and crew all rushed about in panic to escape the flapping bats.

As the story goes, the show's producer made a joking remark that perhaps they would be better off chartering an old-fashioned showboat and playing small towns along the river. At that time, showboats were a fading phenomenon in American entertainment.

Riverboat on the Mississippi

Ferber was inspired to research the history of showboats and the people who lived and performed on them. She spent a year finding every story and scrap of information she could get and then spent four days aboard the James Adams Floating Theatre, one of the few remaining showboats in the 1920s.

The Story

The story told in Show Boat focuses on the life of Magnolia, who is a young girl at the beginning of the novel. Her father owns and operates the Cotton Blossom, a floating theater traveling up and down the Mississippi. Performers in the company include Julie Dozier and her husband, Steve Baker.

A performer on the 19th century stage
19th century singer

When another crew member, Pete, makes advances toward Julie, Steve and Pete get into a fist fight. Pete apparently knows something about Julie with which he intends to blackmail the couple. It soon comes out that Julie is part African American; marriage between different races was illegal in many states in the mid-19th century. The sheriff arrives, but not before Steve has cut his wife's hand and ingested some of her blood. When the sheriff claims that their marriage is illegal, Steve announces that he is part Negro, too. The entire cast and crew back him up, and the sheriff is forced to withdraw. However, Julie and Steve leave the Cotton Blossom to avoid further trouble.

Gaylord Ravenal

The next section of the novel introduces Magnolia's love interest, glamorous actor and gambler Gaylord Ravenal. Magnolia has grown up and is now the leading lady of the acting troupe. Ravenal is hired as the new leading man, and the two promptly fall in love and elope. The two have a daughter, and they settle in Chicago. The couple's fortune is widely variable, depending on Ravenal's success or failure at gambling.

Gambling for a living

After about 10 years of this life on the edge of poverty, Magnolia's mother comes to visit. Ravenal borrows money from the madam of the local whorehouse and returns to the boarding house drunk. Magnolia returns the money and finds that the madam's secretary is her old friend Julie. At the end of this episode, Ravenal leaves.

Next, we move forward to 1926. Ravenal is dead, and daughter Kim is married and a successful Broadway actress. When Magnolia's mother dies, our protagonist returns to the old showboat, which she decides to keep and run. Magnolia gives the fortune left by her mother to her daughter, Kim.

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