In 1917, the United States entered the First World War, which ended one year later. Between 1916-1917, there were 124 lynchings across the South. Floods, the boll weevil, and plummeting cotton prices created constant headaches for rural farmers in the South. The women's suffrage movement raged until Congress finally passed the 19th Amendment to the Constitution providing long-awaited voting rights for women in 1920. Mill owners used violence instead of collective bargaining to deal with labor unrest on in to 1930, and in 1929, the stock market crashed hurling America into the Great Depression during which eleven million people lost their jobs and the Dust Bowl left Southerners without homes, food, or money. These dynamic, often violent, and devastating conditions, corresponded to the best-selling literature of the period. People read novels by such authors as Sinclair Lewis, Edith Wharton, Booth Tarkington, and Edna Ferber. In fact, in 1922 and 1923 alone, Sinclair Lewis landed on the list with his novel Babbitt, which denounced significant issues of the period, such as modernism, industrialization, workers' rights, and the new mass market. Moreover, these authors frequently showed up on the best-seller lists year after year. For instance, Sinclair Lewis showed up on the best-seller lists eleven times between the years 1921 and 1947. Edna Ferber also was on the list numerous times, eight to be exact, between the years of 1924 and 1958. The sustained popularity of these authors illustrates that readers either bought the book for the author's name or the author had found the formula that guarantees a best-selling book. Most likely, though, it was the latter. Edna Ferber's novel, Show Boat, which was published and remained at number one on the bestseller lists for twelve weeks in 1926, may be used as a guide to understand what makes a book a best seller. With its relaxed, descriptive language and tone, and its nostalgic setting on a Mississippi river boat between the 1870's and 1920's, Show Boat appealed to the fundamentalists' desire to escape from popularized technology and materialism at the same time as it provided a commentary on the new fast-paced life of the 1920's. Moreover, the careless and indolent attitude as well as the historical setting, which it presents to readers, allowed an escape from the social and economic chaos of the outside world. However, another ingredient in this particular formula for a best seller is relevance to current trends. Throughout Show Boat, Ferber manages to weave issues and trends of the 1920's into her story. This relevance to the lives or readers, or at least, the readers' ability to empathize with the story, seems to be a characteristic of many best sellers. Furthermore, the language and style of the writing affects who will read the book. Thus Show Boat exemplifies the characteristics of a best seller and provides a formula on which to base best seller status; it demonstrates that best sellers reflect as well as influence the trends and issues of the day while it also provides an easily-read source of entertainment to the malcontent reader.
One of the ingredients in Edna Ferber's novel Show Boat that makes up the formula for a best seller is her language and tone. Most of her contemporary critics, although not always satisfied with the depth of the novel, praised its descriptive language and story-telling nature. Isabel Patterson of the New York Herald Tribune said Ferber "has a rare sense of the color and taste and shape of words; her prose is pungent, graphic, sparkling" (Book Review Digest, 230). Moreover, a critic in The London Times said, "The atmosphere of the book is impregnated with life," implying that a sense of energy in the text aids a book's popularity (230). Furthermore, critics often labeled Ferber's style as "story-telling;" Louis Kronenberger of The New York Times stated, "With Show Boat Miss Ferber establishes herself not as one of those who are inaugurating first-rate literature, but as one of those who are reviving first-rate story-telling" (Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 93, 152). This straightforward story-telling ability undeniably stems from Ferber's experience as a journalist before she began writing fiction. Its popularity among the masses, however, most likely results from increased literacy rates and the recent boom in journalism. As Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster relate in The Century, "With the literacy rates rising rapidly, newspaper and magazine reading became a favorite 1920's activity. Tabloids appeared in the big cities for the first time, combing a liberal use of photography with a breezy writing style and an eye for the lurid" (Jennings, 129). This "breezy," easily read style of the journalists applies to the style of Ferber's novel. Katherine Woods observed in Edna Ferber and Her America that "Newspaper work had taught [Ferber] to write, years of omnivorous reading had given her a vocabulary" (CLC, 171). Thus, this ability to write descriptively and simply, catching the readers' attention and emotion as "Show Boat seizes and holds interest throughout that part which is foreshadowed by the title," draws a large readership, large enough to produce best-selling status.
In fact, not only does this style predict bestseller status for Ferber's book, but it applies to other books vying for that coveted position as well. In 1936, Margaret Mitchell published Gone with the Wind and within six months it had sold one million copies (Dodd, assignment five). The reception for this novel is unmistakably similar to that of Show Boat. J. D. Adams of The New York Times called it "a superb piece of story-telling which nobody who finds pleasure in the art of fiction can afford to neglect" while Holmes Alexander argued, "Mitchell is a gifted storyteller. She can create characters to set tongues wagging, she can swing a plot and make it crackle..." (Dodd, assignment four). Although written ten years after Doubleday, Page &Company published Show Boat, critics clearly praised Gone with the Wind for some of the same characteristics that are evident in Ferber's novel. In addition, James Boatwrigt believes that Mitchell's style is like that of a "good journalist," which thereby proves readers still clung to the "breezy" style of writing also present in Ferber's work. (Dodd, assignment four).
This ingredient of best sellers does not disappear over the years, though. In 1974, R.A. Dave reviews Harper Lee's 1960 work, To Kill a Mockingbird and praises its broad spectrum of emotions evoked by such a seemingly simple story-telling style: "[Lee] is a remarkable story-teller. The reader just glides through the novel abounding in humor and pathos, hopes and fears, love and hatred, humanity and brutality-all affording him a memorable experience of journeying through sunshine and rain at once" (Luckey, assignment four). Furthermore, The Listener actually criticizes John Fowles, author of the 1969 The French Lieutenant's Woman, for being a "seductive story-teller who wants to be a major novelist" (Johnson, assignment four). While this critic may not respect Fowles' literary contribution, the fact that this book became a best seller illustrates that popular culture enjoyed this novel with its readable language and style. Thus, Show Boat teaches readers that there are certain aspects of books that make up a formula for best-selling status, one of these being story-telling style combined with descriptive language. Show Boat exhibits these traits, which other novelists use as well to ensure their book will be as highly acclaimed as earlier publications like Ferber's.
Besides the language, critics also often praised Ferber's way of creating an escape for the reader. Donald Davidson spoke of this ability in the 1963 The Spy Glass: Views and Reviews, 1924-1930: "Here again Miss Ferber's people (and shall we say Miss Ferber herself) flee from dullness. They escape to the Cotton Blossom Floating Palace Theatre and are removed from the boredom of a stationary existence?they have a colorful world of their own" (CLC, vol. 93, 149). Davidson here complimented Ferber's way of taking readers out of their own worlds and bringing them into a new, exhilarating one. In this passage also, there is another allusion to the colorful descriptions Ferber utilizes, which actually help create the world to which readers escape. Ellen Serlen Uffen says in Edna Ferber and the 'Theatricalization' of American Mythology, "We can enter Ferber's books completely; our own reality never threatens, now does it even beckon. Her enticements are not of our world and that is exactly why they are enticing" (CLC, 188). This escapist attitude could have been popular in the 1920's for a variety of reasons. For one, as Jennings and Brewster write, "those who lived through this time of transformation watched more things change more rapidly than they have changed in all the years since?In the twenties, all laws (and principles, and conventions, and traditions) seemed to be up for grabs " (Jennings, 102). With all the new technology and challenged conventions, it is easy to surmise that people would long for a means by which to forget about these stressful conditions, which also include those mentioned at the beginning of the paper, such as racial tensions, poverty, and union loyalties. In fact, Show Boat is not the only example of the praise-worthy escape. Erica Bauermeister affirmed in 500 Great Books by Women that The Enchanted April published in 1923 by Mary Beauchamp is "for anyone who feels stiff, unloved, or used up- a restful, funny, sumptuous, and invigorating vacation for the mind and soul" (McElwain, assignment four).
Furthermore, some of the speculations critics have made concerning why Show Boat offers an escape point to its setting in the late nineteenth century. Kronen-berger stated, "We need not be sentimentalists to regard the past with a romantic eye" (CLC, 151). This observation illustrates that people viewed the past with a nostalgic remembrance, as "a part of the American scene that once existed and does no more" (CLC, 151). Kronenberger continued, saying that Show Boat "is a glorification of that scene, a heightening, an expression of its full romantic possibilities" (CLC, 151). Surrounded by all the turmoil of the Roaring Twenties, readers enjoyed "escaping" to an era made even more beautiful by Ferber's imagination, language, and style. The Spectator offered a notable review: "Show Boat by Edna Ferber brings back the colorful past of the Southern States of America in the 'eighties and 'nineties?It is cordially recommended for an utterly readable, rather touching and ably-managed story, all the more effective because it does succeed in recapturing something of the vanished glamour of the days of the bustle" (CLC, 152). This reviewer spoke of Show Boat being "effective," and although it does not say so specifically, one may safely assume that "effective" refers to the novel's ability to provide an escape to the "vanished glamour of the days of the bustle." Thus, escapism is another ingredient in the formula for a best seller. As The Nation and Athenaeum printed, "Americans are a sentimental people, who love to clothe their past in roseate taffeta, and can idealize it the more easily for having left it behind so fast and surely" (Nation, 274). Therefore, as in Show Boat, often the escape results from an earlier setting of America that the author, once again, "colorfully" describes in a tone that makes the past seem happier than it was.
Show Boat, in fact, may be used as a lesson in what a best seller contains. Other best sellers also use the past to offer, either intentionally or not, an escape to their readers. Ferber even admits in A Peculiar Treasure that
Myself, I wrote [books], I suppose, quite unconsciously, as an escape from the war. Unless the writer went back to another day he found himself confronted with the blood and hate and horror of the years between 1914 and 1918. I had never deliberately figured this out; I seemed automatically to turn my thoughts away from this mad and meaningless hate and slaughter to a lovelier decenter day. In doing that I quite unconsciously followed the inclination of the reading world. (Ferber, 303)
Readers of the 'twenties felt trapped in the new consumer driven market and, as evidenced by the popularity of Show Boat
, desired some time away from that constant rush. In 1926, they turned to Show Boat
, among others. In 1938, readers turned to Rawlings' The Yearling
. Set in the years after the Civil War, The Yearling
offered a retreat and "is an education in life that is far removed from our dreary urban formulas" as William Soskin of the New York Herald Book Review
stated (Nista, assignment four). Yet another best seller set decades earlier than it was published is The Age of Innocence
. Published in 1920, Edmund Wilson praised this novel by Edith Wharton, saying, "New York society and customs in the seventies are described with an accuracy that is almost uncanny; to read these pages is to live again" (Muir, assignment four). Clearly, this critic enjoyed reading and becoming a part of a previous culture in America's history. Thus, Show Boat is not the only best seller with the ingredient of "escapism." The novel may be used to identify the formula for a best seller which includes this aspect, however. Edward Wagenknect probably summed up the importance of this aspect in his review of Gone with the Wind
: "The need to escape from an America which seemed, during the years of the Great Depression, inexplicably to have failed to fulfill all its golden promises must, in the nature of the case, have encouraged many readers to retreat to the past" (Dodd, assignment five).
While readers seem to want to escape to the past, however, the historical journey of Show Boat
from the 1870's to the 1920's also depicts an issue prevalent in 1926. A portrayal of and identification with important issues of the time when a book gets published also constitute reasons a book may become a best seller. Jennings and Brewster relate,
If there was one persistent attitude to match the excitement for the new in the 1920's, it was nostalgia for the old, for a time when truth seemed absolute and one's worldview was shared by one's neighbor. In America, this took the form of a yearning for the simple, agrarian image that had come to be identified with the country in the nineteenth century?Like most nostalgia, it tended to idealize, to remember a perfect past that never was? (Jennings, 117)
People in 1926 had conflicting views. Even "advertisements in the 1920's regularly combined the excitement of the future with the certainty of the past" (Jennings, 112). The lifestyles of Americans changed so quickly that they did not know how to cope sometimes: "The clash between the forces of old and new, country and city, puritan and hedonist, would animate life for the better part of a dynamic decade" (Jennings, 102). Show Boat
exemplified the new verses old dichotomy through Magnolia and her daughter, Kim. Magnolia grows up in the late nineteenth century and acts on a river show boat, while Kim becomes an actress on the New York stage in the 1920's. The differing views of Magnolia and Kim parallel the old verses new saga. Magnolia thinks, "The new-school actresses?were, in short, figures as glamorous and romantic as a pint of milk. Everything they did on the stage was right. Intelligent, well thought out, and right?As right as an engineering blue-print. Your pulses, as you sat in the theatre, were normal" (Ferber, 391-392). Concurrently, modern Kim cannot comprehend why her mother would want to remain on the show boat at the end of the novel. Magnolia, therefore, represents the traditionalists, while Kim represents the progressives. Readers, while they may not consciously realize the relevance this conflict has to their own lives, nevertheless have a sense of empathy. Ferber makes sure that she produces characters to whom either group is able to relate. Thus, more people are likely to read Show Boat
Yet another issue to make Show Boat
relevant to the public is its attention to race relations. While Ferber often uses colloquial terms that fit the Reconstruction era, such as "darkie" and "nigger" when referring to black people, she also creates a controversy as well as a commentary on race when Julie, always thought to be a white actress on the show boat, turns out to be black and is, therefore, forced to leave. The reader, having become attached to Julie for her strength and careless lifestyle while also sympathizing with Magnolia's great love for her, probably feels great remorse at the turn out. The parting of Magnolia and Julie also probably causes sentiment in the reader: "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" (Ferber, 153). This passage clearly advocates unity and equality and provides a commentary on race relations during a decade in which there were four million members of the Ku Klux Klan by 1924 (Jennings, 117). Thus, readers are able to identify with another aspect of Show Boat
Identification with social trends and issues in other best-selling novels illustrates the importance of relevance to readers' lives and demonstrates that this identification is part of the formula for best sellers that Show Boat
exemplifies. Published in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath
, by John Steinbeck, details an account of poor migrant workers. Peter Lisca says, "The Grapes of Wrath
was a phenomenon on the scale of a national event. It was publicly banned and burned by citizens; it was debated on national radio hook-ups; but above all it was read" (Cordyack, assignment four). The novel created a controversy after its publication, and hence, people bought and read it. This fact exhibits that a book is more likely to be read if readers identify with its contents or message. Furthermore, as Gary Richards states, Lillian Smith "stridently condemned the forced separation of races and demanded its immediate end, often much to the irritation of fellow white southerners" in her novel, Strange Fruit
(Nagle, assignment four). In addition, Book Week
called Strange Fruit
One of the finest, most sensitive novels of the season. [Smith's] theme is a startling and controversial one. Her aim is to shed light not only on the problems of the South as they revolve around the race question, but also on one phase of it which has never been fully treated before, which has remained an illicit, regional dirty joke: the relations of Negro women and white men. (Nagle, assignment four)
As evidenced by the sale of 19,000 copies per week in 1944, people read this novel. Thus, including controversial issues in a novel is one of the most important ingredients in the formula for a best seller.
Hence, Show Boat
gives readers a glimpse into what makes a book sell. There are certain ingredients which compile Show Boat
that readers may also see in subsequent and even previous novels. These are a "colorful" and descriptive language, easily read and story-like in quality; escapism, often through settings in earlier decades, and finally current trends or sparked controversies. Comparing Show Boat
to other best sellers, one may see that each quality alone could not produce a best seller, but that the ingredients must play off each other, thereby creating the formula which readers view in Ferber's novel. For instance, the soothing language helps the person relax and escape to the setting of the book, which usually allows for a less blatant, more subtle commentary on current issues. Regardless, the best seller is easy to read and relevant to readers' lives. This aspect may in fact explain why so many best sellers drop out of existence after the first few years as society's priorities are constantly evolving. It appears that the only best sellers that become part of the literary canon are those that won the Pulitzer or some other such prize, like The Grapes of Wrath
or To Kill a Mockingbird
. Nevertheless, even those that appeal to literary critics as well as the masses, do not always stay well known. So Big
by Edna Ferber is one such example. Thus, to become a classic in American literature, there must be a different formula, yet Show Boat
effectively teaches readers what they must look for to predict at least best-seller status. Often, once writers figure out the best seller formula, their names begin to appear continuously on the lists. Stephen King is one modern author who has obviously, by his continued appearance on the lists, figured out what readers crave. While his name may be a great way to advertise, readers would not continue to buy and read his books if they did not continue to be entertaining. Edna Ferber had this success in the two decades spanning the 'twenties to the 'forties. Readers continuously bought her books and while the pop culture of today does not continue to read them extensively, at least Show Boat
illustrates what makes a best seller as well as being a treasure to historians as it displays what was important to people of that time.
Book Review Digest, 1926
Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 93
, by Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster
The best-sellers database: Dodd, Luckey, McElwain, Nista, Muir, Cordyack, Nagle--
by Edna Ferber
A Peculiar Treasure
by Edna Ferber