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Friday, November 13, 2015

November 13, 2015: American Inventors: Steamboat Culture

[This coming weekend will mark the 250th birthday of Robert Fulton, on whose influential invention today’s post focuses. All week I’ve AmericanStudied some of our most complex and significant inventors—and I’d love for you to share your thoughts on them and other inventors (and inventions) for an innovative crowd-sourced weekend post!]
Five cultural texts that make good use of the vital transportation innovation that the birthday boy helped develop.
1)      The Confidence-Man (1857): I focused in this post, later re-posted by the great Humor in America blog, on Melville’s satirical, ambiguous novella. The key element of Melville’s book is the diverse, layered, evolving community of characters it features—and those characters would never have been brought together, nor have had the time for their community to interact and change as it does in the course of the novella, without the unique social space of a Mississippi River steamboat journey.
2)      Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885): Although the Mississippi journey at the heart of Twain’s novel takes place on a much smaller vehicle, Huck and Jim’s raft does encounter multiple steamboats, leading to some of their most striking adventures. But my point here is a different one: Twain’s novel (like his career) owes its existence at least as much to the 19th century literary genre known as Southwestern Humor as it does to any single influence; and many of that genre’s best-known works, such as T.B. Thorpe’s short story “The Big Bear of Arkansas” (1854), were set on Mississippi River steamboats.
3)      Show Boat (1927): Show Boat originated as a 1926 novel by Edna Ferber, but has lived on for nearly 100 years thanks to the novel’s 1927 Broadway musical adaptation. Even if that musical had left behind only Paul Robeson’s 1936 version of the song “Old Man River,” it would have made an indelible mark on American culture. But Robeson’s song also reflects the novel and musical’s most unique contribution to steamboat culture: the focus on the multi-racial communities of steamboats, and the role that this American innovation played for each of those cultures as well as for their cross-cultural encounters.
4)      Steamboat Willie (1928): Walt Disney’s animated short is famous not so much for its own merits (it’s funny enough, but slight and forgettable) as for introducing its iconic mouse leading man to the world, as well as for being the first cartoon with synchronized sound (and, it seems, saving Walt Disney from bankruptcy). But it’s also worth recognizing the vital role in that process played by nostalgia for the age of steam—in an era when the automobile was becoming dominant and the airplane was capturing the headlines, Disney’s cartoon tapped into and capitalized on the enduring role of the steamboat in the American imagination.
5)      Fevre Dream (1982): By the 20th century the imagination was about the only place where the steamboat was still dominant, however—and no cultural work captures both the steamboat’s heyday and the end of its era with more power than George R.R. Martin’s novel. Martin’s book is a gothic vampire novel in the tradition of Anne Rice and others, but like so many of his works it’s also about the shift from one era to another, and the losses as well as progresses that come with such transitions. And in his creation of a floating vampire community aboard a Mississippi steamboat, Martin brought Melville’s work into a new genre and frame, and helped ensure that steamboat culture will live on into the 21st century.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So one more time: what do you think? Other inventors or inventions you’d highlight?

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