Nellie Forbush is a fictional character created by bestselling author James A. Michener (1907–1997). A native of Arkansas, the character of Nellie first appears in Michener’s book Tales of the South Pacific, which was published in 1947. Tales of the South Pacific, a series of nineteen interrelated stories based on Michener’s experiences in the U.S. Navy while stationed on the New Hebrides Islands in the Pacific during World War II, won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Michener explained that he had wanted to write observations of what he called the “valiant people” he met there: “the French planters, the Australian coast watchers, the Navy nurses, the Tonkinese laborers, the ordinary sailors and soldiers who were doing the work, and the primitive natives to whose jungle fastnesses I had traveled.” Several of the tales involve American encounters with local cultures.
The character Nellie Forbush, one of the aforementioned navy nurses, is introduced briefly in the fourth story of the collection, “An Officer and a Gentleman.” But her main storyline takes place in the eighth story, titled “Our Heroine.” At the beginning of that story, Michener implies that Nellie is from Little Rock (Pulaski County), since she is mentioned in a newspaper from that city. But it is soon revealed that the article was in a section of the paper containing “rural news” and that Nellie is from the fictional rural town of Otolousa, Arkansas.
In the book, Nellie has a boyfriend back in Arkansas who was deemed 4-F, the draft classification for men who were incapable of military service due to medical or psychological unfitness. The story of “Our Heroine” describes the romance between Nellie and a wealthy, sophisticated French planter. After they fall in love, Nellie learns that he has children, born out of wedlock, with several local native women. Nellie associates the dark-skinned natives with African Americans, revealing her racial bias; she is eventually able to overcome her prejudice.
In 1949, the book was adapted into the hit Broadway musical South Pacific by theatrical legends Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Along with including subplots from the book, the musical focuses on Nellie’s story. Rodgers and Hammerstein stated that they wanted to send a strong message on racism by spotlighting Nellie’s ability to overcome her prejudice by staying in the South Pacific to spend her life with the plantation owner and his native children. The Broadway production was a huge critical and box office success, becoming the second-longest-running Broadway musical to that point (behind Rodgers and Hammerstein’s earlier Oklahoma!).
In the staged version, Rodgers and Hammerstein present Nellie as being from the city of Little Rock rather than from a small rural town. Placing her as a resident of a theoretically more enlightened urban area provided a key element of the racism theme in the play. At one point, the French planter states that prejudice is not inborn, reinforced by the song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” sung by Lieutenant Joe Cable, who makes the point that racial prejudice is a learned rather than natural behavior. Its frank lyrics made it a controversial element of the show. In his book South Pacific: Paradise Rewritten, author Jim Lovensheimer states, “Frank Rich of The New York Times commented, ‘It’s upsetting because Nellie isn’t some cracker stereotype—she’s lovable….But how can we love a racist?’”
The play won ten Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1950. Its original cast album was the bestselling record of the time, so that even people who never visited Broadway became familiar with Arkansas’s Nellie Forbush. The musical has been revived repeatedly on Broadway, along with productions across the nation and world.
South Pacific was released in 1958 as a Hollywood movie, also becoming a hit. As in the play, Nellie Forbush is presented as being from Little Rock. The movie was filmed in 1957, the same year as the desegregation crisis at Little Rock’s Central High School.
For additional information:
Jones, John Bush. Our Musicals, Ourselves: A Social History of the American Musical Theatre. Lebanon, NH: Brandeis, 2004.
Lovensheimer, Jim. South Pacific: Paradise Rewritten. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Maslon, Laurence. The South Pacific Companion. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008.
Michener, James A. Tales of the South Pacific. (1947) New York: Dial Press trade paperback edition, 2014.
Garland County Historical Society
Last Updated: 03/25/2020