by William W. Austin ‧ RELEASE DATE: Oct. 1, 1975
To say that this will be the definitive work on Stephen Foster doesn't convey the half of it. Austin approaches the composer of Old Folks at Home and I Dream of Jeanie with the gravitas usually reserved for a national monument. And indeed Foster's melodies, even when they embarrass us with their racism and their bathos, have penetrated so deeply into our collective consciousness that it's hard to imagine an American so isolated from his roots that he cannot whistle Camptown Races. Austin's organization is labyrinthine, his scope enormous. Foster's little ditties, sung in minstrel shows and concert halls almost as soon as they were published, are weighted and analyzed in the context of the composer's ""great contemporaries"": Melville, Thoreau, Whitman and Twain to say nothing of the musical complexities discovered in the simple wistful airs by such giants as Dvorak, Charles Ives and Ornette Coleman. The crux of the problem is the ""Ethiopian"" melodies or ""pathetic"" songs in which Foster commemorated the happy darkies on the plantation. Despite the instantaneous incorporation of My Old Kentucky Home and Old Black Joe into the ""Uncle Tom"" dramatizations which followed fast on the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, the residual of insulting racism and arrant hypocrisy in Foster's nostalgia for the childlike innocence of the slaves on the plantation is hard to argue away. Austin rightly links much of Foster's output to the art songs of Thomas Moore and he has a wonderful time with middle-class apologists like Morrison Foster who did his best to defend brother Stephen against his posthumous reputation as ""an ignorant drunken pauper and nigger-lover."" Despite a great deal of murkiness in Austin's book, Stephen Foster provides unique access to a controversial, not always edifying, slice of American culture and social history. Though he may be as dated as ""crinoline and daguerreotype,"" he is the true voice of the American people in the process of creating their complacent, self-serving stereotypes of Black culture.
Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1975
Page Count: -
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1975
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