George Gershwin: A New Biography

By Starr, Larry | Notes, September 2004 | Go to article overview

George Gershwin: A New Biography


Starr, Larry, Notes


George Gershwin: A New Biography. By William G. Hyland. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003. [xv, 279 p. ISBN 0-275-98111-8. $39.95.] Illustralions, bibliography, index.

William G. Hyland's new biography of George Gershwin is written in an accessible: style that addresses a wide readership. Forgoing technical discussions and musical examples, the author offers a thoroughly researched and up-to-date account of the basic facts regarding Gershwin's life and work, and of the issues surrounding his music. Hyland is well aware of the difficulties confronting those who would do research on Gershwin, as he demonstrates in this concise and elegant formulation on the current state of Gershwin studies: "there has been an absence of disciplined theoretical, analytical, or historical discourse on Gershwin and his music. Much of what we think we know about him and his music is based on popular journalists' literature, much of it highly problematic in theory and method" (pp. 209-10). It is evident that the author wishes to distance himself from the popular journalists and their "problematic" literature in his admirable attempt to present a "disciplined" biography of his subject. Yet he does not totally escape the problems inherent in the literature he justly criticizes. While I find significant achievements in his book, I also have reservations about it from both editorial and organizational points of view.

Hyland had a long career as a statesman, but now seems to be indulging his love for the so-called "golden age" of American popular song. The Gershwin biography is his third book in a decade to deal with this period and its repertoire (following The Song Is Ended: Songwrilers and American Music, 1900-1950 [New York: Oxford University Press, 1995] and Richard Rodgers [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998]). Hyland's great affection for Gershwin's music, and his evident admiration for the man himself, inform the writing throughout in an engaging way. Hyland finds an appreciative, but by no means uncritical, tone that manages to avoid either mythologizing Gershwin (an accusation sometimes leveled at Edward Jablonski, author of Gershwin [New York: Doubleday, 1987; reprint, New York: Da Capo, 1998]) or subjecting him to a self-consciously revisionist agenda (as is the case in Charles Schwartz, Gershwin: His Life and Music [Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1973], and in Joan Peyser, The Memory of All That: The Life of George Gershwin [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993]).

Hyland's book is the first-and only-biography of Gershwin since Schwartz's effort (three decades ago) to employ any kind of systematic scholarly apparatus, in the form of frequently detailed endnotes for each chapter. (Deena Rosenberg's Fascinating Rhythm: The Collaboration of George and Ira Gershwin [New York: Dutton, 1991] also utilizes endnotes; useful in many ways, this book is, however, not a biography per se of either of the Gershwin brothers.) The endnotes reveal the remarkable extent to which Hyland immersed himself in all the materials relevant to Gershwin studies: books, from the informal to the scholarly, dealing with any aspect of the composer's life and works; periodical literature from the 1920s to the 1990s; reviews, including reviews of secondary literature; even the Gershwin Collection in the Library of Congress. As I began to read the book, my hopes were raised that here would be a volume to replace, at last, Schwartz's sour-tempered and now clearly outdated biography with an even-handed, timely, thoroughly researched and documented, yet eminently readable life of Gershwin. That last sentence gives away what a tall order it would have been (and still is) to produce such a book. So it is not belittling to Hyland to conclude that his biography is, in the final analysis, not equal to that exacting standard.

Despite the exhaustive research that lies behind the book, the methodology of citation in George Gershwin: A New Biography is inconsistent. …

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