An introduction to this text by Fletcher Hodges, Jr., of the Foster Hall Collection at the University of Pittsburgh, explains that no biography of Foster existed for children prior to 1940, although definitive adult biographies were available. Will Earhart and Edward Bailey Birge produced a school music text (now out of print) of Foster’s songs published from materials of the Foster Hall collection. Foster’s songs formed part of the 1940’s school music curriculum, as they were thought to be particularly attractive to children and well adapted to the elementary school. He Heard America Sing was meant to educate and satisfy children’s curiosity about a favorite composer while omitting most details of the unpleasant facts of Foster’s later life, elements that Hodges claims would be unlikely to “hold for long the interest of the young reader.”
Purdy’s attitude toward her subject is wholly sympathetic. She portrays Foster as a romantic: an underappreciated genius whose natural talent was undertrained and underdeveloped. Although his work met popular success—which she attributes to his having expressed in the idiom of Negro music and popular balladry the energies and sentiments of the United States in the early nineteenth century—his work was ignored by highbrow culture. Purdy’s approach to her subject is conditioned by school curricula emphasizing democracy and the westward movement, new inventions, new technologies, and expansion of a growing nation. In the patriotic music curriculum of the 1940’s, a biography of a composer who listened to “the American folk” who “sang free, joyous music” seemed eminently suitable.
Yet, although somewhat biased, He Heard America Sing is not biographically inaccurate. Dates, places, and the...
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Purdy’s biography of Foster was produced according to what were once considered legitimate principles of biography for young people: Biography should inspire as well as educate. The book, with its naïve dramatization of “significant” moments, is no worse and is perhaps even better than Helen Boyd Higgins’ Stephen Foster, Boy Minstrel (1944) from the Childhood of Famous Americans series. The assessment of Foster’s contribution to American music has undergone several phases of revisionism, and the final verdict may never be clear. Contemporary young adults seeking inspiration from biography are not likely to seek here for long, as Purdy’s work is too dated and too simple in its underlying assumptions. Young adults seeking information about Foster might be better advised to read William W. Austin’s “Susanna,” “Jeanie,” and “The Old Folks at Home”: The Songs of Stephen C. Foster from His Time to Ours (1987). The account of Foster’s life might be less amusing or inspiring, but the context for his work and his contribution to American music is presented more objectively in such later works.