George Gershwin

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

William G. Hyland’s biography of George Gershwin is clearly meant to eclipse the early biographies of the songwriter and to be the definitive one. He corrects the myths and errors about Gershwin in the earlier biographies and replaces them with facts. For example, most biographies portrayed Gershwin’s early life as one of poverty in the Jewish ghetto of New York. Hyland shows that the family was, instead, relatively affluent. The focus remains facts in the biography itself; Hyland lists the various Broadway shows for which George wrote the music, the songs in each of those shows, and the reviews from the major newspapers in New York.

However, Hyland concentrates so much on the facts and sorting out the truth about Gershwin, he does not tell readers much about his character or views until the end of the book. In a chapter on “Personality,” Hyland does focus on Gershwin himself and discuss his personality. Gershwin was a contradictory man in many ways. Some of his friends spoke of him as being modest while others claim he was egotistic and conceited. Hyland reconciles the problem by claiming that the early Gershwin was sweet and unassuming while the later one was self-centered and gloomy. Gershwin was a great songwriter and a promising composer who tragically died at the age of thirty-eight.

In the last chapter Hyland tries to measure Gershwin’s achievement in classical music. The early “Rhapsody in Blue” was deficient in structure but the later works showed a decided improvement. Most of all, Hyland makes clear Gershwin created distinctly American music by including Jazz and folk elements.