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Beyond the Sound Barrier: The Jazz Controversy in 20th-Century American Fiction by Kristin K. Henson

Don’t let the hard cover fool you. Henson’s book is a dissertation, and a dissertation is almost never a book. That fact alone will dissuade most jazz enthusiasts from buying this work. To the few remaining with interest intact, don’t bother. Henson shows little interest in jazz-or fiction, for that matter.

Henson’s real interest, expressed in 120 dense, dry pages, is in cultural criticism and race conflict-particularly class and race differences between black and white America in the early 20th century. For her, jazz is useful as little more than a tidy symbol. Too sophisticated to be a folk music but clearly distinct from the highbrow classical tradition, jazz did not fit into easy categorical divisions of the time. In jazz’s status as an uneasy outlier, Henson finds a reflection of the troubling, artificial status of the African-American.

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