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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.

Rather than producing a straight sociological or musicological study (it’s pretty clear that Henson is prepared to do neither), Henson instead wants to look at how jazz arguments function in a few select literary works-specifically work by James Weldon Johnson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, and Toni Morrison. Henson tries to make literary studies do the heavy lifting of musicologists and sociologists, but her scope is so limited and her investigation of jazz in literature so superficial, she hardly scratches arguments that matter. With Beyond the Sound Barrier, Henson does little more than stage an unfair litmus test for her authors. Do they stay true to Henson’s conception of jazz? Laurel wreathes for those who do (particularly Toni Morrison) and sneers at those who don’t (among the latter an undeserving F. Scott Fitzgerald-judged here almost entirely on passages he cut from his novel before he published it).

Originally Published