• Sometimes I wish I had a rubber stamp made especially for use when reviewing biographies: TOO MANY FACTS, NOT ENOUGH STYLE. Howard Pollack’s George Gershwin: His Life and Work (University of California, 884 pp., $39.95) fits that dreary bill perfectly. I read the galleys of Pollack’s book at the same time that I was working on the essay about Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney biography that ran in the January issue of COMMENTARY, and at times I found it hard to tell the two books apart. Pollack wrote a big fat biography of Aaron Copland in 2001, and this book, like that one, is too long, too earnest, and pedestrian in the extreme. It’s also organized thematically rather than chronologically, making it even less pleasing to read.
Alas, Pollack has done his homework with a vengeance, and George Gershwin contains everything you could possibly want to know about the composer of Porgy and Bess, much of it newly discovered. As a result, it’s unlikely that anyone will write another Gershwin biography for at least another decade, so if you’re interested in Gershwin—and you should be—you’ll have to slog through this one, grumbling all the way.
Incidentally, Pollack is a professor of music at the University of Houston. No surprise there, needless to say. Does writing well threaten your chances of getting tenure? I’m starting to wonder…
• I rarely write blurbs, but I made an exception for Amanda Vaill’s Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins (Broadway Books, 675 pp., $40) because I know the author and read the book in manuscript, meaning that I can’t review it. I can, however, tell you what the blurb said: “I can’t think of a better full-length portrait of an American choreographer or director, and I can’t imagine a better book about Robbins ever being written.” I know whereof I speak. I wrote a lot about Robbins while he was alive (including two essays for COMMENTARY, one of which is reprinted in A Terry Teachout Reader) and at one time gave serious thought to writing a biography of my own, but I decided to pick another subject when I heard that Vaill was working on this book, because I knew she’d do a first-rate job, which she did.
Stylistically speaking, Somewhere is everything that George Gershwin isn’t, and it’s thorough and intelligent to boot. Yes, it’s long, but not absurdly so, and it’s so well written that you don’t care. Gabriel Fauré was once asked about the correct tempo for “Aprés un rêve,” his most popular song. He’s supposed to have replied, “If the singer is bad—very fast!” That’s how I feel about Somewhere. Me, I would have written it shorter, but when a book is as good as this one, I’m happy to keep on reading.