Happy Fourth of July and Happy Birthday Stephen Foster! Let’s wrap up our discussion of Foster and nostalgia today by looking at the reflective nostalgia found in his music.
Professor Boym of Harvard University says that reflective nostalgia “delays homecoming” having more to do with the state of longing. Stephen Foster maintained a sense of nostalgia in his own life at a time when nostalgic sentiments longing for an idealized past resonated throughout many facets of American culture. Rather than longing to restore the reality of his past, however, Foster spent his life longing for a home he barely knew.
From age four, Foster moved between boarding houses, never establishing a permanent home. Songs such as “Farewell! Old Cottage,” “My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight!,” and “A Thousand Miles from Home” relay sentiments for a lost home; a home he never actually experienced.
Just as Foster longed for a place to call home yet never experienced the comforts provided by a homestead, he also longed for love, a love he evidently never fully felt or received from his wife, Jane. Their relationship marked by instability, the Fosters spent four years separated during an era when that was looked down upon. Jane never supported her husband’s musical endeavors and their unhappy marriage was obvious to their family.
Despite the less-than-ideal marriage, Foster’s song written about Jane depicts her in a positive light:
I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair,
Borne, like a vapor, on the summer air;
I see her tripping where the bright streams play,
Happy as the daisies that dance on her way.
Rather than writing a song depicting the Jane he married, Foster creates an image of the wife he longed to have. Stephen’s sisters Henrietta and Ann Eliza commented that the Jeanie in his poetry did not correspond to the real “Jeanie.” “My Wife Is a Most Knowing Woman,” composed in 1863 with lyrics by his friend George Cooper, more closely relates the reality of their marriage:
My wife is a most knowing woman,
She always is finding me out,
She never will hear explanations
But instantly puts me to rout,
There’s no use to try to deceive her,
If out with my friends, night or day,
In the most inconceivable manner
She tells where I’ve been right away,
She says that I’m “mean” and “inhuman”
Oh! my wife is a most knowing woman.
“Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” provides an example of reflective nostalgia in Foster’s songs, evoking nostalgia textually through words and phrases such as “dream,” “floating like a vapor,” “I long,” “vanished,” and “gone.” Composed to depict a fanciful state, the narrator “dreams” and “sighs” over an image of a woman that he fails to describe in actual memories. His descriptions of Jeanie “floating like a vapor” as “daises dance” creates a sweet fantasy in which he dwells while “her light form that strayed” gives the depiction of a blurry dream rather than an undeniable reality. The song fails to mention any experience shared between Jeanie and the narrator, which lends the air of a dream for an idealized past rather than the reality of either her existence or the truthfulness of her character.
In honor of Stephen Foster’s birthday, will you be listening to any of his songs today? Which one is your favorite?