An Intimate View of Stephen Foster From His Brother Morrison Foster
Probably the most accurate biography of Stephen Foster that has yet appeared is that written by his brother Morrison Foster and published around 1896.
One significant and interesting fact is that Foster was, in the generally accepted sense of the word, wholly American. It has often been reported that he was partly Irish, but his Irish and Scotch ancestry as well as his English and Italian ancestry had gone through nearly a century of Americanism before he was born. His family boasts of a most interesting and patriotic connection with the early history of our country, many of his ancestors having been connected with events in the war of 1812. His parents were virtually pioneers, since Western Pennsylvania was almost a frontier when they settled there.
The day of Foster’s birth was a notable one. It was the 4th of July, 1826. The day celebrated the 50th birthday of American independence. On the same day Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died. Foster’s father, Col. William Barclay Foster, was intensely patriotic and had arranged for a great celebration near his home. After the custom of the times there was an elaborate open air dinner in the adjoining woods. To this the soldiers from the arsenal were all invited. Just at noon when the guns from the fort were booming and the bands were playing the nation anthem, Stephen Foster was born.
From the Morrison biography it appears that Foster must have had quite a good education for his day and time. He studied Latin and Greek and English branches and was generally very well informed indeed.
Foster’s aunt (Ann Eliza Foster) was an amateur musician and the little boy used to purloin her guitar when he was as young as two years of age and sit for a long time on the floor picking out harmonies. It is reported that when he was seven years of age he visited the store of Smith and Mellor at Pittsburgh and picked up a flageolet from the counter. Although he had never seen the instrument before he mastered it in a few minutes and could play tunes upon it. In similar manner he learned to play upon the flute unaided. His brother relates that Stephen spent a great deal of time studying the works of Mozart, Beethoven and Weber. It is interesting to read the following comment from his biography: “Stephen’s simple melodies which he gave to the world were not the accidental rays from an uncultured brain, but were the result of the most thorough and laborious analyses of harmonies, and when he completed them and launched them he know that they would strike favorably the ear of the critical as well as the unlearned in music.”
After some time spent at two collegiate institutions Stephen took up the study of German and French and mastered both tongues. He then took up painting in water colors and thought for a time that he would become an artist. So little did Foster value his early compositions that he gave them away. Up to his time most of the negro songs had been very rude with a tendency toward burlesque. He, however, saw the life of the negro through more sympathetic eyes.
Foster’s love for the poor and the oppressed was most intense. His heart when out to those in deep distress and he way always ready to sacrifice his own interests to help others. He was inordinately simple and unostentatious in his habits. His brother describes his appearance as follows:
“He was slender, in height not over five feet seven inches. His figure was handsome. His feet were small as were his hands, which were soft and delicate. The features of his face were regular and striking. His nose was straight, inclined to aquiline; his nostrils full and dilated. His mouth was regular in form and his lips full. His eyes were very large and very dark and lit up with unusual intelligence. His hair was nearly black. In conversation he was very interesting but more suggestive than argumentative.”
Greatest of all was his human sympathy. It was that which gave his music such a wonderful appeal. It was genuine and deep, as the following incident indicates. Once when he was going to a party as a young man he noticed an accident in the street. It was a bleak stormy night in winter and a poor child had fallen under the wheels of a heavy truck. He carried the child home and remained until it died and then spent the rest of the night trying to help and comfort the poor parents. His comrades went on to the party but the great heart and sympathy of Stephen Foster would not permit him to do so.
It is not true that Foster died of alcoholism in New York. He had been ill with a fever and while washing himself at a basin in his room fell and cut his neck and face. He was taken to Bellevue Hospital where he died January 13, 1864. William A. Pond, his publisher, had the body removed to an undertaker’s shop and placed in an iron coffin. Foster’s brothers came on immediately and took the remains to Pittsburgh, where funeral services were held at Trinity Church. As an indication of Foster’s popularity in his day the railroad company and the express company refused to receive any pay for transporting the body.