restricted access Listening to Nineteenth-Century America (review)
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Technology and Culture 44.1 (2003) 173-175



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Listening to Nineteenth-Century America. By Mark M. Smith. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. Pp. x+372. $55/$19.95.

Mark M. Smith wants to show us a different past than the one we usually see. In fact, he wants us not to see the past but to hear it. "Mute a film or a television program," Smith instructs in a brief methodological afterword. "The images are less potent because the visual is less meaningful without the acoustic." Without sound we miss or distort "texture, meaning, and depth"; in fact, new storylines themselves emerge "once we start to listen to hearing" (p. 262). Such is the simple yet bold (and surprisingly difficult) premise of Listening to Nineteenth-Century America. Simple because, once confronted with our practical deafness, most historians will acknowledge the obvious oversight. Bold because the soundtrack promises profound new insights into familiar scenes from the past. Surprisingly difficult because we are required by our medium to "listen" with our eyes to written documents—both Smith's sources and the text he offers up for our aural edification. [End Page 173]

In a brief introduction, Smith foreshadows his interpretive intention by claiming that "aurality, listening, and hearing" were important "to the process of creating real and abiding notions of slavery and freedom, North and South, especially in the last three decades prior to the Civil War" (p. 7). Through the balance of the work we are shown (again, the problem of writing about hearing yields constant irony) evidence of historical soundscapes, which then are sorted and assembled through the framework of sectional differences and impending hostilities.

Much of the book's value lies in the tidbits of evidence themselves, fragmentary "facts" that any reader who lectures for a living will seize as a means of bringing life to that all-too-often deadly genre. Our attention is called to sounds we know were there but habitually overlook: the ringing bells of well-ordered plantations; the barking dogs and shouts of the "patter-rollers"; the intrusive shrieks of factory or locomotive steam whistles, calling hands to labor or warning pedestrians and teamsters to "watch out for the cars." My personal favorite is the practice of slaves who placed large cooking pots over their heads to muffle the sounds of religious ecstasy during clandestine worship services (p. 81).

Smith elaborates the significance of "quiet" in the dangerous world of the slaveholder, who denied the humanity of the slaves whose daily noises nonetheless testified to that humanity and sometimes hinted at their anger. Quiet—but not silence, for in silence lurked conspiracy. Readers cannot miss the dilemma of the master class, craving the quiet that bespeaks contentment while provoking their servants to what must have been silent rage.

To the north it was noise, not quiet, that stirred the imaginations of cultural elites; but here too a struggle developed between the rights of entrepreneurs to erect noisy factory installations and the rights of common working people to shout their disapproval. In the end, the architects of industrial soundscapes found themselves wishing to suppress (like the planters) the complaints of the exploited while fending off charges from lords of the lash that "wage slavery" was not so very different after all. Was it possible to entertain shrill voices such as William Lloyd Garrison's in condemnation of chattel slavery without extending freedom as well to working men—or all kinds of women—who disliked the terms of the world in which they lived?

Listening to Nineteenth-Century America constitutes a daring and provocative offering by a historian who already has called our attention to the neglected evidence of time and timekeeping in a southern slave regime. It is not always clear whether Smith has succeeded in crafting new insights or simply recasting the sectional story in the language of aural metaphor. Take, for example, this passage: "In effect, by shouting southward, abolitionists especially and northern supporters of free labor generally confirmed what masters long suspected: northern society was a veritable cacophony that would not...


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