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Sounding Real

Musicality and American Fiction at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Cristina L. Ruotolo

Publication Year: 2013

Examining American realist fiction as it was informed and shaped by the music of the period, Sounding Real sheds new light on the profound musical and cultural change at the turn of the twentieth century.
Sounding Real by Cristina L. Ruotolo examines landmark changes in American musical standards and tastes in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries and the way they are reflected in American literature of the period. Whereas other interdisciplinary approaches to music and literature often focus on more recent popular music and black music that began with blues and jazz, Ruotolo addresses the literary response to the music that occurred in the decades before the Jazz Age.
By bringing together canonical and lesser-known works by authors like Theodore Dreiser, Kate Chopin, Harold Fredric, James Weldon Johnson, Willa Cather, and Gertrude Atherton, Ruotolo argues that new, emerging musical forms were breaking free from nineteenth-century constraints, and that the elemental authenticity or real-ness that this new music articulated sparked both interest and anxiety in literature: What are the effects of an emancipated musicality on self and society? How can literature dramatize musical encounters between people otherwise segregated by class, race, ethnicity, or gender?
By examining the influence of an increasingly aggressive and progressive musical marketplace on the realm of literature, Sounding Real depicts a dynamic dialogue between two art forms that itself leads to a broader discussion of how art speaks to society.

Published by: The University of Alabama Press


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, About the Series, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

I began to think about literary constructions of musicality during my very first semester of graduate school, in Richard Brodhead’s seminar on nineteenth-century American literature and culture. As a serious violinist who had recently left the concert hall for the halls of academe, ...

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pp. 1-13

The unnamed narrator of James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, recalling his first encounter with ragtime in a Manhattan club, points to a certain incommensurability between words and music: “I stopped talking to listen. It was music of a kind I had never heard before.”1 ...

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1. Not Just Looking: Sister Carrie’s Musical Economy

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pp. 14-36

In the voluminous critical discussion of Dreiser’s first novel, which has long remained central to the canon of American realism and naturalism, a good deal of energy has gone into recognizing and analyzing its representations of the visual culture of commodity capitalism. ...

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2. Listening to Women Playing Chopin

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pp. 37-67

With mock insistence that “the piano is passing and with it the piano girl— there really was a piano girl,” James Huneker, one of New York’s foremost music critics at the turn of the twentieth century, registers American women’s musical migration from the parlor to the concert hall: ...

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3. Opera’s “Impossible Country”: Figuring the American Diva

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pp. 68-91

Clara Louise Kellogg, one of the nation’s first home-grown opera stars, begins her Memoirs of an American Prima Donna (1913) with a new kind of origin story for nineteenth-century white American operatic identity. Recalling how often she “slept and waked” as her slave nurse sang “Jim along Josy” while rocking her, ...

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4. James Weldon Johnson’s Ex-Colored Musician

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pp. 92-114

If Song of the Lark revises Antonin Dvořák’s idea of a national art music built upon “Indian chants” by locating American musicality in a female performer’s body rather than the male composer’s Indian-inspired musical texts, Willa Cather’s American diva succeeds at the expense of both the modern bodies and the actual musical production of her “native” sources. ...

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5. Fictions of the American Music Critic

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pp. 115-135

In its focus on music’s place in American literature at the turn of the twentieth century, this book has been concerned, among other things, with the relationship between music and writing. To write about music, for the fiction addressed here, is to consider the nature and effects of music as well as to confront the gap between musical and textual expression. ...

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pp. 136-140

Across their many differences, the novels considered in this study share a fundamental ambivalence about the presence and power of new forms of American musical experience. For many of their principal characters, music occasions the liberation or “awakening” of authentic pockets of self-hood and enables listeners ...


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pp. 141-158


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pp. 159-166


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pp. 167-170

E-ISBN-13: 9780817386764
E-ISBN-10: 0817386769
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817317980
Print-ISBN-10: 0817317988

Page Count: 182
Illustrations: 0 illustrations
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 852759291
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Sounding Real

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • American fiction -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • Music and literature -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Music in literature.
  • Musicians in literature.
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