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Sounds of Ethnicity: Listening to German North America, 1850–1914 (review)
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This first book by Concordia University (Montreal) historian Barbara Lorenzkowski offers a new and creative model for thinking about the creation of ethnic identity in North America. Based on an award-winning doctoral dissertation, the study’s innovation lies mainly in the author’s use of “sound” – specifically language usage and music – as a category of analysis, rather than written or spoken ideas about ethnicity itself. The study focuses on two different communities – rural Waterloo County, Ontario, and urban Buffalo, New York – both of which are in the Great Lakes region and thus in the “borderland” between Canada and the US Both locales saw significant migrations from Germany during the 19th century that resulted in vibrant and self-assured German ethnic communities, whose culture and identity was publicly displayed at least until World War I.

The book is divided nicely into two parts: Part I on “Language Matters” and Part II on “Music Matters.” The three chapters in the first part analyze language usage in the popular press and in public schools. Both arenas were characterized by an ongoing dynamic between the language purism espoused by ethnic élites who wished to reinforce “proper” German vocabulary and grammar, and the “rank-and-file” German immigrants who gradually adopted an idiom that freely mixed German and English vocabulary and syntax in their resultant hybridized speech. Lorenzkowski argues against an interpretation that would equate the decline of a standardized language with the loss of ethnic identity. Rather, she proposes that fluidity characterized both the evolution of the German language in the Great Lakes region and also the ethnic identities that emerged as Germans hovered between the old and new worlds and also across the border between the US and Canada.

The four chapters in Part II discuss music making in the context of large local and cross-border music spectacles. Large-scale singers’ festivals were common in both Waterloo and Buffalo from about 1860 through to about 1912, attended by hundreds of Germans from across North America but also enjoyed by local non-Germans. Some of the festivals discussed by the author were called “peace jubilees,” which celebrated the 1871 military victory of Germany over France and were thus imbued with nationalist rhetoric. To the extent that German newspapers reported on the jubilee festivals, print and performance came together in the construction and dissemination of ethnic symbols and myth making via music. The sounds of music-making in the context of shared experience as performers and audience also worked to bridge cultural difference between Germans and Anglo-Saxons; inter-ethnic harmony emerged from their shared enthusiasm for the music. Interestingly, the singers’ festivals simultaneously reinforced an identification with the German “fatherland” even while they helped Germans in North America affirm their new hyphenated identities and attachment to Waterloo and Buffalo.

Overall, Lorenzkowski shows that language and music were not just by-products, or “echoes” of ethnicity but were the actual voices with which Germans in North America expressed their identity, as it existed in the imaginary and real spaces between the old and new homelands. Both vehicles of expression allowed immigrants and their descendants to retain their loyalty to and affinity with their German origins, while also allowing their speech and song to evolve as they became Canadian and American. Scholars of migration, ethnicity, and transnational identities have much to learn by considering the novel approach offered here: Lorenzkowski posits ethnicity, not as something defined according to boundaries of group belonging but rather as something that happens, that is performed. Drawing on the growing body of research on performativity and spectacle, the author’s interest is directed at the “aural” – what was sounded out and heard – more so than what was “visual.” While she utilizes a case study approach based on research in two specific locales, the analysis that ensues is transnational in that the “soundscapes” created by writers, speakers, and musicians went well beyond the local and the national. The international border was a porous one that witnessed visits and exchanges in both directions; the aural culture that arises was shaped by this cross-border interaction.

What emerges in the book is the “sound” of a new and ever-changing German...

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