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Reviewed by:
  • How Early America Sounded
  • Hillel Schwartz
How Early America Sounded. By Richard Cullen Rath ( Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2003. xi plus 227 pp. $32.50).

As a campaign piece, this work may be excused some of its errors of omission, for what Rath is most intent upon he manages with admirable diligence, shows of inventiveness, and occasional verve. Rath's campaign is directed toward historians who have too often relied exclusively upon visual, inscribed, literary evidence for reconstructions of societies and the flow of events. Mentored by David Hackett Fischer, Rath expands the "folkways" of Fischer's Albion's Seed: Four [End Page 1109] British Folkways in America (Oxford, 1991) to include "soundways," an omnibus term defined (p. 2) as "the paths, trajectories, transformations, mediations, practices, and techniques—in short, the ways—that people employ to interpret and express their attitudes and beliefs about sound." Ensconced within the older field of American colonial cultural history but contributing to the wider, newer interdisciplinary study of the history of the senses, Rath explores the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century "sensorium" of peoples of eastern North America and parts of the Caribbean, waging a campaign on three soundstages. In the position of a newly-elected concert master, he means to show bands of scholars how and what they can learn from listening to Native Americans, English colonists, and their African slaves, much as Mark M. Smith meant to show what could be learned from Listening to Nineteenth-Century America (Duke, 2001). In the position of a younger historian aspiring to an audible splash with his first book, he means to prove that soundways were at least as important as sightways to social, political, and religious interactions in a colonial world that was "chanted into being" (p. 173), much as Bruce R. Smith meant to prove the creative and constitutive power of sound in The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-Factor (Chicago, 1999). In the position of an eager controversialist, he takes a stand on the aural side of half a century of debate about the comparative significance of audition vis-a-vis vision in the origins of the modern West, much as Penelope Gouk argued implicitly in Music, Science, and Natural Magic in Seventeenth-Century England (Yale, 1999).

Gouk's work goes unacknowledged, as do studies of the early modern shift in approaches to grammar and linguistics, the gradual construction of a science of acoustics, and the scavenger hunt for a universal language (which led some of the more evangelical British colonists to hear Indians speaking Hebrew). These lacunae are excusable, granted Rath's emphasis on "the concrete expressions" of soundways, and acoustics has already been integrated into some aspects of colonial religion by Leigh Eric Schmidt in Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment (Harvard, 2000). It is more difficult to excuse the absence of reference to such seminal work as The Tuning of the World (Knopf, 1977) by the Canadian composer and acoustic ecologist R. Murray Schafer, who contextualized and popularized the term "soundscape," and Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics and Song in Kaluli Expression (2nd ed., University of Pennsylvania, 1990) by the American ethnologist and jazz musician Steven Feld,who has been zealous and eloquent in his appeal for more sophisticated assessments of how lives are embedded in, and shaped by, sound. Most surprising, because most apt, is the absence of reference to Paul Carter's probing meditation on the sonic engagement of British colonists and aboriginals across the vast reaches of Australia in The Sound in Between: Voice, Space, Performance (New South Wales University, 1992), given that Rath's own achievements are most creditable in his tracking of the creolization of music from West Africa through the Caribbean to the colonial South and in his analyses of the contesting tonalities, intensities, and rhythms that set women apart from men, blacks from whites, Quakers from Puritans.

Rath's own interest in soundways began when he noticed how thunder was described in colonial sermons, newspapers, and diaries as the chief force through which storms terrified and devastated, whereas by 1800 or so that force had been [End Page 1110] culturally transferred...


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