- Listening to Nineteenth-Century America
On New Year’s Day, at the close of the Civil War, a Florida plantation mistress named Susan Bradford Eppes waited in bed for the familiar sound of the bell that would call her to breakfast. But no bell sounded. Why? The slaves who usually rang the morning bell had fled, “stealing away in the night” and leaving the white folks “all alone (242).”
In Listening to Nineteenth Century America Mark M.Smith argues that historians have paid scant attention to the role that soundscapes played in helping elites define what it meant to be “Northern” and “Southern,” “slave” and “free.” He argues that these soundscapes had a powerful material dimension—that the soundscape of the North was rooted in industrial capitalism, and that the soundscape of the South was rooted in the control of slave labor.
Smith insists that historians pay more attention to sound. He recognizes the difficulty of such an endeavor given that there are no extant sound recordings from the early-to-mid 19th century. Smith is thus left to examine the ways in the which 19th century elites wrote about sound, and, in essence used sound as a metaphor. Northern elites drew on the trope of the groaning slave to exact sympathy from their audiences; in a similar way Southern elites painted a sound portrait of the North as noisy, industrial and dangerous.
The problem with this method, which Smith acknowledges at the end of the book, is that his subject is not so much sound, but, rather, metaphors which make use of sound. Smith provides copious evidence that the 19th century elites made use of sound metaphors to imagine the differences between the North and the South. Importantly, Smith shows us that abolitionism was a movement that relied as much on technologies of the voice as it did on the printed page and/or image. Sound, he argues, “carried enough weight to prompt people to destructive action (269).”
Listening to Nineteenth Century America is artfully written, and painstakingly researched. Smith has assembled hundreds of examples of written references to sound. For all of this work, however, Smith offers little new insight into the history of slavery or sectionalism. Smith’s greatest insight is less about sectionalism and more about abolitionism; he reminds us that as a political activists abolitionists had little more than their voices. While print culture was becoming increasingly important, oral address played the primary role in day-to-day 19th century politics. At the same time, Smith also contributes to the emerging field of sound studies by pointing out that sound is a fruitful way to think about production; the study of sound can connect us as surely to the material world as the printed word or image.
Fascinatingly, the bell emerges one of the most interesting symbols of the materiality of sound in Smith’s narrative. Smith points out that slave discipline had an often overlooked aural component; he describes the bell harnesses that were frequently affixed to the slave’s body to prevent the slave from escaping. The Civil War silenced these bells—sometimes literally. Some of these same bells were melted down to make ammunition for the struggling Southern war machine. And, in the end, the bell would come to symbolize freedom rather [End Page 239] than slavery: when white Southerners like Eppes awoke to a post-slavery world in which they would have to ring their own bells.