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  • Uncanny Realism:Stephen Crane's Phonographic "Monster"
  • Sean Keck (bio)

The commotion started the phonograph for an instant, and it gave one wailing gasp that sounded startlingly like a groan. The figure writhed on the floor, as though suffering terrible agony . . . . Little clouds of dense smoke poured out of the figure's body, and a terrible smell of burning rubber filled the room. They found afterward that every wire in the figure was twisted out of shape, the phonograph burned out, and the face melted into a shapeless lump of rubber.

—William Drysdale, "Professor Von Wachs's Wonderful Boy" 1892, (emphasis added)

To my fancy he seemed now transformed into the very semblance of that abhorred shape. In the elongated visage, with its blank expression and waxen pallor, I recognized the cylinder of the machine; his body was square like the box, from the corners of which depended his tube-like limbs, with their trumpet-shaped extremities. He was indeed the veritable living phonograph.

—S. S., "A Phonograph Phantasy" 1891, (emphasis added)

In the late nineteenth century, commentators from various cultural fields imagined that Thomas Edison's phonograph would usher in an era of unprecedented realism by removing human fallibility from record-keeping. In his 1878 North American Review essay introducing the phonograph, Edison envisioned that his technology would allow businessmen to produce a "perfect record" and "dispense with the clerk."1 E. E. Kellett's narrator in "The New Frankenstein" (1900) [End Page 520]

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Edison's phonograph, Experimental Dept., Orange, N.J. New Jersey, 24 September 1892. Photograph.

[End Page 521] suggested that "mere human fallible creatures will soon be banished from the witness-box; judges and juries will content themselves with taking the evidence of unerring, unlying phonographs!"2 While audio would not enter the courtroom for several decades, such phonographic witnessing quickly became a literary device. In many works—including George Hill's The Phonograph Witness (1883), William Dean Howells and Mark Twain's play Colonel Sellers as a Scientist (1883), the anonymous "A Proposal by Phonograph" (1889), S. S.'s "A Phonograph Phantasy" (1891), and Twain's later novelization of Colonel Sellers as The American Claimant (1892)—phonographs play a crucial role in revealing the true identities and motivations of characters whose voices have been secretly recorded. Early ethnography, as Brian Hochman demonstrates, shared this fascination with phonography's seeming objectivity, which "appeared to abolish residual traces of human influence on the collection of auditory data."3 Yet this period's literature also shows that the "residual traces" of the human in the machine were not so easily expunged.

Writers repeatedly imagined the phonograph not as replacing the late nineteenth-century human listener or speaker but as uncannily entangled with the human. In short stories like William Drysdale's "Professor Von Wachs's Wonderful Boy" (1892) and Kellett's "New Frankenstein," mad scientists prominently featured phonographs in their automatons. These mechanical figures complicated the border between human and nonhuman, living and nonliving. At the end of Drysdale's story, when Professor Von Wachs must destroy his lifelike automaton of a young boy, the return from human-like machine to raw materials is impressively violent: "the phonograph burned out, and the face melted into a shapeless lump of rubber."4 In "A Phonograph Phantasy," a mysterious figure called "the fiend of the phonograph" physically embodies Edison's recording machine, his "blank . . . waxen" face a phonograph "cylinder," his body the device's [End Page 522] "box," his limbs the machine's "trumpet-shaped" speaking and listening "tube[s]."5 These uncanny, defaced figures suggest that the phonograph, rather than removing human bias from realist observation, called the reality of human life itself into question. Even when not imaginatively plugged into such mechanical figures, the phonograph challenged the status quo of human experience by separating aural from visual perception. In terms echoing both of this essay's epigraphs, Dave Laing argues that the phonograph confronted late nineteenth-century listeners with "the voice without a face."6

Stephen Crane's novella The Monster (1898), like the phonographic tales examined above, also centers on a defaced character whose...


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