Posted by Ed
The current issue of The Christian Science Monitor features a review of a new book by Richard Cullen Rath, How Early America Sounded. In that book, the Monitor notes, Rath attempts to develop a cultural history of the perception of sound in colonial America. "Just as the noises we make when talking are considered the articulations of intelligence," the review says, "so the sounds of thunder or church bells were understood by early Americans to be the products of spiritual, not mechanical, forces. They were active, not passive emanations." Rath suggests that sounds often embodied people's identity and exerted social influence on society--some early Americans even felt a need to baptize their church bells, for example. Early America, he believes, experienced an "ear-based way of life"--and the wide variety in "soundways" among the colonists may have delayed the development of a unified American sense of identity until the growth of a mass print culture in the 18th century.
I wasn't terribly impressed by the Monitor's review, I have to admit, and I don't know enough about Rath's book to judge it. I wished that the review had done a better job explaining what it means to say that sounds are the "product of spiritual forces", or how Rath arrived at this conclusion. From the review alone, I don't have a very clear sense of whether How Early America Sounded is an original and compelling book or a jargon-laden and shallow attempt to rewrite American social or cultural history.
My original plan for this blog entry, then, was to do a little looking around and report on my findings about a slightly larger topic: the history of the senses. Until earlier today, all I could tell you about it was that the French historian Lucien Febvre had once written an essay on "Smells, Tastes, and Sounds" in history--and that other French historians had argued that historians' bias toward the visual was an impediment toward true understanding of the past.
For now, I'm going to hold off on that plan--in part because I'm feeling too lazy and too busy to do that right now, and in part because I found that Emily Eakin has written a New York Times article on the subject. (Those of you who are really curious can also read this 2003 article from The Journal of Social History.) What seems clear is that the history of the senses (and, in particular, sound) has experienced rapid growth over the last few years. Peter Charles Hoffer, a historian at the University of Georgia, has made the radical claim that "sensation and perception affected some of those great events whose cause and course we historians conventionally attribute to deep cultural structures and overarching material forces." (He argues that rebellious colonists in Boston engaged in "sensory warfare" against the British, for example, and says that "elementary sensory perceptions are causes, dictating in a thousand ways how we respond" to historical events.) The French historian Alain Corbin, meanwhile, has written what sounds like a fascinating book on church bells in 19th-century France.
I don't know exactly how I'd respond to any one of these books, and I'm skeptical of some of the more radical claims of the practitioners of the history of the senses, but this field sounds like a fascinating new branch of historical research. I'll look forward to learning more about it.Posted by Ed at March 31, 2004 01:52 PM