Mark M. Smith. Listening to Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. x + 372 pp. $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8078-4982-8; $70.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-2657-7.
Reviewed by Michael E. Smith (Department of History, The Pennsylvania State University)
Published on H-South (May, 2003)
The Sound of Sectionalism
The Sound of Sectionalism
University of South Carolina professor Mark M. Smith's new book certainly represents an original contribution to the scholarship on the growth of sectional divisions between the North and the South during the antebellum era. Smith contends that both Northerners and Southerners came to attribute the prevalence of threatening and discordant sounds to the other region, heightening the perception of cultural distinctiveness and conflict. White Southerners especially feared and loathed the din they associated with Northern industry and cities, while Northerners of widely differing opinions on other matters expressed a shared abhorrence for both the shrieks of the oppressed slaves and the silence of the persecuted dissenters they perceived as integral to the Southern soundscape. Smith's stimulating and clearly written book, although it walks a fine line between insightfulness and irrelevance at times, on the whole succeeds impressively.
Smith wisely stops short of claiming that secession was caused by the Southern style of sound and hearing, but nevertheless does demonstrate pretty convincingly through the use of primary source documentation that both Northerners and Southerners consistently stressed their discomfort with and disdain for the alien sounds of the other section. Slaveholders, Smith contends, "imagined themselves custodians of a seamlessly tranquil society where calm reigned and harmony was heard" (p. 20). Unlike the too noisy North, whose chaotic urban and industrial growth seemed to heighten the unruliness and boisterousness of its poor wage laborers, Southern elites, particularly, prided themselves on the supposed peaceful placidity of their regimented and ordered societies. Slaves worked at an appropriate but not disturbing pace and volume, primarily performing field work that did not, of course, produce the cacophonous noise of Northern factories. Slaveholders judged the music of their African American workers appropriate, as well, as long as it was confined to appropriate and prescribed times, locations, and decibel levels.
The sounds of industrialization and urbanization were not the only Northern noises that white Southerners found offensive and objectionable, Smith notes. The loud complaints of Northern abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison (the masthead of whose paper unambiguously announced his fierce determination to be heard) struck the ears of Southern elites as a particularly harsh, unwelcome, and dangerous note. A Mississippi editor quoted by Smith condemned the abolitionists for their "insane ranting" and "horrid screeching," reflecting the distinctly aural quality of this threat (p. 188). Southern attempts to silence these strident Northern critics of their society--by establishing a Congressional "gag rule" during the 1830s preventing debate on slavery, for instance--proved ultimately futile and even counterproductive. Smith concludes that Southern outrage over and inability to stifle the "incessant and terrible noises made all through the North" by persistent critics of their "peculiar institution" and the society devoted to protecting it, contributed substantially to the worsening of the sectional crisis and the coming of the Civil War (p. 193).
Smith argues that white Northerners, in contrast, prided themselves on the bustling commerce and burgeoning modernization of their economy and society. What to Southern ears sounded like (to use an anachronistic modern term) noise pollution, to Northern ears sounded like progress. Northerners perceived the relative quietude of the South as evidence of that region's sloth, inertia, and backwardness. In addition, antislavery as well as abolitionist Northerners "heard the silent tyranny of the Slave Power" in the Southern soundscape (p. 172). Dissent as well as progress had been stifled by the undemocratic and corrupt power of the slaveocracy, Northerners came to believe. Though Northerners still perceived the muffled cries of the tormented slaves, they were also aware of a dreadful, ominous silence they perceived as alien, hostile, and despotic.
Smith's analysis of the aural components of the antebellum sectional conflict, which constitutes the bulk of the book, is on the whole perceptive and convincing. The author's final chapters dealing with the Civil War and Reconstruction are less successful. He contends that the wartime "introduction of new noises and the muting of old sounds" in the South contributed to the Confederacy's loss of the will to continue fighting. Although this is a clever addition to the controversial literature contending that internal rather than external factors primarily accounted for the Southern defeat, it is underdeveloped and a bit dubious. Often his insights into the perception and effects of sounds on the war and the succeeding years are similarly interesting without being totally coherent or convincing. He assesses the meaning of the shouts of joy with which African Americans celebrated their freedom, which he thinks to some degree seemingly confirmed the fears of white Southerners that disorder and chaos would follow emancipation. Smith also addresses the manner in which the barbaric sounds of combat and the suffering it caused can provide insight into the nature of the conflict. As he says, "these were the sounds of premodernity in a war that was characterized then, and has been since, as modern" (p. 200).
Ultimately this material does not mesh that well with the earlier, more focused chapters, and the ideas he presents here need greater elaboration and development. In short, these concluding sections feel a bit tacked-on. They do not, however, detract from the incisive work particularly apparent in the earlier chapters, or the general usefulness of this book to scholars and undergraduates interested in Southern history and antebellum American culture.
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Michael E. Smith. Review of Smith, Mark M., Listening to Nineteenth-Century America.
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