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How Early America Sounded

4.7 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0801441264
ISBN-10: 0801441269
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In contrast to the modern world, which is ruled by such visual inputs as newspapers, television and traffic signs, early America was a sound-oriented society, according to this engaging and original academic study. Colonists in the 17th century, for example, believed that thunder could kill. They used church bells, trumpets and drums to regulate their communities and assert social authority. And where today the written text is considered authoritative, early Americans paid more attention to the extra-linguistic components of speech such as accent and tone of voice; the "murmuring" of mobs, the "grumbling" of disgruntled servants and the "ranting" of religious dissenters was as important a gauge of meaning as the words themselves. Writing in a scholarly but accessible style, cultural historian Rath ranges widely over the many facets of the colonial American soundscape, from Native American myths about natural sounds to the musical traditions of slave communities. In making his case for the great paradigm shift from sound to vision in modern society, he sometimes overloads the evidence with historiographical weight, writing, for example, that "the first generation of colonists did not simply choose to believe in powerful sounds, they had no other set of beliefs by which to live." But when he sticks to the history of how sound was used and perceived in early America-especially in a fascinating chapter on how the acoustics of churches both advanced Protestant theological doctrines and subtly delineated the class hierarchies of the congregation-he opens a revealing window on the past. Photos.
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Review

[T]his tour de force of original scholarship is suitable for all library collections. Indeed, its arguments merit recurrent reading." -- Library Journal, December 2003
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 232 pages
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press (January 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801441269
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801441264
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.2 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,063,434 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Dr. Debra Jan Bibel TOP 500 REVIEWER on April 5, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I initially thought that this would be a worthy companion to A. Roger Ekirch's book "At Day's Close. Night in times past"-- and indeed it seemed to parallel the approach in the first sections -- but author and rock musician Rath had other objectives. By repeatedly shifting the focus, though all related to sound, his book loses its way and become less effective. Nonetheless, there is much of value here, particularly if each part is taken alone. The book is broadly divided into 5 sections: nature and the sonic environment; instruments for communication and communion; acoustic design of churches and meeting houses; the non-linguistic vocal sounds of cries, shouts, hoots, mumbles, and groans; and Native American songs and cries. The era covered is circa 1600 to 1750.

The book begins well. Rath examines the soundscape and how it affected cultural constructs, language and metaphors, philosophy, and religious interpretations. He noted oral societies, where the storyteller was also the historian, and differentiated them to the more modern literate societies where sight takes the leading role. In Colonial American, where sightlines were restricted by thick woods, people were more sensitive to sounds, both natural and human made, as they would alert and also locate. Rath particularly discusses thunder (versus lightning and later electricity) as a central cultural power and agent. Thunderclap, thunderbolt, thunderbirds, earthquakes as underground thunder, waterfalls and rapids as constant thundering: the loudest and most terrifying sound at the time was thunder and thunder was regarded as the divine or devilish force of destruction. The second part also captures interest with discussions of bells, whose own loudness were once thought to protect against thunder or at least disperse thunderclouds.
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Format: Paperback
We are familiar with images of colonial America, but it never even occurred to me that the sounds of that period are un-discussed. Just reading about the way that sounds can be researched is enough reason to buy and read this book, but the image of a Native American listening hut and other sections make eye-opening and fascinating for those of us interested in how life was lived and experienced in other times.
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By Pan on February 10, 2016
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Excellent read.
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