Sound Check: The Deaf Acoustics of American Literature Restricted; Files & ToC

Kolb, Rachel (Summer 2020)

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This dissertation examines how standardized ideas about acoustics and verbal speech became central to American literary and cultural representations of the “typical” citizen during the mid-nineteenth through early twentieth centuries. Several material and social shifts shaped the emerging sound cultures of this period, which some scholars have termed an era of “ensoniment”: the proliferation of new acoustic technologies, a booming print culture and corresponding literary experiments in representing the speaking voice and the expressive presence of human bodies, and rising cultural preferences for spoken English as an indicator of American citizenship. Embedded within these coalescing auditory and verbal ideas is a strengthening set of associations among sound, hearing, and physical or communicative skill. “Sound Check: The Deaf Acoustics of American Literature” traces this ideology of hearing and speaking ability through the works of several canonical American writers and literary developments from the 1840s through the early twentieth century, examining authors including Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Ralph Ellison. By putting representations of sound, silence, and audibility into conversation with concurrent histories and insights of deafness and disability, “Sound Check” investigates the larger variability of human sensory and communicative possibilities, especially against the backdrop of an era that saw the suppression of signed languages and rising cultural demands for verbal assimilation toward the turn of the twentieth century. In showing these parallels, and in positing nontypical embodiment as a valuable critical resource for our discussions of human communication and language, this project resists common and underexamined assumptions of auditory and verbal typicality as standard physiological givens within literary and cultural studies. By putting a “check” on sound as the assumed baseline for linguistic skill, this project uncovers more fluid and variant forms of sensory experience, and it advances deeper understandings of the conceptual models of embodiment that implicitly drive the literary and print cultures of this period. My hope is that “Sound Check” will cast new light on the acoustic investments of written language and literature.

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