“‘My ears flop in your favor’: Early American Plantation Novels and the Sounds of Slavery,” MRSEAH with Wichita State University Professor of English Rebeccah Bechtold

 04/23/2021

As part of April’s daylong “Music and Politics in the Young Republic” symposium, MRSEAH participants will gather on Friday, April 23, at 5:30pm for a discussion of Wichita State Professor of English Rebeccah Bechtold’s chapter-in-progress, “‘My ears flop in your favor’: Early American Plantation Novels and the Sounds of Slavery” (working title, see abstract below). An invitation will be circulated to regular MRSEAH attendees in the weeks leading up to the event, and a copy of the paper (which will also be included with the invitation) can be downloaded here. Contact MRSEAH co-convener Prof. Jeff Pasley, PasleyJ@missouri.edu, or symposium convener Prof. Billy Coleman, ColemanW@missouri.edu, for more information. Saint Louis University Associate Professor of History Katrina Thompson Moore will serve as our interlocutor for the discussion.

Abstract

Sensory experience—and its effect on various social, political, and economic formations—has been a frequent theme for scholars invested in the interrelationship of theory, aesthetics, and culture. Largely dominated by an ocularcentric methodology, however, these studies frequently privilege the visual as a primary vehicle for inquiry and analysis. Yet soundscape historians like Mark Smith and Eric Leigh Schmidt have amply demonstrated how the exploration of sound, as well as silence, can be a valid, although at times problematic, method of inquiry. Early Americans were certainly in-tune with the potential power of sound, frequently recording sounds both ordinary and exceptional in private and public communications. For some, the aural world was merely a backdrop to the everyday; others, however, saw sound as a potential ideological battleground, particularly for those participating in the increasingly heated debates over the practice of slavery. Indeed, both abolitionists and apologists for slavery alike turned to the Southern soundscape for evidence to support their positions, cataloging the “screams and groanings” (as Stowe did in her Uncle Tom’s Cabin) or the “merry laughter” of plantation life (as William L.G. Smith did in his response to Stowe’s work, Life at the South). In “Early American Plantations Novels and the Sounds of Slavery,” I examine the role of sound in the popular plantation novels of the 1850s, focusing on how southern writers in particular, responding to the abolitionist discourse of the day, sought to define their “peculiar institution” aurally by problematically identifying in black sound and music noisy proof of the “happy slave.”

 

Rebeccah Bechtold is Associate Professor of English at Wichita State University, with an M.A. and Ph.D. in English Language and Literature from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Her areas of interest in research and teaching include eighteenth and nineteenth century American literature and culture, soundscape studies, sentimental literature, and women’s studies. Dr. Bechtold’s research analyzes how antebellum authors used sound to negotiate the social tensions that afflicted nineteenth century American culture. Her work has appeared in Southern Quarterly, ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, J19: The Journal of Nineteenth Century Americanists, and the New England Quarterly, among other journals. In 2016 she was awarded the Ralph D. Gray Article Prize for her article, “A Revolutionary Soundscape: Musical Reform and the Science of Sound in Early America, 1760–1840,” published in a 2015 issue of the Journal of the Early Republic. In 2018 she was awarded the Jerome Stern Article Prize for her article, “Feeling Right: The Limits of Sympathy and the Problem of History in Making a Murderer,” published in a 2017 issue of Studies in American Culture.