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Ears Taut to Hear: Sound Recording and Twentieth-Century American Literature

By Jessica Elaine Teague


"Ears Taut to Hear" investigates the sustained engagement between American literature and sound reproduction technologies during the twentieth century. Through an analysis of texts by Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, Alan Lomax, Sidney Bechet, Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and August Wilson, I explore how literature across a number of genres and modes extended formal techniques in response to the advent of the phonograph, tape, and LPs. I contend that the development of sound recording technology not only shaped many of the formal innovations that we now associate with modernism, but that it compelled writers to theorize sound. For instance, Gertrude Stein's broken-record repetitions in "Melanctha" (1909) illustrate new ways of thinking about listening and repetition in the era of the "talking machine," while Langston Hughes' "LP Book," Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz (1961), conceptualizes the relationship between stereo recording and the spatial dimensions of sound. Tracing the shifting role of sound over the century, each chapter features a pairing of literary texts alongside key historical events in the development of sound technology and the recording industry, including the invention of the phonograph (Stein and DosPassos), ethnographic uses of recording (Lomax and Bechet), subversive uses of the tape-recorder (Kerouac and Burroughs), and the advent of long-play albums and stereo (Hughes and Baraka). The final chapter reflects upon August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and encapsulates the ongoing tension between live and recorded performance. Ultimately, I contend that while literary innovations were shaped by phonographic technologies, texts also played a key role in tutoring the ear to listen amidst a modern multimedia environment

Topics: American literature, Music
Year: 2013
DOI identifier: 10.7916/D85H7FPR
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