Philipp Schweighauser (Basel)
The Soundscapes of American Realist Fiction1
The Soundscapes of American Realist Fiction
This essay explores the acoustic geographies of texts by Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, Rebecca Harding Davis and William Dean Howells. Drawing on the work of R. Murray Schafer and his World Soundscape Project, it analyzes the representational strategies American realist writers employ as they document and comment on the processes of industrialization and urbanization. The essay's main focus is on the politics of representing the noises of social change and conflict that constitute modernity. I am particularly interested in the varying degrees to which realist authors manage or, more often, fail to preserve something of the ineffability and recalcitrance of the noises they represent.
In the late 1960s, R. Murray Schafer initiated The World Soundscape Project at the Communications Centre of the Simon Fraser University. Its interdisciplinary scope attracted a group of young composers and students from various disciplines, whose work continues to build on the project's foundation beyond the end of its official phase in the late 1970s and into the twenty-first century. Today, soundscape studies include a wide range of activities:
While soundscape studies are mainly geared to the study of continuities and changes in acoustic environments of the past and the present, many of its practitioners, chief among them Schafer, conduct their research and teaching with an eye to ameliorating the acoustic environment of the present. This pragmatic aspect is reflected in the title of Schafer's seminal work on acoustic ecology, The Tuning of the World (1977). Far from joining those whose approach to the acoustic environment exhausts itself in loud calls for noise-reduction measures, Schafer advocates acoustic design, a science that relies on a more refined approach to noise:
Schafer even propagates the preservation of noises which have acquired special significance for a given community. The bells of Big Ben in London are an obvious example for what Schafer calls a soundmark,3 but he also cites less pleasant sounds like "the scraping of the heavy metal chairs on the tile floors of Parisian coffee-houses" or "the high-pitched brilliant bells of the horse-drawn taxis in Konya, the last to be heard in any major town in Turkey" (1977: 240).
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Nevertheless, Schafer's distinction between different kinds of noise remains conventional. He agrees with the vast majority of listeners around the world that the noises introduced by the inventions of the industrial revolutions, in particular by the steam engine, the blast furnace and later by the internal combustion engine used in cars, motorcycles and generators, violate our aural sense.4 Schafer captures the acoustic changes involved in the transition from a predominantly rural and agrarian to an urban industrial society as a shift from a hi-fi to a lo-fi soundscape:
Accordingly, the first two parts of his book describe how a harmonious pre-industrial soundscape of natural noises is torn apart by the advent of technological sources of noise in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Schafer's text betrays a profound nostalgia for soundscapes like the one of "an Italian mountain village north of Trento" where "human sounds in the streets" still "outnumbered those of motorized traffic" (232). His judgment of the soundscape at the time of his writing is correspondingly harsh when he comments on "the slop and spawn of the megalopolis" that "invite a multiplication of sonic jabberware" (216) or points out its "continuous sludge of traffic noise" (230).
Such preferences are hardly surprising, and as we read the works of realist authors caught in the midst of the second industrial revolution, we detect a similar dislike for technological noises. Ambrose Bierce's definition of noise in The Devil's Dictionary (1911) brings out this antipathy best:
2 Realist Soundscapes
The fictional texts I am going to discuss in this essay – Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900), Norris's McTeague (1899), Crane's Maggie (1893) and "Monster" (1899), Davis's "Life in the Iron-Mills" (1861) and Howells's A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890) – all address the processes of urbanization and industrialization and register the changes wrought by them.5 The accelerated growth of industrial production after the Civil War, the expanded possibilities of communication, the rise of corporate capitalism and U.S. imperialism, the increasingly violent social conflicts, and the move of an unprecedented number of people from different regions and countries to the industrial cities of the North radically changed the ways many Americans lived their lives and perceived the world. Many of these changes had an important acoustic dimension to them. The increasingly powerful steam engines used in factory production, the radical expansion of the railway system (the westbound Central Pacific Railroad and the eastbound Union Pacific met at Promontory Summit in Utah in 1869, connecting the United States coast to coast for the first time) and the sudden co-presence of different dialects and languages in the space of the city changed the acoustic environment of a great number of Americans.
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Of course, the noisiness of the city was recognized well before the late nineteenth century. In Tobias Smollett's The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker (1771), for instance, Matthew Bramble already complains about the roar of eighteenth-century London:
At the time of Smollett's writing, a great number of inventions were made that further changed the soundscape of the city. To name but a few: iron wheels for coal cars were introduced in 1755, the reverberatory furnace in 1776, the steam engine became the prime mover in the 1780s, the steamboat was invented in 1781, the threshing machine in 1788 and the hydraulic press in 1796. Schafer summarizes these changes as follows: "The principal technological changes which affected the soundscape included the use of new metals such as cast iron and steel as well as new energy sources such as coal and steam" (1977: 71). The quality of the world soundscape was forever changed when technological noises entered the scene. The noises of industry continued to proliferate throughout the nineteenth century: The steam-powered printing press was invented in 1811, the first railway was opened for public use in 1825, the machine gun was invented in 1862, the internal combustion engine in 1892. By the time Norris's McTeague(1899) is written, the noises of civilization have penetrated far into the Western wilderness. An acoustic onslaught of literally monstrous proportions tears apart the "vast silence" (423) of the Californian desert to which McTeague flees after he has killed his wife:
With the advent of electricity in the second industrial revolution, a further, qualitatively different source of noise was added: "The Electric Revolution extended many of the themes of the Industrial Revolution and added some new effects of its own. Owing to the increased transmission speed of electricity, the flat-line effect was extended to give the pitched tone, thus harmonizing the world on center frequencies of 25 and 40, then 50 and 60 cycles per second" (Schafer 1977: 88). Flat-line sounds are characteristic of machines and were already introduced in the first industrial revolution.6 Examples would be the clatter of the weaving machine, the drone of the generator, the "corundum burr in McTeague's [dental] engine humm[ing] in a prolonged monotone" (21) or the "nightly whine" (74) of the street-lamps registered in Crane's "Monster." Due to their repetitiveness and uniformity, such sounds are more redundant and predictable and therefore less informative than other sounds. Now, with the introduction of electricity, the acceleration of sound was added to the acceleration of life.
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Authors writing at or near the turn of the century document the auditory dimension of their fictional worlds in detail and often link these descriptions with an attentiveness to the processes of technological, scientific and social change we call urbanization and industrialization. However, many, in fact most of the noises realist texts register do not originate in a technological source. The noise in Maggie's entertainment halls, the whispered indiscretions at social gatherings in A Hazard of New Fortunes or the barking of the dogs in McTeague are all not produced by the machines of the industrial revolutions and seem to have little to do with the process of modernization. Nevertheless, the kinds of noise characters perceive and the kinds of noises they make appear within and are partly shaped by an acoustic environment that has been drastically altered by the progress of modernity. If, for instance, we read that Carrie still has "the roll of cushioned carriages [ ] in her ears" (Sister Carrie, 166) when returning from a tour of the more prosperous neighborhoods, we should be aware that the very possibility of this aural experience cannot be taken for granted and is not available to all inhabitants of an urban industrial soundscape. Likewise, when Jimmie Johnson yells at pedestrians from the height of his "large rattling truck" (Maggie, 14), he does so above the din of the city streets. In many cases, therefore, the representation of noise in realist texts gives us a clue as to the nature of a text's comment on the acoustic as well as social condition of American modernity. Rather than trying to reduce literary realism to a reflection or even result of certain historical processes, I want to analyze the ways in which literary discourse and its acoustic worlds interact, comment on and become part of these processes. In doing this, I will be particularly interested in the different degrees to which the noises these texts register are contained. Strategies of containment can often be deduced from the ways in which authors negotiate between different social worlds and the characters inhabiting these worlds. Both characters and narrators may comment on viewpoints different from their own and thus provide a reader guidance that does the work of containment for diverging viewpoints. In other cases, as in Crane, the noises of industrialization and social discontent, or the problems involved in the representation of noise itself, may thwart all attempts at containment and infiltrate the formal organization of narratives in ways that anticipate modernist concerns.7
3 The Noises of Crane and Howells
Of course, not everyone was equally affected by the noises of modernity, and realist fiction is particularly alert to the differences. Upon entering the underclass hell of Crane's Maggie, the reader encounters a radically different acoustic panorama than the one laid out in the largely middle-class world of Howells's A Hazard of New Fortunes. Maggie already begins with an uproar. As little Jimmie is throwing stones at the Devil's Row children and defies an ally's warning words with "a valiant roar," the infuriated crowd ejects "[h]owls of renewed wrath" and "curse[s] in shrill chorus." The clamor continues with the little boys "swearing in barbaric treble" (3) until a stone hits Jimmie's mouth, which causes his "roaring curses of the first part of the battle" to change to "a blasphemous chatter" (4). As Jimmie is silenced, the crowd rejoices: "In the yells of the whirling mob of Devil's Row children there were notes of joy like songs of triumphant savagery." The crowd falls upon defeated Jimmie, who is now reduced to "the shrieking and tearful child from Rum Alley" (4). As the reader enters the world of Crane's Maggie, she enters an oppressively dense web of screaming, cursing, groaning and wailing. Jimmie is finally dragged home by his father, where a mad, drunken mother screams at and abuses the rest of the family. Home grants reprieve from neither the violence nor the noise. As Jimmie flees from his mother's rage to an elderly neighbor, they can still hear its force through the thin walls of the tenement building and intermingled with the other noises of the night weighing down on Maggie and the infant Tommie:
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Much of the oppressiveness of Maggie's mother's weeping and yelling derives from its constant presence. In R. Murray Schafer's terms, Mary Johnson's fierce noises do not possess the quality of discrete, isolated sound signals but have become keynote sounds of Maggie's existence. Schafer defines keynote sounds as sounds "which are heard by a particular society continuously or frequently enough to form a background against which other sounds are perceived (1977: 272). As such, they "help to outline the character of men living among them" (9). Expanding Schafer's concept to cover the sounds an individual is exposed to, we may say that Maggie documents how violently discordant sounds become pathogenic once they acquire the permanence of keynote sounds. Maggie never escapes the noise, there is no silent sanctuary, no hiding place from it in the Bowery of Crane's New York. When she is not exposed to her mother's senseless rage, her constant "raving" (26), "cursing trebles" (29) and "maddened whirl of oaths" (33), she works at the shirt factory, where another "whirl of noises and odors" (26) awaits her. The "turmoil and tumble of down-town streets" (14) and the "rattling avenues" (53) of the Bowery present the same dissonance to Maggie's ears. She remains trapped in the acoustic hell of the poorest and noisiest parts of an American metropolis that finds itself at the forefront of industrialization. While Crane's text focuses more on the noises of domestic violence than those arising from the city streets or factory machines, it draws a compelling panorama of the industrial city as the ultimate lo-fi soundscape, which not only alienates and isolates people from each other but also forces them to raise their voice so as to be heard above the clatter of the streets and the factory drone.8 Crane's narrator continues to expose the ludicrousness of not only Maggie's boundless admiration for the obtuse Pete but also her "dim thoughts" about "far away lands where, as God says, the little hills sing together in the morning" (19).
The places she actually does escape to together with Pete, the entertainment halls, are among the loudest spaces in Crane's acoustic world. Maggie's initial acoustic impressions on their first visit to one of these halls are pleasant enough. Maggie registers nothing but "a low rumble of conversation and a subdued clinking of glasses" (22) and correspondingly feels transported into a world of "high-class customs" (23). Her blatant misapprehension of the situation is not perturbed when "half tipsy men near the stage joined in the [female singer's] rollicking refrain and glasses were pounded rhythmically upon the tables" (23). The boisterous entertainment is a welcome diversion that helps her forget for a moment the misery of her existence: "She drew deep breaths of pleasure. No thoughts of the atmosphere of the collar and cuff factory came to her" (25). While Maggie's simplicity and gratefulness for everything Pete has to offer largely prevent her from perceiving either the continuities in the acoustic environment of the halls and that of the factory or the decrepitude of the spectacle Pete exposes her to, Crane's dissonant narrator makes sure the reader notices it. In some passages, Crane's attempts to indicate the narrator's ironic distance to Maggie's perceptions are overdone: "[Pete] could appear to strut even while sitting still and he showed that he was a lion of lordly characteristics by the air with which he spat" (40). Crane is more subtle in other passages. In his description of a melodrama performance, the narrator conveys both his sympathy for the audience's empathic response to characters who share its plight and a sense of the inappropriateness of that response, whose vocal partisanship jeopardizes the unfolding of even the most simple plot as it drowns out the villains' speeches:
As the narrative progresses, Pete takes Maggie to increasingly louder and cheaper places. Crane conveys much of the rawness of the spectacle catered to the poor by the noises of the audience. At a later performance, we again encounter the crowd of "men seated at the tables near the front applaud[ing] loudly, pounding the polished wood with their beer glasses." (39).
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But now their clamor rises to a "deafening rumble of glasses and clapping of hands" (39) as the female ballad singer disposes of another layer of clothing. Just as Hurstwood's downfall is documented by his move to ever-shabbier apartments, Maggie's is by the progression of ever-dingier halls. To Crane's discerning ears, not much has changed since the first industrial revolution in the second half of the eighteenth century, when "[w]orkers lived in squalid quarters near the factories, cut off from the countryside, with almost no recreational facilities except the public houses; and these, if we accept the evidence of numerous earwitnesses, became centers of much greater noise and rowdiness during the eighteenth century than before" (Schafer 1977: 72). At the end of the line, we find Pete and Maggie in the midst of a cacophony of poor music, drunken laughter and shouted oaths:
It is with these deafening noises in the background that Pete finally abandons Maggie for another girl and leaves her to the miserable existence of a 'fallen woman,' despised by all and rejected by her own family.
Noise does not disappear when we turn our attention to the New York of Howells's A Hazard of New Fortunes. But the quality of noise changes perceptibly as we enter a different social sphere. In the Marches' favorite haunts there is "no noise and not much smoking" (257). In fact, the kind of noise that is registered most frequently by Howells's characters is the noise of laughter, whether it is Miss Woodburn's "cry of laughter" (178), the Dryfoos girls' "nervous giggling" (195) or Fulkerson's "roar of laughter" (293).9 This laughter may not always be sincere or heartfelt and sometimes works at the expense of others, as is the case with the "victorious laugh" (334) Alma Leighton has for Beaton, but it is certainly a more pleasant sound than Maggie's drunken mother's ranting and raving. Even bitter, poor Lindau occasionally "thr[ows] back his great old head and laugh[s]" (289). In Howells, some infants "babbl[e]" with "voluble pertness" (15) while others "cr[y] in their weary mothers' or little sisters' arms" (257). In Crane there is only the constant, agonizing "bawling" and "roaring" (6) of Maggie's badly mistreated and soon-to-be-dead baby brother Tommie. Howells, too, registers the "dazzle and bustle" (47), "the rattle and clatter" (387) of New York's streets, but most of his characters have the means to escape it, as the Marches do when they take a room in "a quiet hotel downtown" upon arrival in New York: "The uproar of the city came to it in a soothing murmur, and they took possession of its peace and comfort with open celebration" (36). In a city like New York, silence is for those who can afford it, for parents whose children are "preparing for Harvard" (15), as Basil and Isabel March's son is. As Fulkerson points out, silence is also an important asset of March's new workspace: "You'll have it quiet from the street noises here" (84). With most actions in A Hazard of New Fortunes filtered through Basil March's consciousness, it is no surprise that Howells's novel registers far less noise than Maggie.
The decorum of social gatherings in Howells expresses itself as much in the topics of conversation, the occasional French phrase thrown in or splendor of dress as in the subdued character of the sounds that can be heard. As we turn from Crane to Howells, the racket of the hilarious halls gives way to Mrs. Horn's musicale, where everyone "seemed so attentive" (231) and where the host may perhaps be heard "sigh[ing] a little" when she is not engaged in answering questions "in her murmur" (237). When Beaton at Mrs. Vance's reception complains that "this turmoil of coming and going, this bubble and babble, this cackling and hissing of conversation [is] not the expression of any such civilization as had created the salon" (210), the noises he registers and disapproves of are still acoustic worlds apart from the deafening roar of Crane's halls. This becomes especially obvious when the Dryfoos girls burst in upon the scene of Mrs. Horn's musicale. Much of their ineptitude at this social occasion is due to the volume of their talk and laughter.
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Mrs. Horn's regret at having invited them and Isabel March's stern judgment of "those stupid, vulgar people" (239) derives as much from Christine's arrogance and bad manners as from the inappropriateness of Mela "let[ting] her hoarse voice out in her largest laugh" (232) or "sending out her laugh in deep gurgles" (235). Mela's noisy exuberance is as conspicuous and more misplaced at Mrs. Horn's soirée than McTeague's "roar[ing] and shout[ing]" and "slapping his knees" (100) is at the spectacle he attends with Trina and his prospective parents-in-law.
Two preliminary conclusions can be drawn from this comparison of Maggie and A Hazard of New Fortunes. First, the stark differences between their acoustic worlds are to a large degree determined by the different social spheres they portray. Second, Howells's focus on mostly middle- and upper-class social spaces and characters (and therefore middle- and upper-class perspectives) largely precludes an awareness of the manifestly deleterious effect of what is commonly referred to as the 'chaos of sense perceptions' on a large section of the urban population. We should acknowledge at this point that Howells does, through the figures of Lindau and Colonel Woodburn, give expression to divergent viewpoints and that he does, especially with the Bowery, investigate different social spheres than those of the Dryfooses and the Marches. Daniel Borus echoes many critics, including Howells himself, when he links the staging of working-class perspectives in realist novels to a political project of democratization:
Moreover, we cannot blame Howells just for choosing to focus primarily on middle-class experience. The debates surrounding his political position within the literary and cultural systems of his time cannot be resolved that easily, and we will have to ask later on how Howells negotiates between different social spheres and perspectives. However, it is equally clear that his choice of characters and viewpoints does have strongly political implications in a novel that was published in the same year as Jacob Riis's How the Other Half Lives (1890) and four years after the first English publication of Marx's Capital.10 We will postpone our discussion of the political impact of Howells's writing for a while and note that Howells's detractors clearly attributed political significance to his choices when they declaimed, as Sinclair Lewis did in his 1930 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, that "he had the code of a pious old maid whose greatest delight was to have tea at the vicarage" (Lewis 1970: 307).
What distinguishes the forms of entertainment portrayed in Maggie from those of a text like A Hazard of New Fortunes from an acoustic point of view is not only the greater intensity of their noises but also a greater continuity between the acoustic world of entertainment and that of other social spaces. In Maggie, the noise of the streets and the factory and the endless fracas of the Johnson household are carried directly over into the dreary halls. Entertainment may provide temporary relief for Maggie's troubled mind but grants no reprieve to her ears. Howells's silent sanctuaries hardly exist in Crane's fictional universe. And if they do, toward the end of the text, Maggie is not granted access. It might be argued that, in the world of entertainment, noise is an essential component and may be among the chief sources of attraction. We can already see something of this in Maggie, where Crane's representation of the clamor produced by both the performers and the audience not only serves to indicate the shabbiness of the spectacle on offer but also helps explain some of its allure. As George explains his reason for going to the pub in Donald Howarth's A Lily in Little India: "It's not beer I go for. [ ] I go for the noise" (Howarth 1966: 39). 11 However, a comparison of the fictional worlds of entertainment in Maggie and Sister Carrie will serve to reinforce the idea that different types of entertainment with different acoustics are associated with different social classes.
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4 The Noises of Dreiser
In Dreiser, Carrie's plans to attend the performance of a melodrama shortly after her arrival in Chicago are met with Sven Hanson's stern censure because they do not accord with the austerity of his working-class outlook on life. For the Hansons, theater is a frivolity indulged in by the rich. Their disapproval initiates a narrative dynamism in which Carrie's fascination with the world of entertainment is firmly inscribed by her social aspirations. Accordingly, we find Carrie and Drouet at an opera performance whose "color and grace [catches] her eye" (77) soon after Carrie has left the narrowness of the Hanson household for Drouet's apartment and money. While the halls of Crane's Maggie are part of the economy of want Maggie is caught in, the world of entertainment in Sister Carrie is associated with the economy of prosperity and success Carrie strives to enter. Had Maggie not been written before Sister Carrie, Maggie's descent into progressively poorer halls could be read as a parodic inversion of Carrie's rise to fame on the stage. Drouet tragically misrecognizes this when he provides Carrie with her first part in a play. Anxious to please his social superiors, Drouet's promise to come up with an actress for the play organized by the Black Elk Lodge fuels Carrie's ambitions and accelerates her estrangement from him rather than advancing his own career: "The independence of success now made its first faint showing" (193). Appropriately, several of the scenes that document their growing alienation occur within the context of theatrical performances. The irony involved in Drouet's judgment of a cuckolded character in a play attended by himself, Carrie and Hurstwood is not lost on the latter two, whose affair has been going on for some time. Says Drouet, "Served him right. [ ] a man ought to be more attentive than that to his wife if he wants to keep her" (139). In a later scene, Drouet's lack of support for Carrie's first performance compares badly with Hurstwood's enthusiasm: "She felt his indifference keenly and longed to see Hurstwood. It was as if that worthy were now the only friend she had on earth" (171). To Carrie, Hurstwood is worthy in several senses of the word, and as she gains access to the world of theater she not only gains access to Hurstwood's heart but also accumulates some of the cultural capital she needs to become more truly worthy of Hurstwood's social sphere, of the "merchants and well-positioned individuals" (173) that make up the play's audience. Theater, in short, becomes associated with the possibility of a more prosperous lifestyle. This pattern repeats itself later in the narrative when Carrie leaves a rapidly deteriorating Hurstwood behind to pursue her (highly successful) theater career. In New York, the stage becomes for Carrie what she has always wanted it to be: "a door through which she might enter that gilded state which she ha[s] so much craved" (377). The theatre's "atmosphere of carriages, flowers, refinement" (177) has been exerting its mighty spell on Carrie since the night of her first performance, where it was reflected in and reinforced by an acoustic ambience that is far removed from the drunken roar of Crane's halls: "It was thus that the little theatre resounded to a babble of successful voices, the creak of fine clothes, the commonplace of good nature" (180). The performance begins with a "soft curtain-raising strain" (180f.) that quickly reduces the spectators' talk to "a whisper" (181). Along with the other members of the audience, Drouet "[holds] out silently" (182) when the play starts off as a disaster. In stark contrast to the rising crescendo of noises in Crane's halls, the play's acoustics become even more subdued as the melodrama unfolds and the actors' performances improve. Carrie's "quality of voice and manner" now begins to resemble "a pathetic strain of music" (189) until it is in "harmony with the plaintive melody [ ] issuing from the orchestra" (192).
As many critics of the novel have noted, there is a constant tension in Sister Carrie between the sentimental language Carrie's longings are framed in and the realistic portrayal of social conditions in the narration of Hurstwood's downfall. Amy Kaplan (1988: 140-160) neither agrees with commentators like Donald Pizer (1976) or Daryl Dance (1970), who tend to regard the novel's sentimentalist streak as an infelicitous or parodically undermined aberration from a more serious realist project, nor does she join a more recent critic like Walter Benn Michaels in stressing the novel's sentimentalism while maintaining that "[r]ealism in Sister Carrie is the literature only of exhausted desire and economic failure (Michaels 1987: 46). Instead, Kaplan argues that "the critical opposition associating sentimentalism with consumption and desire, and realism with work and deprivation, is already generated by the narrative strategies of Sister Carrie, as a way of managing the contradictions of a burgeoning consumer society" (1988: 143).
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Kaplan notes how the novel's sentimentalism is firmly inscribed by consumerist ideology and embarks on an investigation of the text's "sentimental language of consumption" (146). We encounter this language when Carrie weeps as the piano music reminds her of "those things which she did not have" (Sister Carrie, 102f.), when the old-fashioned term 'worthy' Carrie uses for Hurstwood acquires financial connotations, or when the melancholy melodies of melodrama imbue the spectacle with an atmosphere of prosperity. Carrie's relationships with both Drouet and Hurstwood become vehicles for the (illusory) satisfaction of her sentimental desires for consumption. When Kaplan mentions that Drouet "recasts the melodramatic role of seducer in the appropriate form of the traveling salesman" (145), we might add that Carrie lets herself be bought by Drouet's money in order to escape the drab Hanson household only to be sold again by him as he asks her to perform for the Elk Lodge. By this time, long before the text makes this clear, Carrie herself has become an investment: "She was capital" (447). For Carrie, the economy of consumerist desire runs smoothly, without causing much unnecessary disturbance. As if to emphasize that fact, the text even registers the noiselessness of Drouet's money: "There were some loose bills in his vest pocket greenbacks. They were soft and noiseless and he got his fingers about them and crumpled them up in his hand" (61).
Kaplan goes on to note that the desire for social change Sister Carrie registers almost exhausts itself in the desire to acquire more goods rather than change social conditions.
To my mind, Kaplan's discernment of a "paradoxical sense of stasis" at the center of a novel whose title character keeps yearning for more captures the prevalent mood of the novel better than Walter Benn Michaels's claim that Sister Carrie endorses a capitalist economy of excess and insatiable desire which associates the satisfaction of desire and the possibility of equilibrium with "incipient failure, decay, and finally death" (1987: 42).13 The crucial difference between Kaplan and Michaels is that the former identifies stasis as the paradoxical consequence of Carrie's desire to change by improving her social status, whereas the latter tends to regard desire in capitalism and social stasis as diametrically opposed principles. As a result, Kaplan's reading manages to retain a much stronger sense of the contradictions within Sister Carrie's capitalist economy.
In Michaels's reading, the ideal of equilibrium is based on a precapitalist "economy of scarcity, in which power, happiness and moral virtue are all seen to depend finally on minimizing desire" (35). This ideal, ambivalently represented in the novel by Ames, is mercilessly swept away by capitalism's logic of desire and excess. Hurstwood's downfall and death is precipitated by his failure to adapt quickly enough to the new logic: "Dreiser associates Hurstwood's decline, conventionally enough, with what he calls a "lack of power" , but this lack of power is not a function of Hurstwood's inability to get what he wants, it is a function of his inability to want badly enough" (Michaels 1987: 43). Hurstwood's advice to Carrie to "[s]tick to what you have" (222) belongs to the world of bygone days. Michaels's identification of capitalism with an economy of excess bears striking similarities to Anthony Wilden's systems-theoretic explanation of the differences between medieval and modern economies:
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The crucial difference, however, is that Wilden's text betrays a qualified but nevertheless disturbing nostalgia for a medieval economy in which God acted as the system's internal constraint and guarantor of (healthy) equilibrium. This nostalgia for an equilibrium of the past is entirely absent from both Michaels and Dreiser.
But Michaels's equation of equilibrium and death unwittingly points to a reading more in line with scientific models available at the time of Dreiser's writing. In nineteenth-century thermodynamics, equilibrium is the condition a closed system finds itself in when all its energy has been converted into heat. Equilibrium is the state of maximum entropy at which the system has come to a total standstill. In The Education of Henry Adams, Dreiser's older contemporary Henry Adams, drawing on Hermann von Helmholtz's idea of the 'heat death' (Freese 1997: 99-105), envisioned the universe as subject to this rapid and total dissipation of energy. Yet in Henry Adams's grim vision of the end of the world, the state of equilibrium represented by the heat death is not an alternative to the unrelenting pressing forward of industry and capital. It is its very own end-point. A thermodynamic reading of Sister Carrie would therefore stress that the sense of stasis both Kaplan and Michaels detect in Sister Carrie works towards exposing the threat of stasis within capitalism rather than pointing towards an outdated mode of precapitalist existence. Michaels himself acknowledges this fear at the heart of capitalism when he mentions "the early-nineteenth-century economists' fear of a "stationary state" and the early-twentieth-century Marxist critique of imperialism, what Lenin was to call in 1916 "the highest stage of capitalism" (by which he meant the last stage)" (Michaels 1987: 49f.). Yet Michaels believes this fear is largely exorcised in Sister Carrie. Contrary to Michaels and more in line with Kaplan, I would argue that Dreiser's association of equilibrium with death testifies to the prevalence of the threat of terminal stasis rather than assigning it, along with Hurstwood, to the dustbins of history.
Once we focus on equilibrium as a potentially destructive threat inherent in the progress of capitalism, the question arises what it is that keeps systems from running down to a final stasis. The answer systems theory would provide is: noise. And indeed, the sense of social stasis at the center of the novel is disturbed when a desperate Hurstwood decides to become a strikebreaker and thereby gets involved in the struggle over social conditions. The noises of social discontent erupt as the strikers yell insults at Hurstwood while the policemen who protect him reply in kind. The level of noise increases as the situation aggravates:
Hurstwood eventually gets dragged off the car, beaten and shot at. As a result, Hurstwood decides to abandon his short-lived stint as a 'scab.' It is with respect to the incidents surrounding the strike that my own reading departs most decidedly from both Michaels's and Kaplan's. Kaplan reasons that because the strike fails to have an effect on the principal characters' thoughts and actions (Hurstwood continues his fall into oblivion while Carrie's rise to fame proceeds uninterrupted), it is contained. Contrary to Kaplan, I would argue that it is precisely Carrie's obliviousness to the events and Hurstwood's total lack of understanding that allows social conflict to surface as the disturbance of the principal characters' value systems it really represents. Hurstwood's ignorance exceeds that of the policeman, whose reflections on the role of the police in the strike reveal that "[o]f its true social significance, he never once dreamed. His was not the mind for that (413).14 As the text makes clear, the policemen at least have some prior experience with strikes: "They had been in strikes before" (413). When Hurstwood returns from his involvement in the strike, wounded and exhausted, he washes, sits down in the rocking chair and reads the news about the strike without wasting another thought about his role in it. In my reading, Hurstwood's incomprehension works against and not for narrative containment. With his sentimental rhetoric deeply compromised by the novel's association of sentimental language with consumerist desire, not even the narrator's one moralizing comment about the strikers ("It was the hissing and jeering mob of Christ's time" ) can contain the conflicts enacted by the strike.
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In Sister Carrie, there is no authoritative narrative instance or character to tell the reader how to interpret the strike. It is in the very absence of narrative reintegration that the contradictions of capitalist consumer culture emerge with raw, unmediated force. My reading therefore differs not only from Kaplan's and Michaels's, but also from a reading along the order-from-noise principle as postulated by systems theory. The lack of mediation that characterizes Dreiser's portrayal of the strike's noise prevents its reabsorption into the ideological system of consumerist capitalism. Social conflict is, in other words, not the noise that rejuvenates the system and keeps it from running down. Like the threat of stasis, the threat of social disturbance acts as a reminder of unresolved tensions at the heart of the system.
5 The Noises of Norris
Nevertheless, it remains true that violent social conflict is in Sister Carrie confined to one episode. In Maggie, it enters the domestic sphere and remains at the very center of the narrative. This is reflected in and reinforced by a fictional soundscape that is largely devoid of the more harmonious sounds of Dreiser's world of entertainment. In Maggie and several other naturalist texts, the sheer magnitude of noise has a detrimental effect on characters' minds and bodies as noise becomes part of the violence of their daily lives. These texts explore in much greater detail than either Howells or Dreiser the social and acoustic dissonances of a rapidly changing world. Some of the more violent noises represented in those texts have their source in industrial machines, others emerge from and make themselves heard against the background of the chaos and the din of the industrial age. Rebecca Harding Davis's description of factory noises in her "Life in the Iron-Mills," a text that has elements of the domestic novel but already anticipates naturalist concerns, prefigures the menacing, oppressive force attributed to noise by the likes of Crane and Norris: "[A]s soon as the clock strikes midnight, the great furnaces break forth with renewed fury, the clamor begins with fresh, breathless vigor, the engines sob and shriek like "gods in pain.'" (49). Davis's anthropomorphization lends the same ferocious quality to the noises of industrial machines that Norris would later attribute to the monstrous thunder of the stamp-mill or the constant noises of the collie and the setter barking at each other "in a frenzy of hate" (124).
Violent noises of a different kind enter the relationship between McTeague and Trina as his drunken shouting drowns out and stops her sobbing: "'[S]top that noise. Stop it, do you hear me? Stop it." He threw up his open hand threateningly. "Stop!" he exclaimed" (300). Trina's vocal expression of grief is silenced as McTeague's ferocious bass conquers all available acoustic space. We may take this quite literally since, as Schafer points out, "[t]he definition of space by acoustic means is much more ancient than the establishment of property lines and fences" (1977: 33). The parish is a good example for such an acoustic space, defined by the range within which the church bells can be heard.15 In industrial America, the noises of machines testify to their cultural centrality as they increase in number and intensity, conquering the acoustic space of modernity.16 These noises are reproduced in McTeague's acts of violence. As he beats Trina senseless, we are reminded of the noises of the stamp-mill: "In the schoolroom outside, behind the coal scuttle, the cat listened to the sounds of stamping and struggling and the muffled noise of blows, wildly terrified, his eyes bulging like brass knobs" (375). Trina finally dies "with a rapid series of hiccoughs that soun[d] like a piece of clockwork running down," noises Norris has the cat reproduce after Trina's death: "At times he would draw back and make a strange little clacking noise down in his throat" (378). McTeague, about whom it is said that "[o]ne might as well stop a locomotive [ ] The man is made of iron" (146), is the human equivalent and product of the industrial age.
The more commonly identified subtext of McTeague's ferociousness is of course genetic determinism. The novel abounds in references to dark hereditary traits beyond McTeague's control. The following passage is a case in point:
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But the discourses of industrialization and determinism are not as far apart as one might think initially. June Howard (1985) makes a compelling argument for their intimate relatedness. In their suggestion that the brute does not lurk far below the surface of the man, naturalist narratives evoke not only the specter of biological determinism and with it the fear of regressing to an earlier evolutionary stage, but also the threat of a descent into the lower reaches of the social hierarchy:
The ideology of hereditary determinism recodes rather than replaces the social contradictions of industrial capitalism. Howard goes on to note that the social decline of Hurstwood in Sister Carrie and Maggie in Crane's text follows a similar pattern, though more along the lines of what we might call social rather than hereditary determinism. Howard adds that "[t]he narrative of proletarianization, demonstrating that one can tumble down as well as climb up the social ladder, implicitly proposes a frightening question to the reader: is anyone safe?", but at the same time insists that this threat is contained by the characters' fall "beyond the reach of empathy" (Howard 1985: 101). In the end, Howard argues, the brute is cast out by both the narrative and the reader.
While Howard's arguments certainly make a strong point with regard to the figure of McTeague, I would argue that Maggie and Hurstwood present very different cases. In Crane and Dreiser, the conflation of the discourses of determinism and social decline not only forces the largely middle-class readership to contemplate the existence of social antagonisms but also exposes them to the threat of social deterioration 17 in ways that narrow the protective distance between readers and lower-class characters, which Howells manages to maintain through the figure of March, who never fully abandons his role of voyeuristic spectator of human destitution. I do not agree with Howard's argument that the fatality of events which befall naturalist characters on the downward slope removes readers' empathy for them. The opposite seems true: It appears to be precisely the haphazard nature of their decline that makes us empathize with characters that have lost control over their own destinies. Moreover, it is my contention that few readers will withdraw their sympathies from Maggie or Hurstwood because they have fallen so low. Again, the reverse seems closer to the truth. Maggie's, Hurstwood's, and even Trina's fates continue to enlist our sympathies at the same time as they remind us of the contradictions within industrial capitalism and its consumerist variety. If Sister Carrie is the romance of money, Hurstwood's downfall threatens to subvert that romance while Trina's sexually charged avarice in McTeague registers its perversion.
As for Norris's Trina, the brutality and noise of domestic violence is for the greater part of her life also at the center of Maggie's existence. Witness Jimmie's perception of it as he is forced to return to his family's apartment after his own father has stolen the pail of beer that would have bought him sanctuary in a neighbor's flat:
Such noises are not merely expressions of hatred and rage, they are themselves part of the violence Jimmie, Maggie and Tommie have to endure. When a grown-up Jimmie and his companion challenge Pete to a brawl over Maggie's honor, the fight does not begin when Pete launches the first blow but when the allied two begin to "laugh in his face," when Jimmie "snarl[s] like a wild animal" and when they answer Pete "with copious sneers" (36f.). The boundaries between provocation, intimidation and violence get blurred as the combatants' noises anticipate, contribute to and become part of the violence of the fight: "The breaths of the fighters came wheezingly from their lips and the three chests were straining and heaving. Pete at intervals gave vent to low, labored hisses, that sounded like a desire to kill. Jimmie's ally gibbered at times like a wounded maniac" (38).
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6 Divisions within the Urban Soundscape
As McTeague and Maggie repeatedly emphasize, noise may be of such intensity that it turns into auditory torment. 18 Norris's and Crane's representations of acoustic violence are the most exemplary markers of the differences between their soundscapes and those of Howells's A Hazard of New Fortunes. Yet divisions along the lines of class, race and gender do not only distinguish one author's acoustic world from another's; they also separate the acoustic worlds of individual texts into different soundscapes. R. Murray Schafer's reticence about interrogating the links between social class and exposure to noise is especially surprising because he draws much of his information about past soundscapes from literary sources. This absence becomes particularly conspicuous when he quotes a passage from Dickens's Hard Times (1854), a novel which to all intents and purposes cries out for a reading along the line of social class:
Yet Schafer only notes the text's awareness of the obnoxiousness of machine noises. The reason for Schafer's neglect of class issues might lie in his humanist outlook, which surfaces most perceptibly in his pronounced distaste for a technocratic world he perceives as dehumanizing. His huge utopian project of redesigning the world soundscape does take into account cultural differences as it traces changes in the acoustic environment all over the planet. Yet its underlying vision of humanity as working toward shared goals in a rational, benign manner most forcefully expressed in his conviction that educational authorities will sooner or later perceive the value of introducing so-called ear-cleaning exercises 19 in schools does not allow for much reflection on the fact that those who have the power to make decisions that will decrease the quality of the soundscape (high-ranking municipal and federal officials, airport authorities, CEOs of corporations in the industrial sector) might be the ones that are least likely to be affected by those changes because they can afford to live in areas far removed from airports, highway intersections and centers of industrial production. Schafer's valuable and often ear-opening account of some of the atrocities of the modern urban acoustic environment would have profited from a greater awareness of social divisions within the urban soundscape.20
Bruce Smith attempts to fill this gap in his fascinating study on The Acoustic World of Early Modern England (1999). Intent on investigating the "political geography of sound" of Elizabethan England, Smith provides a welter of examples for acoustic divisions with clear political and social implications. Contrasting the account given by Robert Langham, an aural witness, with the official account given in The Princely Pleasures at the Court at Kenilworth (1576), Smith discusses the striking differences between the acoustic qualities of the royal amusements inside Kenilworth Castle in July 1575 and the noises of dancing, singing and drinking produced by the inhabitants of Warwickshire celebrating the queen's presence outside the castle's walls:
Realist writers recognize similar divisions. The realist city is not a unified whole but a space in which different kinds and intensities of noise are produced and heard in different places. Thus, the realist city and its soundscapes become, in Amy Kaplan's words, "a spatial metonymy for the elusive process of social change" (1988: 44). For instance, the noisy halls Maggie and Pete frequent are not the sole places of entertainment portrayed in Crane's text. When Maggie, abandoned by Pete and denied by her family, resorts to prostitution toward the end of the narrative, she knows she will not find her customers among the affluent and hurries by their theatres. Some of the theatres are just closing, releasing a noisy crowd into the streets:
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In a move that is reminiscent of Langham's description referred to above, Crane divides fictional space into a silent inside and a noisy outside, and it is clear that Maggie has never gained and will never gain access to the inside.21 The very contrast outlined here has been absent from Maggie's own, noisy world all along. Now, walking the streets as a "girl of the painted cohorts of the city" (54), her auditory sensorium registers a mere glimpse of the inside: "A concert hall gave to the street faint sounds of swift machinelike music, as if a group of phantom musicians were hastening" (55). As Crane repeats twice, these theatres are what the boisterous entertainment halls could never fully be to Maggie; they are "places of forgetfulness" (54). As Maggie hastens by the cheerful crowd and turns "into darker blocks than those where the crowd travelled" (55), she enters a soundscape devoid of the more pleasant sounds she has just witnessed. Maggie and the reader are back in the drunken, noisy atmosphere of destitution: "A drunken man, reeling in her pathway, began to roar at her. "I ain' ga no money, dammit," he shouted, in a dismal voice" (55). In this environment, the subdued sounds of the theatres again give way to the loud noises of the saloons that are patronized by Maggie's potential customers: "In front of one of these places, whence came the sound of a violin vigorously scraped, the patter of feet on boards and the ring of loud laughter, there stood a man with blotched features" (55f.).
7 Containing the Noise
Howells's A Hazard of New Fortunes presents the reader with an equally divided acoustic world. Yet the way Howells negotiates between different acoustic spheres is very different from Crane, and a recognition of those differences will allow us to reflect on the politics of Howells's representations of noise in more detail. As Basil March wanders the streets of New York, he marvels at the city's apparent disinterestedness in the horse car drivers' strike that fills the "noisy typography" (367) of the newspapers' front pages:
What March notices is the silence that results from the absence of the cars' noises rather than the noises of the strike itself. The city's apparent indifference is March's own, and the quietness he perceives is not so much the silence of New York as the silence of his New York, the more affluent East Side whose quiet is interrupted only by the noises of the elevated trains (this is one of the rare instances in which Howells's text registers the noise of trains). In the analogy March draws between the strike and rumors of fighting in the Indian wars, he not only expresses his disbelief that a strike is actually taking place for a moment he is led to attribute it to "mere newspaper exaggerations in the absence of any disturbance" (359) but also reinforces both the remoteness and 'otherness' of the city's turmoil. Moreover, his historical comparison of the present situation with the Florence of the Medicis constitutes one of the many cultural references that allows him to maintain "his character of philosophical observer" (360) rather than entering the fray. As he reasons a little earlier, he is a man who "can philosophize the situation about as well from the papers" (356f.). Until he is suddenly drawn into the fracas himself, March ponders on different degrees of silence ("not very noticeable," "not noticeable at all," "same quiet aspect") while violent noises erupt on the West Side as the strike turns into a riot:
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Howells's juxtaposition of March's philosophizing a policeman's "surly glance" only gives him "a fine sense of the ferocity which he had read of the French troops putting on toward the populace just before the coup d'état" (359f.) with the chaos and violence of the riot may well be read as a critical comment on the complacency of the literary class. However, the stinging sarcasm of Dreiser, who has Carrie read Balzac and worry about the poor while Hurstwood is on the way to killing himself, or the raw parody of melodramatic reconciliation and (utterly inappropriate) middle-class morality at the end of Crane's Maggie are absent from Howells.22
True, several passages can be read as indicating Howells's ironic distance to March's point of view. Particularly the character's proneness to aestheticization is a constant target of Howellsian irony. A case in point is the scene in which March enters the "shapeless, graceless, reckless picturesqueness of the Bowery" (159) which is where Crane's Maggie lives out her days and Dreiser's Hurstwood finally gasses himself:
The fact that poverty literally shrieks at him does not deter March from aestheticizing what he hears and sees. His misrepresentation of the plight of the urban poor is too blatant to be taken at face value: "March understood the unwillingness of the poor to leave the worst conditions in the city for comfort and plenty in the country when he reflected upon this dramatic incident, one of many no doubt which daily occur to entertain them in such streets" (162). Howells's repeated denunciations of artistry, literary style and embellishment in favor of a hard and 'manly' realism (Bell 1993: 17-38) would further support an ironic reading of March's strategies of containment. Yet even if grant this irony, it at best hints at the endearing foolishness of some of March's interpretive gestures rather than subverting his genteel assessment of poverty. Lindau's explanation of why he chooses to live in poverty rings true compared to March's genteel deliberations on human destitution, but it never acquires the status of a genuine alternative: "you must zee it all the dtime zee it, hear it, smell it, dtaste it or you forget it" (165).
March clearly remains the privileged consciousness of A Hazard of New Fortunes. Precisely because March is not the novel's hero in any traditional sense and despite Howells's avowed disbelief in heroes, Eric Sundquist's deliberations on the only partial absence of heroes in realist fiction remain valid with regard to March: "it raises important questions about the character of the hero in realistic fiction with respect to the role he performs, the space he can dominate, and the value or authority he is meant to have as the representative embodiment of certain cultural and social values" (Sundquist 1982: 19). While the fact that March shares one of Howells's occupations as editor of a literary magazine should not lead us to simply equate their views,23 Howells does sanction most of March's thoughts and actions by measuring those of other characters against his. March's refinement, his moderate views and his however qualified return to a Christian system of values during Lindau and Conrad's funeral ("somehow, somewhere the order of loving kindness, which our passion or our willfulness had disturbed, will be restored" ) always contrast favorably with Fulkerson's superficiality, Beaton's selfishness, Conrad's youthful pathos, Dryfoos's vulgar capitalism or Lindau's socialism.
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The latter two present the major challenges to March's own constructions of reality. As the novel progresses, his own middle-class consciousness defines and refines itself in a constant dialogue with these divergent ways of reading the world. March's thoughts and actions come to embody what Amy Kaplan defines as a central concern of realist fiction: "[The] realism that develops in American fiction in the 1880s and 1890s is not a seamless package of a triumphant bourgeois mythology but an anxious and contradictory mode which both articulates and combats the growing sense of unreality at the heart of middle-class life" (1988: 9).
However, in reading A Hazard of New Fortunes, we must not overemphasize March's uncertainties, anxieties and hesitations to the degree that his role as the moral and political arbiter at the center of the narrative becomes obscured. When Kaplan defines containment as one of the fundamental strategies of realist writing, we need to be aware that March is the central agent of that containment: "The major work of the realistic narrative is to construct a homogeneous and coherent social reality by conquering the fictional qualities of middle-class life and by controlling the specter of class conflict which threatens to puncture this vision of a unified social totality [ ] Howells thus envisioned realism as a strategy for containing social differences and controlling social conflict within a cohesive common ground" (1988: 21; 23). Bearing in mind that Howells has Lindau killed and Dryfoos sailing off to Europe, we might hazard the stronger claim that Howellsian realism not only contains or controls but eliminates the specter of social conflict from view. But while important aspects of Dryfoos's ideology are integrated into the system as March and Fulkerson themselves assume Dryfoos's role as they become the magazine's proprietors,24 Lindau's noise is too radically different to be integrated into the middle-class value scheme the novel affirms, and it is therefore rejected by March, its principal representative. While Sundquist may be correct in arguing that Leo Bersani's observations on the French realist novel only partially apply to the American literary scene, Bersani's remarks certainly hold true for Howells's treatment of socialism in the figure of Lindau: "This literary form depends, for its very existence, on the annihilation or, at the very least the immobilizing containment of anarchic impulses" (Bersani 1976: 67; qtd. in Sundquist 1982: 20).
I therefore do not agree with Brook Thomas's definition of literary realism as presenting a fictional world that is ordered horizontally rather than vertically. In his assessment, realism lacks a vision of a transcendent moral order that would give readers guidelines as to how to judge fictional characters, and instead presents social facts in a nonhierarchical order, leaving judgment up to the reader. Thomas, who discusses A Hazard of New Fortunes among other realist texts, puts this into the language of contract:
Contrary to Thomas, I am arguing that in Howells political and moral values are often ordered on a vertical scale. In his writings for the "Editor's Study" column at least, Howells leaves no doubt about the author's duty to give his readers moral guidance:
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While I would agree that we should base our judgments on Howells's literary writings rather than his editorial pronouncements, a novel like A Hazard of New Fortunes does not call for a fundamentally different assessment. If, for instance, Thomas claims that March's assertions of aesthetic independence against Dryfoos's interferences with the magazine's organization presents only one point of view among many, and that these different viewpoints are "not based on a set of first principles that will help readers adjudicate among competing points of view" (1997: 278), he fails to recognize that March's point of view is privileged throughout the novel. The fact that Howells, who is in this respect more 'modern' than Dreiser, dispenses with a moralizing narrator does not entail the disappearance of moral guidance. This becomes especially clear when the novel stages social conflict. While Thomas is of course correct in stating that Howells "indicate[s] the inadequacy of March's point of view to give guidelines for preventing the violence of the book's strike" (278), Thomas's argument neglects the fact that March's point of view prevails as he is given the last word on the strike. Basil March teaches his son a clear-cut moral lesson when he explains to him that "men like Lindau, who renounce the American means as hopeless and let their love of justice hurry them into sympathy with violence, yes, they are wrong; and poor Lindau did die in a bad cause, as you say, Tom" (393). It is interesting to note here that March attributes acts of violence to Lindau, who never committed them, rather than to the police whose clubbing of the strikers eventually leads to Lindau's death.25 It looks as if Howells confused the fictional events of his novel with those of the Haymarket riot of 1886, in which protesters did throw a bomb at the police. Howells's neutralization of Lindau by March is all the more surprising if we take into account that Howells took a courageously unpopular stand with regard to the Haymarket incident by insisting that the anarchists be given a fair trial (Kaplan 1988: 46). Howells's fictional treatment of social conflict is far more timid: while March's pronouncement may be hard to stomach for most readers, there is no indication that Howells distances himself from it. In fact, Howells qualifies March's judgment as moderate and just by setting it off against the "ancestral Puritanism" (392) of his wife's harsh condemnation of both Dryfoos and Lindau. What Winfried Fluck (1997: 269f.) identifies as the central conflict of Howellsian realism the difficulty of maintaining the precarious balance between accepting the reader as an equal dialogic partner who draws his own conclusions and makes his own judgments about a changing American society as he is confronted with differing viewpoints in the work of fiction (this is essentially Thomas's argument and refines Howells's own identification of realism as democratic practice) and providing enough reader guidance to ensure that the dialogue about society that arises from the reader's confrontation with divergent perspectives is not hampered by the reader's failure to draw the right conclusions is here resolved all too readily in favor of the latter strategy. Howells was quite rightly afraid that killing off Lindau toward the end of the narrative might evoke the reader's pity and anger at an unjust society rather than reinforce the idea that it was Lindau's excessively radical politics that sealed his fate. March's moralizing comments serve Howells to drive home the latter point. Fluck's placement of the realist project in a tension between the values of the gentry and those of the rising middle-class (1997: 257) further helps explain why not only Isabel March's occasionally upflaring religious zealotry and Dryfoos's unbridled capitalism (itself in tension with his wife Elizabeth's Puritanism) but also Lindau's working-class perspective are not allowed to occupy center stage.
In her excellent reading of A Hazard of New Fortunes, Amy Kaplan (1988: 44-64) addresses the question of the negotiation between conflicting viewpoints in ways that I find far more convincing than those suggested by either Fluck's or Thomas's concept of realism. In her interpretation of the novel, Kaplan focuses on the importance of 'knowing the line' in Howells's New York. Kaplan takes her cue from a passage in the flat-hunting chapters in which the Marches' anxiety to discover "the line at which respectability distinguishes itself from shabbiness" (Hazard, 51) is described. In Kaplan's reading, 'to know the line' describes not only the Marches' attempt to define themselves against the urban poor as they try to secure a physical as well as mental space within the city, but also Howells's representational strategy. As Kaplan points out, the boundaries both March and Howells draw relegate what lies on the other side of the line, poverty and its potential for social conflict, to the category of "useless information," which the Marches acquire, to Basil's dismay, "in a degree unequaled in their experience" (Hazard, 51) during the flat-hunting episodes.
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As Kaplan summarizes, "The entire novel can be read as an escalating struggle between "the knowledge of the line" and the "acquisition of useless information" [
]. "The line" divides the city into two separate but unequal camps and veils the antagonism between them so that the social nature of this division fades from view" (1988: 52f.). In Kaplan's reading, Lindau's socialism is a disturbing presence because it crosses the line, disrupting the precarious community of middle-class characters and interests at the center of the narrative. The first disruption occurs as Lindau challenges Dryfoos's ruthless capitalism at the banquet organized by Fulkerson. But this is only a prelude to the strike towards the end of novel, which erases the boundary lines as it kills two of the novel's characters.
While I would agree with Kaplan that Lindau's socialism and the representation of the strike threaten to shatter both March's and Howells's strategies of containment, I agree with neither her assertion that the ending of the novel demonstrates the impossibility of reconciliation nor her argument that "Howells undercuts the strategy of framing narrative excess within the limits of moral commentary" (1988: 62). In keeping with Howells's political timidity, Lindau's noise is successfully silenced in two respects. Howells not only juxtaposes March's far more moderate views to Lindau's, which amounts to a containment of Lindau's socialist diatribes by the novel's privileged consciousness, but, perversely, makes his death a vehicle for Jacob Dryfoos's moral regeneration. The values propagated by Dryfoos are likewise contrasted with March's own. But while the Dryfooses are allowed to experience "their apotheosis in Europe" (430) after Jacob Dryfoos's atonement an act March qualifies as "hopelessly absurd" (394) but whose "magnanimity," "pathos" and "poetry" (395) nevertheless appeal to him Lindau and his radical ideas are left behind and forgotten for the sake of a thoroughly artificial happy ending. For Kaplan, the very artificiality of that ending demonstrates the impossibility of achieving narrative closure: "Realistic novels have trouble ending because they pose problems they cannot solve, problems that stem from their attempt to imagine and contain social change" (1988: 160). Whether a happy ending actually solves the problems a text raises or fails to do so is up to the individual reader to decide. But the question is not only whether a reader 'buys' the ending or not. While I do not 'buy' the ending either, I would tend to argue that it represents Howells's final if desperate attempt to contain the social conflict the novel enacts. To Howells's contemporary audience, far less accustomed than either Kaplan or myself to the absence of happy endings, the conclusion of A Hazard of New Fortunes certainly appeared more credible and reassuring than it does to us today.26 Therefore, while I find Kaplan's readings of both A Hazard of New Fortunes and Sister Carrie for the most part compelling and a pivotal contribution to the discussion of the social functions of realist texts, I would argue exactly the opposite of Kaplan in comparing Dreiser's staging of social conflict with Howells's: "While the representation of the conflict [in Sister Carrie] is more vivid and detailed than in Hazard, it is also more contained and less threatening¾ as though roped off in a separate sphere" (1988: 155). On the contrary, my argument goes, March's reflections on the strike manage to contain it to a far greater degree than Hurstwood's incomprehension ever could.
Still, Kaplan's argument has direct relevance for our exploration of Howells's soundscapes. If, as Kaplan suggests, 'knowing the line' helps the Marches distinguish between useful and useless information, then the novel's constant association of the poorer parts of the city with noise not only comments on their acoustic characteristics but also on the information value of working-class lives and surroundings for Howells's realist project. In this reading, noise is not only the discordant sound that reduces the quality of life of those exposed to it but also the useless information the Marches locate on the other side of the line. As the system's noise, Lindau's perspective certainly disturbs the smooth exchange of information in middle-class circles the failed banquet is the prime example here but once this noise is, in analogy to its definition in traditional information theory, declared useless, it can be readily excised. The ending of Howells's narrative performs this excision at it enacts the engineer's desire to eliminate the noise that disturbs the signal.
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Adams, Henry (1995): The Education of Henry Adams (1907/1918). Edited and with an introduction by Jean Gooder. London.
Bell, Michael Davitt (1993): The Problem of American Realism: Studies in the Cultural History of a Literary Idea. Chicago and London.
Bersani, Leo (1976): A Future for Astyanax: Character and Desire in Literature. Boston.
Bierce, Ambrose (2000): The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary. Ed. David E. Schultz and S.T. Joshi. Athens.
Borus, Daniel H. (1989): Writing Realism: Howells, James, and Norris in the Mass Market. Chapel Hill and London.
Castells, Manuel (1996): The Rise of the Network Society. Oxford.
Corkin, Stanley (1996): Realism and the Birth of the Modern United States: Cinema, Literature, and Culture. Athens and London.
Crane, Stephen (1986): "The Monster" (1899), in: Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and Other Stories. New York, 65-117.
Crane, Stephen (1986): Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), in: Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and Other Stories. New York, 3-61.
Crane, Stephen (1983): The Red Badge of Courage (1895). New York.
Davis, Rebecca Harding (1996): "Life in the Iron-Mills" (1861), in: Paul Lauter (ed.): The Heath Anthology of American Literaure. Volume 2. Third edition. Boston and New York, 45-70.
Dickens, Charles (1955): Hard Times for These Times (1854). London.
Dreiser, Theodore (1970): Sister Carrie (1900). Ed. Donald Pizer. New York.
Dreiser, Theodore (1995): Sister Carrie (1900). Ed. James L. W. West III and with an introduction by Alfred Kazin. London.
Fluck, Winfried (1997): Das kulturelle Imaginäre: Eine Funktionsgeschichte des amerikanischen Romans 1790-1900. Frankfurt am Main.
Freese, Peter (1997): From Apocalypse to Entropy and Beyond: The Second Law of Thermodynamics in Post-War American Fiction. Essen.
Gelfant, Blanche H (1995): "What More Can Carrie Want? Naturalistic Ways of Consuming Women", in: Donald Pizer (ed.): The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism. Cambridge, 178-210.
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Howard, June (1985): Form and History in American Literary Naturalism. Chapel Hill.
Howarth, Donald (1966): A Lily in Little India, in: New English Dramatists 9. Harmondsworth, 15-74.
Howells, William Dean (1995): A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890). London.
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Kallmann, Helmut, Adam P. Woog and Hildegard Westerkamp (1992): "World Soundscape Project", in: Helmut Kallmann, Gilles Potvin and Kenneth Wintees (eds.): Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Second edition. Toronto, 1424-1425.
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Michaels, Walter Benn (1987). The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism. Berkeley.
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Norris, Frank (1994): Mc Teague: A Story of San Francisco (1899). London.
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Smollett, Tobias (1966): The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker (1771). London.
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Sundquist Eric. J. (1988): "Realism and Regionalism", in: Emory Elliot (ed.): Columbia Literary History of the United States. New York, 501-524.
Thomas, Brook (1997): American Literary Realism and the Failed Promise of Contract. Berkeley.
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Truax, Barry (1984): Acoustic Communication. Norwood.
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1 I gratefully acknowledge the generous financial support of the Swiss National Science Foundation and the Janggen-Pöhn Foundation, which enabled me to write this essay. Their fellowships took me to the University of California, Irvine, where I was kindly received by a remarkable community of scholars. I owe special thanks to Prof. John Carlos Rowe, without whose intellectual rigor and magnanimous support this essay would not have taken its present form. I must also express my gratitude to Prof. Hartwig Isernhagen (University of Basel), whose breadth of intellectual pursuits and sustained interest in the social functions of literature and its institutions continue to inspire my own work.
2 This quote is taken from the entry for 'World Soundscape Project' in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada, which gives a more detailed account of the history of soundscapes studies and provides a useful definition of 'soundscape': "Soundscape is the acoustic manifestation of 'place,' where the sounds give the inhabitants a 'sense of place' and the place's acoustic quality is shaped by the inhabitants' activities and behaviour. The meanings of place and its sounds are created precisely because of this interaction between soundscape and people" (Kallmann/Woog/Westerkamp 1992: 1424). The development of soundscape studies after 1992 can be traced in The Soundscape Newsletter, edited by Hildegard Westerkamp and Emiko Morita and published between August 1991 and December 1995. The newsletter was continued under the title The New Soundscape Newsletter by the Swiss Forum für Klanglandschaft until 1999, when it evolved into the academic journal Soundscape: The Journal of Acoustic Ecology, whose first issue was published in Spring 2000. The journal's homepage (http://interact.uoregon.edu/MediaLit/WFAE/journal/index.html) has links to the online archives of the newsletters.
3 Schafer defines a soundmark as "a community sound which is unique or possesses qualities which make it specially regarded or noticed by the people in that community" (1977: 274).
4 I follow Manuel Castells (1996: 34-40) and the majority of historians in distinguishing between the first industrial revolution, which began in the second half of the eighteenth century and had the steam engine as its prime mover, and the second industrial revolution, which took off a century later and was mainly driven by the introduction of electricity. Schafer's distinction between the Industrial Revolution and the Electric Revolution corresponds to this division.
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5 My discussion of these texts under the general heading of 'realism' is not intended to deny that there are significant differences between the aesthetics and politics of, say, a Norris and a Howells, but an attempt to work out these differences against a background of shared concerns. This common background includes not only the historical context of industrialization and urbanization in postbellum America but also the field of literary production. An awareness of the former provided Eric Sundquist with part of the rationale for including articles on all of these texts but Davis's in the groundbreaking collection American Realism: New Essays (1982), while an awareness of the latter prompted Daniel Borus to discuss Norris alongside James and Howells in Writing Realism (1989), Borus's authoritative study of the realist literary system. To be sure, I do not question the value of discussing certain aspects of Norris's, Crane's and Dreiser's writing as specifically naturalist, and I will do so myself at various stages in the argument. But a strict opposition between realist writing on the one hand and naturalist writing on the other runs the risk of losing sight of both a shared institutional history and a shared range of thematic concerns. Moreover, the achievement of a writer like Crane is brought into sharper focus if we recognize the roots he shares with Howellsian realism along with the differences that have prompted many critics to see an anticipation of modernist concerns and techniques in his writings.
6 Schafer explains the origin and characteristics of flat-line sounds: "The Industrial Revolution introduced another effect into the soundscape: the flat line. When sounds are projected visually on a graphic level recorder, they may be analyzed in terms of what is called their envelope or signature. The principal characteristics of a sound envelope are the attack, the body, the transients (or internal changes) and the decay. When the body of the sound is prolonged and unchanging, it is reproduced by the graphic level recorder as an extended horizontal line. [ ] The flat continuous line in sound is an artificial construction. Like the flat line in space, it is rarely found in nature. (The continuous stridulation of certain insects like cicadas is an exception.) Just as the Industrial Revolution's sewing machine gave us back the long line in clothes, so the factories, which operated night and day nonstop, created the long line in sound" (Schafer 1977: 78).
7 See, for instance, Trachtenberg (1982: 142), who suggests that Crane's city sketches share important stylistic features with impressionist paintings. Margot Norris's recollection of being confronted in her reading of Red Badge of Courage with a series of disconnected impressionist images rather than a continuous narrative makes a similar point with regard to Crane's depiction of war (personal communication). Levensonargues both ways when he reminds us that Crane himself was "content with the name of realist" (Levenson 1995: 154) and at the same time makes a case for both Crane and Norris as precursors of modernism in their investigations into human psycho(patho)logy.
8 Barry Truax, one of Schafer's co-workers on the original World Soundscape Project and himself a prominent figure in soundscape studies, describes some of the possible psychological consequences of a lo-fi soundscape: "The lo-fi environment [ ] seems to encourage feelings of being cut off or separated from the environment. The person's attention is directed inwards, and interaction with others is discouraged by the effort to "break through" that is required. Feelings of alienation and isolation can be the result" (Truax 1984: 20).
9 H.L. Mencken alludes to this in one of his (highly gendered) attacks on Howells and American Puritanism: "Of the great questions that agitated the minds of men in Howells' time one gets no more than a faint and far-away echo in his novels. His investigations, one may say, are carried out in vacuo; his discoveries are not expressed in terms of passion, but in terms of giggles" (Mencken 1917: 218).
10 Riis's How the Other Half Lives became instrumental in calls for social reform. However, its voyeuristic gaze is not so different from the Marches' during their rides on the elevated trains. See Trachtenberg (1982: 143f.) for a discussion of the tourist perspective proposed by Riis's narratives.
11 Thanks are due to Laurenz Bolliger, who provided me with this quote.
12 As Kaplan's comments on the ending of the novel reveal, she is using the older edition of Sister Carrie, edited by Donald Pizer, rather than the new Pennsylvania edition, which I am using. In the new version, the final scene has Hurstwood gassing himself rather than Carrie thinking her sentimental thoughts in her rocking chair. Kaplan explains her preference for the older edition: "I have chosen to use the edition which was published by Dreiser in 1900 and has been read by readers since then, because I believe that the revisions either made by or authorized by Dreiser are as much a part of Dreiser's final product as is his "original" draft. As this argument suggests, I think that the deletions show that more is at stake in the "new edition" than accuracy, but [sic] it reflects a longstanding critical desire to recuperate the great American realist, without his embarrassing sentimentality" (Kaplan 1988: 181n.5). While the greater sentimentality of the older edition certainly strengthens Kaplan's argument, the passages I am discussing appear in both editions and their differences therefore do not make a difference in my own argument.
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13 It should be noted here that Michaels qualifies his assertion that "Carrie's economy of desire involves an unequivocal endorsement of [ ] the unrestrained capitalism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries" (1987: 45) in the introduction to the collection of essays that contains his article on Sister Carrie. In short, Michael argues that one cannot really be 'for' or 'against' capitalism because, there is no outside-of-capitalism that would allow for such a position: "It thus seems wrong to think of the culture you live in as the object of your affections: you don't like it or dislike it, you exist in it, and the things you like and dislike exist in it too" (1987: 18). Michaels's argument raises interesting epistemological questions but seems to me to demand a radical revision of critical practice only if one has previously assumed that a work of fiction may represent a wholesale rejection or endorsement of a given culture (or even of a given ideological, economic or political system). This is obviously a view few if any critics would adopt. As my own readings suggest, it is less a question of whether an author or a reader likes a given culture or not than a question of how tensions existing in a given culture are (re)negotiated in the fictional worlds of literary texts produced within that culture.
14 Kaplan (1988: 154) wrongly attributes these thoughts to Hurstwood. Her observations concerning Hurstwood's lack of comprehension remain valid nevertheless.
15 Hitler's assertion that the NSDAP "should not have conquered Germany without [ ] the loudspeaker" (qtd. in Schafer 1977: 91) further attests to the importance of acoustic space and points to the potentially violent nature of its conquest. Barry Truax summarizes the links between power, space and sound: "The control of spatial communication [ ] is essential to centralized power and domination. Therefore, acoustic power, amplified through the loudspeaker, or in the form of any loud sound, is linked to the domination of space" (1984: 13).
16 Schafer uses the term 'Sacred Noise' to discuss noises that escape legislative regulation due to their association with powerful social actors or institutions. His discussion touches on the relationship between noise and power: "We have already noted how loud noises evoked fear and respect back to earliest times, and how they seemed to be the expression of divine power. We have also observed how this power was transferred from natural sounds (thunder, volcano, storm) to those of the church bell and pipe organ. I called this Sacred Noise to distinguish it from the other sort of noise (with a small letter), implying nuisance and requiring noise abatement legislation. This was always primarily the rowdy human voice. During the Industrial Revolution, Sacred Noise sprang across to the profane world. Now the industrialists held power and they were granted dispensation to make noise by means of the steam engine and blast furnace, just as previously the monks had been free to make Noise on the church bell or J.S. Bach to open out his preludes on the full organ. The association of Noise and power has never really been broken in the human imagination. It descends from God, to the priest, to the industrialist, and more recently to the broadcaster and the aviator. The important thing to realize is this: to have the Sacred Noise is not merely to make the biggest noise; rather it is a matter of having the authority to make it without censure. Wherever Noise is granted immunity from human intervention, there will be found a seat of power. The noisy clank of Watt's original engine was maintained as a sign of power and efficiency, against his own desire to eliminate it, thus enabling the railroads to establish themselves more emphatically as the "conquerors'" (Schafer 1977: 76).
17 This is precisely the specter raised for the lower middle-classes in Marx and Engels's Manifesto of the Communist Party: "The lower strata of the middle-class¾ the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants¾ all these sink gradually into the proletariat, partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which Modern Industry is carried on, and is swamped in the competition with the large capitalists, partly because their specialized skill is rendered worthless by new methods of production" (Marx 1955: 17f.). To account for McTeague's decline, we would have to add professionalization to Marx and Engels's scheme.
18 In naturalist literature, this is nowhere more evident than in the Civil War of Crane's Red Badge of Courage (1895), where the explosions, the shooting, screaming and shouting directly and profoundly affect the actions and the psyches of those exposed to the noise. For considerations of space, I shall limit my discussion to urban soundscapes and note in passing that, in Crane's martial soundscape, noise becomes an integral part of warfare, reminding us that the violent impact of war noises has throughout recorded history been a conscious part of military tactics: "Man has always tried to destroy his enemies with terrible noises. We shall encounter deliberate attempts to reproduce the apocalyptic noise throughout the history of warfare, from the clashing of shields and the beating of drums in ancient times right up to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bombs of the Second World War" (Schafer 1977: 28).
19 'Ear cleaning' is Schafer's term for a "systematic program for training the ears to listen more discriminatingly to sounds, particularly those of the environment." He adds that a "set of such exercises is given in my book Ear Cleaning" (1977: 272).
20 Barry Truax seems more aware of such divisions when he criticizes the criteria used to establish permissible levels of noise in noise-abatement legislation: "[T]he criteria are such that even when their recommended levels are adhered to, they guarantee only minimal protection and acceptability for a certain percentage of the exposed population. Such criteria simply reflect what the majority can adapt to, and as such they serve to maintain a precariously balanced status quo (1984: 82). However, Truax only sporadically considers issues of class and does not develop them into a sustained argument.
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21 Note also that the desire to 'go inside' was reinforced at the time of Crane's writing by the introduction of plate-glass shop windows and their display of commodities. Blanche Gelfant (1995: 180f.) analyzes this structuring of desire in Dreiser's Sister Carrie.
24 The following observation made by Daniel Borus corroborates my reading: "When the elder Dryfoos sells the paper to March and Fulkerson, March, now the employer of labor, institutes "reforms," a euphemism for firings" (1989: 181).
25 Once I had formulated this thought in writing, I struck upon Daniel Borus's identical interpretation of the strike and its misrepresentation by March (1989: 168f.). Borus also quotes from a letter Howells sent his father about the Homestead Strike, which erupted in battles between Pinkerton agents and strikers. The letter testifies to a striking similarity between Howells's and his fictional character's views on strikes. Howells writes, "it is hard, in our sympathy with the working class, to remember that the men are playing a lawless part, and that they must be made to give up the Carnegie property. [ ] I come back to my old conviction that every drop of blood shed for a good cause helps make a bad cause. How much better if the Homesteaders could have suffered the Pinkertons to shoot them down unarmed. Then they would have had the power of martyrs in the world" (qtd. in Borus 1989: 169). Even as sympathetic a reader of Howells as Borus, who discerns in Howells's life and writings a genuinely democratic impulse and stresses his courage in intervening on behalf of the Haymarket anarchists, is forced to conclude that "Howells's argument tended to be a plea for more humane treatment of others rather than a prescription for social reconstruction" (1989: 170). For a decidedly (and, I would, argue, comically) hostile view of Howells's role, see Stanley Corkin ), who considers Howellsian realism an ideological tool of a hegemonic capitalist class that is fully "in complicity in the broader social reorganization of American life from the top down" (Corkin 1996: 3).
26 Winfried Fluck (1997: 264; 447n.4) attests to Howells's first readers' familiarity with and expectation of happy endings when he discusses their occasional absence as a conscious strategy of refusal on the part of realist writers.