Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

"You Must Make Less Noise in Here, Mister Schouler": Acoustic Profiling in American Realism

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

"You Must Make Less Noise in Here, Mister Schouler": Acoustic Profiling in American Realism

Article excerpt

When Walt Whitman proudly named America a "nation of nations" and celebrated "the perpetual coming of immigrants" in his 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass, (1) he referred both to the settlement of America by European immigrants and to a process that was only just beginning when he published the first edition of his monumental book of poetry. The historian Philip Jenkins describes this process as follows:

   American industrial expansion was made possible by the ready availability 
   of cheap labour in the form of the huge numbers of migrants entering the 
   country from the 1860s onwards. From the 1880s the scale of migration 
   constituted the largest population movement in recorded history. Between 
   1881 and 1920 there were over 23 million immigrants: 1907 was the peak 
   year, with 1.2 million newcomers.... This migration had a radical effect on 
   the ethnic composition of the United States. Before 1880 the vast majority 
   of immigrants came from the British Isles or Northern Europe, chiefly 
   Germany; but after that point the emphasis shifted decisively to the 
   peoples of southern and eastern Europe, including Italians, Poles, 
   Hungarians and all the nationalities of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. In 
   1870 New York City had 80,000 Jews; by 1915 there were 1.5 million. By 1930 
   perhaps six million Americans were of Italian stock. (2) 

Realist and later writers, confronted with a dramatic increase in immigration, were often far less enthusiastic than Whitman about the growing ethnic diversity of the United States. In their texts, the new immigrant voices came under careful and often critical scrutiny.

A common representational strategy was to emphasize the obscurity of foreign-sounding speech. Howells participates in this when, in A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), he has Basil March comment on "the jargon" of the Neapolitans' "unintelligible dialect," (3) and so does Henry Adams in The Education (1907) when he evokes the olfactory and linguistic profile of "a furtive Yacoob or Ysaac still reeking of the Ghetto, snarling a weird Yiddish to the officers of the customs." (4) Immigrant voices, Howells and Adams seem to imply, are often nothing but unintelligible noise. Howells's representation of the German-American socialist Lindau's speech follows a similar pattern as its exaggerated mispronunciations undermine the seriousness of his concerns: "What is Amerigan? Dere iss no Ameriga anymore! You start here free and brafe, and you glaim for efery man de right to life, liperty, and de bursuit of happiness. And where haf you endedt?" (276). Daniel Borus links the portrayal of Lindau's speech to the processes of exclusion enacted by realist texts: "There are limits to the realist approach. At times realists seemed incapable of penetrating fully into the lives of their subjects. Much as Howells pointed up the foreignness of Lindau's speech through spellings that overemphasized mispronunciations ("lawss"), realists marked out some of `the people' as inferior or as distant." (5) Lindau's heavy accent serves to reinforce the otherness and strangeness of his socialist ideas.

In Norris's McTeague (1899), similar processes of exclusion are at work. Mr. Sieppe's ridiculously exaggerated German accent and garbled syntax combine with his militaristic posturing to produce the caricature of a German-American who functions as the novel's primary laughingstock:

   "Owgooste!" he shouted to the little boy with the black greyhound, "you 
   will der hound und der basket number three carry. Der tervins," he added, 
   calling to the two smallest boys, who were dressed exactly alike, "will 
   releef one unudder mit der camp-stuhl and basket number four. Dat is 
   comprehend, hay? When we make der start, you childern will in der advance 
   march. Dat is your orders." (6) 

More interesting still is the case of Marcus Schouler, Mr. …

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