Posted by: kaleidophonic | November 29, 2012

Mark Smith on the Sensory History of America’s Civil War

Hey folks! Sorry I’ve been so remiss about posting lately. It’s probably a combination of being stressed, being busy, and fighting the feeling of sloth that comes on with the cold weather and disappearing daylight. Ugh.

Nevertheless, today I thought I’d tell you all about a seminar and talk I went to see Nov. 9th, at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, given by Mark M Smith.

Mark Smith teaches at the University of South Carolina, and in recent years has written quite a few books dealing with the history of the senses. I’m a particular fan of his work on sound and the slaveholding south versus the abolitionist north. It’s good stuff.

So, in the morning Smith led a graduate seminar / workshop, mostly drawing from a work in progress involving the senses and the American Civil War. Among other things, we talked about how historians of sound have been remiss in discussing the importance of water – the centrality of rivers, lakes, oceans, harbors, quays, waterfalls, etc. within our daily lives seems to be something that sensory historians have overlooked. During this discussion I was thinking a lot about this, especially as a historian of Montreal, which is an island. It occurred to me that he was right, and that I’ve been too focused on land-based sounds in my own work. Afterwards I offered a few words to Prof. Smith, especially about the importance of a different kind of water noise up here in Canada: the centrality of snow, and how snow softens and dampens sounds. Also ice, from the sounds of hockey rinks, the weird sounds of river ice breaking up in the spring, or that terrible squealing of tires as morning commuters attempt to break free of their frozen-over parking spaces.

During the morning workshop Smith was also quick to note that for whatever reason, Canadians have always been at the forefront of sensory history. R Murray Schafer and Constance Classen being just two of the more famous examples. I wondered whether this had anything to do with the fact that Canadian historians have long been obsessed with the nation’s geography and climate, and that in our historiography things like the St. Lawrence River, the North, or the Canadian Shield have been interpreted as major agents in our country’s development. I suspect that because of our sensitivity to geography and climate, that we are perhaps more in touch with the sensory experience of living in Canada than other places might be. But, this is of course only a theory, and doesn’t account for why other cold nations, such as Russia or Norway, don’t also have strong traditions of sensory history or sensory scholarship.

After the morning workshop, Smith gave a more formal lecture (open to all) about his most recent work on the sensory history of the American Civil War. I found his talk very engaging, as he worked through the different chapters of his book project. Essentially he has broken down each chapter to focus on a specific sense: Ch. 1 deals with acoustemology and the capture of Fort Sumpter, from the silent nighttime crossing of the bay to the explosion of shells during the several days of military barrage. His discussion of Ch. 2 revolved around the importance of sight, and the concept of “seeing is believing” at the 1st Battle of Bull Run. Ch. 3, about touch and the crowded conditions inside the Confederate submarine Hunley, seemed particularly interesting to me, especially in the way that close contact between the men in the sub worked against conventions about masculine social propriety. The next two chapters dealt with smell and the stench of Gettysburg, and taste during the siege at Vicksburg, both elaborating the concepts from Ch. 3, i.e. how sensory experiences of the war undermined Southerners’ commonsense understandings of civility and civilization. Smith’s final discussion revolved around what he called “the multi-sensory Sherman”, and the experience of Sherman’s march through the South.

All in all I found Smith’s two talks very stimulating, and it helped validate some of my own work within sound-studies and history. It was also good to see that this man was struggling with some of the same questions and concepts that I have been pondering regarding how to incorporate sensory data into historical accounts, as well as how to write for more popular audiences instead of just for academics. And, finally, it was a bit of an ego boost to be reminded that Canadian scholars are at the cutting edge of this kind of research. Yay us!

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