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How Early America SoundedHow Early America Sounded

Richard Cullen Rath

Narrated by Paul Redford

Available from Audible

Book published by Cornell University Press

In early America, every sound had a living, willful force at its source. Sometimes these forces were not human or even visible. In this fascinating and highly original work of cultural history, Richard Cullen Rath recreates in rich detail a world remote from our own, one in which sounds were charged with meaning and power.

From thunder and roaring waterfalls to bells and drums, natural and human-made sounds other than language were central to the lives of the inhabitants of colonial America. Rath considers the multiple soundscapes shaped by European Americans, Native Americans, and African Americans from 1600 to 1770, and particularly the methods that people used to interpret and express their beliefs about sound. In the process he shows how sound shaped identities, bonded communities, and underscored—or undermined—the power of authorities.

This book's stunning evidence of the importance of sound in early America—even among the highly literate New England Puritans—reminds us of a time before a world dominated by the visual, a young country where hearing was a more crucial part of living.

Richard Cullen Rath is associate professor of history at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. He is director of the Digital Arts and Humanities Initiative at UH.


“Mr. Rath rehearses fascinating sound-details from the 17th and 18th centuries, reminding us that what we hear, and how we hear it, is no small part of experience.”

The Wall Street Journal

“In his new book How Early America Sounded, Rath tunes his ears to religious ranting, the roar of waterfalls, the boom of thunder, and other features of the colonial American soundscape.... In his effort to deduce the early American soundscape, Rath draws on everything from 17th-century sheet music to the architectural plans of New England churches to the measurements of old bells. But the real challenge is understanding how pealing bells and other sensory events were experienced by people at the time. The past is a foreign country — they heard things differently there. Sounds had an immediate power: They were tangible forces 'laden with in intent,' Rath argues.”

The Boston Globe

“Long before Howard Dean howled in Iowa, Quakers in East Jersey were 'tainted with the Ranting Spirit.' ... Among their buttoned-up neighbors, the Puritans, these folks were considered possessed in 1675. But what's interesting, observes Richard Rath in this fascinating study, 'How Early America Sounded,' is that all sounds in those days indicated possession.... Rath connects the myriad ways in which sounds exerted social influence.... Finally, and most intriguingly, Rath says we may be living during just such a time again, as the printed transfers some of its authority to a more fluid and ephemeral cyberspace.”

The Christian Science Monitor

“In contrast to the modern world, which is ruled by such visual inputs as newspapers, television and traffic signs, early America was a sound-oriented society, according to this engaging and original academic study.... Writing in a scholarly but accessible style, cultural historian Rath ranges widely over the many facets of the colonial American soundscape, from Native American myths about natural sounds to the musical traditions of slave communities....and opens a revealing window on the past.”

Publishers Weekly

“This tour de force of original scholarship is suitable for all library collections. Indeed, its arguments merit repeated reading.”

Library Journal

“Rath's range of evidence is broad and his analysis deep. Architectural, musical, religious, and anthropological sources, among others, all figure in his approach to a subject that could have become unwieldy in less skilled hands.... By the end of the book, few readers would question that sound mattered deeply to early American individuals and communities.... How Early America Sounded is an invaluable contribution to a field of cultural history that is still in the process of self-definition. Rath's original work offers discerning readers and listeners—advanced scholars and the general public alike—a new way to perceive and study the colonial past.”

Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

“As it moves from natural sounds to sounding boards to fiddles and finally to the rants of early Quakers and acoustics of meeting houses, Richard Cullen Rath's book grows in persuasiveness and argumentative force. How Early America Sounded is a valiant text which stands alone in the diverse fields that it touches.”

—Robert Blair St. George, University of Pennsylvania

“Richard Cullen Rath's study of early American soundways is delightfully original, genuinely new, and always innovative. This is an exciting book of exceptional scholarly merit.”

—Mark M. Smith, author of Listening to Nineteenth-Century America

“What did the world of the early American colonists sound like? The native peoples and colonists alike were very much tuned in to their auditory world. Richard Cullen Rath's How Early America Sounded is a fascinating account of what might be called aural history. In our postmodern 'plugged-in' world, we archive sounds as photographs and video capture pictorial history, but as Rath points out, something has been lost, too. Think of this book as a going back to Walden Pond, but with one's ears wide open.”

—Ron Hoy, Cornell University

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University Press Audiobooks