In his recent post on Embodiment in Intellectual History, Ben raised the question of how intellectual historians might more effectively or fruitfully consider the “embodied aspects of the people about whom we write.” He suggested that a consideration of “intellectuals’ physical presences may grow more important as disembodied communication technologies become more and more ubiquitous.”
I began to wonder: when was the last time that our communication technologies weren’t in some way disembodied. We probably have to go back to prehistory for that. But I forbid my students from beginning their essays at the dawn of time, or writing an introductory paragraph about the course of human history, so I will spare you a similar sweeping gesture. Besides, we do (mostly) U.S. history around here — our wayback machine doesn’t go very far back (though it might be salutary for us if it did).
So as I thought about Ben’s post, and I thought about how intellectual historians might “do embodiment” well, I was reminded of one of my favorite sections of A Godly Hero, Michael Kazin’s brilliant biography of William Jennings Bryan.*
Kazin’s extended meditation on the sonority of Bryan’s voice provides an excellent example of how intellectual historians can explore what someone’s physical presence meant for the articulation and reception of his or her ideas. In the Great Commoner’s case, this particular aspect of Bryan’s (self-consciously performative) self-performance seems to have imbued his ideas with a liveliness and appeal that they lacked when presented in mere text, as printed words upon a page.
Kazin writes about the almost magical power of Bryan’s speaking voice.
How did he do it? One born too late to hear Bryan on the stump or in a convention hall can only gather up reminiscences and marvel that, in an era satiated with oratory, he could lead so many people, foes as well as allies, to describe him as the most compelling speaker they’d ever heard (48).
Listeners commented on the extraordinary timbre of Bryan’s voice:
Nearly every recollection begins by describing the quality of that voice. “Sonorous and melodious,” “deep and powerfully musical,” “soothing but penetrating,” “free, bold, picturesque,” “clear as a cathedral bell…” (48)
As Kazin points out, such praise sounds very much like the aesthetic judgment audiences might have pronounced upon a stage actor’s talents.
Like them, the Nebraskan could project his voice a remarkable distance. Mary Bryan recalled one day in 1898 when, from inside a hotel room in Corpus Christi, she could hear her husband perfectly “three long blocks” away. At national conventions, before the introduction of amplified sound in the early 1920s, Bryan’s was often the only voice that could reach every seat in the house. And his diction — clear, precise, and rendered with a slight prairie twang that passed for no accent at all — ensured that listeners could understand every word (48).
I am intrigued by the gendered aspects of Bryan’s appeal. Apparently, he sounded like a man was supposed to sound. And I can’t help but wonder: what were women supposed to sound like when they spoke in public? “They weren’t,” would be the easy laugh line here. But there were women on the Chautauqua circuit, and I suspect that someone like Carrie Nation could hold a crowd’s attention. But I don’t know that her appeal was aesthetic — or acoustical — in the way that Bryan’s seemed to be. Instead, part of the draw there (in addition to audience interest in the content of her speech) might have been the sheer spectacle of going to see a woman — and such a woman! — speak in public.
In terms of going to hear women, I suppose that famous female vocalists and melodramatic actresses could have drawn great crowds wherever they performed. But except for stage performers and professional entertainers, I wonder if there were many women who would have been able to draw a crowd simply to hear the sound of their speaking voices, as crowds wanted to do in Bryan’s case.
In the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, what were the aesthetic expectations for public female — and/or feminine — speech? (I mean besides “Ladies, please don’t!”) What acoustical features, what kind of sonority, might have marked a pleasing, public female voice? If you have some bibliographic suggestions, please add them to the comments below. This is something I’ll need to look at in relation to my work in the early 20th century, and I should probably base my understanding of the matter on something more authoritative than Singin’ in the Rain. (“I caiiiiiint staiiiind him.”)
In any case, Bryan’s heyday may have been the age of oratory, but it was not yet the age of radio. Kazin writes:
A…GOP partisan named Ira Smith first heard Bryan in 1896. Half a century later, he recalled: “I listened to his speech as if every word and every gesture were a revelation. It is not my nature to be awed by a famous name, but I felt that Bryan was the first politician I had ever heard speak the truth and nothing but the truth.” The next day, Smith read the same speech in a newspaper and “disagreed with almost all of it.” He was glad, in retrospect, that “the most remarkable orator of the century” had passed his prime before the onset of radio. Otherwise, Smith, who ran the White House mailroom for five decades, believed the Nebraskan would certainly have been elected president (49).
To me, this is perhaps the most striking insight of all — one of those “for want of a nail” arguments that sets history swinging on the hinge of a single slim contingency.
Heck, maybe old Ira Smith was right.
Or was he making the kind of appeal to technology’s magic — or to charisma’s power? — that often serves as a sop to our most simplistic explanatory urges? For example, we’ve probably all heard some version of “Kennedy beat Nixon because of television.” That’s a little too easy. And I think it would be really bad history to say, “If Bryan had been broadcast coast to coast on the radio, he surely would have won the White House.” But Kazin, who doesn’t tend to write bad history, doesn’t say that.
Furthermore, as Kazin points out, it was not merely his voice alone that made Bryan so appealing; it was his deep sincerity. “Listeners enjoyed being in his presence and often felt inspired by a guileless orator who seemed an authentic representative of the producing classes. A politics of character thus blended into a politics of celebrity as Bryan’s voice became known throughout the land” (49). That part about “being in his presence” suggests a whole performative rhetoric of look and gesture, physicality, sturdy manliness, that went along with that big sonorous voice. So radio might not have helped Bryan much anyhow.
In their introduction to an audio clip of Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech, recorded in a studio twenty-five years after it was first delivered, the editors at GMU’s History Matters site note that the recording “does not capture the power and drama of the original address.” Perhaps only listeners who had heard Bryan speaking live and also heard that recording could judge whether or not the recording “gets” Bryan. Listening to his disembodied voice today, we have the challenge of wading through almost one hundred years of technologically mediated cultural history — or culturally mediated technological history — that have worked to shape what we think a (man’s) voice ought to sound like.
But if audio recordings didn’t seem to do justice to Bryan’s oratorical gifts, that may have had less to do with the disembodiment of Bryan’s voice than with the disembodiment of Bryan’s audience. Maybe it wasn’t enough for Bryan to stretch himself out upon a Cross of Gold in a recording studio; maybe he needed a stadium full of people to bring power to his performance.
Along with Ben, I too would be interested to hear (!) our readers’ thoughts on the more general question of how attention to embodiment can work in intellectual history. I would suggest that exploring the (dis)connection between voice and presence, ideas and embodiment, matters not only in history, but for history — for how we study it, for how we write it, and for how we perform it (and ourselves) here in the silent cacophony of the intellectual history blogosphere.
What say you?
*If my discussion of this book seems vaguely familiar to you, it might be because I swiped a few paragraphs for this post from my old blog. But I had, like, Seven Faithful Readers. So I’m guessing it’s new to you.