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Vol. 1 No. 2 (2020): Soundscapes, Sonic Cultures, and American Studies

The Motion and the Noise: Yoknapatawpha's Shifting Soundscape

February 11, 2021


William Faulkner's dislike of unwanted sound is well documented. The acoustic environment of rural Mississippi amplified irreversibly after the introduction of the automobile, airplane, and automated farm machinery. In his Intruder in the Dust (1948), the jukebox and radio absorb pointed criticism for producing "canned" sounds outside of their "proper" environment. The narrowing gap between town square and dance hall signifies encroaching chaos, as noise drowns out the attenuated "harmony" that keeps elite whites in power and Intruder's African American protagonist Lucas Beauchamp out of the hands of the lynch mob. For Faulkner, the shift in the auditory environment presents both a disruption and an impediment to a system built on white bourgeois ideals. However, Faulkner's pessimism is counterpointed by sociological studies undertaken by Fisk University researchers. The Fisk study identifies the emergence of a blues culture in the Delta whose energy and boundary-crossing impulses illustrate the liberating possibilities of an expanding soundscape. By juxtaposing Faulkner's damning descriptions of "the motion and the noise" with the Fisk University researchers' illuminating fieldwork, this essay interprets a transformative period in the constantly shifting soundscape of the U.S. South. In line with Jacques Attali's dictum that "our music foretells our future," Intruder in the Dust anticipates the cultural upheaval that would energize the Civil Rights Movement. Both in fiction and in fact, the "noise" emanating from jukeboxes and radios in 1940s Mississippi accelerated social change at a volume much higher and a tempo much faster than Faulkner and other gradualists desired.


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