Christopher Hanlon, “Whitman’s Atlantic Noise” (pp. 194–220)

This essay considers Walt Whitman’s “A Word Out of the Sea,” from the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, for its aural qualities—acoustically twittering birds, the hissing “undertone” of the ocean, for example—linking the poem to a wider antebellum interest in the electronic noise of telegraphy. I argue that this poem’s auditory effects bring Whitman into discussion with many others during the 1850s and 1860s who were interested in the sonic qualities of telegraphic noise quite apart from the words those noises encoded. Calling upon an array of cultural documents including songsheets, poems, fiction, and technical commentary, I suggest that “A Word Out of the Sea” condenses a singular moment in American intellectual life wherein the widespread deployment of telegraphic technology honed much interest in the interplay of sound and meaning. In this way, “A Word Out of the Sea” helps further current discussions over the resonance of nineteenth-century information technology among U.S. commentators (including poets), first-generation users who were less constantly focused than we might suppose upon the epistemological ramifications of the telegraph as a harbinger of unthinkably efficient, global communication. In many other ways, these observers of the telegraph were just as struck by the telegraph’s ontological properties, and especially the kinds of sounds it generated.

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