American Literature and the Politics of Transcription

By Alex Benson

260 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 16 halftones

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-7463-6
    Published: November 2023
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-7462-9
    Published: November 2023
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-7464-3
    Published: November 2023

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In the 1880s, a new medical term flashed briefly into public awareness in the United States. Children who had trouble distinguishing between similar speech sounds were said to suffer from "sound-blindness." The term is now best remembered through anthropologist Franz Boas, whose work deeply influenced the way we talk about cultural difference. In this fascinating work of literary and cultural history, Alex Benson takes the concept as an opening onto other stories of listening, writing, and power—stories that expand our sense of how a syllable, a word, a gesture, or a song can be put into print, and why it matters.

Benson interweaves ethnographies, memoirs, local-color stories, modernist novels, silent film scripts, and more. Taken together, these seemingly disparate texts—by writers including John M. Oskison, Helen Keller, W. E. B. Du Bois, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Elsie Clews Parsons—show that the act of transcription, never neutral, is conditioned by the histories of race, land, and ability. By carefully tracing these conditions, Benson argues, we can tease out much that has been left off the record in narratives of American nationhood and American literature.

About the Author

Alex Benson is assistant professor of literature at Bard College.
For more information about Alex Benson, visit the Author Page.


"Benson's book is not only exhaustively researched and highly original, but it also offers surprising archival finds relating to its subjects. It is brimming with insights, and there is never a dull moment as the reader is carried along by the waves of observation and material."—Julie Beth Napolin, The New School

"For Benson, attending to transcriptions—and especially botched transcriptions, revised transcriptions, inaccurate transcriptions, and even the impossibility of transcriptions—helps tell the story of the unrecorded social and cultural transactions shaping some of the period's most pressing social issues. This is an exciting book, one that will move forward the ongoing conversation about how to conceive of and write cultural history. It is an archival marvel, managing to bring to life an 'untranscribed' slice of history that few of us would have noticed or even imagined existing."—Brad Evans, Rutgers University