Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Uncle Josh Buys a Victrola

In his phonographic “descriptive specialties,” Cal Stewart played the role of a gullible Yankee rube named Uncle Josh Weathersby from the fictional town of Pumpkin Center. Alongside Uncle Josh’s comical encounters with modernity in New York City, Stewart’s records also featured descriptions of everyday life in Pumpkin Center: a rural, northeastern town populated by a recurring cast of rustic characters. Stewart’s Pumpkin Center stories illustrate what Raymond Williams calls a knowable community: “a whole community, wholly knowable.” Williams argued that in literature, such a community was often set in the past, in a country village that was held up as an epitome of “direct relationships,” as opposed to the opacity of the city. When placed in their turn of the century context, we might say that Uncle Josh records addressed what Richard Terdiman has called the “memory crisis” of the modern era: listeners got a lesson in how to navigate the “newly disquieting lack of transparency” in a New York City bus or department store; and at the same time, were provided with a reassuring representation of a traditional society in which people carried “their pasts and meanings openly,” a past still tantalizingly knowable through the community of Pumpkin Center. Uncle Josh records are keyed at exactly the spot where past and present; modern and traditional; rural and urban intersect; and Stewart’s performances function to define those distinctions through the voice of the Yankee rube. Stewart’s records were pioneering responses to a crisis in memory caused by the dislocations of modernity, responses that took the form of products of the emerging memory industry. On “Uncle Josh buys a Victrola” (Victor 1919), our Yankee protagonist brings a new phonograph player to Pumpkin Center and “in less than no time” the entire town has gathered in his house to listen to it. Uncle Josh plays religious records for Deacon Witherspoon, opera for Hank Weaver, “Silver Threads Among the Gold” has “the womenfolk pretty nigh crying,” and later they play jazz records over the telephone to neighboring Hickory Corners. At one point, Uncle Josh plays a rather strange record to the assembled villagers.

This depiction of Pumpkin Center convened around the phonograph, listening to records about themselves, is a striking moment of media reflexivity, as well as an early instance of product placement, but it is also emblematic of the modern media’s emergence as a central force in the forging of collective memory and identity. The knowable community of Pumpkin Center that had served as a reassuring embodiment of the past, now consumes itself in the form of a product of the “memory industries.”