Hochman's essay uses the work of George Washington Cable to examine a far-reaching set of debates about media technology, auditory perception, and cultural difference that emerged during the 1880s and 1890s. The first half focuses on Cable's classic dialect novel The Grandissimes (1880)—a text that constantly signals its own inability to reproduce the speech and music of New Orleans's Afro-Creole community—in order to illustrate the growing sense among late-nineteenth-century U.S. writers that the written word was fundamentally inadequate as a sound archive. The second half turns to the work of three prominent U.S. ethnographers (Franz Boas, Jesse Walter Fewkes, and Benjamin Ives Gilman) who posited the newly invented phonograph as a more ideal form of cultural listening and writing.
“Hearing Lost, Hearing Found” combines literary and media history to advance two overlapping arguments. On the one hand, Hochman makes a case for the centrality of anthropological theories of sound (especially the emergence of sound technology) to Cable's work and thought. On the other, he demonstrates more broadly that the phonograph's documentary authority evolved out of late-nineteenth-century print culture's engagement with the “sound” of race. It was only after U.S. intellectuals began to recognize the extent to which the acts of listening and writing are mediated (and potentially distorted) by racial and cultural differences that the new technology of mechanical sound reproduction could make the old medium of the written word seem insufficient.