Sensory Worlds in Early America

Sensory Worlds in Early America

by Peter Charles Hoffer
     
 

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Over the past half-century, historians have greatly enriched our understanding of America's past, broadening their fields of inquiry from such traditional topics as politics and war to include the agency of class, race, ethnicity, and gender and to focus on the lives of ordinary men and women. We now know that homes and workplaces form a part of our history as

Overview

Over the past half-century, historians have greatly enriched our understanding of America's past, broadening their fields of inquiry from such traditional topics as politics and war to include the agency of class, race, ethnicity, and gender and to focus on the lives of ordinary men and women. We now know that homes and workplaces form a part of our history as important as battlefields and the corridors of power. Only recently, however, have historians begun to examine the fundamentals of lived experience and how people perceive the world through the five senses.

In this ambitious work, Peter Charles Hoffer presents a "sensory history" of early North America, offering a bold new understanding of the role that sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch played in shaping the lives of Europeans, Indians, and Africans in the New World. Reconstructing the most ephemeral aspects of America's colonial past—the choking stench of black powder, the cacophony of unfamiliar languages, the taste of fresh water and new foods, the first sight of strange peoples and foreign landscapes, the rough texture of homespun, the clumsy weight of a hoe—Hoffer explores the impact of sensuous experiences on human thought and action. He traces the effect sensation and perception had on the cause and course of events conventionally attributed to deeper cultural and material circumstances.

Hoffer revisits select key events, encounters, and writings from America's colonial past to uncover the sensory elements in each and decipher the ways in which sensual data were mediated by prevailing and often conflicting cultural norms. Among the episodes he reexamines are the first meetings of Europeans and Native Americans; belief in and encounters with the supernatural; the experience of slavery and slave revolts; the physical and emotional fervor of the Great Awakening; and the feelings that prompted the Revolution. Imaginatively conceived, deeply informed, and elegantly written, Sensory Worlds of Early America convincingly establishes sensory experience as a legitimate object of historical inquiry and vividly brings America's colonial era to life.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Instead of the familiar "great men and great events" approach to history, Hoffer (history, Univ. of Georgia) presents a "sensory history" of early America that focuses on the importance of sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch in shaping events. The book demonstrates its premise by first showing how the differing perspectives and experiences of Native Americans and early English settlers often led to misunderstandings that had disastrous consequences, as in the Roanoke and Jamestown settlements. Novelty of experience, of course, cut both ways in the cultural collision of Europeans, Indians, and Africans, and other episodes covered here include the slave experience, the Salem witchcraft trials, the Great Awakening, and anti-British sentiments on the eve of war. Hoffer's book is well written and researched, relying on first-hand accounts, actual visits to historic sites, and the author's own creative imagination to transport the reader back in time. An innovative and unusual work, it is recommended for all libraries seeking a different perspective on U.S. history.-Robert Flatley, Kutztown Univ. of Pennsylvania Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Choice

Hoffer's thesis that history is part of a sensate process is remarkable, infectious, and written with verve.

William and Mary Quarterly - Richard Cullen Rath
Far ranging, imaginative... Sensory Worlds in Early America is a signal contribution to the emerging field of the history of the senses. It is a work of scholarship that takes risks with its sources and conclusions, asking readers to stretch their horizons to include new elements in the practice of twenty-first century cultural history. In that it succeeds admirably.

American Historical Review - Mark M. Smith
Part of the contribution of Peter Charles Hoffer's elegantly written study is that it suggests what dedicated attention to the senses might achieve.

Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography - John Smolenski
Sensory Worlds works best when Hoffer uses his evidence to carefully reconstruct the sensate experience in early America in order to bring new depth to familiar stories.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780801881367
Publisher:
Johns Hopkins University Press
Publication date:
12/01/2004
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
344
File size:
5 MB
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

Richard Godbeer
Reconstructing the sensory world of early Americans and what it meant to them is no easy task, yet Peter Charles Hoffer achieves just that. With a vivid, engaging prose style, he effectively recreates the visible, audible, and tangible reality of colonial America. This fresh and insightful work enlarges our understanding of the period and affirms the importance of sensation as a causative agent in history.

Meet the Author

Peter Charles Hoffer, Distinguished Research Professor of History at the University of Georgia, has published many books, including Law and People in Colonial America and The Devil's Disciples: Makers of the Salem Witchcraft Trials, both published by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

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