Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019.
$27, 320 pages.
The ideal way to read Jane Brox’s books, which consider human interaction with the environment over long stretches of time, is during some kind of retreat — away from your ordinary life and awake to Brox’s patient, exquisitely textured accumulation of scene setting, historical detail, and gentle argument. This is not the way I read her newest book, Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives, which examines the intertwined histories of silences imposed by and sought in prisons and monasteries. Paradoxically, I read much of Silence in noisy or distracting places— on benches at museums and parks while my children played, or in my office between classes and appointments.
I found myself transported by Brox’s storytelling, beginning with her reconstruction of the life of Charles Williams, the first prisoner to arrive at Eastern State Penitentiary, the nineteenth-century Philadelphia prison built to incarcerate men in “nearly complete” isolation. Williams, a black farmer convicted of breaking into a house and stealing twenty-five dollars in gold and silver, was sentenced to two years of solitary, silent confinement. He was not allowed to receive visits from family or friends, not allowed to speak unless instructed to, and not allowed to write or read letters. He was, Brox writes, “almost totally cut off from modern speech and its ancient history, and would hear no more than small scurryings in the walls or sighs of his own making.”
At Eastern State, the guards wore socks over their shoes so prisoners would not hear them approaching; the wheels of meal carts were wrapped in leather to tamp down sounds; and each prisoner’s hour of daily exercise was in a private, walled-in yard. The idea behind this experimental prison, envisioned by Founding Father Benjamin Rush, was to punish and deter crime but also to alter the soul.
Rush and his Quaker contemporaries hoped to reform, with order and reflection, the filthy and chaotic conditions long associated with English prisons, perhaps inspired by the lives of religious hermits. But as Brox shows us, monastic hermits were the exception and undertook isolation with rigorous preparation. Her book carefully contrasts prison-imposed silence with the chosen silence of monks—in particular, the twentieth-century Catholic writer Thomas Merton, who entered Gethsemani, a Cistercian monastery in Kentucky, at age twentysix. Merton retreated more and more into a life of isolation, working alone in a small toolshed in the woods, where he delighted in the natural beauty surrounding him and the vocation of prayer and spiritual contemplation. “This solitude confirms my call to solitude,” he wrote in his journal. “The more I am in it, the more I love it.”
Yet “no silence is stable,” Brox reminds us. Merton, highly visible after publication of his memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain, struggled with his sense of moral obligation to speak out against war, even as he longed for silence (and chafed against church-imposed censorship).
The penitential silence intended to surround Charles Williams was broken by the sound of construction; Williams was also conscripted into work on the prison not long after his incarceration.
The contemporary Pelican Bay supermax prison has the capacity to hold a thousand prisoners in isolation — seventy-eight have been in solitary confinement for more than twenty years, nearly five hundred for longer than a decade — but the lives of those prisoners are hardly defined by silence. Instead, they hear “unceasing” noise — cries, howls, shouting, and banging.
Brox’s nuanced approach demonstrates how silence can be both a tool of oppression and a spiritual or intellectual refuge. She gives us shocking accounts of harsh punishments many colonial women received “simply for talking too much or too publicly, or in a tone of voice that seemed grating or nagging”: they might be publicly gagged or dunked repeatedly in a pond. And she skillfully evokes the difficult historical silence of the disenfranchised, whose stories are “less recorded” and “fragmented.” But she also shows us how personal intervals of silence— reading on a subway train, for example, or retreating from the world for a few minutes or a few weeks— can become a useful, unselfish practice that deepens our commitment to community. Periods of silence can remind us of the value of friendship or make us remember conversations; not speaking can help us choose our words more carefully.
Like Merton, those of us with a choice can ask ourselves what we close ourselves off from when we enter into silence, as well as what we give up when we leave it.
Belle Boggs’s first novel, The Gulf, was published in April. She is also the author of The Art of Waiting and Mattaponi Queen, and teaches in the MFA program at North Carolina State University.