Snow White Doesn't Live Here Anymore

Laughter, pleasure, malice, and the pursuit of adult fun

When and Why Did People Stop Whistling?

Have we, as a nation, lost our whistle?

Remember Harris Mackim from Catcher in the Rye? You probably don’t remember his name. I didn’t either and I spent years of my adolescence reading and re-reading Salinger.

But if you read the book even once, you probably remember Mackim as ”very intelligent and all, but … one of the biggest bores I ever met. He had one of these very raspy voices, and he never stopped talking, practically. He never stopped talking, and what was awful was, he never said anything you wanted to hear in the first place.”

But he was the boring guy who could do one thing well; he could whistle:

“The sonuvabitch could whistle better than anybody I ever heard. He’d be making his bed, or hanging up stuff in the closet–he was always hanging up stuff in the closet–it drove me crazy–and he’d be whistling while he did it, if he wasn’t talking in this raspy voice. He could even whistle classical stuff, but most of the time he just whistled jazz. He could take something very jazzy, like ‘Tin Roof Blues,’ and whistle it so nice and easy–right while he was hanging stuff up in the closet–that it could kill you. Naturally, I never told him I thought he was a terrific whistler. I mean you don’t just go up to somebody and say, ‘You’re a terrific whistler.’ But I roomed with him for about two whole months, even though he bored me till I was half crazy, just because he was such a terrific whistler, the best I ever heard. So I don’t know about bores. Maybe you shouldn’t feel too sorry if you see some swell girl getting married to them. They don’t hurt anybody, most of them, and maybe they’re secretly all terrific whistlers or something. Who the hell knows? Not me.”

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I was thinking about old Mackim recently because I gave a talk for an event celebrating the   librarians and celebrating libraries generally. I figured that, since a couple of hundred folks would be in the audience, I should re-do my make-up before I went to the stage. I was whistling as I walked into the women’s bathroom and from behind the stall door I hear a voice saying “You’re an excellent whistler.”

Now I didn’t realize there was anybody else in another stall, let alone imagine that I had an audience for my rendition of  ”Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone.”

I’d just heard it on the oldies station during my two-hour drive and the melody grabbed me. I wasn’t even aware that I was whistling, which is one of the interesting things about doing it: like tapping your feet or biting your lip, it’s something you do below an active level of consciousness, I think.

The woman in the next stall turned out to be a friend. We hugged and she expressed interest in my whistling ability. Was I whistling to calm myself down before the talk? Was I whistling to make myself happy or to get myself ready? Was I whistling to see whether anybody would whistle back?

I explained to her that, in all honesty, I was hardly aware of the fact that I was whistling; it was a habit.

I explained that my family was made of whistlers: We had a Barreca whistle which is how we called to each other in public places. You’re on Jones Beach with 3,000,000 other people? You better have a loud and distinctive whistle when you’re making your way back to the towel. We were like sirens: you could hear a Barreca from a quarter of a mile away. We considered people who screamed actual names out loud to lack class whereas the emission of a brain-piercing siren-like sound was practically the mark of aristocracy.

Besides, it worked.

But it occurred to me that you don’t hear many people whistling any more. I can’t remember the last time I heard a student whistling in the hall, even to him or herself. I know it was considered unfeminine for girls to whistle, and bad luck on a boat. Women who whistled on a ship would invite the wind–at least that’s whats some guy who had a boat and didn’t like my whistling once told me, but I’m wondering now if it’s true. Are we too worried?

Have we, as a nation, lost our whistle?

There are probably studies about this somewhere funded by important grants and that’s great. I’m not looking them up right now. I’m busy whistling Dixie.

Gina Barreca, Ph.D., is Professor of English at UConn, and author of It's Not That I'm Bitter: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Visible Panty Lines and Conquered the World.

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