Archive for September, 2008


Sep 20 2008

Cima’s paper again

by at 9:05 pm

Electricity is equated with rebellion in John Neal’s Logan: A Family History (1822):

The old governor idolises the boy. There is so much in his nature, of that heroick self abandonment; so much of chivalry, that immortal spirit which men love to dream of. We may condemn it, denounce it, in the hearing of our children, but let the deed be done , to which this spirit hath impelled one, let the thought be expressed , and lo! the eloquent crimson of the heart flashes upward, like lightning, to the cheeks, to the eye, through all the trembling and agitated extremities, in approbation of both! Such is man! This inconceivable property of youth, this incommunicable thought of passionate daring, sent home, like a fire brand, successively, through the linked hearts of a multitude, will kindle a whole people to rebellion. God!What is it! The electricity of the soul. One arm is waved, and lo! unnumbered arms accompany it. One voice is lifted up; and straightway the heavens are ringing with the cry of a whole nation! Empires move off in the desperate incantation of a young spirit, newly baptized in fire, dipped for immortality, when it first ascends to the place of sacrifice, with a face shining like his—who came down from the mountain, with the presence of Jehovah abiding upon his forehead, and stretching out his arms to the air! How like are his operations to those of that penetrating, quick illimitable fire of heaven, which agitates the elements to instantaneous combustion, thundering within the hollow caverns of the earth, and trumpeting aloud in the skies! What is it? whence is it, this godlike pre-eminence of man? (Chapter IV:61)

Neal seems to be saying that certain people possess a kind of electricity in them that is transferable to other people. When this happens, individuals somehow begin to unite as one, following this “electrical leader.” With this kind of electricity, rebellion occurs. Hmm, abolitionist’s appropriation of the electrical metaphor falls in line with this line of thinking. Stowe wants to “electrify” her readers, or in Neal’s terms, wants to “transmit” her ideas to the public, uniting them behind or cause in the hopes that rebellion can occur.

That electricity is associated with uniting the masses isn’t surprising, given its relationship to the electromagnetic telegraph (“The Great Uniter”). Also, before the telegraph is even developed, the idea that electric principle that united all “things”–both inorganic and organic; living and non-living–was beginning to take over the scientific imagination. So, the appropriation of the electric metaphor in an abolitionist context isn’t too surprising: like the telegraph which unites individuals via electric copper wires, the “word” of a leader(s) needs to “electrify” the audience, and in the process making a “united” people. On a completely random note, could the telegraph be responsible for turning Americans from a lower case “u” (united) to an upper case “U” (THE United States of America). Don’t know if that makes any sense at all, but it’s a thought.

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Sep 20 2008

House of Seven Gables

by at 8:42 pm

This word search thing-a-ma-bob on Literature Online is amazing. The House of Seven Gables passage came up with the search. Here it is:

“Then there is electricity; — the demon, the angel, the mighty physical power, the all-pervading intelligence!” exclaimed Clifford. “Is that a humbug, too? Is it a fact— or have I dreamt it — that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time? Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence! Or, shall we say, it is itself a thought, nothing but thought, and no longer the substance which we deemed it!”

“If you mean the telegraph,” said the old gentleman, glancing his eye toward its wire, alongside the rail-track, “it is an excellent thing; — that is, of course, if the speculators in cotton and politics don’t get possession of it. A great thing, indeed, sir; particularly as regards the detection of bank-robbers and murderers.”

I don’t quite like it, in that point of view,” replied Clifford. “A bank-robber, and what you call a murderer, likewise, has his rights, which men of enlightened humanity and conscience should regard in so much the more liberal spirit, because the bulk of society is prone to controvert their existence. An almost spiritual medium, like the electric telegraph, should be consecrated to high, deep, joyful, and holy missions. Lovers, day by day, — hour by hour, if so often moved to do it, — might send their heartthrobs from Maine to Florida, with some such words as these, — `I love you forever!’ — `My heart runs over with love!’ — `I love you more than I can!’ — and, again, at the next message, — `I have lived an hour longer, and love you twice as much!’ Or, when a good man has departed, his distant friend should be conscious of an electric thrill, as from the world of happy spirits, telling him, — `Your dear friend is in bliss!’ Or, to an absent
husband, should come tidings thus, — `An immortal being, of whom you are the father, has this moment come from God!’ — and immediately its little voice would seem to have reached so far, and to be echoing in his heart. But for these poor rogues, the bank-robbers, — who, after all, are about as honest as nine people in ten, except that they disregard certain formalities, and prefer to transact business at midnight, rather than ‘Change-hours, — and for these murderers, as you phrase it, who are often excusable in the motives of their deed, and deserve to be ranked among public benefactors, if we consider only its result, — for unfortunate individuals like these, I really cannot applaud the enlistment of an immaterial and miraculous power in the universal world-hunt at their heels!”

“You can’t, hey?” cried the old gentleman, with a hard

“Positively, no!” answered Clifford. “It puts them too miserably at disadvantage. For example, sir, in a dark, low, cross-beamed, panelled room of an old house, let us suppose a dead man, sitting in an arm-chair, with a blood-stain on his shirt-bosom, — and let us add to our hypothesis another man, issuing from the house, which he feels to be over-filled with the dead man’s presence, — and let us lastly imagine him fleeing, Heaven knows whither, at the speed of a hurricane, by railroad! Now, sir, if the fugitive alight in some distant town, and find all the people babbling about that self-same dead man, whom he has fled so far to avoid the sight and thought of, will you not allow that (283, 284)

Really, now, this is awesome: “by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time? Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence!”

Ok, note to self: read HOSG as soon as humanly possible!

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Sep 20 2008


by at 8:07 pm

Wholey moley! I did a word search in the Literature Online Database for any piece of literature that contains the word “electricity” in it, and Lydia Maria Child came up! The book is called Lydia Maria Francis, 1802-1880 : Letters from New-York. (1843) . Wowzers:

I sometimes think electricity is the medium which puts man into relation with all things, enabling him to act on all, and receive from all. It is now well established as a scientific fact, though long regarded as an idle superstition, that some men can ascertain the vicinity of water, under ground, by means of a divining rod. Thouvenel, and other scientific men in France, account for it by supposing that “the water forms with the earth above it, and the fluids of the human body, a galvanic circle .” The human body is said to be one of the best conductors yet discovered, and nervous or debilitated persons to be better conductors than those in sound health. If the body of the operator be a very good conductor, the rod in his hand will be forcibly drawn toward the earth, whenever he approaches a vein of water, that lies near the surface. If silk gloves or stockings are worn, the attraction is interrupted; and it varies in degree, according as any substances between the water and the hand of the operator are more or less good conductors of the galvanic fluid (242).

Considering Child as prominent abolitionist makes her musings on electricity more than just musings. Her views on electricity are eerily similar to Stowe’s and Douglas’s. I think I’m beginning to see a trend here…

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Sep 18 2008

Electricity as Man’s Slave

by at 11:32 pm

So, I started doing research for Professor Cima’s paper and figured, what they hey, let me see if I could find anything on slavery and electricity. I’m finding a couple of really fascinating things (the article on the eel, for instance), but in one article electricity is literally desrcibed as “man’s slave.” Now what in the world am I supposed to make of that? This article was written in 1881. Again, electricity, in another article, is described as “subserviant to the uses of man as a mechanical power”–ahem, slave language, anyone? Is electricity substituing work that would have ordinarliy been perfomed by actual slave bodies?

Well, to answer my question above, the answer appears to be yes, Americans viewed electricity and the advent of technology as a way of replacing slavery. By 1900, slavery was viewed as backwards and old fashioned–an institution that existed prior to the electricity and the steam (I’m getting this all from an article I found on the American Periodicals Database as well). Interesting…

Also, in the article entitled “Wiry Ethics,” electricity and ethics are equated: “Indeed, the cable being round has no sides at all, and is a complete coil of ethics.” The article then goes on to say pre-electrical America was unethical and that if only the knowledge of electricity had existed sooner slavery could have been avoided. Hmm…

Also, on the eel article, could I connect it to Frances Wright and Lucretia Mott’s lectures? They rail medical physicians for their scientific racism, but clearly it isn’t just the “doctors,” it’s also the researchers. I definitely need to see if experiments like the “eel” one which were conducted on slaves was a common practise.

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Sep 18 2008

Going Global

by at 1:16 pm

So, in my last post I talked about the importance of the telegraph in the American context, but I realized that my analysis would also have to take into account the global significance of this technology, especially since it was developed in Britain before it came over to America. While America was concerned with uniting itself internally, I think I would also have to address the larger to desire to connect the continents. Why is America, at this moment, so concerned with uniting itself with Europe–particularly with England. In a weird way, as America is becoming increasingly “American” and forging its own identity, the desire to enter itself into the global community specficially a telegraphic connection with England becomes of prime importance. Are the two desires separate, or do they somehow work together? Hmm, is this Tenenhousian (ie: we become American by showing our Englishness, specifically in attempting to maintain friendly economic and cultural ties).

The global nature of this technology, I think, demands a transatlantic survey of texts (which, I think, justifies my inclusion of both British and American texts on my reading list).

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Sep 16 2008

How to cure a divided nation?…I say, give em a telegraph

by at 10:54 pm

So I was in the shower and maybe it was the water (could be the Piscean in me) or I don’t know what but I started thinking about way in which the myth of the telegraph as the “great unifier” took hold of the American imagination, as if the nation was seeking out some kind of fix for its internal problems. So, I wonder, more specifically here, if  the telegraph’s height of popularity in the 1850’s and 1860’s is significant. Dare I argue that at time when the nation was on the brink of Civil War the development of a technology that would be able to “unite” the North and South became of utmost importance? Hmm, this may be something worth looking into. Interesting how development of technology coincides with the cultural moment…makes sense though: scientists, of course, don’t operate inside a cultural vacuum. The frantic scramble to develop a technology that could unite exposes underlying anxieties over a disjointed nation whose lack of unity isn’t simply a result of spatial and time barriers. Rather, it’s an ideological warfare that becomes tied to geography or region: ie: Northerners (dwellers of the Northern regions–whatever that means) are predominently anti-slavery; Southerners are pro.

Also, the importance of the telegraph during the Reconstruction Era may be of significance as well.

Also, kind of tangential: When was the telegraph system installed in the Capitol. Was it before, during, or after the Civil War? I think knowing this is important. In any case, the desire to unite is still there, but it would be interesting to know when exactly the plans to install were made, especially since DC was viewed as the bridge between the North and South.

Hmm, now I think I’m just rambling….I think that’s enough for now.

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Sep 15 2008

Wow, I’m having way too much fun with this blog

by at 7:08 pm

So, this “research blog” is supposed to, in ways I have yet to understand or imagine, showcase my academic journey through the researching process. Since I haven’t started a thesis or devised an actual list for my orals (hey, I’m only a first year over here), I’m going to treat the blog as an extremely experimental (and oftentimes scattered) mapping of my ideas.

Possible texts of Interest:

  • Dracula (what do we make of a story that takes place “outside” the telegraphic network?)
  • Frankenstein (I think its relationship to electricity is pretty self explanantory)
  • The Time Machine (Is the telegraph’s ability to “tamper” with space and time addressed here?)
  • The Portrait of a Lady (Need to read; been cited in Gilmore’s “Romantic Electricity;” James was interested in the telegraph, it seems)
  • House of Seven Gables (Also need to read, supposedly has telegraph stuff in there as well)
  • “I Sing the Body Electric” (yep, pretty self explanatory as well)

So, yeah, that’s about where I am so far in my “musings.” Hmm, it should be interesting to see where I go with all of this….but I’m liking this blog thing-a-ma-jig.  The tags are quite fun…wow, could I get any nerdier?

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Sep 15 2008

Here’s to the first post!

by at 5:29 pm

Ok, might as well jump right in:

Lately, I’ve gotten really interested in the ways in which electricity is depicted in 19th century American and British lit. I’ve been particularly interested in the electromagnetic telegraph and its symbioitic relationship with the nervous system metaphor. Marie informed me about the Capitol’s telegraphic history, which got me really interested. Hmm, I wonder if I could somehow do a reading of the building itself….

So I decided to do some exploring (specifically, trying to find more information on the intersection between the technological history and the history of the Capitol) and I found this link. Oh, the wonders of google. Talks about the history of the telegraph and the Capitol, and specifically brings an example of a piece of artwork that’s in the Capitol.

Here’s the article:

And here’s a close up of the painting, entitled Telegraph by Constantino Brumidi:

Weird stuff! I’m especially intrigued by the Europa myth and how Brumidi tailored it for an American myth. Don’t know what to make of it yet, but it could be useful.

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