Embodied eloquence, the sumner assault, and the transatlantic cable

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Abstract

Hanlon's essay depicts South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks's 1856 assault on Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner as a flashpoint for 1850s controversies over the laying of transatlantic telegraphic cable between the United States and England. Widely treated by both Northern and Southern commentators as a form of political discourse, Brooks's caning of Sumner also reverberated with a broad set of concerns over telegraphic communication. Many noted that the cane with which Brooks assaulted Sumner was constructed of guttapercha, the substance that was used to insulate the transatlantic cable and that served, over the course of the decade, as a metonym for advanced telecommunications technology. In Congress, Brooks's assault was depicted by Senator Andrew Butler as a rejoinder to Sumner's speech as an improper - because prepublished and internationally distributed - abolitionist diatribe. The Brooks-Sumner affair, in which a Southern legislator smote his abolitionist colleague using a fragment of the era's most salient symbol for global peace and goodwill, called forth a set of anxieties concerning the telegraphic disembodiment of the voice, the unchecked proliferation of speculation and rumor, and the globalization of the American cotton trade.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)489-518
Number of pages30
JournalAmerican Literature
Volume82
Issue number3
DOIs
StatePublished - Sep 1 2010

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ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Literature and Literary Theory

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