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ELH 69.3 (2002) 805-833

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The Telegraph in Black and White

Paul Gilmore

The opening lines of Stephen Foster's "O Susanna" (1848) are familiar to nearly every American: "I come from Alabama / Wid my banjo on my knee / I'm g'wan to Lousiana / My true love for to see." The second verse, though, is less well known: "I jumped aboard the telegraph / And trabbeled down the ribber, / De 'lectric fluid magnified, / And killed five hundred nigger." As in most minstrel songs, this verse employs dialect in a racist caricature of blacks as ignorant. 1 More striking, however, is its fantasy of mass racial death. While the punchline of much minstrel humor, especially in earlier minstrel songs, involved violence to black bodies, the violence in "O Susanna" is rather anomalous in Foster's oeuvre. Foster's songs (and most songs of the more middle-brow minstrelsy of the late 1840s and early 1850s) tended to rely not on slapstick humor, but on images of sentimentalized homesick or lovesick blacks. A few of Foster's earlier comic songs, of which "O Susanna" is the best-known example, participate in the minstrel tradition of monstrous black (especially female) bodies—the title character of "Angelina Baker" (1850) "am so tall / She nebber sees de graound"; in "Away Down Souf" (1848), "My lub she hab a very large mouf, / One corner in de norf, tudder corner in de souf." But even among these earlier minstrel pieces, the violence in the second verse of "O Susanna" is startling. Instead of rendering black bodies grotesquely monstrous or sexual or tripping up black characters in farcical comedy, the second verse of "O Susanna" imagines the mass extermination of five hundred black bodies in one flash of electrical magnification. 2

This essay takes this violent image from "O Susanna" as a starting point for reconstructing a technological racial logic which, I will argue, underlies and necessitates this violence. I flesh out the links between technology and race hinted at in Foster's song by focusing on how the telegraph, the body, and race came together in a variety of cultural forms—Henry David Thoreau's Walden, magazine descriptions of the telegraph, racial science, abolitionist rhetoric on progress and technology, and Walt Whitman's poetry. By circulating through a number of texts from the 1840s and 1850s, I will argue that [End Page 805] telegraphic discourse of the antebellum period repeatedly returned to a racialized understanding of civilization, as most extensively illustrated in American racial science, to describe technology's role in the march of progress. While earlier advances in transportation and communication, such as canals and the postal service, had been celebrated, like the telegraph, for annihilating space and time, the telegraph alone made communication independent of embodied messengers. Because electricity was understood as both a physical and spiritual force, the telegraph was read both as separating thought from the body and thus making the body archaic, and as rematerializing thought in the form of electricity, thereby raising the possibility of a new kind of body. Recovering how race appeared in descriptions of the telegraph in literary texts, mass culture, and middle-brow scientific discussions, I describe how the telegraph's technological reconfiguration of the mind/body dualism gave rise to a number of competing but interrelated, racially-inflected readings.

By tracing these manifestations of the telegraph in black and white, I argue that because the telegraph and electricity seemed to confound the distinction between the physical and the spiritual, the body and mind, the racial distinctions between white mind and black body which the telegraph supposedly evidenced were occasionally placed in jeopardy. In antebellum slavery debates, telegraphic "commerce" (as it was most often denoted) was understood as uniting the different sections of the country into one "body." Simultaneously, though, in terms of race, the telegraph was celebrated for extending the conquest of a disembodied white mind over both the globe and the bodies of inferior, primitive peoples. In rendering bodies unnecessary, however, the telegraph's electric nature also gave rise to radically different interpretations that emphasized the disappearance of racial...