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  • Correspondent Lines:Poetry, Journalism, and the U.S. Civil War
  • Eliza Richards (bio)

Observers of the U.S. Civil War thought about the ways in which new communication technologies affected individual and collective states. In an Atlantic Monthly essay titled "Bread and the Newspaper," published in September 1861, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. dubs the Civil War communications network "our national nervous system."1 Dr. Holmes speculates that the "iron nerve pathways" of the newspaper and telegraph and the "iron muscles" of the railroad, animated by the force of war, have created a superhuman national body. These "new conditions of existence," in his view,

make war as it is with us very different from war as it has been. The first and obvious difference consists in the fact that the whole nation is now penetrated by the ramifications of a network of iron nerves which flash sensation and volition backward and forward to and from towns and provinces as if they were organs and limbs of a single living body. The second is the vast system of iron muscles which, as it were, move the limbs of the mighty organism one upon another.

("BN," 348)

The nervous network binds the "whole nation"—a phrase that stands in unresolved conflict with Holmes's staunch support [End Page 145] of the Northern cause in this passage—into a living, responsive entity that acts on impulse. Once the iron nerves send their messages, the iron muscles respond, resulting in a mass mobilization that Holmes hopes will win the war for the Union.

This "perpetual intercommunication" has negative consequences as well ("BN," 348). Its mass scale overloads people, generating health problems. Being wired into a force so much larger and more powerful than themselves takes a toll on individuals unaccustomed to receiving and transmitting such enormous amounts of energy. For Holmes, the impact of news circulation upon noncombatants results in a version of the "war fever" contracted by soldiers. Associating the absorption of shocking events with troop movements, he tells readers that thinking about news ages the brain prematurely:

When any startling piece of war-news comes, it keeps repeating itself in our minds in spite of all we can do. The same trains of thought go tramping round in a circle through the brain, like the supernumeraries that make up the grand army of a stage-show. Now, if a thought goes round through the brain a thousand times in a day, it will have worn as deep a track as one which has passed through it once a week for twenty years. This accounts for the ages we seem to have lived since the twelfth of April last.

("BN," 347)

Because people cannot stop reading and thinking about the news, their brains register the physical stress of war. In defining and diagnosing this mental condition, Dr. Holmes forges correspondences between external and internal events via trope. Just as actors representing the grand army tramp in a circle, constrained by the space of the stage, so the thoughts of those who read about the spectacle of war go round and round in the brain, leaving deep grooves. Though he uses metaphor and analogy, Holmes goes beyond loosely associating massive information intake with troop movements, instead asserting a direct, causal impact. He imagines that, in thinking about [End Page 146] the calamity, the brain receives shocks—or "impressions"—that are as physical as wounds to other parts of the body: trains of thought are as inexorable and potentially lethal as the trains that carry troops bristling with bayonets.2 Holmes's idea of the national nervous system blurs the distinction between figure and ground, vicarious and direct experience of events. Because violent shocks are transmitted directly from the war front to the home front, readers of the news become casualties of war.

Though Holmes's particular theory may seem idiosyncratic, he addresses a central concern of his time: early mass media's ability to transmit wartime impressions so forcibly that perception is permanently altered. The conglomeration of new communication and transportation technologies—the telegraph, the railroad, the steamship, and the steam-powered printing press—combined with a large literate population, created the conditions for the...


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pp. 145-170
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