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Time and Distance Overcome
“And I believed that the telephone itself was a miracle.” (P. 11, l. 141.) How could one of the greatest inventions of all time not be a miracle? The invention of the telephone did not only help people communicate easier, it also had a huge impact on the deaths of many colored people after its creation. The essay “Time and Distance Overcome” revolves around the racial tragedies that happened in the early 1900’s due to the invention of the telephone. The essay was written in 2008 by the white American non-fiction writer, Eula Biss. This paper will provide an overall analysis of the essay, including the composition, the writer’s intention and a comment on the content itself.
The essay is divided into three different parts; two heavy ones and a short concluding one.
The two heavy parts are made of a stream of facts regarding the creation of the telephone – but with two very different sides of the same case. There is a great change of mood between the first and the second part, maybe because the focus changes. The two main parts of the story relates to each other perfectly, however, with the great change in mood and topic, the readers find themselves in doubt whether the different parts actually are related. By changing the mood and including such disturbing events, the author has managed to make an overall entertaining and exciting story, and it is not until the very end, that the reader fully understands the concept of the story. Also, one has to read the entire story and then re-read it again before the hidden symbolism of the story is discovered.
The essay takes its starting point in 1876 when Alexander Graham Bell presents the very first telephone to the world. Here, it introduces the way people were, and how much trouble Alexander Bell had to go through to publish his invention. People were against the idea, and the so called “War on Telephone Poles” – where people tried to stop telephone poles from being raised – began. Moving on, the essay provides example after example for incidents involving the telephone poles. Nevertheless, during the entire first part, a positive tone towards the telephone is kept, which is clearly stated in one particularly quote: “Despite the War on Telephone Poles, it would take only four years after Bell’s first public demonstration of the telephone for every town of over 10,000 people to be wired…” (P. 8, l. 57-59) Jumping to the second part, the storyline is turned completely upside down. The endless facts of the “War on Telephone Poles” are here replaced by much more horrible facts: “In 1898, in Lake Comorant, Mississippi, a black man was hanged from a telephone pole.” (P.9, l. 65). A stream of factual historical events begins, and the new take on the telephone story continues.
The mood has changed from historic and kind of dull to a dramatic tragedy. The positive tone towards the telephone is now negative. Without even mentioning the telephone directly, Eula Biss still manages to make the creation of the telephone stand out as the reason for these racial tragedies, because of the raising of telephone poles. When the phone itself is mentioned, the tone is far from positive: “Early telephone calls were full of noise. ‘Such a jangle of meaningless noises had never been heard by human ears.’” (P. 9, l. 95-96). The bloody facts are thrown in the reader’s face, again and again, often very alike: “In Bluff, Arkansas a black man charged with…” (P. 9, l. 84) and “In Shreveport, a black man charged with attacking a white girl…” (P. 10, l. 100). The facts are repeated all the way through the second segment, functioning as a wake-up call for the reader. Reading between the lines, it feels like the author deliberately wants people to remember these horrible events, almost to the point where you feel guilty. However, with the dramatic change in mood and take on the story, you find yourself confused with the purpose and message of the story when finishing the second segment. The two parts do not quite fit in with each other.
The third and final part of the essay functions as a conclusion to the author’s thoughts about the topic. It is not revealed what happened afterwards with the actual historical events, but rather what the reason for the story is. During the progress of the story, the author’s personal voice is getting clearer and clearer, but is not directly used until this part. It is here, the different segments begins to connect: “Nothing is innocent, my sister reminds me. But nothing, I would like to think, remains unrepentant.” (P. 11, l49.) The entire story acts as a wake-up call to the readers. As the author mentions directly, nothing remains unrepentant. People cannot just forget about these events and just cherish the way technology has helped the world. People died due to the creation of the telephone, and history did not go as smooth as many people believe that they know it did.
The composition is set up great, even when you don’t understand the connection between the segments. Keeping the first segment quiet and slow, the second segment relieves the interest for the story and puts the reader in a place where they have to continue reading to find meaning in the essay. It functions great with the little confusion, especially because it all fits so well when reading the conclusion, and the reader really understands how the two segments interacts with each other. It is a great way to open up for a topic that has been long forgotten, and at the same time point out how ironic it all seems to be today.
The author’s intentions with the story were to remind people about the horrible events from the beginning of the last century connected to the invention of the telephone, which everyone depends on today. She has done a great job setting up the composition in a metaphorical way that gives the reader a nice background information, but at the same time provides the reader with the origin of these murders in a very ironic way. Reading between the lines, the whole concept of the telephone seems stupid, considering the purpose was to connect people. Instead, it was used to drive people apart, separating people by their skin color and driving the Western civilization downwards with a brand new invention.