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 gutta-percha, 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.
Christopher Hanlon; Embodied Eloquence, the Sumner Assault, and the Transatlantic Cable. American Literature 1 September 2010; 82 (3): 489–518. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-2010-022
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