Response #5 – Eula Biss’ “Time and Distance Overcome”

Here is the essay “Time and Distance Overcome” by Eula Biss. If you are one who doesn’t like to read online, you can download the essay below:

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Eula Biss

In what has become a classic essay in the genre of nonfiction, “Time and Distance Overcome” is stunning in its transformation; it starts out as a somewhat mundane list of facts about telephone poles, and then becomes something else entirely. For me, the essay is a reminder that research can be an avenue into discovery, full of surprises. Biss presents this essay and discovery just as she found it; she started researching one thing, which lead her to something else.

Another lesson I take from this essay is how an emotional effect can be created through nothing more than concrete fact. In this essay, the “I” is almost entirely de-centered (until the very end) with no real editorializing. Biss does not preach, though her meaning is clear. She merely places the facts before us, and allows us to come to our own reaction, much in the way a painting or photograph might.

I also want to draw your attention to the conclusion. She uses an image, and without needing to spell it out for us, the ending provides a symbol of hope, even amidst the darkness of the history she portrays. One thing to consider in your own work is how you might leave reader with a lasting image, a concrete symbol to represent the emotion you want to leave them with.

I do not want to say more, as I want you to experience the essay on your own terms. In your response below, post your general reaction to the essay: you might consider addressing how effective the transformation/shift is; whether or not you feel the order is important (Could these fragmented pieces be placed in any order to be effective?). Finally, provide some possible research topics of your own you’d like to pursue.

I look forward to reading your responses.

21 Comments for “Response #5 – Eula Biss’ “Time and Distance Overcome””

Jennifer Karulski

says:

This reading was chilling. It started out innocently enough, but then took a surprising turn to the darker ways in which telephone poles were used. I’m sure that’s not what Bell intended them for. The first few examples of lynchings were shocking, but they just kept coming and then it was with numb horror that I kept reading them. People were so awful, and it wasn’t that long ago. The breaks of going off topic to children’s games or the quality of early phone calls made me think the gory list was going to stop, but it kept going! This was a dark example of how something innocent can become part of something terrible. It makes me think of how objects can mean so much. Obvious things like guns can provoke a strong reaction, but what about something like a dog? One person might think it’s the best thing ever, another could be terrified of dogs and hate the thought of him. Nothing is innocent. That’s an important thong to keep in mind when writing.

dlfarmer

says:

Thanks, Jennifer. I think you’re right about objects. From a writing standpoint, it’s good to think about how specific objects can represent a lot of different things. Often a writer can sort of dictate how the object is perceived by the reader through tonality and description: “the dog growled and bared its teeth” vs. ” the puppy wagged it’s tail, and brushed his paw against me.” I think part of the effectiveness of this essay by Biss is the way that the telephone poles start out so innocently, and then we’re a little blindsided (as she was once she started doing the research).

Logan McGinnis

says:

In my very first ever creative writing class, we were asked to read this. We were given no warning as to what lay ahead. At first, I thought it merely a historical recounting of the history concerning the telephone. However, it didn’t take long to figure out that it was most definitely not. It’s been a few years since I’ve read this and yet I still feel those same emotions. Shock, anger, sadness and so much more. The line she puts in about “last nights barbecue” just blows my mind. How and in what world is this okay. As horrifying as these acts were Eula Biss doesn’t write to condemn but simply inform and allow the reader to make their own conclusions. I think the overall structure works as is and wouldn’t carry the same effect if rearranged. She starts out with just the basic facts about Bell and his idea and then slowly builds towards the big reveal. She also goes back and forth between the horrifying deaths/murders to other things concerning the telephone. Things that don’t revolve around death and dying. I like this aspect and she does it so nicely. She writes it in such a way that she puts children’s games and lynching on the same page and somehow makes it all flow so smoothly despite that huge contrast. I think my favorite part is the end, in which she can no longer see the beauty and wonder in the poles but goes on to say in the last few sentences about the branches bringing new life. Overall, this is probably one of my favorite essay’s. Definitely not for the horrifying content but I admire the way in which she tells this story.

dlfarmer

says:

Good, Logan. This is one of my favorite essays, too, just because I find it powerful, and admire how she leads us to feel all of the emotions you list here by simply listing the objective facts, without reflection or explaining. Good response, and I’m glad you like the essay.

Ana Hinkle

says:

This essay was a powerful piece! The first part of the essay provided history and context to Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone. I was not aware there was so much anger and opposition to the installation of telephone poles across America during this time. As the reader it was informative and insightful. Then it changed. In the second part of the essay, Biss provides the darker, horrific, and traumatic history of the telephone pole as they were often used for lynchings across the country. Biss transitions gracefully and sets us up for this look at the darker side by providing a quote from Thomas Edison how the telephone “brought the human family in closer touch,” yet the lynchings described in the second part of the essay contradict this idea. After reading it a second time, I was keenly aware Biss mentioned 10 stories and 3 cities where people retaliated against the installation of telephone poles. Yet, she shares 21 stories of lynchings from 21 cities, as well as race riots. These stories helped paint a picture for the reader how prevalent lynchings were during this time. A point that is driven home when Biss states 130,000 telephone poles were used to connect New York to San Francisco. That really hit me in my gut! I also had a different take on Biss’s sentence, “Even now it is an impossible idea, that we are all connected, all of us,” after a second reading. I believe she is challenging the idea that we are all connected (even with the invention of the telephone) based on the practice of lynching black Americans. In the third and final (and shortest) part of the essay, Biss shared her personal experience and connection to the telephone pole. She describes her youthful innocence surrounding telephones poles, but now (and I assume after researching this essay) she sees them differently. The youthful innocence has been replaced by hard, gut-wrenching truth. Biss’s last sentence of the essay mentions a specific place, heavy rain, a telephone pole and growth of branches on the pole, which represents hope and repentance.

dlfarmer

says:

Excellent response, Ana. The numbers you contribute here are quite telling, I think. I think it’s useful to know that Biss came to the lynching aspect through her research; which is to say she began researching telephone poles, not knowing what else she’d discover, and then she presented the work in a way that led us to experience this discovery in much the way she did. I think the 21 states figure is important, too, because I think many people often think of this is only something that happened in the South.
I appreciate the thoughtful response!

Erika Goddard

says:

Even with the warning beforehand that the essay would become something different from how it starts, I was still caught off guard by what it revealed. It seemed like informative bits of history of telephone poles before it gives something close to a whiplash as the history lessons turns dark and horrifying. Just getting to the part where they made postcards of lynching made me feel sick to my stomach. But even after learning this history, the essay doesn’t put telephone poles as something that shouldn’t exist. Even if Eula Biss’ view of them has changed from her youth, she adds that one sentence at the end that gives the reader a bit of hope. And while Bell could never have foreseen what would happen, it still doesn’t affect the fact that he simply wanted everyone to be more connected to each other, even if it seemed silly and outlandish to others during his time.
As for the piece itself, it is powerful and thought-provoking. The essay transitions well from the brief facts to dark history with an easy flow despite the conflicting differences of information. It also gives interesting ideas of how an author might go about writing about a certain topic. Similar to the telephone pole, looking into the history of something that seems mundane in our time, like the airplane, might give an interesting read to others and worth looking into to.

dlfarmer

says:

Good, Erika. I think whiplash is a good word for it. I think Biss’ presentation mimicked her own research which began as a project about Bell, and she was surprised by how often the term “lynching” came up as she reesrach about the telephone poles. I think one of the things that makes the essay so effective is how she creates for us that same discovery.

I love the airplane idea! Might be worth pursuing for our next essay. Thanks for the thoughtful response.

Aubri Stogsdill

says:

WOW! When I first started reading this essay, I did not anticipate it going the direction it did. The facts at the start were interesting and amusing to read. The author starts out by saying, “The world wasn’t waiting for the telephone,” and proceeds to recount the tremendous amount of resistance that Americans put up as telephone companies tried to put in telephone poles. As I read, I began to appreciate the telephone poles and felt anticipation of something changing within the narrative, but I wasn’t sure where it would go. When the switch took place, I was completely shocked. Biss so casually transitions into the stories or lynchings. She gives a short description of the reason for the lynching, the abuse they experienced, and that they were hung on a telephone pole. This quick jump from one story to the next is shocking. It is like being hit over and over. Biss doesn’t give the reader time to recover, which adds to the impact of the stories. I think comparing the history of the creation of the telephone poles with the violence towards the black community is extremely impactful. In my opinion, it causes a very normal icon that I see on a daily basis, to carry tremendous weight. The fact that there is very little opinion in the piece and it primarily consists of history also brings a lot of impact for me personally. In the end, Biss reminisces about how she used to like telephone poles and lines, but they have changed in her eyes. Yet, nothing is impossible to redeem. The very last sentence states that she saw a telephone pole that had grown some leafy branches. While this was a short ending, I really appreciated that there was a sort of hopefulness to it, after reading about such horrific racism and violence.

A research topic that I was thinking about was abortion. Perhaps contrasting the history of abortion with historical protection of wildlife, or something along those lines.

dlfarmer

says:

Good, Aubri. I think you touch on all of the main elements of the essay. I think you’re right about the impact of the abrupt shift. In a sense, she lulls us into a state of complacency, and then hits us with the shock of that horrible history.

Great response!

Isabelle Jacobson

says:

I really like how Biss effectively shows her train of thought and research process through the piece without listing out what she’d done with “First I, Then I, Finally I”. I find the content really interesting, and I think every part of it is necessary for the piece to have the same effect. I also think that the piece must be ordered this way, at least content-wise, although I think the fragments for each topic are also important to keep. The paragraphs are quick and brief and it is written with blurbs like those you might find in a history textbook. Once she discusses more sensitive topics, she seems to change her language slightly to accommodate and not be so distant that she sounds cold. That’s another thing I was really impressed by. The way she presents fact without sounding like a textbook is impressive, and I think the largest thing that breaks up “boring” facts is white space and jumpier transitions. Her transitions make sense from one topic to another, but they aren’t smooth, so it keeps the brain interested. I should keep that in mind for dense or complex topics when writing pieces like this. If I were to write a piece like this, I’d be interested in writing about something science related, perhaps physics or biology, because in many of my science classes we’ve talked about how two or more topics are unexpectedly related and it’s really interesting. Within those fields, I’d be interested in looking at DNA, medical practice, theoretical physics, or basic physics findings. I’d be really interested to try this style of writing for nonfiction, and I think the way Biss presents sensitive/emotional information in a straightforward and considerate way highlights the importance of a balance in language.

Katherine Keith

says:

Overall, I felt this concept was useful.
In the case of the telephone pole and wire, the men are fighting against the technology of telephone because they don’t know what that will do to their present-day lives. The second group of men are fighting against people of color because they’re threatened and afraid of the future. Both groups of men are afraid of what the telephone poles symbolize: fear of change.

A general problem I had with the essay, was the fact that the telephone poles were the main hook. It made the writing more superficial and so it was difficult to identify emotionally with the events. For such a devastating topic for our country’s history, I felt it could have gone deeper; the cornerstone of the telephone pole was creative, but yet also held it back. But perhaps that was exactly what she wanted?

I was personally dissatisfied with the ending. First of all, Nebraska? I must have missed who was in Nebraska. But we all clearly know the issue wasn’t the telephone poles but human nature and the fear-based often lethal made during those years. I would have liked to see an ending related to end, such as somebody from the KKK with their grandchild building a telephone pole back up; something a little more empowering and specific to the story.
For my story, I would start by researching what non-profit organization I would donate to. I would research the process of sponsoring a child by sending money every month. The essay could expand out from there to the bigger picture. I could write about how women in 3rd world countries now need to be working in order to feed their families because of the high rate of poverty they are in and cultural issues; the amount of corruption if any in the non-profits; or the amount of overhead that exists; or even look into the World Health Organization and what is really going on in the 3rd world nations.

This essay would allow me to start small, and then build out big based on where the research takes me. In the end, I would paint an image either positive or negative based on what impact was needed: to create action or leave messages of hope.

Erik Grazulis

says:

In this piece, I found it interesting how Eula Biss incorporates voices from the past into her piece. During the innocent, early portions of the essay, the quotes from past people and publications appear humorous. Biss’ use of the New York Times article title “War on Telephone Poles” made me laugh. It reminds me of the way that people are slow to adapt to change, and often overreact to it
The second New York Times reference is very dark: “At first the negro was defiant, but just before he was hanged he begged hard for his life.” When reading this quote, I felt a bit disoriented. I couldn’t just chalk this event up as absurd behavior. It describes an event that is horrible, and alien to my current experience. The language also feels a little foreign. If someone were to publish this sentence today, It would read as exploitative. As it is, I’m not quite sure how to interpret the word choice. Would the description of the victim as defiant, then begging, imply that the man was a coward? On the other hand, it could simply be an attempt at an objective report of the event.
In the piece, the New York Times is subject to the same themes as the telephone pole. Like the telephone pole, the Times still exists today. It is a method of communication, and it carries different meaning to different people in different time periods. Biss’ use of this voice from the past allowed me to experience the change in perspective that she described having when it came to telephone poles. I felt the change in perspective viscerally when I was forced to confront such an alien voice, and then realize that the institution of the Times still exists.

Diana Ramstad

says:

This reading is an exciting read because it sums up both great things and bad things. The great thing that comes out of this is the ability to communicate through the Telephone. But unfortunately, the bad thing is that the Telephone pole itself got used to hanging people. It is horrible; I understand, as the article mentions, that the telephone poles themselves are not to blame. The thing that is interesting about this article is about fear of change. I once watched an episode of little house on the prairie where the telephone poles were knocked down. The telephone poles were knocked down in protest because of gossip going on in the town itself. I use a phone, and I am not against the Telephone, computers, or anyway a technophobe, but I can understand the changes. I am fifty; I grew up without cell phones, cordless phones, etc. I can remember having a simple phone in the living room, and that was it and no cell phones until my early thirties. So, this is something I can understand, change is confusing and scary as this article highlights.

Jacob Parker

says:

I’ve encountered this essay before in a prior class and I have to say, it is one of the most profound pieces of literature that I have read. While reading the opening I was captivated by the initial responses to the invention of the telephone. Such an extreme level of innovation in the story of mankind, and what a daunting task it must have seemed. The essay suggest that the telephone was the birthplace for the notion of everyone being connected on a single technological platform. I would consider it a precursor to the world wide web. With that in mind it is hard to think of any other innovation that has impacted society as we know it more. And while this essay shows us how the invention of telephones transformed society, it also shows us how society transformed that innovation and the use of telephone poles into something much more abhorrent. On one end you have the brilliance that came with the advent of telephones, on the other you have the darkest misusage of that brilliance imaginable. I think this essay highlights how fragile the world is we live in. We have made amazing advancements as a species, accomplishing many things that would be considered magically or outside the realm of reason. And yet we are too young of a species to break out of primitive behaviors and ideologies that hinders progression. Here we have the tools to accomplish anything humanity can dream of, and what do we do with them? Spread hate, destruction, suffering? With this essay I began with a feeling of optimism and ended with a feeling quite the opposite. I left with the notion that we live in a world without absolutes, nothing is wholly good or wholly evil; instead our world remains a mixture. Ending on a different note I think this essay was tactfully written in the regard that it draws you into the topic of telephone poles / wires before becoming something entirely more meaningful. The essay would not be nearly as effective if it started out with highlighting the usage of telephone poles with lynching’s / hate crimes. I think most people would think “I don’t want to read about this” and never make to the end if that were the case. Instead the reader is drawn in to wanting to read about telephones and then transitioning over to needing to read about telephone poles.

dlfarmer

says:

Good, Jacob. I agree with you about the structure. I think it also mimics Biss’ own research, as she started out researching the telephone poles and that history, not knowing that she’d discover the related history about the lynchings. I do think she offers some sense of hope at the end with that final image. Thanks for a thorough, thoughtful response.

Liz

says:

This is a really powerful essay. I found myself zoning out after a few paragraphs about Bell’s invention, but I snapped to attention at the first mention of a lynching… and then there were so many more. Bliss is unflinching in her approach: she simply states the facts and lets us sit with the shock and discomfort. Merely using the terms “black men” and “white women” over and over helps get her point across, and drives home the reminder of the horrific degree to which racism has shaped our country’s history. Her post script feels similar to the way documentarians approach their subjects–they begin filming without knowing what the end result will be. They may have a plan, but it’s likely to get derailed along the way. In Bliss’s case it went off the rails in the best possible way, at least from a dramatic perspective, in that she discovered a terrible correlation between telephone poles and connectivity on the one hand, murder on the other. Bliss’s structure feels relentless: once she begins down the path of telephone poles as gallows, she lists more and more murders in more and more towns that somehow involved the telephone pole. There’s a lot of power in how she lays this info out, and it works especially well given how dry the early material reads. For my own research, I would like to find out more about the Challenger in general and Christa McAuliffe in particular. I have so many questions: how did NASA decide to put a teacher in space? Was McAuliffe’s class watching when the shuttle exploded? What exactly went wrong? It’s recently come to my attention that there are numerous schools named after McAuliffe, all over the country, and this made me think about the schoolchildren who lost their teacher in such an awful and public way. I was in school at the time and I remember it, but I’m not sure I could really understand the magnitude of what had happened.

dlfarmer

says:

Great response, Liz. I think “zoning out” is exactly right, in that Biss lulls us into a state of comfortable complacency, which adds to the effect when we are suddenly jolted out of that. I like the documentary connection you make, also.

I was in college when the Challenger went down, and remember watching it, not very interested to be honest, and then the shock of understanding when it went down. McAuliffe had been much in the news, and there’d been a new interest in NASA and the space program as a result. I remember feeling devastated by it. Good idea for a topic.

Stef

says:

I think I can safely assume here that I share everyone else’s response of shock and a sense of devastation to this essay. I was actually intrigued initially by the various facts about telephone poles, a primarily intellectually stimulating research. The second part of her essay was a ‘blow in the stomach’, and reading about all these lynchings in relation to telephone poles I started feeling pretty devastated and sad. I thought her transition sentence, Edison’s quote, was very powerful: ‘…annihilated time and space, and brought the human family in closer touch’. Clearly, it did not. The list of historical events made a strong impression and doesn’t need any more personalized presentation to invoke deep emotions. I thought it stood out that she repeats the idea of lynching as an ‘American invention’ in the second and third part of her essay. While reflecting on the essay I thought about other traumatic events, like 9/11 or the Holocaust, and certain symbols that evoke memories of these events, like towers, stars, or gas ovens (as a German I may be particularly biased here, as I find it hard to even write these words down). I think that exploring these symbols and their historic significance could start a meaningful conversation.

Hunter

says:

This essay really took my by surprise. I honestly started it and was immediately a little bored. I thought we were just going to read an essay about private property and the essay would turn into something about the fall of communications between people–even with this new invention that is trying to keep us together. However, Biss’s sharp left turn at that second break was very shocking. The way she built up this tension in the form of protest and switched immediately to these heinous acts of violence was–even though it was terrible to read–effective. Biss’s intention in the piece is to remind us that, “Nothing is innocent.” She crafts a very striking image by starting with the innocent idea of the history of telephones but switching to the violent ways these unwanted things were used to harm black men. Biss uses very well thought out tactics in this essay to further drive her idea of “Nothing is innocent.” In the few pages she goes on to describe the different black men lynched, she usually gives an inciting incident, for example, “In Pine Bluff, Arkansas a black man charged with kicking a white girl,” and then “was hanged from a telephone pole.” Biss could’ve easily just kept listing the inciting incidents and we as the readers could have deduced that these people were all hanged. But she kept saying “was hanged from a telephone pole.” It really illustrated how we as a country shy away from things that happened only a hundred years ago. It’s important to remember this part of history when we see telephone poles because then we’re just forgetting all these people who suffered for no real reason other than white people needing to assert some kind of power over the “other” in this time. It’s responsible for everyone to remember their part.

Lucie Anderson

says:

Even after reading that the ending was meant to be one of hope, it was hard to see it as one after reading this essay. There is an incredible amount of strife present in every part of this essay from beginning to end. The sections about the start of the telephone industry are full of disagreement between the installation crews and everyday Americans. There is such a backlash against change- even change that leads to greater connection. In the sections about the horrendous lynching that took place on the telephone poles- which were a battle to even put in place- there is a disgusting hatred between two groups once again and a refusal to change. This symbol of connection, of closing distance between people started as an emblem of the opposite- obstinacy and hatred. However, the end gives a shred of hope. Even this great dead wooden log, used as a beacon of ugliness and refusal to change, can sprout new life.

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