“Speaking distance”: fantasies of immediacy and the transatlantic telegraph

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This article examines literary responses to transatlantic telegraphy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The successful laying of the Atlantic cable in the mid-nineteenth century spurred hopes that the telegraph would bring political and personal union across transatlantic distances, and I begin by showing how popular responses to the 1858 and 1866 Atlantic cables used imagery of “face-to-face” communication to represent political union. I then turn to examine how these “fantasies of technological immediacy” were reconfigured in striking ways by literary accounts of transatlantic telegraphy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Focusing on novels by Edith Wharton and Henry James, I show how these authors draw on earlier fantasies of telegraphic “immediacy” to question assumptions about the telegraph’s capacity to bring people together across the expanse of the Atlantic. By doing so, they expose inherent flaws and uncertainties associated with long-distance, cross-oceanic telegraphy.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)97-119
Number of pages23
JournalWenshan Review of Literature and Culture
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2018


  • Transatlantic, Atlantic Cable, technologies, communication, nineteenth century