Iain Spillman – Guest Blog

Read SPUR researcher Iain Spillman’s final blog, exploring telephony in the work of Mark Twain…


In his invaluable book, Telephone: The First Hundred Years, John Brooks uncovers how quickly the telephone and telephony impacted upon literary culture. He notes that as early as October 1877 the London Telegraphic Journal was moved to comment that, ‘The telephone seems to have established a literature of its own. The comic papers have employed it as a vehicle for their wit […] poets have eagerly welcomed it as a new image […] and there have not been wanting preachers who have hailed it as a new symbol.’[1] Brooks argues the first significant piece of telephone literature was Mark Twain’s ‘A Telephonic Conversation’, first published in The Atlantic in June 1880.[2]

While Twain was an early subscriber to the telephone, and obviously not opposed to it, he displayed a light-hearted antagonism towards the invention, telling the engineers who installed one in his home in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1877 that ‘if Bell had invented a muffler or a gag, he would have done us a real service.’[3] It is a stance he maintained in his 1890 Christmas message published in the New York World: ‘It is my heart-warm and world-embracing Christmas hope and aspiration that all of us – the high, the low, the rich, the poor, the admired, the despised, the loved, the hated, the civilized, the savage – may eventually be gathered together in heaven of everlasting rest and peace and bliss – except the inventor of the telephone.’[4]

However, notwithstanding his frustrations with the telephone, Twain displayed a high degree of prescience in identifying which aspects of telephony would influence both culture and behaviour. The aforementioned essay, ‘A Telephonic Conversation’, was quick to identify both the initial allure and the ultimate dissatisfaction in hearing only one side of a telephone conversation, ‘and not taking any part in that conversation,’ Twain wrote, ‘is one of the solemnest curiosities of this modern life.’[5] Twain also added his delicate sarcasm to how it affected his work by adding, ‘I notice that one can always write best when somebody is talking through a telephone close by.’[6] It would not be unreasonable to suggest that Twain would find it both alarming and amusing that over a hundred years later the greatest cliché of the digital telephone age would remain the frustration at overhearing telephone calls, but now people carry on their conversations in public spaces across mobile networks. Furthermore, Twain had recognized how to employ the ‘telephone monologue’ to comic effect. Hearing just one side of a conversation allows the opportunity for an author to humorously juxtapose words and phrases. Here an example would be; ‘”Visitors?” Pause. “No, we never use butter on them.”’[7] Additionally, it allows an author to disclose just enough information to keep their readers curious without ever revealing the complete story (‘”Who did?” Pause. “Good-ness gracious!” Pause. “Well, what is the world coming to? Was it right in church?” Pause. “And was her mother there?”’)[8]

The ‘telephone monologue’ would remain a significant technique for over fifty years, particularly on stage where it would be taken into darker places by Noel Coward’s sketch, ‘Sorry You’ve Been Troubled’ (1923), where a misidentified corpse reveals a loveless marriage and, in particular, by Jean Cocteau’s ‘The Human Voice’ (1930). Here, a woman awaits a pre-arranged call from her former lover who is to wed the next day. Her desperation is accentuated by lost connections, wrong numbers and callers hanging up.  Here, the mystery (and psychology) of a ringing telephone and its resultant tension is heightened: Will not answering the call mean a missed opportunity of an unlikely reconciliation? Or will answering the call mean a final, shattering separation? This tension and the dynamic of the ‘telephone monologue’ is famously twisted and reversed by Dorothy Parker in her short story, ‘A Telephone Call’ (1930). In this instance, the monologue derives from a telephone that does not ring as a woman waits in vain for a telephone call from her lover who never arrives. The telephone’s refusal to ring provokes in the woman a wheel of hostility, hope, frustration, and anticipation. As she circles the ‘damned, ugly, shiny thing’ she wishes her lover dead (‘If he were dead, he would be mine’), she wants to smash the telephone (‘I’ll pull your filthy roots out of the wall’), and she would even welcome a call of rejection (‘If he says he can’t see me tonight, I’ll say, ”Why that’s all right dear.” […] I’ll be the way I was when I first met him. Then maybe he’ll like me again.’)[9] The woman’s relief from her anxiety never comes and she is left counting in fives. If her lover has not rung by five hundred she is resolved to ring him herself.

Two other texts by Twain are also closely associated with telephony; ‘The Loves of Alonzo Fitz Clarence and Rosannah Ethelton’ and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. The first is of particular interest as it predates ‘A Telephonic Conversation’ by two years, being published in the March 1878 edition of Atlantic Monthly. The four chapter short story tells of a telephone romance (reinforced by the exchange of photographs) conducted between Alonzo in Eastport, Maine, and Rosannah in San Francisco. This was pure speculation by Twain as the first trans-continental phone calls did not take place until January, 1915. Their plans are temporarily interrupted by Sidney Algernon Burley, who upsets the relationship by impersonating Alonzo on the telephone. Twain also uses Burley to warn of the dangers of the potential lack of privacy when telephoning: ‘at present […] a man may go and tap a telegraph wire which is conveying a song or a concert from one state to another, and he can attach his private telephone and steal a hearing of that music as it passes along. Suppose that instead of music that was passing along and being stolen, the burden of the wire was loving endearments of the most private and scared nature?’[10] Later, in his search for Rosannah, Alonzo would use his own wire-tapping equipment to locate her: ‘So he took his carpet-sack and a portable telephone, and shook the snow of his native city from his articles, and went forth into the world.’[11] Ultimately, the lovers would reunite but would not meet until after they were married – via the telephone.

Published in 1889, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court tells of an engineer thrown back in time of King Arthur who used technology to convince the citizens of the era that he has magical powers and to modernize the past (‘I could set up a little enchantment of mine which I call the telephone, and he could not find out its secret in a hundred years’).[12] Unlike ‘The Loves of Alonzo Fitz Clarence and Rosannah Ethleton’, there is only a hint of the connection between telephony and romance, but it is significant as it introduces the female telephone operator or ‘hello-girl’. While the telephone operator romance was already a staple of late nineteenth-century short stories and emerged during the telegraphic age, here was an early use of the colloquial term that originated from the greeting subscribers received when seeking a connection through the central switchboard.[13] While savouring the response to his achievements (‘I was […] kissing my hand to the storm of waving kerchiefs and the thunder-crash of applause that greeted me!’) the engineer could only think ‘of a certain hello-girl of West Hartford, and I wished she could see me now.’[14] Twain, clearly held hello-girls in high esteem (‘the humblest hello-girl along ten thousand miles of wire could teach gentleness, patience, modesty, manners, to the highest duchess in Arthur’s land’) and regretted any previous discourtesy towards them: ‘it’s a new kind of girl; they don’t have them here; one often speaks sharply to them when they are not the least in fault, and he can’t get over feeling sorry for it and ashamed of himself in thirteen hundred years, it’s such shabby mean conduct and so unprovoked; the fact is, no gentleman ever does it – though I – well, I myself, if I’ve got to confess -’.[15] The greeting to a switchboard operator (hello central) is also prominent within the text. The engineer, Hank Morgan has married Alisande (Sandy) and during a dream says ‘hello central’ which Sandy, not knowing its true meaning, believes it to be a mystical phrase and a good enough name for their child: ‘She never found out her mistake. The first time she heard that form of the salute used at the telephone she was surprised, and not pleased; but I told her I had given order for it: that henceforth and forever the telephone must always be invoked in that reverent formality, in perpetual honour and remembrance of my lost friend and her small namesake. This was not true. But it answered.’[16]

The novel also allows Twain to discuss one of his chief frustrations with the telephone; its inefficiency and its particular potential for misunderstanding. He writes: ‘Confound a phone, anyway. It is the very demon for conveying similarities of sound that are miracles of divergence from similarity of sense.’[17] This chimes with reasons for Twain’s belief in ‘mental telegraphy’, the subject of two essays published between 1891 and 1895 although much the material written as early as 1874. He argues that ‘the telegraph and the telephone are going to become too slow and wordy for our needs. We must have the thought itself shot into our minds from a distance; then, if we need to put into words, we can do that tedious work at our leisure.’[18]  The seeds for Twain’s theories lay in his numerous observations of letters or telegrams ‘crossing’. He writes, ‘We have the instinct a dozen times a year that the letter we are writing is going to ‘cross’ the other person’s letter. We call it ‘accident,’ but perhaps we misname it.’[19] Here, Twain demonstrates that not only had he perceived the importance of the telephone to literature but he also understood the early theories of telephony and the concept that all telecommunications could be interchangeable (Alexander Graham Bell’s original notion for the telephone was not to transmit sound but to make speech visible as an aid for deafness).[20] Twain’s belief in messages crossing is also in sympathy with an early demonstration on acoustics made by Bell to Boston lawyer, Gardiner G. Hubbard. ‘”Do you know,” he said to Hubbard, “that if I sing the note G close to the strings of the piano, that the G-string will answer me?”’[21] Bell concludes that is evidence that one day ‘we will send as many messages simultaneously over one wire as there are notes on that piano.’[22]


[1] John Brooks, Telephone: The First Hundred Years (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), pp.65-66.

[2] Brooks, Telephone, p.75.

[3] Mark Twain cited in Brooks, Telephone, p.65.

[4] Brooks, Telephone, p.95.

[5] Mark Twain, ‘A Telephonic Conversation’, The Atlantic, June, 1880, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1880/06/a-telephonic-conversation/306078/

[6]  Twain, ‘Conversation’.

[7]  Twain, ‘Conversation’.

[8] Twain, ‘Conversation’.

[9] Dorothy Parker, ‘A Telephone Call’ [1930] in The Penguin Dorothy Parker (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), pp. 117-124 (p.120-121, 122).

[10] Mark Twain, ‘The Loves of Alonzo Fitz Clarence and Rosannah Ethelton’ Atlantic Monthly, March 1878, http://www.online-literature.com/twain/3266/, pp.1-19 (p.7).

[11] Twain, ‘The Loves’, p. 9.

[12] Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1889), p.187.

[13] Early texts include Justin McCarthy’s ‘Along The Wires (1870), Josie Shlofield’s ‘Wooing By Wire (1875), and ‘The Thorsdale Telegraphs’ by Barnett Phillips (1876).

[14] Twain, Connecticut Yankee, p. 375.

[15] Twain, Connecticut Yankee, p. 111.

[16] Twain, Connecticut Yankee, p.375.

[17] Twain, Connecticut Yankee, p. 215.

[18] Mark Twain, ‘Mental Telegraphy’ [1891] in The £1,000,000 Bank Note and Other New Stories, ed. by Shelly Fisher Fishkin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 45-76 (pp. 65-66).

[19] Twain, ‘Telegraphy’, p. 47.

[20] Robert MacDougall, The People’s Network: The Political Economy of the Telephone in the Gilded Age (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), p.61.

[21] Herbert N. Casson, The History of the Telephone [1910] (North Charleston: CreateSpace, 2015), p. 4.

[22] Casson, Telephone, p.4.

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