“Time and Distance Overcome” by Eula Biss (2008)

November 18, 2014 | Posted in Essays in America | Tags: , ,

Eula Biss is a young writer who received a BA in nonfiction writing from Hampshire College in 1999 and an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Iowa in 2006. She published her first book of prose poetry The Balloonists in 2002 and her second book of essays Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays published through Graywolf Press in 2009. Eula Biss currently teaches writing at Northwestern University and lives in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, which has played a significant role in writing Notes From No Man’s Land. Biss has written about issues of race in America in a voice that is simultaneously poetic and deadpan, often encircling the subject or backing into it, in order to clarify her own understanding of racial America. In addition to teaching, Biss is a founder and editor of Essay Press in Ithaca, NY and is currently writing on the topic of vaccination.

Essay’s Form

Eula Biss has a unique way of weaving together disparate subjects in an uncontrived way to propose a new narrative. ‘Time and Distance Overcome’ opens with deadpan historical account Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone. Her short paragraphs with quotes from newspapers and archives could be mistaken for a well-written Wikipedia article with a few curious anecdotes. Halfway through the essay, Biss shifts in tone (but not in form) exposing a parallel history of telephone poles as lynching sites—another American invention. The essay has a clear cadence; she lists off the accounts of lynching in a rhythmic repetitive manner as if beating them out of their dusty, shame-ridden archives. Little by little, Biss formally juxtaposes the two separate ideas within neighboring paragraphs, at times within the same sentence, to create a new narrative that sits uncomfortably between the two lineages. The essay concludes with a personal mention of her grandfather’s history as a lineman and her changing thoughts on telephone poles in the American landscape.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what this essay is about—she presents two American inventions: one genius, the other evil, and asks the reader to reconcile the distance. We are first asked to imagine a man who could conceive of an idea so brilliant as the telephone, and then asked to imagine a culture that could conceive of hanging human beings (and what’s more, celebrating the hanging) from tall wooden beams. The title “Time and Distance Overcome” is apt in so many ways, one of which may refer to the distance (psychic or perhaps topical) between these two inventions that occur at the same time in the United States and exist side by side within the essay.

 Immediate Context

The essay was initially published in the Spring 2008 issue of the Iowa Review, a quarterly literary journal. 2008 proved to be an eventful year in the United States marked by a global financial crisis and the election of Barack Obama as 44th president. At the time the essay was published, Biss lived in the Chicago neighborhood of Rogers Park—an area on the brink of gentrification whose brand new condominiums wound up vacant and foreclose, victim of a bursting US housing bubble. In the essay’s original publication, Biss includes a short footnote about her research process which involved “searching for every instance of the phrase ‘telephone pole’ in the New York Times from 1880 to 1920”. By sifting through these archives, Biss uncovered so many references to lynching that the subject could not be avoided.

Subsequent Appearances

Following its appearance in The Iowa Review, ‘Time and Distance Overcome’ was published as the opening essay of her 2009 book Notes from No Man’s Land, which received the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. In autumn 2008, the essay appeared in the German literary magazine EDIT 47, and an excerpt of the essay under the title “The War On Telephone Poles” appeared in Harper’s February 2009 issue. In March of that year, it was featured in full on NPR’s Book Review portion of their website, and in May 2009 appeared in the Peruvian magazine Etiqueta Negra under the title “Los postes sangrientos” (The Bloody Poles). It was also anthologized in the Pushcart Prize XXIV: Best of the Small Presses (2010).


Biss, Eula. “The War on Telephone Poles.” Harper’s Magazine. Feb 2009: 19-22.

Biss, Eula. “Time and Distance Overcome.” The Iowa Review Spring 2008: 83-89.

“Edit 47.” Edit – Papier für neue Texte. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Nov 2013. http://www.editonline.de/autoren-a-z/?47.

“Etiqueta Negra: Nº72 / Mayo, 2009.” Universidad Peruana de Ciencias Aplicadas | UPC. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Nov 2013. http://info.upc.edu.pe/hemeroteca/tablas/humanidades/etiquetanegra/etiqueta negra872.htm.

“Eula Biss: About.” Eula Biss | Author Website. 7 Nov. 2013. http://eulabiss.net/about.html.

“Eula Biss.” John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Web. 7 Nov 2013. http://www.gf.org/fellows/17053-eula-biss.

“Eula Biss.” The Knox Writers’ House : Eula Biss. 14 Nov. 2013. http://knoxwritershouse.com/The_Knox_Writers_House_Site/The_Knox_Writers_House  ___Eula_Biss.html.

“Publications of Eula Ruth Biss – Northwestern Scholars.” Northwestern Scholars. Northwestern University, n.d. Web. 14 Nov 2013. http://scholars.northwestern.edu/expertPubs.asp?n=Eula+Ruth+Biss&u_id=186.

“Rogers Park, Chicago.” Wikipedia. 13 Nov. 2013. Wikimedia Foundation. 7 Nov. 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rogers_Park,_Chicago.

Skurnick, Lizzie. “Personal Yet Dazzlingly Eclectic ‘Notes’ On Race.” NPR. 23 Mar. 2009. NPR. 14 Nov. 2013. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=102235226.

Webb, Sarah. “Writer explores racial identity.” The Ithacan. 3 Mar. 2011. 7 Nov. 2013. http://theithacan.org/10593.

Text and images: Anna Glantz