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  • Digitizing the Archive:The Necessity of an "Early Modern" Period
  • Laura Mandell (bio)

The notion of "period" has from its inception been a literary category. Robert Southey, among the first to collect poetry into disciplinary anthologies, divided poetry into two kinds by creating two types of poetry collections. His 1807 Specimens of English Poetry collects poetry that is of "historical interest" though small literary value, while his 1831 collection, Select Works of the British Poets, from Chaucer to Jonson, with Biographical Sketches, contains the "classic" English poets, as John Aikin puts it in the first volume published in 1820 but containing chronologically later poets. The first collection of "English classics" in which the table of contents arranges poetry by poet and poets by monarch's reign is George Ellis's Specimens of the Early English Poets (1790), the collection that, according to Stuart Curran, encouraged Romantic-era writers to situate themselves within literary history.1

As early as 1986, Thomas Vogler critiqued the concept of literary period that began, he argues effectively, during the "period" of Romantic literature: "what we continue to call the Romantic period raises in history the question of history" (134). For Vogler, the problem with conceptualizing literature into periods is that we imagine ourselves, consciously or not, to be at the end of history when we invoke it. Vogler's contention about the conceptual baggage attached to the concept of periodicity makes sense given the moment of its emergence historically. The concept of periodicity arose during the height of millennial hopes, when writers did in fact imagine themselves to be writing at the end of history and, therefore, from that perspective of mastery, able to look back on [End Page 83] the wide prospect of history and divide up its landscape into significant clumps. Vogler argues that the "spirit" we imagine each period to have is in fact simply a mirror, nothing real. He abides by Frederic Jameson's analysis of the use of periodicity by literary critics: whenever we define a particular Geist and look for it in an age, we will find it there, or at least find it foreshadowed.2 In 1993, to counteract the notion of a narrative unity that leads up to and ends now— whenever a literary critic's particular "now" might be—as well as the idea that each age has a spirit or unified aesthetic, Jerome McGann published The New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse. Its title suggests the argument made by the selection of poetry to be found inside. Many poets who wrote poetry during what we conventionally designate as the Romantic period—the Della Cruscans, for instance—did not in fact write in the high Romantic style.

Periodicity is dead theoretically; it was dead by the year 2000. End of story? Not quite. Ten years after the publication of his book, McGann reacted to a new demand related to the digitization of literary texts. Romanticists and Victorianists needed two things: to be able to access and search in one place all the best digital materials available; and to be able to create such high quality digital editions and receive professional rewards for doing so (such as tenure and promotion), just as they would for a book. An editorial board's stamp of approval indicating that any given digital resource was of the highest scholarly quality would satisfy both requirements, and so McGann launched the Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-century Electronic Scholarship (NINES). A digital site that makes myriad separate web resources searchable at the same time—an "aggregator"—NINES allows searching the best nineteenth-century digital scholarship not only by the metadata of title, author, and dates, but also by word (McGann and Nowviskie): as much as possible, the index provides search returns from full text. One can see this as an online finding aid, or as a table of contents or index to the Internet for scholarly materials relevant to nineteenth-century scholars, though indeed anyone can use the site without charge.

NINES was very successful, but there was a lot of pressure on the NINES group to serve as representatives of literary scholars in general when working with technologists, libraries, presses, and scholarly...