- Poe in Cyberspace; or, Poe in the Cloud
What is cyberspace? Since 1998, this column has used the word in its title, “Poe in Cyberspace.” William Gibson popularized the word cyberspace in his cyberpunk novel Neuromancer (New York: Ace Books, 1984), defining it as a “consensual hallucination” in “the nonspace of the mind,” visualizing “a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system” (67). In vogue from 1986 to 2000, the word cyberspace soon lost its original sense of virtual reality and came to mean the matrix of the Internet and the World Wide Web.
By 2007 (the last year for available data), the vogue for the word cyberspace was over, its popularity declining by half, as sharply as its ascent had been in the decade before. One replacement was the expression in the cloud, the location of the boundless container online that was needed to keep up with explosion of big data. As very large aggregates of digital information exceeded the capacity of conventional methods, new disciplines had to be invented, such as culturomics (http://www.culturomics.org/), the various quantitative analyses of the big data of human behavior and culture—including the linguistic analysis of unprecedentedly large collections of online texts. To deal with its repository of the greatest number of online works ever made available on the Internet, Google Books created an online software program for the statistical analyses of words and short phrases (called ngrams), the Google Books Ngram Viewer (https://books.google.com/ngrams). The program is free and open to the public; it creates time lines that represent how frequently the selected ngrams appeared in books year by year. The trends discussed above come from time-line frequency curves in the Google Books Ngram Viewer for the word cyberspace since 1984. [End Page 133]
Since the Google Books Ngram Viewer can build historical time lines from about 1800 to the present depicting the frequency with which any word or short phrase has appeared in books, it can also study a proper name—for example, “Edgar Allan Poe.” In this case its quantitative time line visualizes the fluctuations from year to year of the frequency with which Poe’s full name appears in books. We can use these numbers as a rough guide to what we might call Poe’s reception, recognition, or popularity over time. Three surprises: Poe’s widest reception did not occur during his lifetime; it is not near its peak now; and a marked decline seems to be evident in English-speaking countries.
Poe’s reception, as measured in all books in English, remained low until about twenty years after his death, first climbing in the 1870s and, except for a dip in the 1890s, continuing to its height between about 1920 and 1960, afterward declining to pre-1920 levels, where it has since remained. The peak took place in 1936, with a lesser peak in 1927. It is possible to see similar but not identical results when national and genre factors are taken into account. In American English, there was also an early small peak in 1904; in British English there was a brief peak in the 1890s and a rise to its top years in the 1950s; for English fiction, the main peak occurred more recently in the 1970s, with a lesser peak in the 1930s.
It is tempting to try to connect the peaks and surges in Poe’s recognition to well-known publications that appeared during the first two-thirds of twentieth century, such as the Harrison edition or the biographies by Hervey Allen or Arthur Hobson Quinn. However, the Google Books Ngram Viewer does not provide book titles for confirmation, nor does it explain the recent decline in occurrences of Poe’s name, despite the renewal of scholarly interest in the appearance of standard works in the last third of the century, such as the Library of America collection, Burton Pollin’s editions, and the biography by Kenneth Silverman.
Different patterns emerge, however, in the Google Books Ngram Viewer reports on Poe’s reception in foreign languages. In some ways the data curves of Poe...