Download PDF

Digital Humanities as Appendix
“The Geographic Imagination of Civil War–Era American Fiction.” By Matthew Wilkens. American Literary History 25 (Winter 2013): 803– 40.
“Space, Nation, and the Triumph of Region: A View of the World from Houston.” By Cameron Blevins. Journal of American History 101 (06 2014): 122– 47.

Sometimes the digital humanities can seem like an inversion rather than a branch of the humanities. Self-described digital humanists often emphasize, even celebrate, how their practice differs from that of their disciplinary colleagues. Whereas most humanities scholars do their research more or less in isolation, digital humanists typically collaborate in teams that include technologists, librarians, and students. While the quintessential product of most humanities research is an interpretation presented in a monograph or an essay, digital humanists more often experiment with form, developing broad archives, interactive maps, and computer-generated models. Books and essays usually go through peer review before appearing with the imprimatur of a university press or scholarly journal; digital humanities projects are evaluated at a later point, undergoing, to borrow a couple of phrases from Kathleen Fitzpatrick, “crowdsourcing review” to receive (or not) “community imprimatur.”1 Finally, digital humanities projects often are not organized around substantiating an argument but instead prompt their audiences to independently investigate a subject through a more participatory, open-ended, and nonlinear process.

While experimentation with alternative ways to practice and present the humanities can be exhilarating, there are of course trade-offs. Many humanities scholars continue to look askance at digital humanities work. Because such work often does not foreground specific arguments, many digital humanities projects can seem peripheral to the debates and questions that animate their own research. Take, as evidence, the differences between book and digital history reviews in the Journal of American History. The JAH has shown a greater interest in encouraging digital scholarship than many journals, as the [End Page 131] presence of the digital history reviews section attests. But these reviews can make digital humanities scholarship seem preparatory to or distinct from the kinds of historical research assessed in book reviews. Whereas reviews of books almost always critically assess the contributions of an argument, that is very seldom the case in the digital history reviews. Much more often those review online archives, evaluating their utility in providing scholars with easy access to important materials or providing instructors a teaching resource for their students. Judging by these reviews, many humanists might understandably think that digital humanists produce valuable public humanities projects and useful tools for research but not necessarily, taking arguments and interpretation as the measure, scholarship.

If the two articles under consideration here are any indication, that opinion is likely to change. Matthew Wilkens’s “Geographic Imagination of Civil War–Era American Fiction,” published in American Literary History in 2013, and Cameron Blevins’s “Space, Nation, and the Triumph of Region: A View of the World from Houston,” published in the JAH in 2014, signal that digital humanists and digital humanities methods are beginning to yield significant arguments. They are two examples of how digital humanities methods and digital humanities research are increasingly paying interpretative dividends, generating insights that will be of interest and value to humanities scholars who have little if any specific investment in DH qua DH.

These two articles share a remarkable amount in common. Wilkens and Blevins both sketch and analyze the cultural construction of space in the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century. Wilkens seeks to survey the “geographic imagination” (804) of Civil War–era American fiction, Blevins the “imagined geography” (124) constructed by one Texas newspaper, the Houston Daily Post, around the turn of the twentieth century. The transposition of noun and modifier does suggest one important difference in their approaches and their preoccupations. Blevins is primarily interested in readers, not actual but imagined ones. He argues that the number of times people encountered particular place-names in the paper’s pages helped determine the ways they negotiated and navigated geographic space. In his account, the imagined geography of the Houston Daily Post was first and foremost a commercial geography that both reflected and helped actively shape economic activity in the region—where people farmed, bought, shipped, and traveled. The agent fashioning the imagined geography in Blevins’s argument is not the newspaper’s editor but instead “a regional commercial elite” or, more abstractly, “corporate power” or, more abstractly still, the “system of capital” (141, 136) that in the [End Page 132] paper’s pages painted a portrait of space that advanced their (or its) economic interests. Wilkens is more interested in authors than readers. The agent shaping the geographic imagination in his account is more often “American fiction” as a whole. In this essay, he is concerned less with specifying the cultural work that the geographic imagination of American fiction did in nineteenth-century America than in arguing that the geographic emphases associated with the most prevalent periodizing theories—the American Renaissance’s association with New England and postwar literary regionalism’s association with western and southern locales—is not borne out by his broad survey of place-names in American novels.

Methodologically, the techniques Wilkens and Blevins use are very similar. Both use algorithms to detect and quantify place-names appearing in their corpora. Blevins’s corpus is drawn from the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America newspaper archive and consists of over a thousand issues of the Houston Daily Post published between 1894 and 1901; Wilkens’s is drawn from the Wright American Fiction archive and comprises over a thousand American novels published between 1851 and 1875. Blevins identified over 1.3 million instances of place-names in the 115 million words of the Post; Wilkens over 140,000 instances in the roughly 80-million-word corpus. Both of their articles contain numerous maps and charts that illustrate the relative prominence of certain cities, states, and, in Wilkens’s case, countries in their respective texts. They each use these maps and charts to delineate the commercial and cultural construction of space.

While they share a similar method and preoccupation, Blevins’s and Wilkens’s arguments are mirror images of each other. Blevins suggests that given the forces of late nineteenth-century nationalization—particularly, in the case of newspapers, the effect of the Associated Press—we might expect the imagined geography of a turn-of-the-century newspaper to be homogeneously national. He argues that the occurrence of place-names in the paper was instead surprisingly decidedly regional. Blevins may be overstating how surprised we should be that a Houston paper often mentioned Houston and other Texas locales. That said, his analysis of exactly what the regional orientation of the Post’s imagined geography was is more surprising and revealing. Instead of the other cities and states in the South, Blevins finds the Post to have been oriented toward the Midwest. He argues that the prominence of Kansas City, St. Louis, and Chicago in the pages of the Post registered the effect of railway networks in reorienting the imagined geography of Houstonians away from the South and the Gulf of Mexico. The geography depicted in the newspaper’s columns [End Page 133] reflected the transportation network that linked Houston to national and international markets. This was part of nationalization, for sure, but Blevins argues that railroads “did not so much homogenize space as undergird a regionally specific process of spatial production” toward the north (133).

Wilkens starts with the opposite assumption about Civil War–era novels: that the critical literature leads us to expect that its geographic imagination would be decidedly regional. The American Renaissance of the 1850s suggests that New England locations would likely be overrepresented before the Civil War. Given the emergence of literary regionalism and “local color” as genres after the war, we would expect the geographic imagination of American literature to move west and south and became more differentiated. With some modest exceptions, he finds the opposite to be the case: that the occurrences of American place-names in American novels were instead more homogeneously national, tracking fairly closely with population over that quarter century. He argues, too, that the Civil War did not make as much of a difference in shifting the geographic imagination of American fiction as we might expect of an event of such profound social and political magnitude. Given that the occurrence of place-names from a significant sampling rather than the canonical sliver of American fiction does not substantiate the New England–centricity of the American Renaissance, the transformative significance of the Civil War, or a growing literary preoccupation with locality and regionality after the war, literary critics, Wilkens argues, should “rethink significantly our theory of periodizing events” (804).

An obvious objection could be leveled at both Wilkens and Blevins: that quantities of the occurrences of place-names are a blunt instrument that ignores context. Wilkens is no doubt right that a handful of canonical novels should not be taken to represent literature as a whole. At the same time, should novels that were obscure in their own day count as much as those that were popular? Surely Uncle Tom’s Cabin had more effect in shaping the “geographic imagination” than Anne Hazard’s Emma Stanley, or The Orphans, published the same year. (And Wilkens lets American fiction stand in for American literature as a whole. Whether other literary genres—the essays of Emerson, the poems of Whitman, the cultural criticism of Thoreau—presented a different geographic imagination is a question Wilkens does not directly address. But one wonders a bit about his critique of the American Renaissance when three of the five authors F. O. Matthiessen devoted his classic study to are absent from Wilkens’s corpus.) While parts of Blevins’s essay do thoughtfully and creatively analyze the different categories of news that appeared in the paper (e.g., commercial [End Page 134] news, nonnarrative content like railroad schedules, classified ads), much of his analysis disregards context. He argues in that while this approach “began as a pragmatic response to messy data, [it] soon became an intellectual cornerstone of my project,” advantageous inasmuch as it “avoided privileging certain modes of reading over others.”2 But arguably the appearance of a place in a headline did have substantially more impact on the average reader than one buried in a freight table.

These reservations aside, Wilkens and Blevins both offer arguments that are thoughtful, creative, and persuasive. Together they give us a much more detailed sense of a subject we knew very little about: the spatial orientation and preoccupations of nineteenth-century Americans. The fact that they are first and foremost presenting arguments is important in and of itself. Perhaps these essays are bellwethers for the digital humanities in precisely the ways they are atypical of the digital humanities. While Blevins benefited from contributions by colleagues at Stanford’s Spatial History Lab, who helped produce the maps, and the TextMapping project on Texas newspapers that was led by Andrew Torget and Jon Christensen, neither of these essays can be said to be the product of a team of collaborators. It may very well be the case that novel arguments are more likely to be developed by a solo humanist asking and answering a question than by a team. Both Blevins and Wilkens, it appears, performed not just the interpretative but most of the technical heavy lifting required to make sense of tens of thousands of place-names. While Blevins’s article is accompanied by an online component, these are not radical experiments with form either. Both are recognizable and conventional articles, each of which went through the traditional process of peer review.

Perhaps most importantly, while both Wilkens and Blevins explain their methodology in some detail, they clearly do that so their readers can make sense of and critically evaluate their arguments. Wilkens’s methodological explanation is relegated to an appendix; Blevins’s to his online component. In both cases, their method takes a backseat to their argument. However innovative and technically impressive they might be, both of them treat their computer-aided methods as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

That Wilkens’s and Blevins’s articles represent something encouraging in the digital humanities should not be taken as an aspersion directed at other types of work produced by digital humanists. Digital humanities projects are often more publicly engaged than traditional humanities scholarship. At a moment when many worry that the social, cultural, and political impact of the humanities is waning, the public humanities dimensions of the digital [End Page 135] humanities could not be more vital. That said, engaging a broad public is not the only role the digital humanities can play in the humanities. Wilkens’s and Blevins’s articles exemplify another contribution of the digital humanities that has been long blossoming and is now increasingly bearing mature fruit: the use of computer-aided methods to develop novel arguments about literature, history, and culture.

Robert K. Nelson

Robert K. Nelson is director of the Digital Scholarship Lab and affiliated faculty in the American Studies Program at the University of Richmond. He has authored, directed, or edited digital humanities projects such as “Mining the Dispatch,” an enhanced edition of the Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States, and “Redlining Richmond.” He writes and teaches on antislavery and slavery in the nineteenth-century United States.


1. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, “Beyond Metrics: Community Authorization and Open Peer Review,” in Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 453–54.

2. Cameron Blevins, “Mining and Mapping the Production of Space,” (accessed October 26, 2015). [End Page 136]