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  • Networked Literary History and the Bohemians of Antebellum New York
  • Edward Whitley (bio)

The bohemians of antebellum New York are a problem for US literary history. Apart from their association with Walt Whitman (who found friends, supporters, and lovers among them), the writers and artists who gathered at Charles Pfaff's beer cellar have rarely found purchase in anthologies, syllabi, scholarly works, or any of the other markers of having achieved a reliable presence in literary history.1 Rather than spend the following pages making a case for why they should be included in histories of US literature, I turn to how Whitman and the bohemians productively reframe one of our most resilient models for literary history: namely, the impulse to structure authors, texts, and aesthetic practices into stories of progressive change over time. As opposed to narratives of literary history that move in what Jordan Alexander Stein calls the "regular and uninterrupted sequence" of one genre-defining (or genre-breaking) innovation after another (859), the bonds that the bohemians forged in the beer halls and boardinghouses of midcentury Manhattan offer a networked approach to literary history. Networks invite attention to the limbs and offshoots that might otherwise be pruned from literary histories concerned with smooth and continuous progress over time, particularly when progress is defined by the appearance of a singularly unique voice (such as Whitman's) or a transformative work of literature (such as Leaves of Grass [1855–92]) that begets a line of descendants through to the present.2 Networks provide a mechanism for keeping track of lateral movements in history, [End Page 287] moments when authors and texts seem to trail off into dead ends or follow paths with no clear terminus in the present. A networked literary history is also an archive-rich literary history insofar as an interconnected web of texts and authors demands a full accounting of the documents and historical agents who might otherwise appear peripheral to the lineal progression of time.

Scholars of US literature, in recent years, have leveraged the interpretive capabilities of networks to revise some of the foundational premises of our field. Matt Cohen substitutes the circulation model of book history with the "networked wilderness" of disparate media forms through which settlers and indigenous populations communicated in early New England (2); Ryan Cordell presents the culture of nineteenth-century reprinting as the work of a "network author" rather than the actions of specific authors, editors, or publishers (429); Stacey Margolis replaces Michael Warner's publics and counterpublics with "a heterogeneous and unpredictable" network of unseen and untraceable forces that shape popular opinion (42); and Lytle Shaw foregrounds the "social and literary linkages" of writers as the defining factors of a given cultural moment above and beyond the accomplishments of the individual genius (6).3 Networked approaches to literary studies are united less by a common theoretical grounding than by a related set of assumptions about the new knowledge that networks reveal about our objects of study. As Caroline Levine has it in her broad-as-possible definition, networks "afford connectivity" and "create links between disconnected nodes" (114). The shared impulse unifying disparate approaches to network analysis is the hope that networks will expose patterns or dynamics that would not otherwise be evident through other methods of inquiry. I contend that by arranging our objects of study into networked forms—particularly as we take advantage of the interpretive strategies made possible by digital methods of network analysis—scholars and students alike will be better positioned both to imagine and to create alternative models of literary history.

In the first section of this essay, I consider the absence of the antebellum bohemians from narratives of US literature and then propose what a reintroduction of the bohemians to literary history would look like according to a model of aesthetic progress and generational change. I then challenge that model in the second section of the essay by tracing an unlikely node on the network of bohemian New York that leads to an alternative accounting of Whitman's generic innovations as a free-verse poet, one that does not culminate in his hypercanonical status in the twentieth century as both a genrebreaking and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1468-4365
Print ISSN
0896-7148
Pages
pp. 286-306
Launched on MUSE
2017-05-24
Open Access
No
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