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  • Archives and the Spirit of American Literary History
  • Matt Cohen (bio)

American literature has been busy in the archives lately. There are new discoveries, like Austin Reed's The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convict (1858), the earliest known African American prison memoir, Walt Whitman's "Manly Health and Training" series, and the many collections at WikiLeaks. There are texts that were known to have existed but have only recently been unveiled or found, from the FBI's surveillance records for US writers to the first book of Frances Ellen Watkins (Harper)'s poetry, Forest Leaves. These documents have been unearthed by means old and new, but many have come to light as a result of the past decade's surge of digital scanning, encoding, and cataloging. Many more will also arrive soon, heralding revisions in canons, new understandings of genres, and emerging, competing narratives of US literary history.

The essays in this special issue of American Literary History attest to the vibrancy, breadth, and diversity of experiences of archive studies. Here are counterarchives, hidden archives, virtual archives, insurgent archives. American literary history has always depended upon archives, but the definition of the archive is changing in front of our eyes. Literary historians everywhere have been thinking about archives as a concept and a force, and they have also been, like other users of the World Wide Web, energetically building them. Indeed, this activity has been one of the strongest sources of a sense of renewed spirit in the practice of literary history, of generating community both around archives and through their creation.

Many of these essays are about the experience of creating archives, not just working in them, and they attest to understandings of the archive conceived in the wake of Jacques Derrida's Archive [End Page 438] Fever (1996), Michel Foucault's The Archaeology of Knowledge (1976), and Ann Laura Stoler's Along the Archival Grain (2009). These are archives for the twenty-first century, inflected by the experiences of building electronic archives every day, from Twitter, to Facebook, to advanced Content Management Systems like Drupal. Collectively, they raise the question, what roles shall literary historians play in the cocreation of American archives and communities in the future? Literary history offers criticism of archives as a source of power, as a source of authority for everyday people, and as a source of authority for literary historians and history itself. But in what spirit will we make those criticisms? Will we find each other in and through the archives?

Searching the archives for spirit or anything else is a tricky thing. It would seem that with computational techniques we have solved the problem that has plagued scholars for centuries: finding what we need in a vast data source. It's not just that we must ask the ever-important question of what has not been included in an archive, but that we must also consider what the representation of what is in the archive—its index—has to offer us. Archives are not just stuff, nor just a metaphor, nor just an access policy. They are also crucially an organization (technical and social), a situation of objects, a history of situatings and labelings, pointers and pointedness. As methods of searching and accessing archives increase in variety and prominence, the institutional and historical roots of archives give researchers one reason to proceed through the archives with care. Molly Hardy's essay on Charles Evans's bibliography of American imprints is an archaeology of indices. Her assertion that "US literary history is now written more in the half-light of the work and desires of such scholars as Evans whose bibliographic quests are never fully eradicated by digital storage and transmission, and less in the full illumination of the digital age," sounds a cautionary note about research methods. It also crucially calls attention to indexing as a pervasive ordering of perception. Ted Underwood and Jeffrey Binder warn us that, in Underwood's words, "'search' is a deceptively modest name for a complex technology that has come to play an evidentiary role in scholarship," namely, search algorithms and relevance metrics for displaying results, which are specific to each data source, largely...


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Print ISSN
pp. 438-447
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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