8 Theme
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8 Theme All ideas are second hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them. —Mark Twain, letter to Anne Macy (1903) A typical complaint about computational stylistics is that such studies fail to investigate the aspects of writing that readers care most deeply about, namely, plot, character, and theme.* In the previous chapter, we saw how stylistic information can be usefully extracted from texts in a corpus and how the derivative data can be used to chart linguistic macro patterns and macro trends present in a century’s worth of novels. I also began to address the trickier business of theme through a discussion of a particularly “British” word cluster, a cluster that I suggested as a possible surrogate for an expression or thread of “confidence” that runs through much British prose and much less through Irish prose. My analysis of this word cluster, selected from among other frequently occurring word tokens, represented a small and imperfect step in the direction of thematic discovery. If we are to capture the great richness of thematic diversity in the corpus, however, then from the small step, a giant leap is now required. Summarizing the arguments of the Russian “preformalist” Alexander Veselovsky , Victor Erlich writes that “the main concern of the literary historian is not with assessing the unique contributions of individual writers, but with spotting the migratory poetic formulae; accounting for their appearance in various ethnic milieus . . . and tracing them through all vicissitudes back to the starting point” (1980, 29). Of general types and themes in literature, Alexander Veselovsky explains that a “gifted poet . . . may by chance hit upon this or that motif, produce * See, for example, Withshire’s response (1988) to Burrow’s study of Jane Austen, which was noted in chapter 4. Jockers_Text.indd 118 1/11/13 3:06 PM Theme 119 imitators, create a school of writers . . . [but] these minor details . . . are hardly discernible in the broad alternation of the socio-poetic demand and supply” (as cited in ibid., 29). Veselovsky sought to define a science of literary poetics that would allow him to argue that literature evolves partially—or even completely —independent of individual creativity.* Literary history in Veselovsky’s conception should be viewed as a series of recurring narrative plots, motifs, and devices that overshadow and dwarf the minor contributions of individual authors. These recurring elements exist in a larger literary system that is external to, or at least “outside” of, the immediate consciousness of the authors. In the 1890s, Veselovsky and his brother Aleksey theorized along these lines about the origins of poetry. They attempted to trace the genesis of current poetic themes by adopting the methods of mythographers and linguists who conceived of recurrent themes as the products of external influence (see Polonsky 1998, esp. 16–17). Fascinating work to be sure, but, more generally, the Veselovsky brothers were interested in comparative literature and specifically in understanding and defining the influence of Western culture on Russian literature. Aleksey Veselovsky ’s study on the subject, The Western Influence in New Russian Literature, has not been translated into English, but Rachael Polonsky’s rendering of the opening paragraph provides a usable jumping-off point for understanding just how ambitious the goal was: “The exchange of ideas, images, fables, artistic forms between tribes and peoples of the civilized world is one of the most important things studied by the stillyoung science of literary history.” This process of exchange is “one of the laws of development of artistic creativity.” On its way through history, a people assimilates the tales and myths, ideas and dreams, fables and folk motifs of others; “all this merges [slivaet] with its own birthright.” “Borrowing [zaimstvovanie] can go from people to people . . . moving through time and space so that it becomes indirect . . . peoples can be influenced by peoples they have never touched.” The exchange of ideas is an “eternal principle” that will be encountered whether a scholar studies literature by genre or by school. (1998, 18–19; brackets in the original) These conclusions—hypotheses, really—set forth in the opening paragraph are ambitious, and, regrettably, Veselovsky never manages to take them beyond the anecdotal type of analysis to which we are still accustomed, which is to say a close reading. Hoping to show the broad interinfluences of literature, Aleksey * The brothers Veselovsky, Alexander and Aleksey, may be seen as precursors, or “forerunners,” as...