Ten ways of looking at Reveries (and digital scholarship?)

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

–Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”

Overwhelmed by the abundance of literature on the bachelor, I’ve decided to focus my dissertation remix project on Donald Grant Mitchell’s Reveries of a Bachelor as a central cultural artifact that reflected tensions over economic productivity vs aesthetic and sentimental pursuits—at least for now. By using Reveries as a focal point, I hope to open up lines of vision into larger questions about authorship, reading, publishing, and literary and cultural influence, allowing me to explore my central interest in book history. As a model for a work of digital scholarship built around a single book, I’m inspired by Steve Railton’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture, which uses Stowe’s best-selling novel to investigate slavery, religion, sentimentalism, book history, film history, etc. (Steve was one of my dissertation advisors). I don’t think Reveries is as significant a work as UTC (it wasn’t credited with starting a war, for instance, nor did it spawn plays, children’s books, movies, and much more), but it does reflect cultural tensions around fantasy, gender, domesticity, identity, etc—and in 1900 a critic compared Reveries to UTC because of its enduring popularity.

I’m pondering at least 10 perspectives on Reveries:

1. Precursors to and influences on Reveries: In my dissertation, I trace the lineage of the literary bachelor to the British essay tradition (Addison and Steele’s Spectator club Charles Lamb, etc.) as well as to Washington Irving, whose works are typically narrated by sentimental bachelors. By plumbing full-text databases for bachelor literature published prior to the 1850s, I can enrich my account of the genre’s history, discovering (I hope) other important works. Using text mining tools, I can distill key features of the genre and compare Reveries to its predecessors as I consider its appeal in mid 19th C America.

2. Mitchell and authorship: In my dissertation, I argue that Mitchell, himself a bachelor at the time that he wrote Reveries, associated being a bachelor with having the economic and emotional freedom to write. Indeed, many authors of works narrated by sentimental bachelors were themselves bachelors. It might be interesting to see how strong the link is between the personal experience of bachelorhood and the literary imaginings of it by building and querying a database about the authors of bachelor literature. If they married, when did they do so? Is there any kind of a link between marital status and authorship in antebellum America, or is bachelorhood a rhetorical pose that emphasizes the narrator’s detachment and emotional sensitivities? Biographical data could be culled from 19th and 20th C biographical dictionaries (such as Allibone’s dictionary of American and British authors), as well as census records. To shift the perspective from biography to fiction, how many bachelor characters are writers? A database focused on bachelor literature that contained information about the marital status of characters in bachelor fiction would help me to answer these questions–but would the argument I make drawing from this database be too reductive, too focused on numbers than interpretive power? I have Jerome McGann’s and Steve Ramsay’s critiques of an positivist, “scientific” approach to humanities computing very much in mind here.

3. Publishing history: As I explain in an article published in Publishing Research Quarterly (PRQ), Reveries sustained its popularity into the twentieth century, but letters written by Mitchell’s publisher Charles Scribner II to Mitchell reveal how much they struggled to make sure that readers were buying the Scribner’s editions and not those sold by “pirate” publishers or publishers who began selling it after Reveries’ copyright expired. Mitchell and Scribner also argued with each other over what physical form new editions of Reveries should take and what Mitchell’s royalties should be. You can see who won these arguments (typically Scribner) by examining the resulting volumes. I wonder to what extent Scribner’s letters to Mitchell are typical–how publishers and authors contended with piracy, fought over royalties, determined how a book should be packaged, priced and marketed, etc. I’d love to see the records of major US publishing houses–Scribner’s, Putnam, Ticknor and Field’s, etc.–digitized so that I could dive into such issues. Other sources of information about 19th century publishing practices are already available online: I’ve identified versions of Reveries that I wasn’t previously aware of by searching eBay (often cover images are included in auction postings, so I can get a sense of physical form), and I’ve stumbled across some back issues of Publisher’s Weekly in Google Books that contain advertisements and other significant information about 19th century publishing practices.

In addition to using electronic sources to research the 19th century publishing scene, I’m making a short video version of my PRQ article. As I recall, I wasn’t able to include any images in my article, even though the visual evidence of the different forms that Reveries took is quite striking. Through a video, I could show viewers how Scribner’s tried to appeal to different market segments by publishing some fine editions of Reveries, some cheap editions, some that could fit into a pocket.
4. Textual studies: For a graduate course on textual editing, I prepared an online critical edition of the first reverie from Reveries of a Bachelor. I painstakingly collated five different different versions of Reveries–oh, the eye strain! (I stink at the Hinman collator, and I was looking at different editions with different pagination anyway). With programming help from David Seaman, I created an interface that allowed readers to toggle back and forth between the different versions. (The interface is a little clunky and kind of broken now, but it wasn’t a bad start for, what, 1998? I’m a little embarrassed now by the over-the-top rhetoric I used back then to describe the interface, though–“unique color-coding system”? Gawd.) Almost all of the variants were accidentals–minor punctuation or spelling changes–rather than substantatives, alterations that affect the meaning of the text. Still, I think one could trace changes in editorial practices and stylistic preferences–even how words are emphasized–by comparing different versions of the text.

Ten years later, new tools have emerged for comparison and collation, such as the Versioning Machine and Juxta. Could I procure or produce digital versions of significant editions and use these tools to study the textual history of Reveries? I suppose I could try to clean up already available electronic versions of Reveries, but, ugh, that seems like a whole lot of work. Maybe a complete web-based critical edition of Reveries is merited, since it appears on a fair number of syllabi and is referenced in approximately 200 scholarly works in Google Scholar. Such an edition could include all of the contexts I’m discussing in this post–precursors, reader responses, revisions of Reveries, illustrations, and songs, as well as analytical tools.
5. Interpretation and play: analysis of Reveries itself: I’m fascinated by the contexts surrounding Reveries, but I’d also like to focus on the text itself, exploring what insights analytical tools yield. If I replace “bachelor” with “spinster” throughout the text, how does that transform it? If I read backward, what happens? What words frequently appear in close proximity to one another? What words occur most frequently? And to what extent can I use text analysis tools to analyze the elements of sentimental fiction: character, narrative voice, setting, plot, tone, themes, etc.?

6. Reader response: My favorite part of my dissertation focuses on readers’ intense responses to Reveries, which are documented in fan letters, marginal annotations, letters to friends and family, commentary in reviews and books, etc. I argued that many readers adopted a position of “detached intimacy,” passionately identifying with the narrator of Reveries but keeping him at arm’s length, safely closed up between the boards of the book. As I was working on this chapter, I wanted to know to what extent the rhetoric used in the fan letters to Mitchell was typical–is the idea of detached intimacy relevant beyond Reveries? What kinds of language did nineteenth century readers typically use in making marginal annotations and writing fan letters? In analyzing these questions, perhaps I can mine The Reading Experience Database (RED) 1450-1945, which documents “the reading experiences of British subjects and overseas visitors to Britain from 1450-1945, whoever they were, and pretty much whatever they were reading.” (I wish the database included American readers, but Reveries was beloved in Britain as well as the US.) In my initial search of the database, I find that both Wordsworth and Shelley were reading works with “Reverie” in the title (Rousseau, the poet R. P.Gillies), making me think that I should explore the connections between reverie and Romanticism.

7. Re-imaginings of Reveries: In a sense, readers remixed Reveries. Emily Dickinson adored the book and used it to prompt her own “pleasant musings” with her friend Susan Gilbert. After the publication of Reveries, several reveries narrated from the spinster or old maid’s perspective appeared, challenging Mitchell’s embrace of solitude. Using text comparison tools, perhaps I could establish different literary profiles for bachelor and spinster fiction.

8. Visual culture: Reveries was first illustrated by Felix Darley, but other publishers featured different illustrations in their own editions of Reveries. How did the way that the bachelor was imagined visually change between the 1850s and 1930s? What new book illustration techniques emerged during this time period? I could use image comparison tools such as the Virtual Light Box–or even the side-by-side comparison features in MDID–to visualize these features. I’ve already started a small collection of bachelor images in Flickr–I could use Flickr’s annotation tools to add notes, and play with various methods for making Flickr mashups that reveal the similarities and differences between images.

9. Musical culture: One definition of reverie is “An instrumental composition suggestive of a dreamy or musing state” (OED). In Reveries, “music” appears 12 times, including in phrases that emphasize the link to dreaming, e.g. “All your early dreams, and imaginations, come flowing on your thought, like bewildering music” and “soul music.” I found nearly 50 songs about the “bachelor” written between 1800 and 1930 by searching the Sheet Music Consortium –including “A bachelor gay” (1917), “A Bachelor’s heart” (1882), “Bachelor reveries; Waltzes” (1883), and “Bachelor’s dream” (1873). In examining the culture of bachelorhood, I’d love to have musicians with an appreciation for 19th C/ early 20th C musical styles record some of these songs and make them available online. I wouldn’t really be qualified to analyze music, but it would be interesting to play with music information retrieval systems with these musical bachelor reveries.

10. Digital scholarship as an overarching framework/ core set of questions In the process of taking these different perspectives on Reveries, I want to reflect on digital humanities tools and methods–how I employ them, how well they work, what impact they have on my research. For instance, I want to look at how to maximize the effectiveness of searching by using keywords gleaned from text analysis. In using text analysis tools, I want to consider the effectiveness of different tools, what can we learn from them, and how we present the results of text analysis in a scholarly argument. I want to play with Sophie and other authoring tools to figure out how to present my research in an interactive, media-rich, user-friendly way. I want to look at ways to share and collaborate, such as through CommentPress, sites such as Flickr, this blog, etc. I want to think about what practical and theoretical knowledge I need to do digital scholarship and not be naïve or inefficient.

Typical me, I’m trying to focus and instead have come up with a bunch of big ideas for expanding my focus–building databases focused on American authors, reading experiences, and bachelor literature, collating different versions of Reveries (after first cleaning them up, of course), creating videos and hypertexts based on my research, etc. I need to choose what to dive into. Some of my ideas–mining non-existent databases on publishing history–will obviously have to wait, while with others–building a database of bachelor literature, for instance–I need to think through whether the result would be worth the effort and figure out the best way to go about creating such a resource. (And I would also have to learn about database design, web programming, etc–no small tasks). I’ll also need to weave these different strands into a coherent argument. Perhaps I can author an interactive, hypertextual exploration of the different dimensions of literary bachelorhood, worrying not so much about coherence as about offering insight and stimulating further exploration. But as hard as it is to shape a coherent argument, I suspect that building a navigable, meaningful hypertextual scholarly essay is even harder. For now, I’ll focus on manageable tasks: creating a video about Reveries’ publishing history, experimenting with text analysis tools, examining Reveries in the context of other bachelor texts.

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