Welcome to the Pre-Conference Conversations for the New England American Studies Conference. We're writing about the things we'll talk about the conference--join the conversation!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Workshop: "Samson Occom, Early American Archives, and Digital Humanities”

The digital turn has had an enormous effect on our ability to present manuscript documents, which predominate in the early period, as well as the literature, history, and culture of ethnic groups. At the same time, digital technology allows us to explore post-Eurocentric approaches to editing, presenting, annotating, and repatriation of sensitive materials. My current project, the Occom Circle, brings together these three elements of the digital revolution, which I will explore this coming Saturday afternoon in a workshop featuring the project. The Occom Circle is a digital scholarly edition of works by and about Samson Occom (1723-1792), a member of the Mohegan tribe of east-central Connecticut. Occom was a Christian minister and Indian missionary to various tribes, as well as an educator, pan-tribal leader, and public intellectual, and is considered the first major Native writer in North America. Many of his papers are in the Libraries at Dartmouth College, along with the papers of Eleazar Wheelock, a Congregational minister who was Occom's teacher and mentor and who parlayed his success in shaping Occom as a missionary into a veritable educational industry, establishing, first, an Indian Charity School in Lebanon, CT, which he later moved to the wilds of New Hampshire where it became Dartmouth College. The relationship of these two men is fascinating, and we will explore it through letters they wrote to each other. I will also talk about how digital editions can advance a post-Eurocentric paradigm for multi-ethnic projects (I am also eager to talk with the folks presenting on the Omeka software) and how digital humanities is radically changing how we do and define our work (this touches on Jonathan Silverman's blog post about the roundtable "The Misread Professor". But the really fun part will be trying our hands at transcribing, reviewing, marking up and validating letters from the the collection. Unfortunately, I cannot bring the originals along but I will have copies and access to pretty good facsimiles, (with a great zoomify applet) like the one below. It's the first page of what I call "the break-up letter" between Occom and Wheelock! (Occom was angry that Wheelock sent him to Europe to collect funds for the Indian Charity School and then absconded to New Hampshire with them but did not enroll many Indians at the College.) But don't worry, I won't assign this letter in the workshop--it's too faded and hard to read, and I have done a fair transcription already that we can examine. If you would like to learn more about digital editing, markup, and TEI headers, and try your hand, please join me
and BRING YOUR LAPTOPS. See you there. Ivy

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Native American Contemporary Song Lyrics: The New Ghost Dance Literature?

Native American oral literature has been commonly categorized as originating thousands of years ago as some kind of ancient artifact, which comes down to us from a distant past rather than moments of a living poetry.  In an effort to explore this myth, I investigate the literature of modern-day Native American song lyrics taken from the 2011 Native American Music Awards (NAMMYS) winning Pop, Rock, and Song-Single of the Year songs.   

The limitation or exclusion of Native oral literature from the 21st century American canon is what Jace Weaver calls “a way of continuing colonialism…and denies to Native literary artists who choose other media any legitimate or ‘authentic’ Native identity.”  Oral poetry, or song lyrics, are another literary avenue in which Native Americans can express their worldviews and demonstrate what Gerald Vizenor calls “survivance,” Weaver calls “communitism,” Robert Warrior calls “intellectual sovereignty,” and Georges Sioui calls “autohistory.”  Although some critics have described Native Americans as finding themselves in-between two cultures, the most recent song lyrics indicate they are participating in both cultures.

Selecting a few threads from the mainstream cultural cloth and pulling them through to the Native cultural fabric (such as the musical award format, song verse configuration, and elements of Western technology) is a way for indigenous people to stabilize identity by getting recognition, reinforce traditional values and customs between generations, and share worldviews. 

The Internet is the new campfire. 

The result is not only survival of a culture, but the beginning of vocalizing a resistant, yet positive identity by dispelling the historical, descriptive inaccuracies using worldviews to illustrate new perceptions of identity.  There is an ongoing process of negotiating the forces of assimilation into mainstream American culture, but modern song lyrics are one way Native Americans appear to regenerate and maintain their foundational culture.

Lindy Hensley
M.A. in English candidate
University of St. Thomas

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Identity Creation, Region and Race in Popular Country Music Lyrics and Tea Party Rhetoric

At this conference, I will present a paper entitled “Backroads and the American South: Identity Creation, Region and Race in Popular Country Music Lyrics and Tea Party Rhetoric.” I will be presenting as part of a panel on “Music, Meaning and Identity.”

My exploration of this topic began in the odd juxtaposition of, on the one hand, long drives spent listening to the few FM radio stations that come in on the lonely, winding roads of rural Maine, and, on the other hand, my work as a graduate student, studying regionalism and the writings of scholars like Lori Robison and Richard Brodhead.

An example:

“The pull of the idea of the country is toward old ways, human ways, natural ways. The pull of the idea of the city is towards progress, modernization, development.” – Raymond Williams


"Our houses are protected by the good Lord and a gun
And you might meet 'em both if you show up here not welcome son
Our necks are burnt, our roads are dirt and our trucks ain't clean
We won't take a dime if we ain't earned it
When it comes to weight brother we pull our own
If it's our backwoods way of livin' you're concerned with
You can leave us alone
We got a fightin' side a mile wide but we pray for peace
'Cause it's mostly us that end up servin' overseas
If it was up to me I'd love to see this country run
Like it used to be, oughta be, just like it's done
Out here, way out here" -- Josh Thompson

Popular country music, like the song above, which peaked at #15 on the Billboard country charts in September of 2010, pulls the lifestyle and ideology described by Josh Thompson from the margins -- from "way out here" -- to the center of mainstream pop-culture.

In part, this paper – which is hopefully only the beginning of a larger project – is about the repetitive narratives found in country music lyrics. In a broader sense, however, it explores a socio-political climate in the post-9/11 (and even more specifically, post-2008) United States.  

In brief, my argument is this: Country music tropes function to create and perpetuate a specific relational identity that celebrates a rural, working-class lifestyle and conservative social values, and opposes modernity, urbanity, wealth and intellectualism. Further, through regional nostalgia, this identity takes on racial overtones. I offer a close-reading of these lyrics and explore their appeal in the contemporary moment. This essay suggests that the identity creation and “othering” that occur in country music resemble the rhetorical strategies used in conservative politics – particularly those used by the Tea Party. In combination, a dialogue is formed that shapes a particular notion of who and what is “American.” Ultimately, I wish to explore the role this pop-cultural form plays in a larger discourse of belonging, power, and enfranchisement.

To listen to/view one of the songs from the sample I use in my paper, see: Toby Keith, “Made in America.” 
(This song reached #1 on the Billboard country charts in 2011. It also reached #40 on the Billboard “hot 100” chart.)

-- Liz Swasey

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Mapping Cotton 1862-ish

It’s been a challenge finding time to post during the first week of classes, and I’m sure this post’s lateness will not detract from its less-than-greatness.

I’m part of the pecha kucha roundtable on “the Spatial Turn” at least in part because I attended an Arc-GIS course with Ryan Cordell at DHSI in 2011. My goal in that course was to learn enough about Arc-GIS to try out using it to work with documents associated with a set of European itineraries from 1862. Previously, I had worked with a technical liaison from our campus’s Library and Information Services to map some information associated with a woman’s journal from the 1870s. I presented preliminary results from that work at Harvard a few years ago, and I’ll be talking about that project again as part of a series on Digital Humanities for the undergraduate honors program at the University of Kansas in spring 2013.

My interest in mapping the sources of raw cotton in the U.S. South and their destinations for processing in New England in 1840 and 1850 arises from efforts to further contextualize one of those itineraries. My presentation at NEASA will focus on work in progress as I explore effects of the U.S. Civil War on the cotton industry in New England for a paper I will present at a conference sponsored by the Massachusetts Historical Society in spring 2013.

One of the account books among the primary sources we are researching in the Wheaton College Digital History Project documents the operation of a mill that produced cotton batting in Norton, Massachusetts, in the late 1840s. This account book documents the geographical sources of the raw cotton used in the mill, including Apalachicola, Florida, as well as New Orleans. It also refers to the broker from whom the raw cotton was purchased, William J. King of Providence, Rhode Island, who traded on the New York exchange.

The cotton industry shifted in Norton in the 1840s as the wealth of the Wheaton family was transferred from one generation to the next. I am interested in exploring ways in which this microhistorical set of events at the level of family and town might open up questions at the state and national level during a significant period in the economic and political development of the nation.

At the most basic level, mapping of the cotton production has shown correlations with the expansion of slavery for the decades preceding the U.S. Civil War. And last year, Frederick Law Olmstead’s 1861 map of “The Cotton Kingdom” was featured in historian Susan Schulten’s contribution to the “Disunion” blog in the New York Times. Might there be scholarly benefit in examining geospatial information about the sources and destinations of raw and processed cotton at a more granular level?

Kathryn Tomasek
Wheaton College
Norton, Massachusetts

Friday, August 31, 2012

Networks of Nineteenth Century Newspapers

Meredith McGill's American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting brought the widespread practice of textual reuse in the antebellum print market to scholarly attention. In her study, however, McGill was forced to focus on three largely canonical authors: Poe, Dickens, and Hawthorne, largely because the physical archive makes discovering unknown histories of reprinting incredibly difficult. If one doesn't already know a particular story or poem was popular and widely reprinted, it's awful hard to start finding those reprints.

Digital archives and text mining perhaps offer a new way into the record that may allow us to discover many more (and many previously unknown) histories of reprinting. Histories of reprinting can also be thought of histories of popularity—and thus are useful windows into the priorities of the period. I've worked with a colleague in computer science to begin automatically uncovering new histories of reprinting in the Library of Congress' Chronicling America collection. The results of this text mining look something like this:

Each row lists two publications, each's publication date, a link to where each can be found within the archive, and the text they seem to share. After crawling only a fraction of the archive, we've already uncovered hundreds of potential reprinted texts—most of which I've never encountered as a scholar of the period. What can be done to make sense of so much new data?

Network theory perhaps offers a solution. Here's a network graph of all Edgar Allan Poe's fiction in periodicals—again I find myself working with data we as scholars already have on hand. In this graph, the nodes (the circles) represent individual publications. The edges (the lines between the circles) represent shared texts between publications. The edges are thicker based on how many reprints a given pair of publications share. A given node is larger or smaller based on how many other nodes connect to it. 

Such a graph offers a large-scale model of how Poe's fiction moved around the county. Close-knit communities of textual sharing cluster together on the graph, and the central publications that shaped Poe's national reputation clearly emerge from the graph. 

While it might not shock Poe scholars to see the <i>Broadway Journal</i> or <i>Southern Literary Messenger</i> at the center of this graph, a broader graph that visualizes connections among thousands of reprinted texts might point to larger, national trends. Who most influenced the nineteenth-century print network? Which publications shared texts most frequently, or to the greatest effect? These are broad versions of the questions I hope network models will help me begin asking of nineteenth-century periodicals in the coming months. 

--Ryan Cordell, Northeastern University, r.cordell@neu.edu, @ryancordell

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Mapping the American West

    Our project, “Mapping the American West: Quantitative and Qualitative Approaches to Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales,” is conceptually indebted to Matthew Wilkins’ “Maps of American Fiction,” which has so far data mined around 300 American novels from the Wright American Fiction Project at Indiana and mapped those locations in an attempt to examine cultural investment in regionalism and internationalism. The scope of our own project is, I think, both more and less ambitious than Wilkins’. Using the same open-source data mining software - Geodict - and ArcGIS, we have so far data mined and mapped locations from two books of Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. Unlike Wilkins’ project, ours is much more limited in scope. However, to our knowledge, our project is also the first which attempts to synthesize big data processing techniques with close reading. This is the sense in which I believe it is ambitious, as we are working without the guidance of precedents. Some of the difficulties that we have encountered are also emblematic of the problems that graduate students and faculty working without the benefit of digital humanities centers or initiatives at their institutions face when trying to enter into what has been called the “spatial turn” in American Studies.

            Daniel and I had never before attempted to use the tools that we employed in this project. We were offered assistance by a close friend who has a degree in urban planning and a deep familiarity with ArcGIS. Together, we were able to experiment with ArcGIS. Unsure of what we would discover along the way, we hoped to be able to offer a critique of both traditional scholarly readings as well as the methodologies for data visualization that are becoming increasingly popular in this field. We wanted to turn our lack of knowledge of these tools and our limited data sample into an advantage, hoping that we might be able to offer some insight that more seasoned DH-ers lack. Though our results are still preliminary, what we have found so far is that from an outsider’s perspective, there seems to be an advantage in using data analysis on small samples where close reading is also possible. In Wilkin’s project, for example, references to locations outside the U.S. are construed as evidence of global awareness; close reading of similar passages reveals them to largely concern immigrant origins as they pertain to Euro-American population composition. The initial purpose of our project (and an ongoing aspect) involves generating new spatial tools that allow a comparison between U.S. expansion in literary texts and the types of infrastructural expansion that allowed its real counterpart.   Our most valuable conclusion thus far, however, is that spatial tools are only as good as the theory behind them—without knowing the right questions to ask, the answers are not forthcoming.

We're looking forward to discussing our project with you in October!

Heather Duncan
SUNY Buffalo

Views from space in the Spatial Turn

In true PechaKucha style, you have only 20 seconds to read this post.  Just kidding, I'm not actually timing you.

My presentation is on the spatial relationships of Baltimore's early c19 merchants.  Here's an image (from space!) that shows the point of origin for ships that entered Baltimore's ports from March - May 1792.

Points of Origin for Baltimore Entrances, 1792
The markers are weighted: larger markers mean more ships arrived from that port.  Baltimore's marker has a black dot in it.

This representation, and others, will help me discuss the trade networks Baltimore's merchants relied on to conduct business.    What sorts of questions do you think I can ask and (hopefully) answer with data that looks like this?  How is this more or less helpful than a simple list of ports?  What does it mean to the historian, or humanist more generally, that he or she can generate a representation like this in only a few hours?

I look forward to responding to your comments and feedback here and at the upcoming conference.  Can't wait to be back in Providence!

Abby Schreiber