Text mining for the humanities?

What could we need to know about interpreting and understanding the meaning of a work of literature that could be facilitated by digital text mining? I went to part of a dissertation proposal defense today (Bei's). Someone on her committee pointed out that literary scholars use digital tools for pre-critical work, finding the books they wish to criticize. Humanities scholars would only benefit if these text mining strategies used for classification had some way of giving them access to surprising or new meanings.

But what if these tools were used for post-critical work, to see if a book's or a group of books' critical reception had some basis in the frequency of word occurrences in the text? So say, for instance, librarians in the late 19th century deemed some books "realistic" and "true to life" and other books "improbable" or "false." Would there be anything in a text analysis to back up this kind of distinction? Particularly if the two sets of books were both about orphans... (see the post comparing books by Yonge and Finley)

It seems to me that text mining might be useful for criticizing cultural distinctions made between different sorts of books, such as books designated high or low culture.

If these tools were accessible... Bei said they weren't practical yet. But I still wonder why they would be useful. It seems to me children's literature scholarship is the most likely venue, in part because we're always concerned with reading level (and so need to think about running comprehensibility analyses on texts) and because we're concerned with "good" or "bad" books for kids. We want to distinguish quality from non-quality, in order to select which books get handed to kids. Even more importantly for critical literary scholarship, we have to ask ourselves careful questions about what we mean by those distinctions, and whether our assessments change over the course of history.

the unbearable smugness of Elsie Dinsmore

Just finished reading Countess Kate by Charlotte Yonge, which is a complex portrayal of an orphaned girl who has been kicked around from place to place. She builds her entire sense of self on finding out that she is a countess, because she has so little else to go on in the home of overbearing Aunt Barbara who constantly tells her she's not good enough.

Then I start reading Elise Dinsmore by Martha Finley... we're still post-Civil War here, hence Elise is also an orphan deposited with a family who does not love her. But while Charlotte is confused, uncertain, and awkward thanks to having been kicked from family to family, Elsie is beautiful, self-righteous, constantly in an attractive state of near-weeping, and refers incessantly to the Bible.

Why is she like this? How does her character come to be? We don't know, and it's hard to care when Elsie does nothing but demonstrate over and over how much better a person she is than anyone else. She's a child who needs no external motivation for her actions. All is about God, and obedience. To modern ears, used to the context-immersion of the era after all scholarship made a linguistic turn, since we began to think of culture as a kind of soup we swim in that also floats into our skins, Elsie is particularly jarring.

Kate reacts to Aunt Barbara's disapproval in a realistic way: she gives up. She freaks out, she screams and cries, and she just basically regresses to early childhood. When given explanations for obedience, she does try. When handed instructions with love rather than the assumption that she will fail, she is very effective. She responds to love.

Elsie reacts to everyone's disapproval, including that of her own father who judges her harshly, by turning to God, or her understanding of God, for comfort. "God must want it to be so" she consoles herself, seeking no explanation for the things around her. Elsie is like a little martyr, accepting all and questioning none. Elise carries a profound love for her father, who restricts her and lavishes affection on other children in front of her. She rejects the offer of another home because she loves her father so much. Obviously, her "father" is a thinly veiled metaphor for "God," although he isn't always righteous.

The differences between these books are, from the standpoint of complaints over realism made by 19thc librarians, somewhat subtle. Librarians approved of Yonge's Kate, disapproved of Finley's Elsie. Both are orphans, both are in unloving homes for most of the books... but while Kate's character is explained by her own passionate personality and her immaturity, which keeps her self-control mostly dormant, Elsie's is not explained at all. In an era during which Darwin and Freud had turned all eyes on Childhood as the most important phase of human development, Elsie is a throwback to an earlier era of the Sunday School books. Instead of children, those books had little saints. Kate reflects the complexity expected of books for children, in that she is neither good nor bad but learns to be better over the course of the book. Yonge does point out Kate's flaws as they occur, in asides to the reader. But Kate is a realistic human child, while Elsie is a cardboard cut-out of a girl.

Yonge's Kate:
It's not very realistic that a countess-ship would suddenly pass to an orphan girl, but it is realistic that the parson and his family were the only ones who would take her in until the inheritance of the title, at which point her wealthier relatives were interested for the first time. Aunt Jane is kindly but very ill, and Aunt Barbara is stiff and forbidding, assuming from the start that Kate is damaged goods due to her upbringing so far. She only experiences real obedience when she begins to be exposed to real love, from her other aunt and uncle who come back from India to take care of her when their own son dies.

Finley's Elsie:
It's not realistic that a little girl would experience absolutely no effects from the pity or scorn of her peers, and instead understand implicitly how to translate the words of the Bible into righteous deeds. It's not realistic that she would be both good and beautiful.... unless she's essentially a folkloric figure, and not really realistic at all. Of course, Elise gets love from the cardboard-cutout of Mammy, her black caretaker, who loves her and encouarges her in her Bible reading. That's all we see of her, Elsie's devoted servant, not a woman in her own right.

The interesting contrasts are not the plot or the set-up (both are similar), but the implicit messages each book gives about what children are capable of being and who they should be. This also gives insight into what parents should be.

What if 19thc librarians objected to folkloric one-dimensional characters in their novels, but not in folklore itself? Folktales could be unreal, because they represented the concepts of other cultures. But fictional stories were held to a higher standard of realism, in that they had to reflect beliefs (still held today) about the malleability of childhood and the importance of loving families.

I'm still reading Elsie Dinsmore, although it's hard going....

Coffin and the True Books

--Boys of '76 by Charles Coffin (earliest UIUC catalog date is 1876, although it was clearly reprinted multiple times)

Rip-roaring start, right in the middle of action, getting ready to send a son off to war. And then an intervening letter gives details, and the whole things bogs way down by p. 5.

I wonder if inclusion of the letter was meant to make it seem real, the way contemporary nonfiction writers for children include photographs?


I need to read What Darwin Saw, if I'm able to find it. Finding older nonfiction may prove difficult, but it's what I need to do. Just found Chemical History of a Candle on Project Gutenberg... goodie.

Oliver Optic, Charlotte Yonge

--Outward Bound, or Young America Afloat

Just finished reading this in electronic form--thanks to Project Gutenberg for making the text available for free. The UIUC catalog says it was first published in 1867. This old book is the first one I've read entirely on screen, 300+ pages. I found that by narrowing the browser window my eyes could begin to actually move as fast as they do over print pages, and I was, after many chapters, able to get "lost in the book" on this Thanksgiving day. It was a pleasure to tap the space bar rather that turn pages.

I picked it out because of the title, thinking that it may lead me to greater understanding of the youth nature program by the same name. I'm sure this was the inspiration for those programs, since the gist of the story is that a principal decides to have a school on a ship, relying on the necessities of maritime life to provide needed discipline for unruly but rich boys.

I do see why 19th century librarians found it objectionable. Most of the story consists of following the bad-to-the-bone antics of one Bob Shuffles. His sudden teary-eyed reformation at the end is ludicrous, and reading about him plotting mutiny and nearly killing a shipmate is much more fun.

"Impossible, Implausible, Not Realistic!" So my dear 19th century public library colleagues shouted, and they were not wrong. And yet the book is entirely chock full of moral lessons, with Optic pointing out which boys are bad, which are good, and which are amenable to either kind of influence throughout.

An aside--it was near impossible to not hear David Bowie's song Young Americans in my head ever single time I read the subtitle or read the name of the ship in the book. This was chronologically jarring, as I am trying to immerse myself in 19th century juvenile literature at the moment, and I felt very 1970s every time it happened.

--Countess Kate by Charlotte Yonge

I'm still in the middle of this one, but so far I'm trying to figure out why this was considered "good" while Optic was "bad." It starts off with a very unrealistic premise: an orphan girl living with a poor but kind clergyman's family discovers that she is, after all, a Countess. Implausible!! And yet they liked Yonge, so perhaps things go very badly for her with her rich aunts. There has been heavy foreshadowing to this effect... we shall see...


Both of these books make Little Women by Alcott look very well written indeed by comparison.

To really compare with the Optic, I need to read a Rollo book by Abbott. To compare with Yonge, it should be Elsie Dinsmore by Finley. Piece by piece, I'll get there.

Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress and other memoirs

Went to the library to find memoirs of women with unusual families or academic careers. I browsed, rather than asking for help. I found two important books:

--Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress by Susan Jane Gilman

This memoir of growing up in a Jewish hippie family in NYC is strikingly honest about a kid's eye view of everything from concrete playgrounds to racial inequities and adolescent rock star adoration. The first half is brilliant, and she should write children's books. She write the way children are, seeing one another as people. Just like Iona Opie describe in The People on the Playground, kids refer to one another as people... not little people, not kids.... they do not see themselves as incomplete but as whole, with their own whole dramas.

Gilman gets this. I'd read anything she writes. I laughed out loud enough times while reading the first few chapters that I decided not to take the book with me on the bus or to cafes. http://www.susanjanegilman.com/

--Drinking the Rain by Alix Kates Schulman

This is a memoir of a woman who decides to move to the ramshackle cottage of the Maine coast where she has previously summered with her husband and now grown children. She experiences a spiritual awakening brought about by paying intimate attention to her environment, and in particular by learning how to live by eating the abundant species of marine and vegetative life around her. This part, the entire first section, was inspiring and vivid, and gave me yet another way to think about the concept of seeing abundance instead of deprivation. I believe this way of seeing is a matter of choice.

She lost me at the point where she returned to the city and got so caught up in her "new" way of being that she practically drove her feminist group to reject her new insights. It's hard to be graceful about changing, as I know from my own life. Sometimes we embrace something that feels so new that we don't want to be understood, as a means of keepign ourselves distinct. When she told one of her feminist friends that she (Schulman) understood the friend's mother better than the friend did, I was just grossed out. Goes to show you what getting too attached to the idea of having had a spiritual revelation can bring you.

--Sleeping with Cats by Marge Piercy
I admire Piercy and her work, but I put this wandering memoir down after two chapters. Maybe it will be better later.

I enjoyed the memoir, but in the end I wasn't sure if I liked the author. She seemed to create so much chaos around her in her search for calm and solitude.