Ryan Cordell is a magician. I can find no other explanation for his ability to generate a network that we would have previously considered useless (nearly every node is attached to nearly every other node) and somehow find a way to generate knowledge from it. He accomplishes this feat through an impressive combination of historical context, close reading, and digital text analysis tools in a manner that to my knowledge has only been matched by the Clement piece on Gertrude Stein. The masterful blending of such a variety of techniques to form a unified argument is in a word: magical.
Cordell uses this piece to attempt to broaden the field of literary history to include the wealth of genres represented in newspapers and periodicals rather than the traditional emphasis placed on novels and poetry. He does so by beginning to explore the concepts of an author network in the context of ante bellum newspapers. Beginning with a quote from a news editor that emphasized the need for selecting the best available writing rather than focusing on composing original articles, Cordell builds on the premise of quality over originality by arguing that an author network established collective authority within the industry and was maintained by the interest of its readers. He writes, “Through the process of selection and republication, editors appropriated the collective authority of the newspaper system, positioning their publication as one node within larger political, social, denominational, or national networks, their content as drawn from and contributing to larger conversations across the medium” (418). From here, he is able to move on to use the macro analysis made available by having access to a large corpus of digitized newspapers alongside with careful attention paid to particular articles and genres that merited the most frequent reprints.
Though much attention is given to the network generated from the corpus, it should be noted that this piece also draws heavily on the work of other scholars. The lengthy sections dedicated to lit review serves as a testament not only to Cordell’s knowledge of the field within which he hopes to contribute but also builds his ethos as a writer. Taken with the archival research needed to find and read through the most popular articles (as defined by how often they were printed), one can assume that Cordell has done his homework. Even magicians need to practice their tricks, after all.
Cordell takes a different spin on literary history when compared to the others that we’ve read so far. Rather than attempt to use digital tools to analyze the various influences that society had on the production and circulation of texts, he attempts to use the repetition of various articles within the corpus to do the exact opposite. Using popularity as a measure of an article’s significance (rather than a canonical status that would later be bestowed), he is able to take the data and deduce the cultural values and trends of the readership that the paper was attempting to appeal to. This method is valuable because it shows that the study of literary history can be manifest itself in a number of different avenues and, like much of the article, is successful in broadening the scope of the types of knowledge that can be generated and built upon within the discipline.
Cordell does himself credit when introducing his network by taking the time to define all of his terms, provide a brief caption with each illustration to let the reader know what the strange word cloud is supposed to mean, and to provide a table for those unable to cope with the visual stimulus of such a messy network. This meticulous effort to make a complicated model as approachable as possible makes his work capable of appealing to a broader audience, and when taken into consideration with his hybrid use of distant and close reading, forms a platform for an argument where there is evidence provided in both traditional and digital methods. In short: Cordell provides something for everybody, and in doing so is able to model a style of research that draws from more than just one method of critical and textual analysis. He is even able to do it without “falsifying” anyone else’s work.
A final note: Cordell ends his article admirably by placing his work into a broader context and acknowledging the various shortcomings that come with the use of digital analysis. His combination of distant and close reading is unique and compelling, but it should be noted that without tools to break down such a large corpus of materials, this project would have been nearly (though technically not entirely) impossible. Cordell sums up the goal of maximizing the effectiveness and practicality of digital analysis when he writes, “The essential question for literary historians is not whether computational methods of reading can work, but what kinds of patterns would provide substantive insight that can only be had at the scale of corpora? Anyone who has been underwhelmed by a word cloud knows not all patterns signify as fully or convincingly” (437). Cordell ultimately suggests and illustrates that the appropriate use of digital analysis tools can broaden the realm of discussion surrounding literary history, while also admitting that just because something can be done doesn’t mean it contributes anything. Sorry Jockers, your word clouds are boring. Cordell gets me.