MLA 2012 Presentation: “Mapping the Antebellum Culture of Reprinting”

Below I’ve copied the (very rough) text of my talk at MLA 2012, as part of the Society for Textual Scholarship‘s “Text:Image – Visual Studies in the English Major” panel. You can download the accompanying slides here.

“Mapping the Antebellum Culture of Reprinting”

Today I want to talk about how mapping using global information systems (GIS) software might help us better understand the dynamic world of print culture in the United States before the Civil War—what Meredith McGill calls “the antebellum culture of reprinting.”

So let’s start with tedium and confusion. In his introductory essay to the Placing History volume, Richard White claims, “Relationships that jump out when presented in a spatial format such as a map tend to clog a narrative, choking its arteries, until—even if the narrative does not expire—the reader, overwhelmed by detail, is ready to die of tedium and confusion.” Let me illustrate White’s distinction. and In the past few years I’ve been working with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “The Celestial Railroad.” This satirical retelling of Pilgrim’s Progress was widely reprinted in the years following its first appearance in the May 1843 edition of the Democratic Review. I’ve uncovered more than 50 reprintings of this text—the majority unauthorized and printed by denominational newspapers and magazines—and several hundred paratexts—articles, sermons, stories, tracts, &c. reference the story, its scenes, or its characters.

Here’s what the reprinting history of “The Celestial Railroad” looks like in bibliographic form for the years 1843-1861. This is itself, of course, a visualization of the story’s textual history. The details of this history—the way readers encountered, responded to, and even modified the tale—were the basis of my paper at last year’s MLA, which I’d be happy to share with anyone interested. Today, however, I want to zoom out a bit and think about how spatial data might help situate histories of textual transmission and reception within larger social, political, or even technological contexts.

Here I’ve georeferenced, or aligned, Henry Tanner’s 1846 Traveller’s Guide using GIS. The blue triangles represent sites where the story was reprinted; yellow circles represent paratexts. Icons overlap in places where the story was reprinted (or referenced) more than once; GIS can also represent events by size, with large icons representing more events in a single location. Laid out on a map, the story resonates differently than it does in a sequential list or in prose. The reader is immediately struck by the story’s reach, for one, and other spatial questions begin to suggest themselves, particularly if the reader is familiar with the texts of “The Celestial Railroad.”

I will return to this map in a few minutes, but first I want to delve into a few specific questions GIS is helping me explore in relation to Hawthorne’s tale.

Franco Moretti argues that “[Maps] are a good way to prepare a text for analysis. You choose a unit…find its occurrences, place them in space…you reduce the text to a few elements, and abstract them from the narrative flow, and construct a new, artificial object…with a little luck,” Moretti claims, “these maps will be more than the sum of their parts: they will possess ‘emerging’ qualities, which were not visible at the lower level.” Moretti is discussing maps that illustrate narratives—mapping the places visited within a novel, for instance—

but I’m interested in how isolating particular units of spatial data can help us understand the journey of a text itself—its sites of reprinting, its potential readers, and the means of its distribution. Like Moretti’s intratextual maps, these extratextual maps can be “more than the sum of their parts” and enrich bibliographical or textual investigations.

Though the output of GIS research usually takes the form of a map, the end of GIS is not, strictly speaking, a pretty visual. As a friend and geography professor told me when I started learning GIS, “If all you need is a pretty map to illustrate your article or book, hire a geography student for a few hours.” Instead, Ian Gregory describes GIS as “a kind of database management system” that allows researchers to bring different kinds of data—events, topographical features, census data, etc.—into conversation. In my first example I had two kinds of data: my database of “Celestial Railroad” reprints and references and a historical map of the United States. These next examples bring three kinds of data into conversation: my database,

the Newberry Library’s Atlas of Historical County Boundaries,

and very detailed county-level census records from 1840 and 1850.

By joining these latter two data sets, I was able to create an (imperfect but) historically-accurate map of the United States in both 1840 and 1850 that I can use to represent various aspects of the nation in those years and illuminate the world through which “The Celestial Railroad” circulated.

I’m going to walk quickly through a several maps now; in many ways I want to demonstrate the experimental—even playful—qualities of this research. There are lots of data points in these census reports, and I’ve been experimenting with different ways of representing them, looking for “patterns in data”—as Ian Gregory says—that might be historically or textually interesting.


Ad lib through slides 10-17

[slides 10-11 demonstrate potential sites for further research]

[slides 12-16 show changing face of American Christianity]

While these visualizations might tell us something about the shape of American Protestantism in 1850, however, they don’t tell us all that much about “The Celestial Railroad” in the ecclesiastical press.

If we use GIS to compare some of these data, however, that changes. Here I’ve normalized my data on Baptist churches using my data on Methodist churches—in short, the darker counties are those where Baptists predominate, and the lighter counties are those with more denominational mixture.

Here’s the Methodist data normalized by the Baptist data. As you can see, “The Celestial Railroad” tends to show up in regions without a dominant faith. You can run these comparisons with nearly all the denominations census takers tallied in 1850 and get similar results. This evidence reinforces insights gleaned looking at the introductions that religious editors wrote to “The Celestial Railroad”—the text was frequently recommended to “innovators” who had “strayed from the good old way.” Religious editors tended see the tale’s satire as directed toward those outside their own denomination, and they printed the story for missionary purposes. This missionary role into which religious readers enlisted “The Celestial Railroad,” makes even more sense when one sees that the story was reprinted in places of religious heterogeneity.

Because GIS is, ultimately, a tool for linking different kinds of data, the map itself can be only one step in a longer research process. The map is a vehicle for correlating data that would otherwise be hard to compare.

Here I’ve created a 10 mile buffer around each site of “The Celestial Railroad’s” reprinting history. I chose 10 miles rather arbitrarily—it seemed like a reasonable travel distance—but the precise distance could be modified easily. I then joined these “circles of influence” with the county-level census data below them in order to get a picture of the population within 10 miles of a “Celestial Railroad” event.

We can estimate that within 10 miles of “The Celestial Railroad” there were 4.3 million people; nearly 800,000 families; twice as many Sunday School libraries as public libraries;

more than 1,000 Baptist churches; nearly 1500 Methodist churches; and so on. There are of course problems with such estimates. Large cities such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, where the story was printed many times, only count once. The data can’t tell us precisely who among those 4.3 million people actually read the story. But these numbers can give us a picture of the markets in which the story circulated.

When added to the insights we can glean from the texts and paratexts themselves, GIS can flesh out our understanding of both where a given text appeared and, it turns out, how it got there.

Let’s look again at the georeferenced 1846 traveller’s map. We can see that the history of this text seems to fall directly along the railroad, a theory we can explore more precisely using GIS.

As part of his Railroads and the Making of Modern America project (well worth checking out), William Thomas mapped the U.S. railroad network at various points in history, and he makes much of his GIS data available for free on the project’s site. Overlaying Thomas’ data about the 1861 railroad network

[slides 27—>28]

with my textual data

[slides 29—>30]

we can see a close correspondence. Indeed, every single reprinting or reference to “The Celestial Railroad” was printed in a city or town on the railroad network. Many of these towns sit, literally, at the end of a line. The same holds true if we look further west.

Perhaps it’s not shocking to hear that a nineteenth-century story likely spread to new readers by rail. Nevertheless, it’s a relationship I would not have noticed (I don’t think) had I not juxtaposed the Tanner map with the aggregate print history of “The Celestial Railroad.”

Moretti, you will recall, calls this serendipity an “‘emerging’ qualit[y]” of maps. The relationship between press and rail in 1850, which seems so obvious from a God’s eye view, was “not visible at the lower level” of the texts themselves.

I particularly love the irony of this map. In “The Celestial Railroad,” the titular railroad is Hawthorne’s central symbol of unthoughtful, triumphalist modernity. The story’s pilgrims, who board the train for an easier journey to the Celestial City and mock the “old fashioned pilgrims” they see walking Bunyan’s route, are instead deceived and bound, in the story’s final paragraph, for hell. That this story likely traveled via the U.S. railroad network is a fun irony to contemplate (and yes, I’m cognizant of the double irony of me using twenty-first century technology to uncover this nineteenth-century technological irony).

So where might I go from here? First, I would like to further explore ways to integrate my textual and geospatial research.

I’ve been using Juxta to coallate witness of “The Celestial Railroad,” uncovering the changes—sometimes quite substantial—that editors made to Hawthorne’s story as it circulated. One major goal of my project—which should come to fruition later this year—is to publish an electronic, variorum edition of “The Celestial Railroad” that will allow readers to compare witnesses. I hope to map the paths of each “Celestial Railroad” variant, so that readers can track the story textually or spatially.

My next goal is to bring more textual histories into GIS for spatial comparison. Here I’ve mapped Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” Scholars have long been familiar with the wide reprinting history of Poe’s poem, which appeared two years after “The Celestial Railroad,” in 1845.

We can see that the texts shared many sites of reprinting or reference, and we can also spot some significant differences: Hawthorne was more popular in Western New York—a hotbed of religious fervor during the time—and Poe was more popular in the South. If we look at Poe and the railroads,

we can see that “The Raven,” like “The Celestial Railroad,” likely spread, at least in part, by rail. Comparing these two texts brings us back to a few ideas I suggested earlier.

Poe’s poem was reprinted almost exactly the same number of times as Hawthorne’s story, and both follow similar geographic patterns, though the two were printed in only two of the same publications. Those places where Poe appears but Hawthorne does not might suggest differences in the way the works were received. These divergences might also suggest cities whose periodicals should be more carefully researched. Perhaps there are printings of Hawthorne in Charleston, Augusta, Mobile, and New Orleans that I’ve yet to uncover.

The Southern writer Moncure Conway certainly remembered “The Celestial Railroad” as a popular story in the South, so perhaps Poe’s textual history could help guide my archival research into Hawthorne.

When we map multiple textual histories, GIS allows us to make direct comparisons between them.

We can, for instance, compare the “circles of influence” of both stories. Though scholars know the print history of “The Raven” much better than that of “The Celestial Railroad,” we can see—with all the caveats I offered earlier—that the latter had the potential to reach 400,000 more Americans during this time period. Perhaps we know the history of “The Raven” because it appeared primarily in literary magazines and secular newspapers, while “The Celestial Railroad” appear primarily in religious publications. We can see, however, that both texts had a similarly wide reach across the American landscape.

To really flesh out our picture of print culture in the 1840s and 50s, we need even more textual histories to compare. Right now I’m working with colleagues in the ARTFL project at the University of Chicago, who have developed a tool for automatically discovering reused snippets of text in digital archives. We plan to use this tool with nineteenth-century periodicals archives to rapidly discover histories of reprinting like that of “The Celestial Railroad” or “The Raven.” If we can compare not two print histories, but two hundred, we can really begin to define the network of nineteenth-century print culture. We can see what kinds of texts most frequently moved through the network (or moved the farthest). We can see which publications shaped the network—whose articles were most frequently reprinted. We can ask whether religious and secular texts circulated differently—where did religious and secular print networks converge? Where did they diverge? And we can use census and other data to evaluate how the print culture network aligned with other political and social forces.

I’m just beginning my GIS work, and I welcome questions and comments that will help me refine the questions I’m asking with it and develop new ones. I am excited about the potential for GIS in investigating antebellum print culture. Geospatial research can complement close study of texts and help scholars grapple with the big, sometimes unwieldy history of the antebellum print market—a market that was for its time as expansive, exciting, unchecked, and unruly as the internet is today. I look forward to delving deeper into the opportunities of GIS research, and I welcome your ideas about how I might proceed.

One thought on “MLA 2012 Presentation: “Mapping the Antebellum Culture of Reprinting”

  1. Ryan,

    Thank you for sharing this! I am also interested in using GIS to study religion in the 19th-century but have had trouble locating existing data sets. If you don’t mind, did you compile your data on congregations by county yourself? If not, where might I find that data?

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