“The Celestial Railroad” and the 1861 Railroad

Cross-posted from my “Hawthorne’s Celestial Railroad: A Publication History” development blog at http://blog.celestialrailroad.org/2011/10/the-celestial-railroad-and-the-1861-railroad/

At this January’s MLA Convention, I’ll be presenting on The Society for Textual Scholarship‘s sponsored panel, Text:Image; Visual Studies in the English Major (viewing the panel description may require an MLA membership). I’ll discuss “Mapping the Antebellum Culture of Reprinting,” thinking through my experiments with GIS in the past few years, particularly since attending the GIS course at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute this past summer.

So I was thrilled this past week to read William G. Thomas’ talk, “What We Think We Will Build and What We Build in Digital Humanities,” from this year’s Nebraska Digital Workshop, and to learn from the talk about Thomas’ project, Railroads and the Making of Modern America. The project itself is fascinating, and I immediately wondered if some of their data might help me investigate the circulation of “The Celestial Railroad.” I’ve suspected for awhile that Hawthorne’s tale—which satirizes uncritical modernizing through the central image of a railroad—ironically may have spread around the country through the railroad system.

The historical map that I georeferenced at DHSI seemed to bear this conclusion out. On the Railroads and the Making of Modern America site, however, I was able to download a KML that more precisely charts the 1861 railroad system in America. I used ArcGIS to convert this KML to a shapefile, and then imported that shapefile into my “Celestial Railroad” map. The results were exciting:

The blue circles represent reprintings of the story; the yellow triangles represent paratexts. Larger icons mark places with multiple reprints or paratexts.

With only one exception—Louisville, Kentucky, which sits beside the Ohio River—the entire textual history I’ve so far uncovered for “The Celestial Railroad” seems to unfold along the nineteenth-century railroad network.

Of course, these results point to more work that needs to be done. The “Railroads” project claims they will soon be releasing their data for the American railroad system in 1840, 1845, 1850, and 1870. With that data, I could more finely tune my own investigation—correlate reprintings and paratexts from each time period with the exact railroad system that might have ferried them. That would allow me to see whether Hawthorne’s tale grew with the railroads. If it did—well, that would be interesting to say the least.

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