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Age of Innocence 10.23–Just a Quick Update

Ellen, Newland, and Beaufort's movements around lower Manhattan, c 1875.
Ellen, Newland, and Beaufort’s movements around lower Manhattan, c 1875.

Tracking the spatial movements of our characters continues to be revealing. If Newland measures out his life in city blocks, Ellen Olenska moves around and through the cloistered neighborhoods of the old New York elite. Of all the characters in the novel, she may be the most mobile; when the novel begins, she is recently returned from Nice. In the course of the novel, she moves from the “funny little house” on West 23rd Street to Washington, DC; she ends the novel independent and alone, in her Paris apartment. Despite the strictures on female mobility, women may be more mobile than men–and indeed they spur male mobilty as Newland rushes to Florida to urge to hasten their marriage; later takes the night train to Boston on the hint that Ellen is there, and plans a clandestine trip to Washington in the hopes that they will run away together. Cherchez la femme–Ellen is the big pink circle just above Newland’s polygon.

Flashbacks and Flash Forwards: Some Questions about Temporalities, Timelines, and Character

As I’m starting to develop my spatial map of The Age of InnocenceI’ve been thinking not only about ambiguous spatial and temporal data but about a few narrative conventions and how they might be visualized. First, flashbacks: at the end of the novel, 25 years after the main action, Newland Archer briefly surveys the past two decades, reflecting on the birth of his children, the death of his wife, and his enduring passion for Ellen Olenska. I’m wondering how the flashback, this signal technique of film and literary narrative, can be visualized, if the word “timeline” implies a linear medium. Secondly, flash forwards: Newland spends much of his time imagining the future, whether gloomily pondering his years of impending marriage or eagerly anticipating the arrival of Ellen Olenska from the train (here’s a clip from the Scorsese adapation [1993]). Finally, much of Newland’s musings are spatial in nature–when visiting May at the Spanish Mission in St. Augustine he thinks of Grenada and the Alhambra, at his in-laws’ house, he imagines Ellen’s home on W 23rd Street, and realizing that Ellen is present in Newport without his knowledge, he flashes suddenly to

a story he had read, of some peasant children in Tuscany lighting a bunch of straw in a wayside cavern, and revealing old silent images in their painted tomb …

This beautiful, proto-filmic image, tells us much about Archer’s imagination. To go deeply inside a character’s interior life, as Wharton’s rich narrative allows us to do, will necessarily challenge linearity. As Archer roams between past and present, between home and world, between reality and imagination, I’m curious about how the map I’m starting to create will be able represent his own internal geography.

 

 

Plateaus v Quagmires: Quick Notes on Surface Learning, Deep Learning, and the Power of a Good Night’s Sleep

Last night I was about ready to throw laptop, Mac, and all against the wall…and today I was able to continue mapping, slowly but surely! Yesterday’s frustration made me think about plateaus in learning. Just as we all know the joy of accomplishment, we all know what it’s like to reach a plateau–to look around and experience the feeling that we’ve come just as far as we’ve can, and don’t feel able to go further. But that’s different from being stuck: instead, I decided to spend my plateau time enjoying the view and thinking about what I’ve learned so far.

This also recalls Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do. Bain distinguishes between the strategic learning many of our students, and all of us have engaged in at some point–learning for the test, learning proficiently, yet not going deeper. (So your Italian disappears after your trip; you can’t stick a handstand anymore after yoga teacher training; and OMG, what happened to your math–sound familiar?). In contrast, deep learning is lasting, interrogative, and exploratory–it takes longer. The benefit is depth, the trade-off is time. I’ve learned so much so quickly in the past two months and have been exposed to so many new things (I use the passive deliberately here) that I want to guard against the superficiality that can accompany strategic learning.

I never thought I’d be quoting Alexander Pope on this blog, but here’s a little one from “Essay on Criticism”:

“A little learning is a dangerous thing,

Drink deeply, or taste not the Pierian spring.”

When We Seem To Be Experiencing Technical Difficulties…

We all know the feeling of accomplishment when something works, whether getting up into Wheel Pose in yoga (and gaining the knowledge that you can do so regularly) OR making something work in your scholarship or on your computer that hasn’t before. I’ve been enjoying exploring the ideas that come along with this mapping project, but I’m frustrated at the moment by challenges around the execution. But as with wheel pose, it took me over a year to get there regularly and now it’s one of my favorite things to do. So “step away from the computer, Meredith; step away from the computer,” but don’t forget to come back.

Hannah Jacob’s How to Solve a Problem, Digital Humanities Edition is comforting today. And if those dancing penguins can figure it out, surely I’ll get there eventually.

Humanities Data and “Measuring-Worm Exactness”

Wharton’s fidelity to detail is especially pertinent in The Age of Innocence, in which she attempted to reproduce a New York that many of her readers never would have known. She described her own habits of fact-checking as a “measuring-worm exactitude” that drove her to verify details that most readers might find minor. As many readers know, Wharton did not suffer errors gladly; like a good social scientist or cultural historian, she did her homework! I’ve been thinking about the tension between Wharton’s specificity and ambiguity, perhaps one of the operating principles of humanities data. Miriam Posner’s recent blog post about this is illuminating. Describing humanists’ resistance to characterizing evidence as “data,” she writes:

“When you call something data, you imply that it exists in discrete, fungible units; that it is computationally tractable; that its meaningful qualities can be enumerated in a finite list; that someone else performing the same operations on the same data will come up with the same results. This is not how humanists think of the material they work with.”

Although Posner doesn’t use this language, she raises the question of ambiguity. Reproducible results sit uncomfortably with the idea of ambiguity, which is fundamental to humanist–or perhaps especially literary–scholarship.

These two issues come together for me because despite Wharton’s penchant for accuracy, this novel–like any imaginative work–is filled with unverifiable detail. My endeavors to chart the temporal progression of the novel proved challenging (a polite way of saying that I think Wharton is fudging the dates). Primed to expect verisimilitude, 1920s readers of the novel delighted in bringing small errors they found (in my view, deliberate anachronisms) to light. If novels or other imaginative works are sources of humanities data, we should expect humanities data to confound our expectations, especially when technologies increase our desire to drill down to “facts.” Despite the “measuring-worm exactness” of a historical novelist or novel,  a computer, or an application, it seems to me that ambiguity forms a necessary layer to the process of visualizing the past.

Measuring Out A Life in City Blocks–A First Experiment with QGIS

20151013_162312[1]One of my goals for this map is to get students to see not only the limited nature of Old New York, as rendered by Wharton, but to get them think about their own lives–how far have they traveled to get to college? How frequently do they get outside their comfort zones? Do they hope to travel, and why or why not? Where Prufrock “measure[s] out his life with coffee spoons,” Newland Archer, a man with the world at his feet, measures his in a very few city blocks. Here’s a photo of the map we started to create in QGIS today, which demonstrates this clearly: most of Newland Archer’s activities are represented in the polygon in the map to your right. For Wharton insiders, Ellen Olenska’s house is toward the top left (about 10 o’clock from the polygon below) and that dot in the middle of the Hudson marks the lovers’ ferry ride back to New York after Ellen’s arrival from Washington.

Reflections on Mapping Project, Part Two

Reflections on Mapping Project, Part Two:

Having roughly finished the first stage of this project (data collection), I’ve had a number of observations…

My first observation has to do with the kind of reading I’ve been engaging in for this project.  The close reading I do as a literary scholar is about complicating and ambiguity in a good way: taking words on the page, with implications that seem obvious, and looking for what’s not on the surface.  Taking a literary text and harvesting data from it required a different way of thinking about literary information. I spent a lot of time thinking and re-thinking metadata categories, refining them, breaking them down further. I wondered what can and can’t be quantified, like taste. I spent much more time listing and categorizing than I may have ever done while working on literature. It’s been tedious at times, but a useful exercise (I’m considering having students break down motifs in a poem into a spreadsheet now, just bc it prevents us from willfully ignoring details that we don’t know how to deal with). I also found a little bit of joy when I was able to tie the text to fact: when I found that the hotels Wharton described still exist (and could be located via coordinates) or the street address for the Boston club where Archer passes the time. Or that I could make a good guess where Archer is sitting in the final scene, as he watches the sun set over the dome of Mansart in Paris. I am a contextual close reader, but I found that working toward visualization allowed me to visualize the text—personally, emotionally–in some ways that I never have before. This gave me a sense of engagement with the text AND empowerment over the material (the technical aspect of the work) that felt new. (For a great discussion of close, distant, and hyperreading, see Katherine Hayles, How We Think.)

On a more practical note, I’m starting to understand the importance of keying the tool to the project. I only knew about one approach to mapping before I came here. But now, I’ve realized that much like literary theory (in itself, a tool)—you don’t want just one. All these different mapping programs apply different approaches to the problem, and will yield different results. Another big lesson:  be persistent.  I stuck with OpenRefine until I got it, if in a rudimentary way. Oh, and the Mac! I thought I would have a hard time adjusting and didn’t. It feels like something that does something for you and less like a small typewriter. That’s probably because I’m asking it to do very different things than I usually ask of my PC.

Re the nature of the work, I’m struck by the importance of collaboration/distribution of labor. I think I didn’t understand the term “workflow” until now. In traditional scholarship, the workflow is much clearer bc it’s individual labor that fits into an established pattern—read, write, research, rinse, repeat. Here, there are just so many more people involved, and I’m an expert in only one area. I’m so grateful for Will, Liz, and Brian—and that they have an understanding of literature and pedagogy. It’s made me think a lot about the division of labor as a concept—how much do I need to know about the “other side”—the technicalities of tool choices, hacking my data, mapping, writing code—in order to produce a good final product? At the moment, being basically cogent feels like enough. Is this is a place in which a clear division of labor benefits? That’s a challenge for humanists, I think—we’re all used to flying solo. (And in my editorial work, my experience in production is a huge benefit; but here, the spheres are too different; there’s just too much to leapfrog over. I think I’m starting to get that real interdisciplinarity—as opposed to lit people dipping into history or psychonanalysis or whatever—requires collaboration.)

ISome larger goals as I move forward: pre-committing to the process of trial and error as we choose the tool and begin to hack around in it. I’m sure that I’ll be re-visiting data and clarifying goals and I know I need to do some more reading and writing to frame this appropriately. Ultimately, I hope to test with students and/or colleagues. And always, I need to make sure the “so what” is clearly in mind.

Reflections on Mapping Project, Part One

Reflections on Mapping Project, Part One:

Some freewriting I’ve been doing re: The Age of Innocence mapping project:

I came to Duke with a plan about a mapping project on Edith Wharton’s novel, The Age of Innocence. I had two, maybe ideas in mind– both practical and theoretical–as I developed the idea for this project. I teach at a small college where students are very unlikely to travel. They may have seen NYC, but they certainly haven’t seen it in 1905 or 1920; they’re much less likely to have been to New Mexico, Nebraska, New Orleans, North Carolina, etc—to name just a few sites of local color fiction in the United States. I wanted to convey to them dynamically what NYC in the turn of the century was like.

1925GreenwichVillageWhen I started studying representations of Greenwich Village, I was struck by a comic map drawn by a downtowner marking downtown hotspots, cafes, “Erin” and “Italia: (Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation). Studying this region, part of NYC but highly bounded (due, to some extent, to the lack of a subway line connecting it to the rest of Manhattan until 1917), I became more engaged with issues of urban space, and found myself mapping streets my characters had walked, sometimes traversing them myself (I noticed that Village novels tended to cite streets by name—Mary Austin, 26 Jayne Street, for example; in Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun, Angela also lives on Jane Street). I realized these writers were trying to evoke something specific in references to urban space, much narrower than just “the city” or even “the Village.” Yu-Fu Tuan’s notion of claustrophilia, the appeal of small, narrow spaces, spoke to me. When I began thinking about a digital project, my mind turned back to Wharton, probably the writer I know the best. She was praised in The Age of Innocence for her depiction of Old New York, yet criticized by some readers for her minor, possibly deliberate inaccuracies. I wondered what I could learn myself and show students by mapping the novel.

Having harvested data, I’ve already made some tentative observations that I think the map can help display. One, we know that ONY was small, parochial, but the map makes this palpably evident. Most of these characters’ lives take place in 20 city blocks or so. When they talk about going uptown to the sketchy locale of Mrs Catherine Mingott, that’s in the 40s. Our vision of Manhattan as a long, thin island is not that of our Old New Yorkers. Second, I think there’s a reason I hit on this topic that stems from Wharton’s style in this text. Archer is pretty obsessed with space, and his imagination, wishes, memories are often filtered through images of space. He imagines, well before his marriage to May, what his library in their house will be like and how she’ll allow him to furnish it; when he thinks of Ellen, he thinks of the Patroon House and of her house on W 23rd Street. Even when he thinks about Beaufort and Fanny Ring, he thinks about the house that Fanny occupies on Lexington Avenue and its windows. His imagination keeps circling back to these settings. Interestingly enough, he has one of his most meaningful conversations with Ellen in the Patroon House—basically, when he realizes he’s in love with her and imagines that she’ s in love with him, he imagines that she “had waited to tell him so till they were here alone together in this secret room” (132). The Patroon House is a symbol of the Anglo-Dutch merchants from which they are all descended, and it’s no accident that Ellen will soon realize that she’s a “real American,” or that Archer and May will be given the Patroon House for their honeymoon. But they don’t conceive there, suggesting, perhaps, that neither is as truly “American” as each of the characters believes. There are many other such examples—I ‘m very struck by the fact that May confronts Newland about the possibility that he’s in love with another woman at the Spanish Mission in St. Augustine—invoking a different colonial history? European exoticism? Simply seeing it makes him think about Grenada and the Alhambra. And it also—no accident here—evokes the Virgin Mary (the Spanish Mission is the first cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the US), with whom May is often associated, with her blue gowns and her air of innocence.

edith_wharton_drivers_licenseI also found myself charting the novel’s many references to transportation: elevated trains, carriages, trains, ferries, herdics. What’s a herdic? A late nineteenth-century omnibus.) Wharton was obsessed with mobility, her own included; she owned her own Packard (her driver’s license, on the left, is in the archives at the Beinecke) and drove around New England and Europe). Mobility, figured in the ability to traverse space, is linked to class, and this I see as a key theme of Wharton’s work that we find in the background of this work. She was facing a world in which everyone would become more mobile—the “strident school-teachers” on the ferry, the immigrants of Boston and NY. And similarly, I was struck by how many characters move house in this novel: Ellen, particularly, is looking for a stable place to live and moves from NYC to Washington to Paris (and is looking for another house in NYC which falls through); May and Ellen will relocate to 39th Street; the Beauforts disappear to one of many locales; Mrs MM has moved uptown, etc. Despite her valuing of stability, Wharton sensed, I believed, that mobility would become a central aspect of the modern condition. It seems no accident that Archer is trapped throughout his life in one of two houses, while Ellen’s narrative ends in an apartment.

And thinking more generally about regional women writers and space—Cather, Jewett, and Chopin, for example—I was even more surprised that this had not yet been done. The regionalists were documenting parts of America still considered other, different, as the US moved toward urbanization, greater mobility and homogeneity. Such great feminist work has been on the women regionalists, some of which does concern space, geography, and landscape; digital mapping approaches seem like a logical next step.