Enduring Traces: Exploring correspondence from the archives of Canadian modernism using digital tools and methods

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Anouk Lang

    University of Strathclyde

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This project uses Neatline and Gephi to demonstrate how digital visualization tools can bring to light new dimensions of modernist studies and periodical studies. Drawing on metadata from as-yet-undigitized letters between various Canadian writers and editors, the project uses geospatial visualizations and network diagrams to interrogate the literary networks and geographical patterning of authors associated with the little magazine Contemporary Verse. In addition to the printed poster, I will have a laptop running Neatline and Gephi, which will allow attendees to interact with the data by exploring it through maps, timelines and network diagrams.

Contemporary Verseran from 1941-1953 and was one of the only vehicles for the publication of modern poetry in mid-century Canada. It was edited by Alan Crawley (1887-1975), whose voluminous correspondence – lodged in various archives across Canada – is an enormously rich resource for the study of the social networks through which poetic currents and aesthetic influences developed. To read it is to get a clear sense of the importance of Crawley in brokering relationships between writers and publishers, shaping the poems that contributors submitted to the journal, and encouraging young writers – particularly younger women who faced considerable difficulties breaking into male-dominated networks for publication and critique – to see their poetry as something worth pursuing.1

The letters tell an important story of pre-digital cultural empowerment that digital humanities approaches are particularly well suited to uncovering, given that the volume of correspondence lends itself to the kind of distant reading that is made possible by computational analysis of prosopographical and geographical metadata. The new perspectives opened up on this archival material by digital methods are also timely, as scholars of Canadian literature are increasingly engaged in challenging canonical accounts of modernism’s development within the country,2 something which has coincided with a postcolonial turn of sorts within digital humanities more generally.3

The poster, which reports on work in progress into the Crawley letters, is focused around two research questions:

1) How does geography inflect the development of modern poetry in Canada?
Each letter was entered as a record in Omeka and then visualized geospatially using Neatline (www.modmaps.net/mm/neatline/show/crawley-letters). Neatline was configured so that as the timeline slider was moved from earlier to later dates, the map display showed the growth and geographical distribution of Crawley’s network of correspondents. Displaying the correspondence in this way enables investigation of spatial questions that arise at a range of scales from the national to the local, for example the extent to which Crawley’s location on the west coast was able to challenge the dominance of literary networks in the eastern cities of Montreal and Toronto, and the effect of Vancouver’s geography on his ability to participate in literary activities.

2) What is the relationship between literary networks and cultural production?
Gephi was used to create a directed graph with 25 nodes, representing Crawley, various authors with whom he corresponded, other journal editors, and the women who did the bulk of the administrative work for Contemporary Verse. As with the Neatline map, the network diagrams generated by Gephi do not give a complete picture of Crawley’s network of correspondents as archival work is still ongoing, but nonetheless some preliminary suggestive patterns emerge. Crawley’s initial correspondents are more likely to be women, for instance, but as the journal accrues prestige, more established poets become interested in submitting to it, and these poets were more likely to be men. Such a narrative is clearly open to critique – for example it raises methodological questions about which letters were included – but this is a valuable process for raising questions about the partiality of the “data” on which existing narratives about the development of Canadian modernism have relied.

This project forms part of EMiC: Editing Modernism in Canada (editingmodernism.ca). It is also being developed in association with TCLL: Twentieth Century Literary Letters (www.modmaps.net/tcllp), a collaborative project in its early stages which aims to build a digital infrastructure for the discovery, analysis, and visualization of the metadata from a wide range of epistolary materials relating to twentieth century literary figures. As a founding member of TCLL, I am keen to find other scholars working on letter collections who would be interested in joining the project, and one of the aims of showcasing this work at DH2014 is to make connections with others whose metadata could be productively brought into conversation with existing TCLL materials.

1. McCullagh, Joan. Alan Crawley and Contemporary Verse. Vancouver: U British Columbia P, 1976. Print; Robertson, George. “Alan Crawley and Contemporary Verse.” Canadian Literature 41 (1969): 87–96. Print; Wilson, Ethel. “Of Alan Crawley.” Canadian Literature 19 (1964): 33–42. Print.

2. Irvine, Dean (2011). Spectres of Modernism. Canadian Literature 209: 6–10. Print.

3. Koh, Adeline, and Roopika Risam (2013). Open Thread: The Digital Humanities as a Historical “Refuge” from Race/Class/Gender/Sexuality/Disability? Postcolonial Digital Humanities. 10 May 2013. Web. 1 Nov. 2013.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2014
"Digital Cultural Empowerment"

Hosted at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Université de Lausanne

Lausanne, Switzerland

July 7, 2014 - July 12, 2014

377 works by 898 authors indexed

XML available from https://github.com/elliewix/DHAnalysis (needs to replace plaintext)

Conference website: https://web.archive.org/web/20161227182033/https://dh2014.org/program/

Attendance: 750 delegates according to Nyhan 2016

Series: ADHO (9)

Organizers: ADHO