"Mapping Edith Wharton’s New York"

Mapping Edith Wharton’s New York

Is there a place for data in the humanities?

Meredith Goldsmith, associate professor of English, is enhancing the teaching of the humanities with technology. The editor of Edith Wharton Review, she is a Visiting Faculty Fellow, Humanities Writ Large, Duke University for 2015-2016, where she combines her love of literature with cutting-edge digital research.

A scholar of late 19th and early 20th century American women’s writing, Goldsmith is halfway through her Duke fellowship. She is conducting her work in the P-search program, the Wired! Lab for Visualizing the Past, and the Ph.D. Lab of the Franklin Humanities Institute.

What has she learned, and how will it enrich her coursework at Ursinus?

Q What were you most excited about when you received this Fellowship?

A I think [it was] the collaborative nature of it and the melding of two different institutions. It invites me, as a professor at a small liberal arts college, to bring what I do best — hands-on work with undergraduates — into a cutting-edge research environment. What unites Ursinus and Duke, despite their differences, is a passion for instilling curiosity in undergraduates, encouraging them to develop a life of inquiry, and providing them with skills they will need as they move throughout their lives. In this way, the Humanities Writ Large fellowship allows for cross-fertilization between our two very different kinds of institutions, highlights what and how small liberal arts college and university faculty can learn from each other, and offers a productive starting point for future collaboration.

Q What exactly is digital humanities and why The Age of Innocence on a map?

A People are still figuring this out. It is using computational tools to explore humanities. We in the humanities don’t usually quantify things.

I’m a specialist in late 19th and early 20th century U.S. fiction and had come to Duke curious and eager to learn about how digital humanities approaches could inform my teaching and student learning. I had a “why,” but I didn’t have any idea about “how” one gets from A to B — i.e., how one would get from a novel to a map.

Biographically, thematically and formally, The Age of Innocence seemed like a great place for me to start: Wharton was praised for her fidelity to details of New York City; writing in 1920, she researched the New York City of the recent past assiduously, noting her own “measuring-worm exactness” in hunting down details. The two historical moments of this novel marked massive demographic and social change in New York City and the U.S. more generally. And this novel documents the lives of people who feel trapped, literally immobilized, by social conventions. The one percent of U.S. society at the time, they’re bound to New York City and its environs.

New York's Fifth Avenue looking north from 51st St. (c. 1893).New York's Fifth Avenue looking north from 51st St. (c. 1893).

Edith Wharton knew New York like the back of her hand. Creating a spreadsheet that documents the characters and where they go (down to the longitude and latitude) can tell us a lot. Wharton was seen as writing about women entrapped but when you see the book visually, they are not so entrapped.

Q How did you have to change your thinking regarding a literary text as a data source?

A Humanists aren’t used to thinking about their sources as sources of data, especially, perhaps, people trained as close readers. But my academic training and digital humanities are hardly incompatible, and in fact, the more I do this the more I’m convinced one needs both. Once I drill down, I find new sources of ambiguity and complication — different ways to read and thematize the text.

Q What were the challenges of data gathering?

A What my close reading approach initially yielded was spreadsheets that were near unusable. I wanted to delete them permanently, but I’m glad I still have them. Some very rough guesses as to location and category. What I learned is that I need to think about the text a lot more specifically and a lot more systematically.

Later, my spreadsheets were much more broken down, specific, clear — categories of characters’ location in space — at work, at home, at the opera, church, etc., indoors outdoors, all broken down. Distinction between passages, notes, related historical material — as a humanities note-taker, I’d previously been used to putting all these things together. At my first data visualization workshop I went to at Duke, I was told that 80 percent of the time on a project will be spent dealing with data” — now this makes sense.

Q What did you learn from mapping?

A With data in hand, the question becomes: what kind of learning can we generate by making a map? Simply breaking down the characters’ movement into layers is instructive; we learn when they move together, when separately. For example, the blue dots that are protagonist Newland Archer, convey dramatically how confined his life is. We also see some clusters, where Newland and the other men of the novel meet with and pursue Ellen — represented as a hot-pink circle, and the distance of May, Newland’s wife (the pink diamond), from the romantic and the professional aspects of her husband’s life. Each of these is a choice — I chose hot-pink because for me, spatializing emphasized the romantic/erotic/transgressive element of the novel’s plot. I wanted to make the female characters’ representations bigger than those of the men.

Q Where do you want to go from here?

A You can include links and audio, and I would like to add dialect. I want to try a rural novel, like Willa Cather’s book where there are no roads or geographic references.

This is only starting to take off in undergrad institutions. It keeps the humanities relevant. It is reconceiving the way we think of humanities texts. Humanists are not encouraged to do this.

Bringing computational tools to literature means students will be able to make discoveries for themselves. And maps are a natural for interdisciplinary thinking.