Approved Book Proposal

  • Primary: Ryan Cordell, Northeastern University Contact:
  • Co-authors: David A. Smith, Abby Mullen, Jonathan Fitzgerald, and Thanasis Kinias

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Book Description
  3. Apparatus and Authorship
  4. Author Biographies and CVs
  5. Appropriateness for Manifold Scholarship
  6. Audiences and Markets
  7. Chapter and Digital Component Descriptions
  8. Supplemental Writing Samples


Going the Rounds: Virality in Nineteenth-Century American Newspapers brings together literary, historical, and computational criticism to illuminate the extent, content, and character of information exchange in nineteenth-century US periodicals. Drawing on reprinted texts from the NEH-, Mellon-, and ACLS-funded Viral Texts Project at Northeastern University (, the book and its attendant digital components situate widely reprinted newspaper genres such as lists, scientific reports, recipes, travel accounts, and vignettes at the center of the period’s print culture. Drawing on methods such as text mining, geospatial analysis, and network analysis, the book offers a new, systemic account of information exchange in the nineteenth century’s primary mass medium. Going the Rounds also sketches a proto-history of virality, bringing together ideas from new media scholarship, digital humanities, bibliography, and book history to account for the movement of fragmentary, malleable texts through communications networks comprised of type, telegraph wires, post roads, and rail. A viral theory of textuality foregrounds circulation and reception, describing the ways texts moved through the social, political, literary, and technological networks that undergirded nineteenth-century print culture. Indeed, the book proposes that a robust theory of virality, developed from corpus-level text analysis, offers a critical perspective that allows us to understand nineteenth-century circulation not simply as “arbitrary, irregular transmission of tales, essays, and poems,” as J. Gerald Kennedy describes it in Poe and the Remapping of Antebellum Print Culture (LSU Press 2012), but instead as a complex but comprehensible system of textual exchange and influence that can historicize and help us better understand our current social media culture.

Book Description

Nineteenth-century newspapers exemplify a textual system founded on borrowing, anonymity, adaptation, and circulation. Editors composed their newspapers with both “scissors and the quill,” trading their papers with each other through the post for reciprocal use and filling their daily or weekly issues with “selections” from other newspapers on their exchange lists. As the Fremont Journal (Ohio) claimed in 1854, “[d]eprive an editor of his exchanges, shut off his mails for a week, and you take away from him his very sustenance, and withdraw from him all that makes his paper interesting.” Newspapers, the Journal asserted, operate under a “general ‘reciprocity treaty’…so that each may assist the other in collecting intelligence and together circulate the vast amount of news, of politics and literature, that circulates through the thousand columns of the periodical press over the land.” The literature that thrived in these networks was marked by its malleability in form, content, and interpretation. These texts were, in short, ancestors of modern “viral media,” embedded in an early platform of mass cultural production.

Going the Rounds draws on Northeastern University’s Viral Texts Project to trace the “morselized” information circulating in nineteenth-century newspapers, not by searching for individual texts or authors, but instead by employing methods from natural language processing and computational linguistics to read across the digitized newspaper corpora. Such an approach takes up the challenge of “distant reading” with an aim not to replace historical or textual evidence with graphs, maps, or trees, but to uncover and model new forms or sets of evidence difficult to discern at the level of the individual newspaper. In Going the Rounds, such evidence leads to a hybrid and capacious vision of newspaper reprinting as a textual ecosystem in which genres of “information literature”—e.g. lists, trivia, recipes—jostled with news, humor, sentiment, and familiar literary genres, both on the newspaper page and in its readers’ attention. Considered as individual snippets, selections of information literature might read like ephemera, even filler. When identified, grouped, and considered as a corpus, however, the selections that thrived within the exchange system become instead vital markers of the priorities, concerns, and amusements of the period’s print culture. Popular reprinted texts offer a unique view into the zeitgeist—marked day-by-day, rather than by year or decade—of the nineteenth-century middle class.

Going the Rounds attends to newspaper selections as a dynamic and understudied corpus of popular American writing in order to begin answering broader questions in intellectual, cultural, and book history, including: what happens to our accounts of popular writing and reading when we remove almost entirely notions of originality and literary authorship? How can we weave the informational and fragmentary textuality of the newspaper into our understanding of nineteenth-century literature? How do historical systems of information exchange foreshadow contemporary ideas such as virality, and conversely how might theorizations of online sharing help us rethink the operations of historical social media? These disciplinary engagements necessarily pose another, meta-disciplinary question. How should the large-scale, digitized historical archive restructure the scale of our arguments in literary history: not necessarily open toward the “longue durée” advocated by David Armitage and Jo Guldi in The History Manifesto, but instead toward a panoramic textual vista for evidencing scholarly arguments? In addition to elucidating new texts worthy of scholarly attention, Going the Rounds uses those texts at scale to begin outlining the larger geographic, social, and technological networks that underlay the period’s print culture. In this way, Going the Rounds provides a macro-view of reprinting as an evolving system that connected shifting configurations of publications and readers over the century.

Apparatus and Authorship

Going the Rounds is a uniquely hybrid and collaborative publication emerging from the interdisciplinary work of the Viral Texts Project, housed at Northeastern’s NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks. Viral Texts began as an analysis of reused texts across the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America newspaper collection. Through funding from the NEH, Mellon Foundation, and ACLS, we have over the past three years expanded our study to include magazines from the Library of Congress’s Making of America collections, published through Cornell and Michigan; Gale’s British and American newspaper collections; Readex’s American Periodicals Series Online; and non-English materials from Europeana’s digital newspaper collections, from which we have identified many millions of texts reprinted in the US and abroad. These computationally identified “viral texts” have been supplemented by traditional archival work Cordell has conducted in periodicals archives held by the University of Virginia Libraries, the American Antiquarian Society, and various colleges with denominational holdings. Going the Rounds is a multigraph, with Ryan Cordell as the primary author but with both print and digital sections co-written by other members of the Viral Texts Project team from Northeastern University’s Computer Science, English, and History departments. As a multigraph, the book develops a consistent argument, like a monograph, but includes a wider range of writerly voices that reflect the interdisciplinary work that underlies its arguments. Through this structure, Going the Rounds offers a model for academic authorship that rightly reflects the collaborative work increasingly common in humanities research projects.

Author Biographies and CVs

Ryan Cordell is Assistant Professor of English and Core Founding Faculty Member in the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks at Northeastern University. His scholarship focuses on convergences among literary, periodical, and religious culture in antebellum American mass media. Cordell is currently a Mellon Fellow of Critical Bibliography at the Rare Book School in Charlottesville, Virginia, and holds an ACLS Digital Innovation Fellowship during the 2015-2016 academic year. He also serves as Co-Editor-in-Chief of centerNet’s DHCommons journal and writes about technology in higher education for the group blog ProfHacker at the Chronicle of Higher Education. View Cordell’s CV.

David Smith is an assistant professor in Northeastern University’s College of Computer and Information Science and a founding member of the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks. Before his Ph.D. in Computer Science from Johns Hopkins, he received a B.A. in Classics (Greek) from Harvard. He has also worked for Tufts’ Perseus Digital Library Project and UMass Amherst’s CS department. His research centers on natural language processing and computational linguistics, with applications to information retrieval, digital libraries, digital humanities, and political science. View Smith’s CV.

Abby Mullen is a PhD candidate in world history at Northeastern University. Her dissertation is titled In the Sea of Tripoli: Maintaining Peace and War in the First Tripolitan War, 1801-1805. Her work explores the ways in which the United States entered the international community through naval war against Tripoli in the early republic. She is a fellow at Northeastern’s NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks, where she works as a research assistant on the Viral Texts Project. View Mullen’s CV.

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is a PhD student in the English Department at Northeastern University; a research assistant for the Viral Texts Project; a fellow in the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks; and managing editor of Digital Humanities Quarterly. His interests include Literary Journalism, American nonfiction, and Digital Humanities. Before enrolling at Northeastern, Fitzgerald worked as a freelance journalist, with articles and essays appearing in publications such as the Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, and others. In 2013, Bondfire Books published his short ebook, Not Your Mother’s Morals: How the New Sincerity is Changing Pop Culture for the Better. View Fitzgerald’s CV.

Appropriateness for Manifold Scholarship

Going the Rounds will be unique and, we believe, notable in its form and media. The book will be a deeply hybrid project that moves beyond the typical—and typically uninspiring—model of the print book with a digital supplement. Instead, we propose linked print and digital components that mutually inform one another, as we outline in the chapter descriptions in the next section of this proposal. In short, each print chapter is paired with a digital element, which does more than simply supplement the argument in print. Instead, these digital elements are resources, exhibits, or interactive components that expand the chapters’ inquiries in new directions, provide research data that other scholars might find useful, or model computational analyses difficult to synthesize in print. It is import to us that we find a press not simply willing, but eager to back an experimental publication and, indeed, to help us think creatively about what a book drawn from a large-scale digital humanities project might be. For these reasons, we are eager to work with the University of Minnesota Press’ Manifold Scholarship Initiative, as it represents the most ambitious and creative effort to take the digital seriously in regards to academic publishing.

The Manifold platform will enable us to closely integrate the arguments of our chapters with their digital complements in the digital version of the book, and we expect Minnesota’s editors are also well positioned to help us envision a print book that works in active dialogue with the project’s online components. Indeed, our project will offer a range of test cases that should be useful to the Press as the Manifold platform develops, and we would be eager to be active partners in that development. As the chapter and digital components make clear, we propose a diverse set of digital elements, including databases, exhibits, and visualizations. We hope that our project will be a welcome challenge, helping clarify what a digital publication platform might provide—indeed, what “publication” might mean—for large-scale, expansive digital humanities projects. We are have local resources that will allow us to be flexible as the project and Manifold platform develop. For instance, we have infrastructure in the Library at Northeastern University for the support of digital publication, and could potentially host and maintain some digital components there under the imprimatur of the press if these fall outside Manifold’s technical capabilities. In addition to the sample writing included in our proposal packet, we have prepared prototypes and samples of the digital work that will comprise this project. In all cases these elements are in active development, and the versions we share in the proposal illustrate the potential, not the final form, of the digital components outlined in the section below.

Audiences and Markets

Going the Rounds will include approximately 200 print pages. We have enclosed sample writing that will be adapted in several of its chapters, as described in the chapters section below. The book draws from and intervenes in scholarly discussions across the fields of American literature, history of the book, periodical studies, bibliography, media studies, and digital humanities, exemplifying the vital, cross-disciplinary investigation N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman recently named “comparative textual media” (University of Minnesota Press 2013). Given its interdisciplinary origins and arguments, the book will appeal to a wide range of markets. First, the book will interest scholars and graduate students in the digital humanities and computer science. Next, the book will appeal to scholars and graduate students interested in nineteenth-century American history, literature, and culture, whether in literature, history, or American studies programs. We also expect the book to interest to scholars in textual studies and book history. Finally, we anticipate a popular audience. Given widespread interest in modern viral media, we have seen significant public interest in the Viral Texts Project—including press coverage through venues such as Wired magazine or NPR’s On the Media—and we expect such popular excitement will translate to this project as well. More specifically, Going the Rounds contributes to a recent boom in histories of material print culture in antebellum America, digital humanities, media archeology, and American religious history.

The book extends—and in some cases challenges—the insights of literary historians who have worked to situate notions of authorship, literary property, and reading within the messy, material conditions of nineteenth-century print culture, including Meredith McGill’s American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting (2003), Trish Loughran’s The Republic in Print (2007), Leon Jackson’s The Business of Letters (2008), Lara Langer Cohen’s The Fabrication of American Literature (2011), Ellen Gruber Garvey’s Writing with Scissors (2012), and Sari Edelstein’s The Novel and the News (2014). Even as such scholars have ventured beyond the book to think more capaciously about American print culture and authorship, their arguments have remained largely bound up with exemplary authors: Fern, Lippard, Yonge, or Hawthorne, Poe, even Dickens. By searching not for individual texts or authors, but instead reading across the digitized newspaper corpora, Going the Rounds proposes a much more diverse and atomized scene of popular reading than previous literary histories. Going the Rounds closely aligns accounts of everyday reading and writing with scholarship on the social and mechanical technologies that underlay antebellum print culture, including David M. Henkin’s The Postal Age (2006), Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848 (2007), Susan Schulten’s Mapping the Nation (2012), and, though it focuses on Britain, Aileen Fyfe’s Steam-Powered Knowledge (2012). Just as the computational methods presented here thicken more traditional literary-historical accounts of reprinting, so too does Going the Rounds contribute to the growing body of literature on computational analysis in the humanities, including Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees (2005), Stephen Ramsay’s Reading Machines (2011), and Matt Jockers’ Macroanalysis (2013). In particular, the book puts into practice an active shuttling between scales of analysis that these books advocate but rarely demonstrate—a method of zoomable reading that eschews the opposition typically set up between close and distant reading. Finally, the historical investigation that comprises the bulk of the book informs and is informed by theorizations of textuality and virality such as D. F. MacKenzie’s Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts (Cambridge UP 1986), Jerome McGann’s Radiant Textuality (2004), Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture (2006), N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman’s Comparative Textual Media (2013), and Karine Nahon and Jeff Hemsley’s Going Viral (2013).

The previous publication of different versions of some book sections in essay collections and top digital humanities or American literature journals demonstrates the existence of an audience for new paradigms for reading nineteenth century print culture such as the book will offer. An article that includes material from the Introduction and the Afterword appears in the collection Virtual Victorians, edited by Veronica Rose Alfano and Andrew Stauffer (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). Material from Chapters 1 and 2 appear in a pair of articles (one literary-historical, one methodological) in the August 2015 issue of American Literary History. Other materials from Chapter 2 appear in a forthcoming article in American Periodicals. Finally, portions of chapter 5 were published as “‘Taken Possession of’: The Reprinting and Reauthorship of Hawthorne’s “Celestial Railroad” in the Antebellum Religious Press” in Digital Humanities Quarterly. That article won the 5th Annual Best Article Prize from ProQuest and the Research Society for American Periodicals in 2013. All involved journals freely grant permissions for this work to appear in a monograph. Some of the digital components will expand or revise work currently online; these instances are described below.

Chapter and Digital Component Descriptions

Introduction: “Viral Textuality” by Ryan Cordell

This introduction begins in an unlikely place, with the newspapers of the apocalyptic Millerite movement. Though the Millerites seem in many ways like holdouts from a pre-Enlightenment age, predicting the literal, apocalyptic Second Coming of Christ on October 22, 1843, we argue instead for the essential modernity of the movement. Daily Millerite newspapers like the Midnight Cry! and Signs of the Times gathered a wide array of texts from newspapers, books, and magazines to discover and map the day’s news and information onto their understanding of the “signs of the times” which fulfilled Biblical prophecy and signaled the end times. These signals were aggregated—they were given symbolic shape and coherence—by recomposition in the form of a daily nineteenth-century newspaper. In other words, reprinting facilitated a new way of arguing for a “Biblical” worldview. Selections from around the nation and the world were reassembled in Millerite papers as evidence for apocalypse and, just as prominently, guides to living moral, Christian lives in anticipation of time’s end. This chapter reads the Millerites as devout participants in the informational mode expounded throughout Going the Rounds, assembling their particular view of the world through selection and republication. Next, the introduction situates Going the Rounds within current scholarship on early nineteenth-century print history and new media, proposing that reprinted selections in the period’s newspapers are an essential site of inquiry for understanding the information economy of the period. This introduction brings modern scholarship about memes, virality, and “spreadable media” into conversation with literary-historical work on periodicals to build a theory of viral textuality hinged on an analogy between the cut-and-paste textual cycle of nineteenth-century print culture and our current sharing practices online.

Digital Introduction: “Bottom-Up Bibliography” by David Smith and Ryan Cordell

The digital introduction to the project describes the computational methods of the Viral Texts project and provides users an updated, generalized version of our reprint-detection algorithms for use with their own corpora. These algorithms have allowed us to trace nineteenth-century newspaper reprinting both more minutely—tracking the movement of textual fragments, sometimes a few paragraphs long, through the newspaper exchange network—and more expansively—describing relationships among newspapers based on tens of thousands of shared texts over years—than was possible in the print archive. Rather than argue the superiority of so-called “distant reading,” however, Going the Rounds proposes a digital humanities scholarship that actively moves between scales in a recursive and iterative process: work at the corpus scale suggests details worth attending to in specific newspaper issues, and time spent with those issues suggests new computational questions that are tested across the corpus. The project code is similarly flexible, adaptable for finding full texts, as we have, or for analysis of shorter quotations across corpora.

Chapter 1: “Information Literature” by Ryan Cordell

Edgar Allan Poe commented in 1846 that readers “now demand the light artillery of the intellect; we need the curt, the condensed, the pointed, the readily diffused—in place of the verbose, the detailed, the voluminous, the inaccessible.” This chapter takes Poe’s characterization seriously, grappling with the radically “curt,” “condensed,” and “readily diffused” selections in the newspaper as exemplars of a central rhetorical and literary mode during the nineteenth-century. Jokes, scientific reports, recipes, domestic advice, trivia, and even lists were valued by the editors who reprinted them and the readers who clipped and saved them in scrapbooks. Considered individually, these pieces seem ephemeral, but considered as a corpus of “viral texts,” we can discern commonalities between familiar and unstudied genres that signal why particular texts went viral and others do not. The chapter argues that a text’s amenability to modification and recontextualization directly impacted its spreadability. In particular, the chapter focuses on “information literature”—e.g., lists, tables, recipes, scientific reports, trivia columns—as genres that established the newspaper as a serialized and communally authored compendium of useful knowledge, drawing from and contributing to related book genres such as the journal or encyclopedia. The information literature in American newspapers stemmed from and contributed to the industrialization of knowledge during the nineteenth century. In large part, antebellum newspaper reprinting privileged texts for their edification or usefulness to readers, not their originality. The exchange and republication of information literature through the newspaper network—particularly when those acts of exchange were staged through paper-to-paper attribution—built up an idea of newspapers’ citability and, eventually, contributed to notions of journalistic objectivity.

Digital Component 1: “Enhanced Viral Texts Database” by Abby Mullen, Jonathan Fitzgerald, David Smith, and Ryan Cordell

With early funding from the NEH, the Viral Texts team published an alpha database of the clusters of reprinted texts identified in the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America newspaper corpus. While it was a vast improvement over browsing the raw spreadsheet data generated by the project’s algorithms, this database was hindered by our own evolving understanding of the kind of data the project would produce, and how scholars would seek to use that data. In short, we came to this project with an archival mindset, envisioning a single, stable database that would grow as we added new corpora to the study. However, this archival mindset has not squared with the experimental nature of our work, in which different parameter settings of our reprint-detection algorithm generate widely diverse results, each set interesting for exploring particular questions about nineteenth-century reprinting. To that end, we are adapting the Bookworm Project to create a more flexible interface that will enable other scholars to browse, search, and visualize individual project datasets, as well as provide stable references for individual clusters used in academic articles and books, including Going the Rounds. Publication of this enhanced database is an essential element of the larger book project, as it will provide mechanism for readers to quickly reference the otherwise abstract “textual clusters” that evidence our arguments throughout the print and digital components of the book. Online prototype related to this component:

Chapter 2: “The Network Author” by Ryan Cordell and Abby Mullen

This chapter argues that the composition and circulation of texts among antebellum newspapers offers a model of authorship that is communal rather than individual, distributed rather than centralized. It proposes the “network author” to account for the ways in which meaning and authority accrued to acts of circulation and aggregation across antebellum newspapers. This idea of a network author extends notions of reprinting, reauthorship, and the social text by identifying composition in terms of writers, editors, compositors, and readers enmeshed in reciprocal relationships of reception, interpretation, and remediation. The chapter first demonstrates how reprinted pieces accrued authority through circulation and commentary rather than through the prestige of a known writer. From here the chapter pivots to more explicitly literary writing, the “fugitive poems” or “fugitive verses” that circulated in nineteenth-century periodicals anonymously, or whose authorship was disputed. For instance, the Burlington Free Press (27 December 1850) introduced an anonymous poem as a “charming little fugitive somnambulist wandering about the newspaper world, wringing its little hands, and imploring to be taken in,” while the Coconino Sun (19 November 1898) described the widely reprinted religious poem, “There Is No Death,” as a “fugitive poem that many authors claim.” Nineteenth-century editors evoked a range of meanings when they deemed poems “fugitives,” simultaneously implying that such pieces were of limited interest while enhancing the poems’ appeal by introducing myths of their wide, disputed circulations. Fugitive verses were preserved not through discrete acts of publication, but through circulation and debate about their origins and merits. In such verses, we see the network author function at work even in the newspaper genre most likely to include an authorial byline. Such pieces also blend the literary mode with the informational, as the poems and their authors’ supposed “real life” interweave to appeal to readers. Like other species of newspaper texts, fugitive verses were preserved through circulation, and through dynamic interplays among the writers, editors, and the readers who composed, recomposed, excerpted, and remediated them.

Digital Component 2: “Two Ways of Looking at Nineteenth Century Newspaper Reprinting” by Ryan Cordell, Abby Mullen, and Jonathan Fitzgerald

This digital exhibit will follow the model established in the smaller-scale exhibit, “A ‘Stunning’ Love Letter to Viral Texts”. “Two Ways” will visualize and analyze newspaper reprinting in two directions: first, through an extensive critical annotation of a single newspaper issue and then through an equally extensive critical annotation of a single reprinted cluster through the newspapers in which it was reprinted. The first facet of the “Two Ways” chapter will resemble the current “Love Letter” exhibit, but aimed more squarely at a scholarly audience. While scholars know that many nineteenth-century newspapers were comprised primarily of reprinted selections, uneven citation practices make it difficult to ascertain on any given page how much of its news is new. The Viral Texts Project’s data promises to give scholars a stronger sense of these proportions. The database view, in which one sees clusters of particular reprinted texts enumerated in chronological order, teaches us much about the clusters themselves. But this disambiguation is itself a deformance of the textual field. When we read texts as clusters of reprints in a spreadsheet or database, we do not read them in the contexts of their original publications. This exhibit inverts the database view, demonstrating how the circulation of millions of texts across thousands of newspapers manifested in a particular issue read by particular readers on a particular day. Each reprinted piece on the page will be analyzed, and linked to its larger cluster in the database described above. Such annotation, of course, points out from this particular newspaper issue out to more dispersed, networked scenes of reprinting. In the second part of the exhibit, we will trace one such scene, following one selection from our central newspaper to annotate more extensively, building an argument about its resonances, meanings, and uses for readers around the country. Online prototype related to this component:

Chapter 3: “The Vignette and the Origins of Literary Journalism” by Jonathan Fitzgerald and Ryan Cordell

This chapter describes and theorizes a prototypical but largely unstudied newspaper genre, the vignette. These are very short prose pieces, typically a few paragraphs, that mark themselves simultaneously as fact and fiction and embodies a complicated negotiation between objective truth and subjective fiction that underlay much of the period’s literature. Scholars of French literature have posited the fait divers—a more reliably sensationalistic cousin of the vignette—as a central influence on early realist fiction in France. This chapter situates the vignette as an equally important genre in antebellum American letters, both influential in the development of sentimental fiction and a precursor to the prose writing later styled “literary journalism.” The vignette in many ways encapsulates the medium of the nineteenth-century newspaper: it is both fact and fiction, operating in the gray space produced by a medium through which news, poetry, fiction, and countless other genres jostled for readers’ attention on the same pages, a tension we can traced in much fiction. Consider Uncle Tom’s Cabin—a viral sensation in its own right and originally a newspaper serial—which Harriet Beecher Stowe described as “sketches.” Stowe defended the “truth” of Uncle Tom’s Cabin against critics by publishing The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book that comprised almost entirely clippings from Southern newspapers that ostensibly proved the scenes and characters of her novel could have been true. Through its form and situation, vignettes demonstrate similarly deep entanglements between the newspaper’s informational mode and the emotional mode of contemporaneous fiction. As the century progressed, however, newspapers increasingly sought to distance themselves from the intermingling of fact and fiction exemplified in the vignette. In this way, the vignette’s decline also serves as a model for the dramatic shift that took place in journalism at the turn of the century: the romantic and sentimental mode of the vignette was largely replaced by the more fact-oriented and syntactically sparser sketch. In short, as “objectivity” came to characterize journalism as distinct from literature, the vignette faded from view, but its conversation with nineteenth-century fiction had profound ramifications for what would eventually become literary journalism.

Digital Component 3: “Classifying Genres within Nineteenth-Century Newspapers” by Jonathan Fitzgerald, David Smith, and Ryan Cordell

While the clusters of reprinted texts we have identified in the Viral Text project have helped reveal the miscellany and variety of popularly reprinted text during the nineteenth century, they also expose the challenges of meaningfully classifying those texts. Vignettes often borrow the didacticism of advice columns; reports of scientific discoveries rhapsodize about their spiritual ramifications. Meaningfully classifying genres would both help other scholars sift through our findings and allow us to perform nuanced analyses that compare corpus level features among genres. This online feature will showcase our efforts to computationally classify genres and provide an interactive, user-generated genre tagging system that will allow other scholars to contribute to the project’s efforts. We will provide readable and user-friendly examples of texts alongside an array of potential genres that might apply to them. Users will be able to search for and read texts that interest them and then, in order to move on to another document, will be asked to answer a question relating to the genre of the text they have just read. There are a number of ways we envision making this an enjoyable activity for users, including through a game-like interface or by serving up texts of interest to users based on pre-specified interests or geographical proximity. For example, a user in London may be offered a selection of texts from nineteenth-century London newspapers. In this way, we will offer users tailored access to the data we work with while also strengthening and reinforcing our efforts to classify the genres of the texts and to discover where readers agree and disagree about the malleable boundaries of genre. Online prototype related to this component: A proof-of-concept genre identification app can be found at This would be significantly expanded, in both content and functionality, as part of Going the Rounds.

Chapter 4: “Reprinting the World” by Ryan Cordell and Thansis Kinias

The fourth chapter of Going the Rounds widens the book’s geographic scope to consider reprinting across oceans and languages. Newspaper reprinting was not simply an American phenomenon during the nineteenth-century, and this chapter illuminates both how Americans consumed newspaper content from abroad during the nineteenth-century and how American writing circulated to Europe and Australia in the period. Scholars well know that American newspapers frequently reprinted material from newspapers, magazines, and books produced overseas, and vice versa. Building on the earlier arguments in Going the Rounds, this chapter applies our “bottom up bibliography” to evaluate selections, regardless of author or origin, that strongly resonated across national and even linguistic lines. To cite one small example, one of the most widely-reprinted poems we have identified in the United States is “The Inquiry” by Scottish poet Charles MacKay, which appeared in hundreds of newspapers (and in gift books, sheet music, etc.) over decades. While American papers, as a group, exchanged most frequently with papers in the UK and its colonies, they also printed material from other languages in translation, while non-English newspapers in the United States frequently reprinted materials in other languages. For instance, German-language newspapers made up a significant minority of the papers printed in the United States during the period, and they commonly reprinted material from German-speaking countries (as did German-language papers in Australia and elsewhere). This chapter will argue that newspaper reprinting was a primary medium for helping to constitute readers’ international imaginations and, as a necessary converse, for solidifying their senses of national identity.

Digital Component 4: “Mapping Networks of Nineteenth-Century Newspaper Exchange” by Ryan Cordell, David Smith, and Abby Mullen

This digital component of Going the Rounds will be the most data-driven element of the project. This exhibit will feature a set of interactive geographic and network visualizations drawn from the Viral Texts project. These visualizations will not be the end product of the exhibit, which will also include prose to help readers understand the phenomena each illuminates, and offer an argument about how such visualizations help us better understand systemic features of nineteenth-century print culture. For instance, we use our data from millions of reprinted clusters to statistically analyze and visualize “likely paths” reprinted texts would have followed around the US at different moments in the nineteenth-century. These paths will correlate on the map with shifts in transportation or communications technologies, such as the post roads, railroads, and telegraph, to explain how shifts in newspaper exchange practices aligned with shifts in information infrastructure during the period. These “most likely” paths would also be contrasted with texts that follow statistically unlikely paths. Such outliers can offer important counter-narratives to “typical” patterns, such as propagation from large publishing centers to small towns. This would be only one mapped argument within a set of visualizations: to briefly cite one other example, an interactive network visualization would underlie an argument about lines of influence among nineteenth-century periodicals. Overall, however, this component will serve as a bookend to the more textually-focused chapters in the project, demonstrating the unique affordances of computational analysis for not only surfacing new kinds of textual evidence, but for enabling analyses of patterns across corpora that move beyond word frequency graphs or static maps of bibliographies. Online samples related to this component: Sample static visualizations can be found at the following links, but these applications will be far more interactive, like built using R’s Shiny app development environment:

Afterword: “Viral Media Then and Now” by Ryan Cordell

The brief afterword reflects back from the scenes of newspaper reprinting in the nineteenth century to our current age of viral media online. During the early nineteenth century, a given text would be written, printed in one periodical, distributed across the country, cut out by exchange editors, reprinted in numerous other periodicals, cut out by readers, and finally curated in scrapbooks. Today media is produced for one website, aggregated on other sites, shared widely through social media such as Twitter, even curated through personal archives (digital scrapbooks) such as Facebook or Pinterest. While media practices are not precisely parallel across one hundred and fifty years, the afterword will suggest ways in which studying historical viral media might help us see more clearly both the power and peril of media that can be shared with millions in mere minutes.

Supplemental Writing Samples

  1. Ryan Cordell, “Reprinting, Circulation, and the Network Author in Antebellum Newspapers,” American Literary History 27.3 (August 2015), download article.
  2. David Smith, Ryan Cordell, and Abby Mullen, “Computational Methods for Uncovering Reprinted Texts in Antebellum Newspapers,” American Literary History 27.3 (August 2015), download article.
  3. Ryan Cordell, “Viral Textuality in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Newspaper Exchanges,” in Virtual Victorians: Networks, Connections, Technologies, ed. Veronica Alfano and Andrew Stauffer, Palgrave MacMillan (May 2015), download article.
  4. Ryan Cordell and Abby Mullen, “‘Fugitive Verses’: Poetry, Attribution, and Circulation in Nineteenth-Century American Newspapers,” accepted with revisions (currently underway) for American Periodicals, review article in progress.