In search of (lost) digital American literature archives

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Women writers at the original SSAWW site at Lehigh, still awaiting scholarly attention.

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Or “Ubi sunt . . . ?” Where are the disappearing author archives of ten years ago?

In our English 573: American Authors and Online Editions class yesterday, the students and I discussed work by Sui Sin Far,  an essay by Mary Chapman, and chapter 3 from one of the books we’re reading this semester, Amy Earhart’s Traces of the Old, Uses of the New. 

Then we kept discussing current sites and lost sites, the individual sites put up as a labor of love in the late 1990s like those of Alan Liu, Voices from the Gaps, NativeNet, A Celebration of Women Writers etc. before the MLA had even adopted its standards for site information in 1999. We talked about how these sites had been made to make reading versions of unavailable texts available (pre-Google Books, remember) and, as Earhart describes, to make a more diverse set of  texts available.  We talked about Jean Lee Cole’s Winnifred Eaton archive, too, which has fortunately been resurrected here: https://jeanleecole.wordpress.com/winnifred-eaton-digital-archive/.

We discussed the difference between HTML and TEI, between (pre-DH? Certainly, as I’ve been told repeatedly, not DH) individual sites and the large, well-funded, and deservedly praised and vetted-by-scholars Walt Whitman Archive or The Mark Twin Project, not to mention the various ways in which we can look visualize data now.

Screen Shot 2017-09-26 at 9.16.19 AMWe looked at the underlying coding of the early HTML sites. I told them about the pre-Web Taylorology from 1993, that, when we looked at the code, of course did not change because it is plain text.

But we also went on a little virtual tour, sometimes courtesy of the Wayback Machine, and I told them about sites that had vanished completely, like Jim Zwick’s Mark Twain and Imperialism, or walled up their texts behind a paywall or university access, like the University of Virginia Text Center or the Women Writers Project–great and innovative projects, no question, but not now available to most of us.

Screen Shot 2017-09-26 at 9.26.21 AMWe also looked at page that had once served a purpose, like the W. D. Howells novels typed or scanned, organized, and mounted on the web that had been given to the Howells Society by Eric Eldred.  (Using Eldred’s format for consistency, I scanned and corrected An Imperative Duty for the site, and it took a while.)

We don’t need these now as when we only had individual sites, the Making of America Site and Project Gutenberg. Now we have Google Books, Hathi Trust, and any number of exciting large-scale projects (just go to NINES and look); new ones are announced seemingly every day, and they’re great–metadata, maps, interactivity, great TEI encoding, or whatever.

I keep hearing that the era of the archive is over and so is the era of recovery.

But if it’s over, why are we still, in some cases, shoring up texts and authors that are in no danger of going away?  Why are we leaving the authors who were recovered on those early sites like the SSAWW one still lingering in a limbo–readable but maybe not findable (because metadata), not celebrated, and without all the modern digital accoutrements that would allow them to find a new audience?

 

 

 

 

A Legacy Review & Updates to the Regionalism Bibliography

I haven’t finished adding all the books yet, but new articles have been added to the Regionalism bibliography at http://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/regbib.htm.

You can also read my Legacy review of Laura Laffrado’s Selected Writings of Ella Higginson: Inventing Pacific Northwest Literature in Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers Volume 34, Number 1.

Project MUSE http://bit.ly/2u8dkq6

JSTOR http://bit.ly/2u8l2QU

Meanwhile, the list of non-work-related books I haven’t written about here continues to grow:

  • Clancy Sigal, Black Sunset and Jean Stein, West of Eden: An American Place
  • Jane Dunn, Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters
  • Selena Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham (which despite the title is good)
  • Charlotte Gordon, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley
  • Elaine Showalter, The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe
  • Ruth Franklin, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life

Prophetic Voices: Sinclair Lewis

lewisSinclair Lewis, Jack London, Sui Sin Far/Edith Eaton, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Edith Wharton, Kate Chopin, Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Upton Sinclair, Mary Austin, Frank Norris. Were they prophets without honor in their own country?

Back in the mid 20th century, when the world was young and New Criticism ruled, they were all sort of . . . well, political, and everyone “knew” that Art was never Political but a well-wrought urn. The closer to modernism you could get on a sliding scale, the greater you were as an artist. Maybe Crane is sort of like Gertrude Stein! Maybe Wharton is like Henry James!

wharton1930s

Dreaming of being Henry James? Nope.

Except that art isn’t disinterested but is always political, as critics since have pointed out. And the works you may have read by them, if you read them at all, were carefully curated to be Art rather than Politics.

This issue comes up now because all of a sudden people are rediscovering Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. But he wrote a lot of other good stuff, too, as did all the writers listed above, all of whom are well known today but often for a few works.

I started this post meaning to talk about them all, but there’s so much to say that this list will be only about Lewis; I will write about the rest later. I’ve read all his novels except The Job, many (Main Street, Babbitt, Dodsworth, Arrowsmith, Ann Vickers, Elmer Gantry, Cass Timberlane) more than once, though I couldn’t honestly tell you much about Gideon Planish or some of the other later ones.

You can also go to the Sinclair Lewis Society site for information: https://english.illinoisstate.edu/sinclairlewis/

Say you want to read or teach a Sinclair Lewis with some social or political relevance. I’m including the film versions, too.

It Can’t Happen Here, about a homegrown fascist takeover of the U. S., is popular right now.

annAnn Vickers: Feminist social worker with an honorary doctorate in sociology works in a settlement house, tries to reform a Southern prison, fights capital punishment, has an unhappy love affair and decides to have an abortion, and finally falls in love with a judge and decides to live with him when his wife won’t give him a divorce. Oh, and everyone calls her “Dr. Vickers.”  The Pre-Code movie version stars Irene Dunne; you can read a good discussion of it here (the source of the image).

imarriedadoctor1936_ff_188x141_052020100846Main Street (1920): The novel about Midwestern small-town America that made Lewis’s reputation, with a dissatisfied heroine who tries to reform a town that thinks she’s the one who needs reforming. It was made into a movie called I Married a Doctor, but the movie doesn’t convey the depth of the book. Image courtesy TCM.

Babbitt (1922): Begins with 24 hours in the life of a real-estate salesman (“Realtor!” I can hear Babbitt yelling) and then shows his growing anomie and disillusionment with conformity. He turns down the right-wing Good Citizens’ League and searches for his idealistic roots, only to–well, you’ll have to read it. Edith Wharton admired this book. The 1934 Warner Brothers movie stars Guy Kibbee as Babbitt.

elmer-gantryElmer Gantry (1927): Popular hypocritical evangelist (character based on Billy Sunday) who preaches what he definitely doesn’t practice and lives very well on the offerings from his flock. The 1960 movie version takes a lot of liberties with the plot but won Burt Lancaster an Academy Award. (Image link)

 

Arrowsmith.jpgArrowsmith (1925): An idealistic doctor-researcher, Martin Arrowsmith, faces incredible pressures from those who don’t believe science is important and discovers a “bacteriophage” to fight a tropical plague. Lewis turned down the Pulitzer Prize he was awarded for this novel. The fine 1931 movie version directed by John Ford and starring Ronald Colman is worth seeing, especially for its portrayal of Arrowsmith’s equal partnership with an African American doctor from Howard University.

dodsworthDodsworth (1929). Car manufacturing giant Samuel Dodsworth and his wife, Fran, leave their midwestern city of Zenith (fictional location of many of Lewis’s novels) and travel to Europe, where they try to acquire culture in different ways, Sam through visiting places and reading guidebooks, and Fran by finding men to tell her that she looks and is young.

There’s a lot more to it than this, however, including some discussions of Henry James & W. D. Howells as well as broader meditations on American exceptionalism and expatriate living. Fun facts: Dorothy Parker admired the ending tremendously, though she wasn’t crazy about the rest of it, and Lewis dedicated the novel to Edith Wharton.  The 1936 movie adaptation directed by William Wyler, with Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, and Mary Astor, is based on the stage play and is superb.

kingsblood_royalKingsblood Royal (1947). The racial dynamics of this are problematic now but were courageous in its day (1947). Neil Kingsblood discovers that he has an African American forebear, a coureur du bois, and defiantly confronts his racist neighbors, culminating in his standing down a white mob.

 

 

Ten little-known facts about Frank Norris for his birthday

picture_of_f-_norrisHappy birthday to Frank Norris (March 5, 1870-October 25, 1902)!

Reading through the reminiscences in Frank Norris Remembered, edited by Jesse S. Crisler and Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. (University of Alabama Press, 2013) has given me a different perspective from the more formal portrait than McElrath and Crisler provide in their comprehensive biography (University of Illinois Press, 2006).  Some of these might be familiar to Norris fans, but seeing the original sources from Franklin Walker’s interviews (the source of his biography on Norris) makes them new again, especially the frivolous details that enlarge our perspective of him.

screen-shot-2017-03-05-at-11-15-03-am1. Norris was fascinated by medieval life, especially armaments and implements of war. His friend Ernest C. Peixotto, a professional illustrator who (six degrees of Edith Wharton alert!) also illustrated Wharton’s Italian Backgrounds, told Walker that Norris “started to paint a huge historical picture of the ‘Battle of Crécy'” (26).

2. Indeed, his first publication was Yvernelle (1892), “a long romantic poem à la Sir Walter Scott” (27). He was either proud of this effort or tried to gather all the copies and burn them, according to various accounts.

3. In Professor Joseph LeConte’s class at Berkeley, Norris wrote a “limerick on Geology” (82): 

There once was an ichthyosaurus,
Who live[d] when the earth was all porous
When he first heard his name,
He fainted from shame,
And departed a long time before us.

tf138nb1v5-fid24. Norris made jokes about his wife’s bad singing (which she shares with Travis Bessemer, the heroine of Blix):  “Marriage. Returned to apartment for the honeymoon. They sang with banjo. He let her sing. Said he would let her sing as often as he got married” (144).

5. Norris was not a paragon of organization: “One of the Phi Gamma boys told me–when we were no longer freshmen–that Frank was pretty terrible about keeping appointments–so utterly undependable that it took a lot of patience not to blame him; but nobody ever did blame him, or resent it at all. He had no capacity for keeping money, so they just looked out for him and loaned it when necessary . . . . “(77).

novelist_frank_norris6. Notoriously bad at mathematics, Norris had a friend rig up a game to teach him about the commodities market. As George D. Moulson remembers it, “I recall he came down to Wall street, met me and asked if I would be willing to assist him by coming up to his apartment while he was writing this book he intended to call The Pit dealing with a corner in wheat and help him get the details accurate. . . . We then rigged up a sort of thermometer arrangement on the steam heater, whereby the fluctuations, in cents, halves, quarters and eighths would be shown and we had the market fluctuating as it would during an active day in the pit” (186).

7. Norris was more intellectually than athletically inclined: “He was indisposed toward any violent exercise and not overly strong. [College friend Harry M. Wright] Remembers him in black tights in the gym; not much muscle on parallel bars, looked like a great spider. . . . Only sport was fencing and he was pretty good at it” (109).

8. As a writer, he was intense and focused, as his San Francisco friend Bruce Porter recalls: “He was a ‘tiger’ for names–a tiger crouched to spring. While he waited for an incident that, as he put it, ‘belonged to him.’ When you produced it, it set him on fire. He grasped the bone in his jaws, and retired with it into the lively solitude of his realistic imagination, built up the skeleton, clothed it with flesh, and the man walked, in that peculiar world of Frank’s brain, as a reality” (149).

9. He prized freshness over multiple revisions: [College roommate Seymour Waterhouse] “tried to advise him to revise his work a little more carefully but Frank maintained that that tended to kill the freshness of it” (101).

jnorrisfbk110. Norris’s early death resulted at least in part by his refusal to believe that he was seriously ill from appendicitis. His wife Jeannette had just had her appendix removed, and Norris, experiencing acute indigestion on October 20, apparently did not believe that lightning would strike twice in the same family, even though he knew that in cases of appendicitis, swift action is best.  According the San Francisco Chronicle as related in McElrath & Crisler’s biography, Norris “refused to believe his ailment of so serious a nature as to warrant . . . radical treatment.” Feeling slightly better, he ignored his surgeon’s advice and decided to wait, with the result that peritonitis set in, “with gangrene and perforation of the appendix” (428-29).  Norris died on Saturday morning, 25 October 1902, with his wife and his mother by his side. He was 32 years old.

 

 

Ahab’s backstory, Hollywood-style (1926)

sea_beast_film_still_6In which Ahab acquires a love interest, a last name, and a half-brother, not in that order.

The Sea Beast, an adaptation of Moby-Dick, was a huge hit for John Barrymore and for Warner Brothers in 1926. The cast list does not show Ishmael, but it does show Ahab’s half-brother and rival for the affections of Esther Harper, “a minister’s beautiful daughter,” played by Dolores Costello, soon to be Mrs. John Barrymore, and, much later, grandmother of Drew Barrymore.

The Sea Beast retains characters such as Queequeg and Fedallah, the latter played by Sojin Kamiyana, although Winnifred Eaton Reeve (Onoto Watanna) had described his part as being a “coolie” in a 1928 interview with him. 

In Moby-Dick, Ahab explains his motivation to Starbuck as follows:

All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event–in the living act, the undoubted deed–there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.

But Warner Brothers, probably correctly deducing that something a little less metaphysical and “inscrutable” would be likely to bring more patrons into the theater, went with something more familiar to audiences: a love triangle, a vengeful brother,  and a happy ending in which Ahab gets over that obsession with striking the sun if it insulted him and all that.

AFI Catalog Description:

Ahab Ceeley and his half brother, Derek, are rivals for the hand of Esther Harper, a minister’s beautiful daughter. Because Esther favors his brother, Derek pushes Ahab overboard on a whaling trip; Ahab’s leg is chewed off by Moby Dick, a white whale; and he returns to Esther a broken and embittered man. Ahab, believing that Esther no longer loves him, becomes captain of a whaler and obsessively sets out to kill Moby Dick. Ahab learns of Derek’s treachery and, after killing the whale, kills Derek. Ahab return to New Bedford and, his obsession gone, settles down with Esther.

(Incidentally, I pity the poor high school students in 1926  who thought they’d save a little time by basing their book reports on the film version.)

You can see a clip from The Sea Beast here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VVKsRIvSrkk

barrymoremobydickThe movie proved so popular that Warner Brothers made it again, four years later, in what people did not yet call a “reboot” of a “franchise.”

Here’s John Barrymore again, with all the original added features–love interest, vengeful brother–and an added mustache. Queequeg is played by the famous African American actor Noble Johnson, but Fedallah (and Sojin Kamiyana) is gone from the cast list. The love interest, now played by Joan Bennett instead of Dolores Costello, is still a minister’s daughter, this time the child of Father Mapple, who gives the famous sermon early in the novel.

In this 1930 ad from Motion Picture Classic, the film was still sporting the book’s title, Moby Dick (minus the hyphen in Moby-Dick) and some semblance of its original plot:

“Can he win revenge against this awful enemy–or will he perish in the giant maw that has been the graveyard of a hundred men before him?” There’s even a pod of spouting whales, though they’re dwarfed by John Barrymore’s famous profile.

The thing is, though, that in both these versions the white whale is clearly an instrument (Ahab’s “agent”) and not the entity responsible for the action (Ahab’s “principal”). He’s not to blame for taking off Ahab’s leg; it’s the brother’s fault for pushing Ahab overboard. The white whale acts in accordance with its nature, as Mark Twain would say.  Does this render Starbuck’s statement that Ahab’s desire for revenge is “blasphemous” any more or less true? Does Ahab’s quest make more sense if the backstory is a love rivalry?

If you want to challenge yourself with some questions on Moby-Dick, here are some to get you started: https://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/mddq.htm

Read the New York Times review of The Sea Beast: http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9E00E7DA1231EE3ABC4E52DFB766838D639EDE

Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons

ambersonsnovelBooth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons is a book I used to read and reread years ago, so much so that when I heard there was a movie with Orson Welles, I assumed immediately that he was perfect casting for George Minafer. I didn’t know at the time that it was a brilliant film by Welles much altered in the editing room, or that Tim Holt played the part. Holt was good, but I still think that the young Welles could and should have played it.

Put rather too simplistically, it’s the story of a declining family, the Ambersons, in a gradually industrializing town that’s passing them by. The protagonist is George Amberson Minafer, as insufferable a character as you’ll ever meet in fiction: proud, pig-headed, wielding class privilege like a whip–sometimes literally. His adoring mother, Isabel, had married George’s father, Wilbur Minafer, out of pique when her suitor, Eugene, showed up drunk one night and serenaded her. Isabel spoils George outrageously, as the town predicts she will.

When Eugene, now a widower, and his daughter, Lucy, return to their “Midland town,” Eugene falls in love with the now-widowed Isabel, and George courts Lucy, who loves him but is exasperated by his behavior. George forbids Isabel (his mother, remember) to see Eugene, and she dies without having had a chance to say goodbye to him.

On one occasion, Lucy tries to explain to Eugene, by using a supposedly Native American legend,  why she’s so attracted to George, even though he’s a character that the reader mostly wants to strangle:

“Vendonah [Rides-Down-Everything] was an unspeakable case,” Lucy continued. “He was so proud that he wore iron shoes and he walked over people’s faces with them. He was always killing people that way, and so at last the tribe decided that it wasn’t a good enough excuse for him that he was young and inexperienced—he’d have to go. They took him down to the river, and put him in a canoe, and pushed him out from shore; and then they ran along the bank and wouldn’t let him land, until at last the current carried the canoe out into the middle, and then on down to the ocean, and he never got back. They didn’t want him back, of course, and if he’d been able to manage it, they’d have put him in another canoe and shoved him out into the river again. But still, they didn’t elect another chief in his place. Other tribes thought that was curious, and wondered about it a lot, but finally they came to the conclusion that the beech grove people were afraid a new chief might turn out to be a bad Indian, too, and wear iron shoes like Vendonah. But they were wrong, because the real reason was that the tribe had led such an exciting life under Vendonah that they couldn’t settle down to anything tamer. He was awful, but he always kept things happening—terrible things, of course. They hated him, but they weren’t able to discover any other warrior that they wanted to make chief in his place. I suppose it was a little like drinking a glass of too strong wine and then trying to take the taste out of your mouth with barley water. They couldn’t help feeling that way.”

George eventually gets his come-uppance, as everyone in the town hopes he will, but virtually no one is there to see, or care, or remember the Ambersons.

ambersonsmovieOne of the things that Tarkington gets a lot right in the psychology of a small town is this idea of the figure that a town–or a media cycle in an election year, come to think of it– love to hate but can’t resist talking or writing about. The town doesn’t love George, or even like him, but as he does for Lucy, he makes life exciting for the town. There’s a sizable shelf of critical books on why protagonists don’t have to be likable (hello, Modernism!), but Tarkington hits on one idea–excitement–that’s often missing from these accounts.