Is Literary Criticism a Numbers Game?


The New York Times recently published an interesting article by the historian Marc Egnal on the results of his use of Ngram, a Google database that can be used to track the frequency of word usage in millions of books. Egnal explicitly contrasts this supposedly scientific approach to the traditional method of actually reading the books being questioned. As he reports, the results of his project show that “researchers can gain new knowledge on America and its novels.”

This “new knowledge” apparently consists of the revelation that the canonical novels do not represent the novelistic trends of their times, at least insofar as the middle class reader is concerned. For example, Egnal states that the standard view of the 19th century novel’s view of women, that they are solely in the domestic sphere, is belied by books in the second half of that century in which words like “women’s rights” occur at an increasing rate, thereby suggesting that the celebration of independent women is more representative of the times than is female subordination.

Perhaps. But one cannot help but wonder if the repetition of certain words and phrases, i.e., the mere frequency of them, indicates actual representativeness or the biases of a limited but hopeful and activist segment of the population. A frequency analysis, in other words, doesn’t tell us very much.

Actually reading the books in question does tell us a lot, and despite Egnal’s casual dismissiveness of the scholars who spend hours in the library actually reading, comparing, and drawing conclusions, it is such scholars who have already, well before the age of Google, revealed the very point Egnal’s article makes: that the canonical authors do not often reflect the social trends of their times.

But then, they did not often intend to do so. At least in the United States, those authors who have made it into the canon, that is those authors whose works came to be considered worth reading long after their authors were dead, have been precisely those who spoke to larger concerns than the popular issues or which were not written in the popular idioms of their day. Few people read “Moby Dick” for its record if headline issues of the 1850s; and while biographers have elucidated the gender conflicts of Emily Dickinson’s life, no one reads her poems today in order to get a better idea of what it was like to be a middle class woman with an inheritance in the 19th century; and it should be noted that Melville’s popularity plummeted after he turned from narratives of South Seas adventures to the novels which now make him canonical, and that Dickinson could not get published in her own lifetime. Yet mention either by name in casual conversation today and most people will know whom you are talking about.

On the other hand, mention Fanny Fern or Southworth in the same conversation and you will get blank stares. But mention them in conversation with a literary scholar and you could get a thesis in reply. There is a very good reason for this: other than to a scholar, either of literature or history (especially one looking for a dissertation topic), neither Fern nor Southworth are any longer of any interest. A comparison of two opening paragraphs, one from Fanny Fern, the other from Melville, will demonstrate why:

“The old church clock rang solemnly out on the midnight air. Ruth started. For hours she had sat there, leaning her cheek upon her hand, and gazing through the open space between the rows of brick walls, upon the sparkling waters of the bay, glancing and quivering ‘neath the moon-beams.”
“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely–having little or no money in my purse, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.”

The first reminds one of “It was a dark and stormy night,” whereas the second reminds one of nothing but itself. That is the difference between an ordinary novel (whether of the 19th century or of today) and the great novel.

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