Networked NY Q&A: Ed Whitley

For the next few weeks, Jane and I will be posting Q&A’s with our Networked New York conference panelists. We’ll start with Edward Whitley, Professor of English and American Studies at Lehigh University.

1. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between digital representations of 19th- and 21st-century social and professional networks? How do sites like Facebook and LinkedIn serve as foils or complements to The Vault at Pfaff’s and The Crowded Page? Are there other sites that inform your team’s work?

Sociologists and historians have been thinking about social networks for decades, and they’ve produced a complex body of scholarship about how to define and interpret them. In recent years, however, as sites like Facebook and Twitter have become part of our everyday lives, the concept of social networking has become both more expansive and more narrow than this scholarship had previously allowed for: expansive in that those of us who participate in these website are more keenly aware than ever of how we fit into our personal and professional networks; and narrow in that what social networks are and how we image they behave have come increasingly to be defined by the look and feel of these massive websites. I cringe when people describe The Vault at Pfaff’s and The Crowded Page as “nineteenth-century Facebook,” because I don’t want our ability to imagine what these projects could become to be overdetermined by sites like Facebook and Twitter. I’ve learned a lot about how to think outside the Facebook box from Micki McGee, a sociologist-turned-digital humanist and the director of the Yaddo Circles project, and Jean Bauer, the creator of Project Quincy and the director of  The Early American Foreign Service Database. These scholars have a keen eye for design and a strong sense of how the data sets they are working with are unique products of their particular historical moments. If we want to create digital visualizations of the complex workings of literary communities from the past, we need to be able to do what McGee and Bauer are doing: which is to say that we need to understand how these communities are not like Facebook and Twitter, despite the surface similarities–the Pfaff’s community, for example, barely even had the telegraph to keep them connected, let alone high-speed wi-fi–and we need to work with talented graphic designers who take seriously the idea that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century social networks behave differently than their twenty-first-century counterparts.

2. In American Bards (2010), you seek to “correct the critical myopia that has cast Whitman as the ‘solitary singer’ of American poetry.” Is this a goal motivating your work on The Vault at Pfaff’s as well?

In American Bards I had a lot of fun pairing Whitman with poets he never met but with whom he nevertheless shared a project to assume the title of national poet from the margins of national society. My goal was to see Whitman—and, by extension, antebellum poetry—in new and exciting ways through these unexpected comparisons. The Vault at Pfaff’s also has a similar goal of resituating Whitman in his culture, but I’m not trying to produce the same kind of unexpected contrasts that I was aiming for in American Bards when I put Whitman into conversation with an African American abolitionist (James M. Whitfield), a Mormon pioneer (Eliza R. Snow), and a Cherokee journalist (John Rollin Ridge). To be honest, when I started The Vault at Pfaff’s in 2004 I didn’t know what would come from situating Whitman among the antebellum bohemians, and that was (and continues to be) part of the fun. I didn’t know if Whitman would fade into the background as just one more counter-culture writer from the 1850s or if he would emerge even more powerfully as the definitive voice of the antebellum New York underground. I hand-picked the poets for American Bards to generate a very specific effect; for The Vault at Pfaff’s I’ve deliberately kept things open-ended. A scholarly monograph needs to have an argument (“Whitman is not x; rather, he is y”), but a digital archive isn’t obliged to direct its materials in defense of a specific thesis statement. Instead, an archive such as The Vault at Pfaff’s can make its contribution by raising questions–“How would it change our view of Whitman to consider his life and work from within the community of x and y?”–rather than arguing for certain answers.  

3. What are your hopes for The Vault at Pfaff’s? Do you anticipate the archive begetting traditional scholarship? Given the site’s accessibility, who do you imagine to be its future users?

Since its initial public launch in 2006, The Vault at Pfaff’s has helped to bring together a community of scholars who are working to recover the lives and careers of the antebellum bohemians. Some of these scholars learned about the bohemians in large part through the materials available on The Vault at Pfaff’s; some of them had been researching the bohemians prior to 2006, but the presence of The Vault at Pfaff’s has since helped to coalesce the identity of this scholarly community. Members of this community of scholars have presented research together on panels at the conferences of the American Literature Association and Modern Language Association, and we are currently working on a collection of essays titled Whitman among the Bohemians (under contract with the University of Iowa Press), which I am editing with Joanna Levin. I’m hopeful that The Vault at Pfaff’s will continue to support scholarly productivity. I also look forward to continuing to receive emails from genealogist, journalists, writers of historical fiction, and New York history buffs who visit the site and thank us for what we’ve done to make information about the antebellum bohemians more accessible than it’s ever been.

Twitter: @edwardwhitley

For further reading, check out another blog post about Whitley’s take on digital humanities for the University of Michigan Press.

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