Guest Post: Andrew Jewell, Editor, Willa Cather Archive
When I write or speak broadly about the Willa Cather Archive (
), I gravitate to a couple of key terms to describe this scholarly resource, terms that, paired together, form a sort of paradoxical vision for the site: “useful” and “experimental.” These two words form a crude shorthand for both the underlying theory behind this specific resource dedicated to the life and writings of Willa Cather and for my broader ideal of work in the emerging field of digital humanities.
I’ve grown so comfortable with both “useful” and “experimental” that it hardly seems these two concepts need to be further explained, but perhaps locating them specifically in my work with the Willa Cather Archive will shed light on my particular use of the words:
Useful: As a young scholar in his first tenure-track appointment, I knew that I would risk undue obscurity in my particular scholarly community if I fixated on esoteric approaches, particularly when what I was embarking on was a new approach in a new medium. By being, at least partially, a “digital” humanist, I knew that I would appear to some to be the computer guy who might help them when they were having trouble with Microsoft Word, but who otherwise did work of little consequence. In order to counter that notion, I sought to produce and publish scholarly resources and tools that were otherwise missing from the community. For Willa Cather studies, that meant access to texts that were unaccessible, texts of key importance that were under-represented in the existing scholarship due largely to the sheer difficulty of getting a hold of them and reading them. Due to copyright restrictions, we can not put online anything written after 1922, but, thankfully, the large gaps in the textual record were from the early days of Cather’s career. We embarked on a few major projects that, though still incomplete, have brought many new resources easily into the hands of scholars everywhere:
1. The Willa Cather Journalism project: Co-directed by Kari Ronning, an Assistant Editor with the Willa Cather Scholarly Edition, and myself, this project is an effort to republish the nearly 600 reviews, columns, and articles Cather wrote between 1893 and 1904, writings that show her intense involvement in the music and theater scene, her earliest articulations of her aesthetic ideals, and many funny, scathing, and passionate responses to a number of topics. We provide full transcriptions of each article (completed in XML that conforms to the Text Encoding Initiative standard), page images of the original publication, and rich, multimedia annotations researched and written by Dr. Ronning. The first several dozen articles are available at
2. Cather’s periodical publications: Like many writers of her time, Cather initially published much of her fiction and some nonfiction in periodicals, both magazines and newspapers. Led by Vicki Martin, the Willa Cather Archive is publishing the periodical versions of Cather’s fiction and nonfiction complete with original illustrations and page images, allowing scholars and students to see the context in which Cather’s original readers experienced her work. The short fiction published in periodicals can be found at
and the nonfiction can be found at
3. A Calendar of the Letters of Willa Cather: An Expanded, Digital Edition: Janis P. Stout’s 2002 print volume summarizing and organizing Cather’s letters was embraced by the Cather scholarly community as an outstanding guide to the rich but largely inaccessible corpus of Cather’s correspondence (Cather forbid the publication of her letters in her will, a restriction still enforced by her executor). However, the comprehensiveness of Stout’s volume was soon lost, as hundreds more Cather letters came to light. In the summer of 2007, the Willa Cather Archive, in cooperation with the University of Nebraska Press and Janis Stout, published the first installment of the expanded, digital edition, available here:
. This new edition, co-edited by Janis Stout and myself and with Editorial Assistant Sabrina Ehmke Sergeant, features summaries of hundreds of new letters, a range of indices for accessing the contents, and full searchability. Because this new edition is digital, it can endlessly expand as more new letters are discovered.
Experimental: Though usefulness is a supreme virtue, and it is the quality that, if attained, will make the site indispensable for the scholarly community, I think digital scholarship also needs to push beyond utility into more experimental realms. Though some experiments will undoubtedly fail, it is also reasonable to expect that many thoughtful experiments will succeed and will one day themselves seem fundamental. As Willa Cather herself once commented in a letter, something new is never anything the audience wants; if they had wanted it, it would not actually be new.
One of the foremost “experiments” on the Cather Archive is TokenX, a text analysis, visualization, and play tool created and customized for the Cather Archive by Brian Pytlik Zillig and available here:
. Though text analysis, or quantitative and computational analysis of word usage, is something relatively familiar to some specialists, for most literary critics it is a new world. As critics, we have, justifiably, been transfixed with the details of literary passages, with specific contexts and nuances. TokenX brings a new kind of tool to this study, one that allows a scholar to follow word usage across the entire corpus of Cather’s fictional writings. Instead of seeing Cather’s texts as linear prose, TokenX presents text as data: columns with words and numbers, or word clouds with often-used words in larger fonts. In short, it provides a range of information about Cather’s texts that the individual scholar can use and interpret for his or her own research. For example, if someone is very interested in the color “palette” of Cather’s texts, one can carefully trace the color language, retrieving the surprising result that Death Comes for the Archbishop has almost precisely the same frequency of usage of the words “grey,” “yellow,” “gold,” and “blue” as My Ántonia, and, despite its arid setting, mentions “green” nearly twice as often as the prairie novel. This quantitative information about language can push interpretation in new directions and can aid research through features that allow readers to see each occurrence of the word in question in the full context of the original text.
Finally, we are experimenting with a new way to represent Cather’s life, a representation that also argues for a vision of her as a cosmopolitan, international figure. In the summer of 2008, the Willa Cather Archive will publish “Mapping a Writer’s World: A Geographic Chronology of Willa Cather’s Life.” This geographic chronology, created by a team including myself, Zach Bajaber, Stacy Rickel, and Amanda Kuhnel, and funded by the Nebraska Humanities Council, will use maps and timelines to show Cather’s peripatetic life in a visually arresting and innovative way. Users will be able to click on an interactive map of all the places Cather has been, will see the evidence for making the biographical assertion, will see links to texts and images related to that place, and will be able to track her movements in certain locales or in certain time periods. In short, it will be a life rendered in maps, one that, along with more traditional biographies, will allow for keen insight into the experiences of its subject.
As I hope this introduction suggests, the Willa Cather Archive is team-based scholarship. Each component requires the substantial work and interactions of Cather specialists, technical specialists, graduate and undergraduate students, administrators, and more. The Cather Archive brings together the Cather Project from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln English Department, the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at UNL, and the Archives and Special Collections of the UNL Libraries, and a full list of the individuals working on the project can be found here:
. As a scholar working on this project, I feel extremely grateful to learn so much from so many, and to create something that I feel at once is extremely useful for the scholarly community and can push that community in new directions.