American Literature From 1860

Course Description

In this class we will be exploring the history of American literature from 1860 to the present. Additionally, we will be looking at ways to quantify American literature using emerging computational tools to study these texts.


Due Dates for all assignments are listed on the schedule.

Grade Values

  1. Project #1 — 25%
  2. Project #2 — 25%
  3. Project #3 — 25%
  4. Group Blogging — 20%
  5. Daily Attendance — 5%

Project #1 — Online Edition


For this assignment, you will be creating an online-aware, annotated edition of one of the texts we have read so far (from “How To Tell A Story” to “A New England Nun”). As these texts are freely available in the public domain, you can copy and paste them as you see fit. Specifically, for this assignment, you will be using Markdown—an easy language for creating web content—to create online editions. These annotated editions will link to other, online resources that clarify, explain, and enrich our experience of the text.

Note: If you want to use White Fang for this assignment, select a chapter to annotate.


This project will be challenging. Expect to feel confused or overwhelmed at some point.

Understanding a piece of literature requires more than merely listening to me yammer on about what I believe the text to be about. No matter how much research I have done or how much thinking I have done, I cannot ultimately tell you what to think. You must be an active learner if you want to exceed the sterile “student-consumer” model of education. By creating an online text, you will find yourself making decisions about what a text means to you.

By creating an online edition of the text instead of an essay (that only I could possibly read), you will recreate the text in the context of what you think of people should know about it, not in terms of your personal “likes” and “dislikes.” You will identify, question, and refine your perspective on the text, elevating your understanding of the text into a more objective, but still unique, position.

And finally, you will gain some skills and knowledge regarding online publishing. You will hopefully feel more confident about doing so in the future, in various other contexts, as well as become more critical about the texts you find online.


  1. Familiarize yourself with Markdown. If you’ve never used this sort of tool, it allows you to create a well-structured, online document with a minimum of fuss. This Markdown Tutorial is also a great place to start learning the language.
  2. Start a Markdown document. There are a number of programs that can edit Markdown documents, but here are a few good ones:
    1. Dillinger—Online Markdown editor that can save to Google Drive.
    2. Mou—OS X Markdown editor.
    3. Sublime Text—Windows text editor that supports Markdown.
  3. Copy the text of your poem into your Markdown editor and begin annotating.
  4. To elevate the text of the poem into a publishable online edition.


  1. A Markdown File Containing:
    1. A critical introduction that explains the cultural and historical background of the text (800 words)
    2. The annotated edition of your poem
      1. 10 links to outside sources clarifying confusing, archaic, or interesting elements within the text that will illuminate the author’s intent.
    3. An author biography (600 words)
    4. A critical bibliography listing 5 scholarly sources

Due: 02.18

Project #2 — Style Analysis / Visual Analysis


For your second project, you will analyze the literary style of an author we have recently read. This laboratory report will require you to submit a text through multiple online tools and then create short but informative paragraph-long reflections about what you learned from each tool. You will choose at least four computational tools (office applications like spreadsheets count as well). Additionally, a “statement of the problem” and “hypothesis” will describe your overall project aims, and a “conclusion” section will attempt to create a unified theory of the text.

Although you must follow the structure indicated below for the order in which you present your data, you may determine the look of your document (your font, typography, and layout) yourself. Each project will use different types of tools and may therefore require different choices to be made about the appearance of your style analysis report. Carefully consider how font choice establishes (or erodes) authority, how changes in font size can either help the reader decipher the document or distract the reader, how color-coded text might aid comprehension in one section but not another, how choosing to left-align, center, or justify your titles, paragraphs, and images will influence you reader’s experience of the document.

What Is Data Visualization?

For our purposes, by “data visualization,” I refer to taking your literary data—the text, which is merely data of a linguistic variety—and turning it into a different kind of data. Words can become shapes. Sentences can become numbers. Books can become charts and graphs. Poems can become maps. Chapters can become statistics. After all, literature can be seen as a form of information, just as a spreadsheet is a form of information. Even though reading a novel or poem is how the author originally shaped the material, we can develop new perspectives on the literary work by changing its form. Instead of only close reading the text, which we do when we look closely at a particular passage in the novel or poem, we will be supplementing it with the distant reading of data visualization.

You will need to prepare your data: a version of the literary work you choose that you can cut-and-paste into the input boxes in any text visualizer. The easiest way to do this is to search for a free online text through Gutenberg, Bartleby, et cetera, and then “cleaning” your text by deleting all the references to page numbers, to Gutenberg itself, and anything that wasn’t probably written by the original author. Now you are ready to plug your “data” (paste the text) into your chosen visualization applications.


First, you’ll need to choose a text. You may work on any text we have read so far in class; however, unlike Project 1, the longer texts (short story and novels) are going to work better for many of these visualization techniques.

Then, find your problem. What do you want to know about the text? What bothers you about it still? Does it relate to style (word choice, punctuation, structure, sentence length, fragmentation) or to theme (death, love, class, sexuality, colonialism, parenthood, education, feminism, nature, science, Darwin), to place/setting or characterization, or to the text’s autobiographical implications? Search through your tweets and browse your class notes to jog your memory. Sure, it may turn out that you discover a very different problem when you begin creating your visualizations, but you do need somewhere to start.

Now, answer your own research question; in other words, write a hypothesis. This one sentence statement that explains what you think to be right (before your research) will not only guide you in looking at your visualizations, but will also reveal to you your own prejudices (pre-judge-ings) toward the content. Without a tentative answer, you’ll be looking at the data without an obvious purpose. Again, it may turn out that your hypothesis is completely useless, but that is part of the “sandbox” that is the digital humanities. It’s not about confirming what we already think we know, but about exploration.

Your hypothesis will also determine tools you select to run your text through. You must use at least four, so specifically choose the tools that will best help you probe your hypothesis.


  1. Statement of the problem and hypothesis: one six- to eight-sentence paragraph about what you are trying to figure out about your chosen text, ending with your hypothesis: one concise, specific, unique, debatable, beautifully written, emboldened sentence about the results you believe you will find.
  2. Procedure: one six- to eight-sentence paragraph about how you chose your tools, including an account of any tools that did not work and had to be abandoned or any problems you had
  3. Data: four subsections, each of which will a) provide an image of your visualization(s) from a single resource, and b) one six- to eight-sentence paragraph that interprets that visualization by telling us what you learned about the text
  4. Conclusions: two six- to eight-sentence paragraphs that analyze your data altogether, as a single unit, and create a reading of the text you chose, noting where you confirmed, disconfirmed, or transformed your initial hypothesis

List of Potential Tools and Resources

Tool Name Description URL
Wordle Creates word clouds
Voyant Word frequencies w/graphs that show where the words appear in the text. Make sure to click on each key word, which will bring up the graphs.
Bubblelines See a clear “timeline” of word use. Type in the word you want to examine in the box on the top left.
Knots Type in keywords to see when words are used in association with one another
Type Frequencies Chart Compare frequency of up to five terms throughout the whole text in graph form (does not let you exclude stop words)
Spreadsheet Manually count what you want to examine, then enter in data in. You can just show the spreadsheet or make graphs in that program. Apple Numbers; Microsoft Excel
NGrams Track the uses of up to three phrases in published novels from 1800 to 2000
GoogleMaps Create a map of the places mentioned in a literary work
Readability Analyzer How difficult is this text to read? Sophistication, complexity, etc.
Content Analyzer Use to analyze word length for individual chapters or parts of a poem
Textalyser Finds average syllable length, word length, and common phrases Create an infographic to make an attractive version of data you already have from other tools
Dipity Create a timeline (good for bulky works like novels or for confusing works like modernist short stories)
Serendipomatic Paste in text to see a collection of images and links based on your key words
WordSift Paste in text and click on individual key words in the text to see semantic networks (word associations). Also works as concordance.
TextArc Visualizes word use according to text structure, distribution in the text, and relationships with other words. Only works for some texts that are already in the system.


Project #3 — Mapping Harlem


For this final assignment, we will explore the ways in which American literature can map the spaces of the American city. In Cotton Comes to Harlem, as in most detective novels, the hyper-specific listing of locations and spaces creates the novel’s verisimilitude. Additionally, in Himes’s use of shifting perspective to follow various characters as the violence of the novel unfolds, we have the ability to create a map of the tragic intersections of the various characters.

To do this, you will be using Google Maps Engine. For each of the major characters in Himes’s novel, you will plot out their movements over the course of the book. At each major point, detail what happens and your best guess as to the time at which it happens. In order to do this, you will need to rely not only on the information Himes gives you but also some of your own research. For instance, for locations such as the Cotton Club, you will have to find out where it was located in New York City. Also, be aware that several streets in Harlem have since been renamed.


Click here for an in-depth tutorial on using Maps Engine.

Characters To Track

  1. Deke O’Malley
  2. Iris
  3. Graver Digger & Coffin Ed


  1. Google Map (Shared With Me)
  2. Reflection Essay
    1. What You Learned
    2. What You Thought of this Method

Due: 05.01

Group Blogging

During the course of the semester, we will be blogging together about the texts we are reading. Each student will be responsible for leading this online discussion three times during the course of the term.

When it is your time to be the blog author for a class period, you must have read your texts and posted an ~500 word response to the class blog by 11:59PM on the day before class (Mondays and Wednesdays). For these responses, you may need to do some additional reading about the history of the text and the biography of the author. For everyone else in class (including me), we will need to read your entry and offer a substantive comment on it before class starts on the following day.

We will use these posts as starting points for any class discussions, so it is important that in your blog posts, you identify themes and ideas you find interesting in the works you have read. Do you find the style of a particular poet to be interesting? Did you find the content to be interesting? Do you want more background on a particular short story and wish to provide it? How you approach this is up to you, but, importantly, you will be responsible for setting the terms for our discussion in class. You have to be thorough and handle this responsibility with care.

I will blog for the first week in class to show you some idea of what’s expected.