It’s been a few months since the folks at Google Labs unveiled their fancy n-grams toy. It’s fun to play with, but, as I’m sure all my hermeneutically suspicious readers know, there are plenty of objections to taking the findings seriously. The team of non-digital-humanist scientists behind it have since published an FAQ. Since the topic’s been handled much more ably by others, I won’t go through the list of problems here. However, I do think that it could be useful for me. In a previous post, I described my efforts to get a sense of when “Celestial Empire” became associated with China, and when it stopped. And now, I can give you a sexy graph:

As I predicted, there’s nothing in the eighteenth century, and it dwindles in the twentieth, with peaks around the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion. A better use of n-grams, though, is to make comparisons. Here’s “Celestial Empire,” grouped with “Middle Kingdom” and “Chinaman”:

I think that despite the “noise” in the data, this is a fairly effective demonstration that, as a name for China, “Celestial Empire” was more popular than “Middle Kingdom” in the nineteenth century, and vice versa in the twentieth. Why did Victorians like the “Celestial Empire”? I’m hoping to answer that in my dissertation. What the above search suggests to me, though, is that there’s some historical shift going on around 1850, when all of the sudden “Chinaman” becomes way more popular than “Celestial Empire when it had been so closely correlated before that.

Despite all the shortcomings of the Google Books data and metadata, though, I’m really curious to see how these searches would look for a corpus with more reliable metadata–namely, the ProQuest and Gale databases of British periodicals.


When I was doing the periodicals list for Anne, one of the things I kept on thinking about was how I’d love to have a look at these advertising wrappers that get left out when a periodical is bound for publication. Same thing with advertising wrappers for novels serialized (not as a part of a periodical). I came across this on Google Books, the first number of Our Mutual Friend, and it includes the advertiser.

Something that’s been at the back of my mind as I’ve been going through these old periodicals is, what would a nutty academic in the year 2160 think about our world if she were to do a similar project to mine? First of all, I’m glad I’m not her! I couldn’t imagine doing a representative cross-section of non-newspaper periodicals for our current moment, let alone all the other forms of media we’ve got. Thinking about circulation numbers–what magazine would have the largest circulation today? Would the researcher include things like Maxim? Don Diva? Is Us Weekly more representative than Harper’s? Readership is a lot more fragmented and segregated in the twenty-first century, and if something’s “general-interest,” that probably means it’s something that white people are interested in.
So, basically, I’m wondering if my methodology, which has been taking circulation figures into account might be potentially misleading. Yes, tons of people read the Family Herald, but tons of people read supermarket celebrity magazines too. If our brave twenty-second century scholar were to flip through the pages of Us Weekly, would that be getting a more representative picture of our society? Yes she would–and it’s a weird feeling for me, since she might have a more comprehensive understanding of American culture in 2010 than I would. (Well, that’s not too hard to imagine, since I only find out about stuff that happens in New York City if it makes it across the pond to the Guardian.) Still, I think the boundaries were less rigid between the periodical strata. The London Journal, for example, always included bad jokes from Punch. People’s and Howitt’s Journal took stuff from Athenaeum. Eliza Cook’s Journal quotes from the Edinburgh Review and Blackwood’s. It’s very much a semipermeable membrane, though. The monthlies and quarterlies considered the more humble, much more widely read publications (or bought, at least) beneath their notice. I guess the analogy would be, let’s say the New York Times was widely and respectfully quoted by Fox News and talk radio. On the other hand, we might know of those more popular media outlets, but we wouldn’t even bother fighting the crap that O’Reilly and Beck and Limbaugh pollute the airwaves with. Or–it would reflect the amount of coverage of people-of-colour-targeted media within the mainstream (i.e. white) news.

Dude had some mad mutton chops

I chose that barbarism of a periodization for my periodicals list, because, while 1851 is definitely Mid-Victorian, there’s lots that happened in the Mid-Mid-Victorian Era that makes those years quite a different beast. For one thing, there was a sense that, after the Continental Revolutions of ’48 and the defeat of Chartism, England was entering a new phase of peace, stability, and prosperity. Tennyson was chosen as Poet Laureate, and then the Crystal Palace put a cap on everything. 1851 was a very good year if you weren’t among the millions and millions fucked over by British imperialism. And then, the Crimean War came in 1853, Sepoy Uprising in ’57, Second Opium War from ’56 to ’60: the national mood was quite different. But yet what both the Early Mid-Victorian Era and the Mid-Mid-Victorian Era shared (of the Late-Mid-Victorian Era I am lacking in expertise) was a sense of being in a transition state, escaped from the violence of the Napoleonic Wars, the threat of Revolution, and, not to be underestimated, the immoralities and debaucheries of the Regency, and moving towards… nobody was sure what. As Matthew Arnold put it in his inimitably cheerful manner (from “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse” [1855, which we might consider Early-Mid-Mid-Victorian]), Victorians felt as if they were “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born.”

Everything I said just now I believe I knew before reading Richard Altick [can I just call him Dick?], at least it doesn’t sound unfamiliar. What is new is thinking about the above periodization in terms of periodicals. During the thirties, there was an extraordinary struggle between those who wanted to disseminate, and those who wanted to repress, the circulation of news among the working class: hence the Newspaper Stamp Duty. The forces of repression won (as they always do, Thomas Hardy might say), in large part because working-class periodicals now focused on useful knowledge and education (or lurid fiction) instead of political issues. What if, in Althusserese, the ruling class could opt for the ISA over the RSA? And so, in the year of the Great Exhibition, the powers that be instituted a “Newspaper Stamp Committee,” investigating whether one might lift the so-called taxes on knowledge without upsetting existing relations of production. Lo and behold, in the Mid-Mid-Victorian period, the duties were lifted. And then, in the late 50s, there occured the “schilling monthly” phenomenon. I’m not paying much attention to this, because this is venturing into late Mid-Victorian period, but it looks like here we’ve got a further class subdivision: those who read Chambers’ or Household Words could sit at the kids’ table of the great monthlies, Blackwood’s and Fraser’s. And then in the 1890s, we get all sorts of crazy stuff like Tit-Bits and The Yellow Book and The Lady Cyclist and photogravures–everything gets too confusing and appealing!

I realize I said before I was going to make rationale pages for each list. This is probably the beginning of one, but I don’t feel like making the page right now. I have to be up in five hours, after all.

I’ve hesitated to announce my plan to blog every day–it’s not a New Year’s resolution, but it is a January resolution. Here’s the deal: My orals will, insha’allah, take place during the second week of February, and I’ve left a lot of reading to the last “minute.” Meaning, I’m planning on working 10+ hour days, no days off, for the rest of January. This is going to involve plenty sleep deprivation after a winter break that was curtailed into two days, so I’m trying to record my thoughts before they get lost in the general burn out. I’m feeling really stupid about not even averaging 50 pages a day in the summer. Lurkers, if you’re out there and you’ve done your orals, can you offer me some consolation in saying that leaving way too much of your reading to the last month is standard practice?
So, my thoughts. My three lists–“The Victorian Novel and Temporal Depth,” “Postcolonial Theory, Globalization, and the Cultural Turn,” and “The Early Mid-Victorian Common Reader: The World, The Exhibition, and the Periodical Press, 1851-1851”–all can be tied to Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. I think my favourite part of that book is the stuff on temporality, on how the rise of nationalism accompanied a shift from cosmological, eschatological time where everything works horizontally by Providence or typology, to Benjaminian “empty, homogenous time.” where things go vertically, and happen at the same time–“Meanwhile” is the key word. Anderson illustrates the imagining of these imagined communities with the example of the newspaper. I really saw this today while I was rolling through Volume V (Oct 1850-Apr 1851) of Eliza Cook’s Journal on microfilm. The articles make constant reference to or speculation about Englishness (sometimes independently of other peoples, sometimes in comparison to other European nations, but only infrequently in comparison to non-Western peoples). For example, the first article of 1851, “Prosperity!” notes the material prosperity of the nation, but then asks why England emphasizes material prosperity over moral and intellectual prosperity, and in fact, doesn’t do even do a good job with material prosperity given the living conditions of the working classes. What’s interesting about this, though, is that it’s not really events taking part in different locations, as in Anderson, but more abstract concepts. No doubt a large part of this is due to the Newspaper Stamp Duty I talked about yesterday. If you wanted to reach a large audience, i.e. sell for cheap, you could either take out news items, or risk getting arrested (check out Henry Hetherington‘s career as a printer). I’d say it’s more the imagining itself (every Sunday!), the sense of a shared reading experience, that creates national (and class) identity, than the way the media now reifies events as having national significance.
I’m reskimming Lady Audley’s Secret (and will start Aurora Floyd, since M. E. Braddon started writing it before she was finishied with LAS!), and I’m noticing that so much of sensation fiction is establishing that two simultaneous events were actually simultaneous, while traveling the country on trains scheduled according to “empty, homogeneous time.” Okay, that’s it. And so to bed.

I’ve just finished “reading” Richard Altick’s 1957 The English Common Reader, and I must say it’s held up very well. There’s just a frightening amount of research and scholarship in the thing, and it’s all put together very readably. It’s particularly interesting to read in the Age of Twitter given that the periodical press was, after all, a form of new media–or more precisely, a new platform for social networks. The biggest eye-opener for me, the thing I’m most embarrassed not to have realized before, is just how important price was to readership. Yes, I knew that not few could afford to buy the three-deckers so a lot of people read novels serialized and/or at circulating libraries, but it really does make a difference to put a quantitative price to things. One of the biggest political struggles of the nineteenth century was the War of the Unstamped, a fight to remove duties placed on periodicals carrying news items. Because of this duty, daily newspapers like the Times, at five pence, were too pricy for the working classes and the lower bourgeoisie. (Of course, they could always go to coffeehouses or club together, as Altick notes–hence periodical culture as a form of social network.) On the other hand, on Sundays, the only day when you would really have time to read if you were working class, you could choose from a huge range of penny weeklies exempt from the stamp duty (and the penny dreadfuls), including the respectable Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal and the Penny Magazine to the more questionable London Journal. (Also, obviously there were exceptions, but from what I gather, “journals” tended to be weekly publications, magazines monthlies.) Monthly publications like Blackwood’s, at a few shillings, were also out of reach, until the advent of “shilling monthlies” like Thackeray’s Cornhill. Quarterly reviews were highbrow. The Edinburgh was 6 shillings, 72 times as expensive as a penny weekly. What we get here is an interesting constellation of social class and temporal experience. Adjuncts and other instructors know what it’s like to live from paycheck to paycheck–and the extreme consequences a missed payment can cause, which CUNY does as a yearly ritual–the kind of world where one’s wages (as for domestic servants) were received quarterly seems quite different.
The “Why Teach Lit” panel at MLA got me thinking about close reading and distant reading, slow reading and fast reading. The stratification of publication frequencies suggests another dimension. If you’re reading something, do you read it at your own pace? is it an experience repeated once a week, once a month, over a quarter, once a year (Xmas annuals were big sellers)? Or, multiple times a day, in a perpetual cycle of blog to blog, to Twitter, to online newspaper?

My resolve to blog more frequently seems to have failed rather quickly. I’ll try to start back up again–I was inspired with Anne’s words on the department’s guide to the orals saying how she did a brain dump two days after finishing a book.

I spent about 6 or so hours reading the Illustrated London News in the Butler stacks at Columbia on Tuesday (you should go there just to see how spooky it is). My impressions?

  1. It’s heavy. I took two volumes, for the first and second half of 1860. The issues aren’t incredibly long–it’s a weekly, and the first of each month seems to be longer, and then issues can get down to about 8 pages. But it’s bound in a folio volume. The paper’s done really well–it didn’t feel fragile, so it must be rag paper, and hence doesn’t have to suffer the “slow fire” that’s making other nineteenth-century periodicals almost literally turn to dust when handled. So yeah, heavy, especially when it’s two volumes.
  2. The writing is tiny–like less than 8 point, I think. I get annoyed by small writing, but I usually have no trouble reading it–but I can imagine going blind reading this on a regular basis. I wonder–did many Victorians require a magnifying lens to read their precious periodicals? Why is the writing so small when the text in books tends to be so much bigger and spacey than current books? Is it because the rag paper was expensive and they wanted to economize? Or to make postage costs lower? The writing’s tiny, but the pictures are huge. Most issues have a centerfold (actually, it’s folded twice) with text on one side and either one big picture, or two pictures side by side, or a panorama and other pictures/texts beneath it. And these are BIG pictures–given that a single folio sheet is probably about the same size as your average Playboy centerfold. I would imagine.
  3. I did get a sense of the paper’s politics. One of the things that I’ve been ashamed of from having most of my knowledge of the archive done through database searching is that I haven’t been able to appreciate individual journals’ political stances. The ILN is conservative, although very much a don’t rock the boat conservatism rather than the mindlessly indignant “conservatism” of today. They’re pretty much fine with whatever the government does, like the books reviewed, and the journals they review. Yes, there’s a section once a month reviewing the major monthlies (Blackwood, Fraser, Cornhill (started in 1860), New Monthly Review). They can be either average or good–kind of like academic book reviews these days. Very little editorializing, and a focus on reporting what other people are saying–which of course can at times be very revealing nonetheless.
  4. Characteristics of supposedly postmodern features of media are in full effect. There’s one section called “Epitome of Foreign and Domestic News,” where each “story” is a maximum of two lines long. And news items in other sections can be really short too. E.g. “Mr W. Nichol, of Peckham, shot himself through the heart on Wednesday at the Lambeth Baths.” And that’s it. There’s fashion reporting once a month, with usually three dresses illustrated. They comment on the fashion of the month–and fashion these days seems to be periodized into the season at the smallest span of time.
  5. When they review literature, they don’t just mean novels. I think the majority of works were non-fiction: biography, history, popular science.

I chose 1860 since I was interested in illustrations of the Second Opium War. I don’t think I’m going to incorporate those illustrations into any current project, but it definitely gave me a much better sense of the “synchronous” at 1860. I.e., instead of thinking, first Crimean War, then Sepoy Uprising, then Second Opium War, my impression was: conflict between Spain and Morocco, tension and then commercial treaty between England and France, Napoleon trying to annex Savoy and Nice, Garibaldi in Italy, and the expedition and then warfare in China, the formation of Rifle Volunteer groups across Britain, scattered mention of the controversy around Darwin (they were not impressed–only negative review I saw was of a book called Pre-Adamite Man)–all going on at the same time. The Second Opium War was a major news event, despite all this going on. It was often mentioned as the top item of concern in parliamentary discussions. It was interesting to see that there was a big build-up to it–as in, there’d be updates every week about what troops were rallied where.
And–it felt weird reading it. When’s the last time anybody read those pages? I kept on thinking about the brilliant title-screen at the end of Barry Lyndon that reminds us that the people in the story are all dead now. Who was this “Mr. W. Nichol, of Peckham”? Does he have any descendents who are alive today? Why did he kill himself, shoot himself in the heart? (Suicides, completed and attempted, were a fairly standard news item to report). It felt eerie writing down the name about somebody who will probably never be named again, and about whom we’ll probably never know anything more about. And yet–when he killed himself, could he have dreamed that almost 150 years later, some Chinese-born-Canadian queer grad student in New York would be writing about him?