The book’s private journey through many hands and homes

The best part of buying a used book is the history that comes with it. Tucked in the pages, one finds photographs and letters used as bookmarks; on the inside cover and in the margins, long inscriptions to, from, about. It's true the printed text pulls us into the life of the author, but it's … Continue reading The book’s private journey through many hands and homes

“Made while under fire”: Elijah E. Edwards’ Civil War sketches

Before there were cameras to document warfare, there were sketchbooks. So imagine then sketching a battlefield and, as smoke filled the air and bullets zipped past, trying to keep your pencil straight. This, though, was the experience of many artists, including Elijah Evan Edwards (1831-1915), who served as chaplain of the 7th Minnesota Infantry during the Civil War (1864-1865). The Minnesota Historical Society has three volumes of Edwards' journals, including a 1910 typescript he wrote synthesizing his pocket diaries from the war. In it he discusses daily camp life, the people he met, different battles, and so on. Besides being an invaluable, firsthand account of the Civil War, what makes the text rich is its being accompanied by several dozen sketches made from "hasty outlines finished from memory when I had leisure." "This is especially true of the battle scenes," he added, "since I had during the critical moments of the conflict neither leisure nor opportunity to make sketches." (p.1). It's these that distinguish Edwards' written account from others.

Holding Robert Bly’s Diaries

Going through Bly's diaries and correspondence spanning his entire life, I felt empowered watching this writer grow, discovering that the youthful doubts I harbor are doubts he harbored, too. It felt validating. (I don't expect anyone but the writers in the audience to understand what I mean by this). Sometimes I'd even stumble across lines that, in variation, have appeared in my own diary ...

The Digital Humanities and Word Clouds

Ever since I joined the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law, I've had a growing interest in big data analysis. With so much information being digitized -- whether it's criminal records, government documents, or historical archives -- researchers can engage with old resources in new ways and ask questions on scales previously unimaginable. Though I'm not too vocal about it here (yet), right now I'm working to apply what I've learned at the Initiative to the Library of Congress' "Chronicling America" archives. This crossing of fields, for those who are curious, is called the "Digital Humanities." (If you'd like to know more, I suggest checking out the historian Dan Cohen's blog. Fred Gibbs also has a helpful introduction to historical data analysis here). I won't reveal any of my graphics here (I'm saving them for a future post), but here's an example of the Digital Humanities that everyone's familiar with: Word clouds. Technically, these were possible before the digitization of famous works, but it's the kind of work that required slave labor teaching assistants. The following I put together in a few minutes using Project Gutenberg and Wordle.

Kerouac in Minnesota (January 1949)

As part of my continuing research into the diary as a genre of literature, I came across the following from Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac, 1947-1954 (2006). ... "This famous river port still has the old 1870 brick along the waterfront ... now the scene of great fruit and wholesale markets, just as in Kansas City near the downhill Missouri shore. St. Paul is smaller and older and more rickety than Minneapolis, but there is a depressing Pittsburgh-like sootiness about it ... even in joyous snowy winter. Minneapolis is a sprawling dark city shooting off white communities across the montonous flats. The only soulful beauty here is rendered by the Mississippi and also by a hopeless hint of Mille Lacs and the Rainy River country to the North. The people are eastern (of course it's called 'middlewestern') city people; and their corresponding look, talk & absorptions. Blame it on me; I hate almost everything. I would have liked to see Duluth merely because of Sinclair Lewis and Lake Superior."

“The Basketball Diaries” by Jim Carroll

First published in 1978, The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll is a slightly-fictionalized account of growing up in New York City. Spanning the Fall of 1963 (when he was 12) to the Summer 1966, the reader follows Carroll as he wanders the streets, shoots heroin, and makes love. Although much has been made of his drug and sex life, which in fairness is most of the book, what's often overlooked are the themes that slowly rise from his experiences. Rather than being merely "the classic about growing up hip on New York's mean streets" (the person who wrote that should be imprisoned) it's an account of maturity - sexual, emotional, and even political. As these all run parallel, they soon converge at a point that transcends any one person's experiences: we are our lost innocence.