Representations of Status in the British Novel, 1750-1850 – Using a Large Digital Collection to Understand Gradual Change
Literary historians have long understood that their object of study is not fully captured by the kinds of evidence they are able to cite. Rhetorical habits and literary genres change in gradual and interconnected ways. But we describe those changes, for the most part, by pointing to individual texts and authors. These isolated examples do many things well, but they notoriously tend to falsify the collective and gradual character of literary change. The large collections of digitized documents now available permit literary historians to address this problem by grappling more directly with the collective dimension of change. Two obstacles stand in the way. First, we have until recently lacked the tools to analyze large collections in sophisticated ways. The MONK project, supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is now developing tools to make this possible. The second obstacle is methodological. Literary historians do not yet understand how to connect their objects of study to the kinds of statistical evidence that could be generated by analyzing a large collection of documents. Representations of Status in the British Novel attempts to address this second problem by developing generalizable, portable methods for translating questions about isolated literary examples into questions about gradual changes of idiom and diction. Just as importantly, this project will show that these strategies can usefully address questions that are already central to literary studies-questions, for instance, about the relationship between fictional genres and the social history of status.