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Matteson, Travis: "Reading Dickinson Distantly: GIS Mapping and Emily Dickinson’s Poetry"

Reading Dickinson Distantly: GIS Mapping and Emily Dickinson’s Poetry

Travis Matteson, University at Buffalo

This presentation “reads” Dickinson’s poetry in light of Franco Moretti’s recent critical heresy known as “distant reading.” By “distant reading,” Moretti means, essentially, data mining enormous amounts of literary works. This practice takes as its locus not individual texts, but aggregates of whole canons in order to understand literature in the digital age. But what is to be gained by keeping Dickinson at arm’s length, by eschewing the practice of close reading? Lori Emerson has already claimed Dickinson for team digital in “My Digital Dickinson,” a self-proclaimed “misreading” of Dickinson’s works in context of the digital turn. Yet, much of Dickinson’s digital presence remains archival and functional, a valuable resource for Dickinson scholars (as Martha Nell Smith has recently argued), but these resources tend to reinforce rather than challenge the process of close reading. Even Smith and Vetter’s fascinating Emily Dickinson’s Correspondence: A Born-Digital Textual Inquiry presents seventy-four of Dickinson’s thousands of poems and letters.
In the case of many digital archives and resources, the proprietors often make claims of authenticity and definitiveness due to the intervention of the digital. This project makes no such claims, but simply seeks to explore the work of Emily Dickinson in the manner of a recent trend in literary studies: the practice of distant reading. To perform a true distant reading of Dickinson’s work, I propose to map every geographical location to which Dickinson refers using geographic information system (GIS) software. Reading Dickinson’s geography is not a new practice. For instance, Georgiana Strickland has offered a speculative account of Dickinson’s trip to Philadelphia and its possible effects on her poetic practice, and Christine Gerhardt has read Dickinson’s geographically contingent writings through the lens of ecocriticism. A distant reading of the totality Dickinson’s geographical references, however, offers a myriad of possibilities for future research. This project explores the extent to which Dickinson’s cartographic sensibility truly characterizes her as a world citizen, and to visualize what her world truly looked like, based on the range of data the GIS software will generate. More significantly, however, is the fact that this project will ultimately be open-sourced, to allow future Dickinson scholars to manipulate the data in the service of a myriad of future projects.