15  What is Literary History?

Artjoms Šeļa (Kraków)

15.1 Introduction

Literary history, unlike other topics in this survey, is not a single task (like authorship attribution) or an object of study that could easily make up its own field in cultural studies (genre, gender, canonicity). It can enclose all its neighbors (history of genre, history of gender in literature), or be tangential to them, if history is understood as historiography: adding facts and documents to the body of knowledge. To be able to write about literary history, it must be first framed in one way or another.

15.2 Modes of literary history

Here, the focus is on the study of history in the sense of both Annales school and formalists. Fernand Braudel and colleagues saw the primary object of history in the study of change and continuity (see Le Goff 2015); formalists spoke of evolution of literature as an autonomous system, driven by forces that cannot be entirely reduced to social, political or economic currents (later this understanding was radically expanded by Bourdieu). In this light, the focus here is on the aspects of analyzing, inferring and evaluating historical change in literature — change that can be linguistic, morphological, or social. Analysis here mostly refers to detecting trends, trendlines and statistical models used in CLS to work with time. Inference points to methods of anticipating historical relationships between texts, often based on intertextual analysis: through techniques of text reuse, calculation of distances and building trees. The evaluation perspective describes attempts at historical generative models that try to replay history many times to see if baked-in assumptions about how things may happen can hold in sandboxes — radically simplified bare-bones worlds.

This perspective on literary history, of course, is quite specific and rooted in a certain vision of the main questions and methodologies. However, there are two modes of literary history that must be mentioned in this introduction, to better articulate what is not the primary focus of our survey (without excluding these perspectives completely).

The first mode, already mentioned above, is what can be called ‘historiographic’ — adding facts (Coker and Ozment 2019) and opening access to collections (Fischer et al. 2019; Schöch et al. 2021), contextualizing marginalized and forgotten authors (Wernimont and Flanders 2011; Borgo 2017), doing explorative dives into the Archive (Forlini, Hinrichs, and Moynihan 2016), encoding texts in a standardized way, preparing editions and critical apparatus (Mann 2018), or connecting various strands of knowledge together via the semantic web (Gehrke 2016; Schöch et al. 2022). In addition to that, we see certain work in this mode as ‘reconstructive’ , because it makes visible things that were not visible or accessible before: simulating paths of Romantic journeys through the Lake district using elevation data (Murrieta-Flores, Donaldson, and Gregory 2016), modeling early modern theaters (de Paepe 2014), or providing interactive software environments to stage historical plays (Roberts-Smith, Desouza-Coelho, et al. 2013; Roberts-Smith, Dobson, et al. 2013).

At the most general level, literary history is simply a story, a narrative. This is the second mode, in which scholars recover, piece together, challenge, or reinforce the stories about literature. Computational methods is another way to gather evidence and argue about well-known problems: Black writers and Biblical discourse (So, Long, and Zhu 2018), representation of women novelists (Moravec and Chang 2021), pace of literary change and conflict for aesthetic dominance (Underwood 2019b, 2019a), the rapid diffusion of third-person narration or free indirect discourse (Long 2021), the changing fates of various historical forms of the novel (Paige 2020), or long-term continuity in usage of poetic meters (Šeļa, Plecháč, and Lassche 2022). This is a continuous and endless process of (re)writing the history, both at small and a large scales: it, of course, goes beyond any particular computational project, or specific text preservation / representation solution.


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Citation suggestion

Artjoms Šeļa (2023): “What is Literary History?”. In: Survey of Methods in Computational Literary Studies (= D 3.2: Series of Five Short Survey Papers on Methodological Issues). Edited by Christof Schöch, Julia Dudar, Evegniia Fileva. Trier: CLS INFRA. URL: https://methods.clsinfra.io/what-lithist.html, DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.7892112.

License: Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY).