Literary Methods

We think of the digital age as a time of tremendous innovation in literary technology, producing new authors on a mass scale, as well as preserving and curating older books. This explosion in the technologies of reading is not, however, unprecedented. Because of disadvantageous copyright laws, nineteenth-century American writers had to find creative devices for producing, protecting, and disseminating their work: whether through private presses or self-printing (Walt Whitman and eventually Herman Melville), manuscript self-publication (Emily Dickinson), the networks of popular magazines (Harriet Beecher Stowe and Fanny Fern) or uses of public lectures, journalism, and photography for self-marketing (Frederick Douglass and Mark Twain). This class will examine the “literary methods” of American authors looking for readers. In order to understand these nineteenth-century innovations, we will also investigate 21st-century critical methods that have created sophisticated digital tools for reading the past. Students will assess different textual forms—manuscript, print, maps, photographs, illustrations, circulars—using the hands-on affordances of both old-fashioned libraries and state-of-the art digital databases. No technical expertise required.