Chronicle of Higher Education Article

This week the Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article written by Jennifer Howard about “literary geospaces.” The article featured some work I have done mapping Irish-American literature using Google Earth (and also profiled the work of Janelle Jenstad who has been mapping early modern London).

Picture of Jockers with Google Earth by Noah Berger

Photo by Noah Berger

The bit about my Google Earth/Irish-American literature mash up resulted in several emails from folks wanting to know more about the project and more specifics about my findings. . . beware what you ask for. . .

I began building a bibliographic database of Irish-American literature many years ago when I was working on my dissertation (Jockers, Matthew L. “In search of Tir-Na-Nog: Irish and Irish-American Literature in the West.” Southern Illinois University, 1997). In 2002 I received a grant from the Stanford Humanities Laboratory to fund a web project called “The Irish-American West.” At that point I moved the database into MySql and put the whole thing on line with a search interface. As part of the grant, I also began digitizing and putting on line a number of specific Irish-American novels from the west. All of this work was later moved to the web site of the Western Institute of Irish Studies, a non-profit that I helped establish with then Irish Consul Donal Denham and a few other Bay Area enthusiasts. The archive and the database are alive and well at the Institute, and each year students who take my Introduction to Humanities Computing course help the archive grow by encoding one or two more full texts. (The group projects my students complete each year can be found on my courses page)

Ironically, on St. Patrick’s day in 2007, I was invited to present a paper at the 2007 MLA meeting in Chicago as part of a panel session titled “Literary Geospaces.” The paper I delivered “Beyond Boston: Georeferencing Irish-American Literature” utilized Google Earth to help the audience visualize both the landscape and chronology of Irish-American literary history. I warned the audience at the time not to be seduced by the incredible visual appeal of Google Earth; GE is a stunning application, and I was honestly worried that my audience would lose track of my central thesis about the literary history of Irish-America if they got too caught up in the visualization of the data. I was also worried about the amount of time that went into the preparation of the Google Earth mash-up. The MLA is a meeting of literature and language professors, and I didn’t want to give the impression that putting something like this together was a simple matter (along with the Google Earth app itself, I’d utilized php, xml, xsl, html, and Mysql to build the .kml file that runs the whole show).

The central thesis of the paper was that in order to understand Irish-American literature we need to look not simply to the watershed moments of Irish-American history, but we must look to the very geography of America. As long ago as 1997, my research had shown that the Irish experience in America was largely determined by place. It’s true, of course, that the time of immigration to the U.S. was important in coloring the Irish experience: were these pre-famine immigrants, famine refugees, or the 1980’s so-called “commuter Irish.” But I discovered that equally important to chronology was place and the business of where the immigrants settled. For my research, I divided the country up into a number of regions (Midwest, mountain, southwest, pacific. . .) and each one of these regions turned out to have a distinct “brand” of Irish-American writing. Generally speaking, though, the further west we go the more likely we are to find writers describing the Irish-American experience in positive terms. And perhaps more importantly, the further west we go the more Irish writing there seems to be if we view “more” in relative terms, as a percentage of the Irish population.

I suppose one of the most interesting things I discovered along the way involves what was happening in the early part of the 20th century. My colleague Charles Fanning has speculated that in the early 1900s, from around 1900 to 1930, Irish-Americans turned away from writing about their experience in the United States. These were difficult times for Irish-Americans, and Fanning writes in his impressive book The Irish Voice in America how “a number of circumstances–historical, cultural, and political, including the politics of literature–combined to [create] a form of wholesale cultural amnesia (3).”

What I discovered was that Irish writers in the western U.S. were largely undeterred.

And this all made perfectly good sense: Irish writers in the West did not have to face the same prejudice that there counterparts in the East faced. There was no established Anglo-Protestant majority in the West, there was far less competition for good jobs, and generally speaking the Irish who ventured west were better off and typically better educated than their countrymen in the East. Thus they had more means and more opportunity for writing. So if we look at the entire corpus we find not a period of literary recession in the early 1900s, but instead a period of heightened activity. It’s only when we probe that activity that we discover that writers from west of the Mississippi are the ones being active.

Here is a link to a Quicktime video of the Google Earth mash-up. I’m still working on setting up an interactive version that will query my database dynamically and allow visitors to sort and probe the entire collection. . . more on that later.