Yikes! Hooray! Information Overload and Wright American Fiction

Following the publication of Ik Marvel’s Reveries of a Bachelor in 1850, Americans became entranced by the sentimental bachelor. When I investigated the bachelor in 19th C American fiction in the late 1990s, I relied on Lyle Wright’s extensive bibliography American Fiction, 1851-1875. Since it would have been way too labor intensive for me to skim each of the 3000 books in the bibliography for instances of bachelors, I instead looked for works that had “bachelor” in the title, and came up with a reasonable sample of bachelor fiction. In 2003 (?), the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC), led by Indiana University, digitized almost 3000 works in the bibliography, providing an immense service to the study of 19th C American literature. When I searched for “bachelor” in Wright today, I came up with 4267 matches in 1161 records, which represents over 1/3 of the works in the bibliography. Suddenly American fiction in the years immediately after Reveries of a Bachelor is opened up. Maybe I could write an article examining the impact of Reveries on American literature, looking for mentions of “Ik Marvel” and for narrators mimicking his sentimental voice.

Now comes the problem of how to deal with this plenty. Should I just look at works that have the term bachelor at least, say, 3 times? Of course, I could do a more focused search, but then I might miss some important stuff. I could look at all 1161 works to ask larger questions about the bachelor in American lit. What if I categorized the different valences associated with “bachelor” or the types of works (sentimental, sensational, etc) in which bachelors play an important role? What if I used text mining/ visualization tools to look for patterns? Such tasks become possible when everything is available digitally.

Yet handling so many search results also requires lots of time and patience, as well as a clear purpose. Unfortunately, Zotero does not yet have a translator for Wright, and I wasn’t able to import the XML-based bibliographic records generated by Wright into Zotero, so I had to spend about 3-5 minutes to capture bibliographic info for each of the 6 records that had “bachelor” in the title in Zotero. Some of the works in Wright only offer page images (although I think you can also see the dirty OCR behind them), which would seem to make them much more difficult to analyze and manipulate.

So while I’m thrilled that Wright will make it possible for me to analyze so many more works of bachelor fiction, I’m also feeling overwhelmed, unsure how to manage all of this information. Time for a reverie…

2 responses to “Yikes! Hooray! Information Overload and Wright American Fiction

  1. My first thought: how does the usage of the word “bachelor” develop in nonfictional texts around that time? Is there an history of the idea or an history of the cliché ‘bachelor’? How do you make out that it is the “impact” of the Reveries, meaning: that the Reveries caused a change? If you want to measure change you need to clarify whether the word bachelor or bachelor fiction is equally frequent used before the Reveries were published. And if it’s not there still may be a real world phenomenon that caused both the Reveries to be written and the other novels you found (e.g. a prominent bachelor marrying in the newspapers). So looking for “IK Marvel” seems to me a better way: It’s way more clear how to interpret the result.

  2. You know, I was thinking the same thing myself. Thanks for the suggestion. Tracing the usage of the term “bachelor” is a big task, one made easier (but not easy) but having texts in an electronic format.

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