Fitzgerald on The Continuous Line: Visualizing the History of American Literary Journalism

22 Jul 2017 3:55 PM | Dane Claussen (Administrator)

Editor’s Note: Jonathan Fitzgerald presented his paper,  “Visualizing the History of American Literary Journalism,” at the recent International Association of Literary Journalism Studies conference in Canada. The Intelligencer asked Mr. Fitzgerald, a doctoral candidate in English at Northeastern University, to tell us more about his research, especially why it is important and interesting.

By Jonathan D. Fitzgerald, Northeastern University

I came to study the history of American literary journalism the way, I think, many newcomers to the field do: through the scholarship and writing of Norman Sims. Sims has written several books on the genre, including True Stories: A Century of Literary Journalism (2007). In the opening pages of the book’s second chapter, “Sketches and Innovation,” about the nineteenth century origins of literary journalism, Sims writes, “Tracing the history of literary journalism backward from the twentieth century into the 1800s, I find that it vanishes into a maze of local publications.” And, on the next page, he continues, “Looking for literary journalism in the nineteenth century seems daunting.” 

Even before I had any real vested interest in the nineteenth century origins of literary journalism, this read, to me, as a challenge. The history “vanishes?” The task is “daunting?” This is basically fuel for my scholarship. But, at the time, as I was just at the very beginning of my PhD program, I felt certain that my interests lay in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, so I put Sims' challenge aside. 

It wasn’t long, however, before the challenge crept back into my field of view. A perfect storm of events, including being hired as a research assistant for the Viral Texts Project, which uses computational methods to identify frequently reprinted (viral) texts in nineteenth century newspapers, and reading for a comprehensive exam on the history of literary journalism scholarship, revived the challenge. In my reading, I reencountered Sims' assertion that literary journalism’s history “vanishes into a maze of local publications,” while simultaneously gaining unprecedented access to those local publications through the Viral Texts Project. In that moment, I became a de facto nineteenth centuryist. 

As I began to comb nineteenth century newspapers for the roots of literary journalism, another challenge arose: how to connect those early examples of the genre to contemporary works. Here, another pillar of literary journalism studies, Thomas Connery, proved instructive. In A Sourcebook of American Literary Journalism, Connery writes of literary journalism’s history, “the line from the nineteenth through the twentieth century is continuous.” He theorizes that while the line is continuous, there are distinct periods throughout the two centuries in which literary journalism rises and falls in popularity. There are peaks around the fin de siècle, in the late 1930s and early ’40s, again in the ’60s and ’70s, and finally in the ’80s.

In an effort to test Connery’s theory, I set out to visualize the history of literary journalism using methods from the digital humanities. To do so, I assembled a corpus of bibliographic entries related to the genre from Norman Sims’ bibliographies from both True Stories and Literary Journalism in the Twentieth Century, two bibliographies published in Literary Journalism Studies, and the table of contents of Kevin Kerrane and Ben Yagoda’s anthology The Art of Fact. In all, the corpus includes around 600 bibliographic entries, split almost evenly between primary and secondary sources. Once assembled, I used regular expressions–basically advanced search queries–to derive pertinent information such as author name, date of publication, and title of each work. I assembled this data into a database and added a column indicating the author’s gender.

Using this data, I was able to create interactive data visualizations, including a timeline of the history of literary journalism and a bar graph that shows the number of publications by author’s gender. I published the data in tabular format alongside the visualizations to a website at http://ljbib.jonathandfitzgerald.com.

Indeed, the timeline confirms Connery’s notion of the “continuous line,” complete with the peaks and valleys representing the genre’s rise and fall through time. The bar graph showing publications by gender, too, is instructive. It shows a great disparity between the number of publications by men and women over the past 150 years of literary journalism’s history. The lack of women writers, particularly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, represents not an actual dearth of women writers, but indeed a major oversight by scholars of literary journalism. My research into the nineteenth century shows not only that women writers were increasingly prolific, but that they were actually instrumental in the formation of what would become literary journalism. To that end, my in-progress dissertation, titled “Setting the Record Straight: Women Literary Journalists Writing Against the Mainstream,” seeks to restore women writers from the nineteenth century to our collective memories, and to show how their legacy persists throughout the genre’s history.

I intend to update the database with the results of my research, and I provide a link on the website for other scholars who notice omissions to contact me as well.


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