During my first year of grad school I was part of an initial cohort of grad students that helped get the Stanford Literary Lab off the ground. I took a class with Matt Jockers in 2009 that segued into an ad-hoc research seminar that segued into the official launch of the lab in 2010. Over the next few years I worked on projects, helped bring speakers to campus, and tried to attend as many of the lab’s meetings as I could fit into my schedule. Eventually my dissertation forced me to scale back my involvement with the lab. Even though it’s been more than two years since I attended a meeting, I still consider myself a member of the extended Literary Lab community. That community is currently reeling.
On November 5th, Kimberly Latta wrote a Facebook post describing how the co-founder of the Literary Lab, Franco Moretti, “sexually stalked, pressured and raped me” while Latta was a graduate student and Moretti was a visiting professor at UC Berkeley in 1984-1985. Moretti, who recently retired from Stanford, denies the accusation. It’s the first time that someone I’ve worked with has been accused of sexual assault, at least that I know of – a sad and necessary caveat. Latta’s post made me shudder. You should read it. Although I cannot speak on behalf of the Literary Lab, I can speak for myself: Kimberly Latta, I am sorry. I believe you, I support you, and I am sorry.
I don’t have anything profound to add to all of this, but the past two days has driven home some of the ways that power and patronage operate in academia. Because along with the anger and the sadness and sympathy, I also found myself wrestling with what to do or say. Or, if I’m being truly honest, what not to say. Do I risk estranging colleagues or burning professional bridges at the Literary Lab? Do I really want to call attention to my own personal connections to Franco Moretti? Wouldn’t it be safer to just say nothing and let it all pass by? Take a moment to think about how absurd that is. Here I am, a white male professor with a tenure-track job at a private research university – the walking, talking embodiment of academic privilege – fretting over the risks of publicly expressing support for a rape survivor. So why the hesitation? Patronage.
However superficial my relationship with Franco Moretti may have been, it has nevertheless benefited my career. My affiliation with his lab allowed me do exciting interdisciplinary research, talk about that work at conferences and in job applications, and meet influential people from across the field. In short: patronage. At this point it’s fairly obvious how the power wielded by men can silence survivors. But a less visible web of patronage knits together the wider culture of silence. As a beneficiary of that patronage, I want to say this again: Kimberly Latta, I am sorry. I believe you, I support you, and I am sorry.
The first two weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency have made my day-to-day work as a historian feel pretty inconsequential. Diving back into the past can feel a lot like sticking your head in the sand while the world around you goes up in flames. There is, of course, an urgent place for history and historians under this particular administration, in part to meet a wider hunger to understand just what the hell is going on in our country. A lot of historians have stepped up and offered their perspective and expertise (just glance through this list). This is useful and necessary work. At the same time, there are limits to how history can and should be used.
I’m not going to venture into the dark, twisted swamp of how Donald Trump and his supporters abuse history. I doubt any of them will read this and I doubt even more that anything I write would change their minds. Instead, I’m writing this for those on the left who are marshaling “history” as a tool of resistance. Two core ideas have been articulated again and again in the last two weeks: “we cannot repeat the mistakes of the past” and “history will judge you.” Broadly speaking, I share these sentiments. And to the degree that they help spur action, let’s continue to use them. But we also need to understand their limitations and the ways in which they can actually be counter-productive.
The first idea is a variation on classic “those who do not understand the past are doomed to repeat it.” You can see this, for instance, in the parallels being drawn between Trump’s immigration ban and when the United States turned away Jewish refugees in the 1930s, hundreds of whom later died in the Holocaust. There are some surface similarities between the two episodes, which is part of what makes it an effective rhetorical tool. This parallel nevertheless implies that these sorts of historical episodes were “mistakes” – momentary, if calamitous, fuck-ups from an otherwise virtuous norm. In the case of immigration, it assumes that closing off our borders is a deviation from our true historical identity as a melting-pot of immigrants. The history of the United States is, indeed, a history of immigrants, but it is also a history of immigrant-haters.
The Jewish refugee episode, as reprehensible as it was, did not represent some momentary lapse. It was firmly anchored in the xenophobia, isolationism, and anti-semitism of the era. Prejudice, fear-mongering, and the exclusion of particular religious or racial groups from entering the United States have been part of national politics for a long, long time. Just because a Muslim ban fits within the longer tapestry of American history, however, doesn’t make it justified – any more than a history of denying women a political voice justifies repealing the nineteenth amendment. A ban on Muslims is wrong because it violates the moral and legal standards of the United States today. We shouldn’t have to turn to history to make that case.
Perhaps most broadly, the “doomed to repeat history” line can also lead to false equivalencies between the present and the past. I’m currently living in Munich, Germany. As I walk past the very same plazas where Hitler held rallies and gave speeches, it’s hard not to hear those echoes in today’s political climate. Listening too closely to them, however, is often counter-productive. Donald Trump is not Adolf Hitler, as much as they might share disturbingly similar political tactics. If you start to seriously compare the two, Trump – for all of his terribleness – is always going to fall short of the man who engineered the most destructive global war in history and the calculated genocide of millions of people. In my mind, this lets Donald Trump off the hook. We shouldn’t be evaluating his actions primarily in terms of their similarities to past fascist regimes. That’s an incredibly low bar.
The problem with historical parallels is that they can also blind us to actions that don’t have easy historical precedents. If we’re only on the lookout for the symptoms of Hitler-esque fascism, we’re going to miss all the other danger signs of, say, a more modern autocracy. In fact, given the sheer intensity and speed with which this administration has assaulted so many things I care about, I think that constantly trying to draw lessons from the past can actually serve as a distraction. It’s well worth debating which of the Andrews (Jackson or Johnson) serves as a better parallel for Donald Trump; in the meantime, he’s installing a climate-change denier as head of the Environmental Protection Agency or making a racist ethno-nationalist one of the most powerful people in the world.
The second line that I’ve heard again and again is that “history will judge you.” This is most often aimed at Republicans in an attempt to force them to weigh long-term legacies against short-term agendas. Yes, Trump might help you repeal Obamacare. But do you want to be the next George Wallace? Are future generations going to laud you for standing up for basic decency or deride you as someone who helped pave the way for hatred and bigotry? I happen to firmly believe our grandchildren will look back on Donald Trump in horror, but predicting the future is a slippery business. There is no archive that I can draw from to “prove” where our country will end up and how future Americans will think about the Trump presidency. Someone on the other side of the political spectrum can just as easily believe that history will look back on Donald Trump as a savior, and that anyone who supported him will have helped steer the United States off the dangerous path it had been hurtling down. When we say to Paul Ryan, “history will judge you,” it’s pretty easy to meet that accusation with “not-uh.” Ultimately, the only way to tell who’s right is to wait and see.
“History will judge you” rests on the assumption that a) our country inherently follows a particular kind of trajectory, and that b) it will continue to do so. The “arc of history” is one of Barack Obama’s favorite lines, itself an adaptation from (most famously) Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This might be comforting for those of us hoping that our progressive values are destined to win out in the end, but it also offers false comfort. Historical trajectories look very different depending on whose trajectory you consider and what you decide to use as a end point.
The Reconstruction Era is a useful example. For many, many years the dominant understanding was that the North’s attempt to “reconstruct” the former Confederate states was needlessly punitive and a tyrannical overreach of federal power. Violent efforts by paramilitary groups to suppress freed slaves were, in fact, honorable attempts to restore the proper, natural social order of the South. If you were to look backward from, say, the 1940s, “history” had indeed judged these groups and found them not only innocent, but heroic. For African-Americans, meanwhile, the moral arc of history had in many ways bent backwards – from the dramatic gains made during Reconstruction to the crushing boot-heel retrenchment of the Jim Crow era. History does not follow one single trajectory that moves inexorably upwards.
If history is an arc, then it is an immensely pliable one that can be bent in any direction. Over the next four years, Donald Trump and Republican politicians are going to bend that arc in disturbing ways. There is no way around it. Whatever built-in resistance that arc might have – institutions, political norms, democratic checks and balances – have proven much weaker than we originally thought. It’s going to bend, and it’s going to bend badly. History is not self-correcting. There’s no guarantee that it will magically straighten itself out somewhere down the road. The thing we need to do is grab on as tight as we possibly can and keep it from bending in ways that prove permanent. I do not want to leave it in the hands of “history” to judge Donald Trump. We – the American public – need to judge him right the fuck now.
This is the second half of a review of American Panorama (you can read Part I here). Together, the two posts are a follow-up to my earlier call for digital historians to more actively engage with the historical contributions of each other’s projects.
Between 1840 and 1860 several hundred thousand people traveled westward across the United States, most of them ending up in California, Oregon, and Utah. Their migration has become a foundational element of American history, conjuring up visions of covered wagons and hardy pioneers. Or, if you grew up playing the educational computer game The Oregon Trail: floppy disks, pixelated oxen, and exciting new words like “dysentery.” The topic has been exhaustively studied by genealogists, historians, and millions of schoolchildren over the years. American Panorama attempts to break new ground on what is, like the trail itself, well-trodden soil.
The Overland Trails follows a similar visual layout as The Forced Migration of Enslaved People, with multiple panes showing a map, a timeline, aggregated data, and the expandable text from twenty-two trail diaries. Far more so than The Forced Migration of Enslaved People, however, it puts these written narratives into the spotlight. The visualization includes the full text of each diary rather than brief excerpts. Clicking on a specific diarist allows you to read all of their entries, with a linked footnote to the original source. As you scroll through the entries, clusters of dots track the progress of the emigrant’s journey on the map as they pass between landmarks like Courthouse Rock or Fort Laramie.
Two other panes provide context for that particular year: a short summary of trail activity and a small map breaking down the estimated annual migration to California, Oregon, and Utah. The timeline uses small multiples for each year that plot the seasonal progression of emigrant journeys on its x-axis and, somewhat confusingly, the (horizontal) longitude coordinates of these journeys on its vertical axis. Timeline aside, the overall reading experience is both intuitive and seamless. More importantly, the visualization strikes a balance between detail and context, weaving the full text of individual sources within a larger spatial and historical tapestry. In many ways, this is digital design at its best. But why does this elegant design matter? What is the historical payoff? The Overland Trails makes two contributions to the topic of westward migration – one archival and the other interpretive.
First, The Overland Trails gives us not just a new, but a better platform for reading and understanding the topic’s source base. The trail diary was a genre unto itself during the mid-nineteenth century. They were often written to serve as a kind of guide to help family or friends follow them westward, recording daily mileage, landmarks, trail quality, and the availability of water and grass. These details made the diaries immensely helpful for future emigrants, but immensely boring for future historians. Take an entry written by James Bennett on July 12th, 1850:
Friday 12th-After ten miles travel this day over a heavy, sandy and barren road, we reached Sweet Water river, where we took dinner. Here we found the grass very short and as our cattle were nearly exhausted by hard work and scant feed, we drove off the road five miles to the right, where we found excellent grass and a good spring.
Now imagine reading thousands of entries exactly like this one. You start to get hungry for anything that breaks the monotony of the trail: white-knuckled river crossings, exchanges with passing Indians, or fiery arguments about whether or not to travel on the Sabbath. Moreover, as a reader we often don’t care all that much about where these juicy episodes took place – does it really matter if they occurred in western Nebraska, northern Utah, or eastern Oregon? The nebulous space of “The Trail Experience” serves as a stand-in for specific geography of where things happened. But the loss of geographic context risks distorting the lived reality of nineteenth-century emigrants. For them, trail life was overwhelmingly defined by geography: boring, repetitive, grinding travel along an established trail itinerary, with mileage tallies or landmark notations acting as a means of marking their progress through that geography. American Panorama captures the experience of overland travel far more effectively than simply reading trail diaries on their own. As simple as it sounds, linking individual entries to their location on a map illustrates the small-scale, incremental geography that made up this massive, large-scale migration.
American Panorama presents a much different geography. Western migration was not a wave; it was a narrow river. Hundreds of thousands of people may have traveled across the western interior between the 1840 and 1860, but they did so along a severely restricted corridor of travel. This might seem obvious; the Overland Trail was, after all, a trail. But the trail’s meaning has come to embody a certain idea of mobility, not just in terms of traveling westward to Oregon or California, but of experiencing and claiming the vast swath of land that lay in between. When mapped, however, the journeys of twenty-two emigrants resemble tightly braided cords that only gradually fray as they approach the Pacific Coast. Overland travelers operated in a tightly constrained space.
To take one example: although emigrants technically traversed from one side of Nebraska Territory to the other, most travelers didn’t see very much of it. The grinding necessity of daily travel kept them pinned along the Platte River. American Panorama illustrates just how narrow this pathway was and how infrequently emigrants deviated from it.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the interior of the western United States was seen as a region to pass through as quickly as possible, an area that had long been labeled “The Great American Desert,” or in historian Elliott West’s words, “a threatening void.” (The Contested Plains, 122) Much of the western interior was made up of territory that was ostensibly claimed by the United States but that remained largely ungoverned and unsettled by Anglo-Americans. American Panorama effectively recreates this geography through visual design: bright, sharp lines track the emigrants’ journeys along the trail, interspersed with landmarks and forts shown in equally bright colors. This tightly demarcated trail geography pops out from the map as it snakes across a minimalist base layer entirely devoid of the familiar political boundaries of states or territories. Instead, the underlying map consists of terrain, sparse water features, and the locations of Indian groups such as the Cheyenne in the central plains or the Goshute near Great Salt Lake. The Overland Trails manages to capture the experience of traversing a semi-arid, mountainous region still occupied by native people, one that was seen as largely off-limits for Anglo-American settlement.
The project’s cartographic achievement comes with a cost, however. The presence of native groups played a crucial role in shaping mid-century views of the interior. As historian Susan Schulten notes, “erasing Native Americans from both mental and actual maps” (29) was a central process in the eventual shift from seeing the western interior as an inviting area to settle rather than a forbidding area to traverse. To their credit, the designers of The Overland Trails put native people back on the map. The problem comes from the way in which they do so. The mapmakers label Indian groups using a muted gray color that is nearly identical to the map’s base terrain. Moreover, changing the zoom level causes some labels to shift locations or disappear entirely in order to avoid overlapping with the trail and its landmarks. The overall effect is to weave native groups into the natural landscape, making them visually analogous to the map’s rivers or mountains. This cartographic design ends up conflating native people and the environment – a deeply problematic notion that remains stubbornly lodged in the popular imagination. The visualization builds a marvelous stage for overland emigrants, but its set design turns Indians into a backdrop.
I don’t mean to quibble over (literal) shades of gray. After all, the map’s creators made a concerted effort to include Indian groups – the same can’t be said of other many other historical projects, digital or otherwise. But the project’s cartography highlights a common tension between digital design and historiography. From a design standpoint, the creators of The Overland Trails make all the right decisions. Brightly colored overland routes are foregrounded against a muted base map, including unobtrusive gray labels of Indian groups that give readers contextual information while keeping their attention firmly focused on the emigrant journeys themselves. When those same labels disappear or change locations depending on the zoom level, it helps avoid visual clutter. The problem is that effective digital design can run headlong into fraught historiographical issues, including the contentious idea of the “ecological Indian” and a longstanding cartographic tradition of using maps to marginalize and erase native claims to territory in the West.
Visual design is not the only sticking point for The Overland Trails and its place within western historiography. The visualization is, at its core, a digital archive of primary sources. As I’ve already noted, its interface contributes a new and fascinating way of reading and understanding these sources. What troubles me is the privileging of this particular archive. To be blunt: do we really need a new way of reading and understanding the experience of mostly white, mostly male pioneers whose stories already occupy such a central place in American mythology?
More often than not, however, historical treatments of the Overland Trail still tend to resemble book titles like Wagons West: The Epic Story of America’s Overland Trails, or quotes like, “An army of nearly half a million ragged, sunburned civilians marched up the Platte in the vanguard of empire…they emerge from their collective obscurity to illuminate a heroic age in American history.” (Merrill Mattes, Platte River Road Narratives, xiv) The Overland Trails doesn’t explicitly advance this viewpoint, but nor does it move away from it in any substantive way. The informational text accompanying the visualization’s timeline can, at times, read like a “greatest hits” of western lore: the Donner Party, the Gold Rush, Indian fighting, and the Pony Express (its freshest material centers on Mormon migration). The visualization’s space constraints leave precious little room for important historical nuance, leading to generalizations such as “White settlement in the West was disastrous for Indians everywhere.”
To reiterate a point I made in the first part of my review of American Panorama: prioritizing user exploration over authorial interpretation comes with risks. I don’t want to minimize the significance of The Overland Trails, because it contributes a truly valuable new interface for conceptualizing nineteenth-century historical geography and the experience of overland travel. But the project uses a novel framework to deliver largely tired content. My guess is that its selection of content was based on the fact that these particular diaries were already digitized. This kind of pragmatism is a necessary part of digital history. But explaining the interpretive implications of these decisions, not just the nitty-gritty methodological details, often requires a more robust and explicit authorial voice than many digital history projects seem willing to provide.
My hope is that The Overland Trails will serve as a prototype for visualizing other movement-driven sources. To that end, American Panorama has given outside researchers the ability to build on this framework by making the project’s source code available on Github. The Github repository highlights the open-ended nature of the project, as its creators continue to improve its visualizations. In a similar vein, American Panorama‘s team has several new visualizations to come that examine redlining, urban renewal, and presidential voting. I have high expectations, and I hope that other historians will join me in giving them the substantive engagement they deserve.
I recently wrote about the wave of digital history reviews currently washing over print journals like the American Historical Review, The Western Historical Quarterly, and The Journal of American History. This wave brings into focus the odd reticence of digital historians to substantively review digital history projects in open, online venues. I ended the post with a call for the field to more actively engage with the work of our peers and, in particular, to evaluate the historical contributions of these digital projects if and when they fall within our areas of subject expertise. The following is my attempt to do just that.
American Panorama: An Atlas of United States History was released in December 2015 by the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab. It is a collection of four map-based visualizations focusing on different topics in American history: slave migration, immigration to the U.S., canal construction, and the Overland Trails. Each of these visualizations revolve around an interactive map, with surrounding panes of charts, timelines, contextual data, and primary sources related to the topic. If I could summarize the project’s historical contributions in a single sentence, it would be this one: American Panorama incorporates movement into the history of the United States. To be even more specific, the project shines a new light on the historical movement of people. Its three most compelling visualizations (foreign immigration, slave migration, and the Overland Trails) illustrate some of the most monumental shifts of people in American history. There are certainly other episodes of travel and migration worth studying – Indian Removal or the Great Migration immediately jump to mind – but those selected by American Panorama are certainly three of the most consequential.
Like most digital history projects, American Panorama is a collaboration. Unlike most digital history projects, it’s a collaboration between academic historians and a private company. The Digital Scholarship Lab’s Robert Nelson, Ed Ayers, Scott Nesbit (now at the University of Georgia), Justin Madron, and Nathaniel Ayers make up the academic half of the project. The private half of the partnership is Stamen Design, a renowned data visualization and design studio that has worked with clients ranging from Toyota and AirBnB to the U.S. Agency for International Development. Stamen is also, in the words of tech journalist Alexis Madrigal, “perhaps the leading creator of cool-looking maps.” Stamen’s fingerprints are all over American Panorama. The visualizations are beautifully structured, deeply immersive, and packed with information. In fact, data depth and data density are the hallmarks of these visualizations – I don’t think I’ve ever seen this much historical content visualized in this many different ways, all within a single browser window. Furthermore, the project’s visual interface presents a new and valuable framework to understand the scale of people movements in a way that written narratives can struggle to convey. Writing about thousands or even millions of people moving around over the course of years and decades can often devolve into an abstract swirl of numbers, states, regions, and dates. American Panorama makes that swirl intelligible.
The project encapsulates many of the current hallmarks of digital history. It is aimed at a broad public audience and was “designed for anyone with an interest in American history or a love of maps.” Relatedly, the project is exploratory and descriptive rather than explicitly interpretive, and offers only hints at how the reader should understand and interpret patterns. Outside of brief and rather modest textual asides, readers are largely left to make their own discoveries, construct their own narratives, and draw their own conclusions. The common justification for creating exploratory visualizations rather than argumentative or narrative-driven ones is that they encourage participatory engagement. Empowering readers to control how they interact with a visualization nudges them to delve deeper into the project and emerge with a richer understanding of the topic. But an exploratory framework hinges on a reader’s abilities and willingness to discover, narrate, and interpret the project for themselves.
To take one example, American Panorama’sForeign-Born Population, 1850-2010 offers by far the strongest interpretive stance out of the project’s four visualizations: “American history can never be understood by just looking within its borders.” Even so, the creators consign their interpretation to a short, solitary paragraph in the About This Map section, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions about the meaning and implications of this message. The tech blog Gizmodo, for instance, covered the project’s release under the headline: “See The US Welcome Millions Of Immigrants Over 150 Years In This Interactive Map.” Internet headlines have never exactly been a bastion of nuance, but to say that the U.S. “welcomed” immigrants is, well, not very accurate. It’s also an example of the kind of historical mischaracterization that can arise when projects push authorial interpretation into the background.
Full disclosure: I know and deeply admire the work of Rob Nelson, Scott Nesbit, and Ed Ayers. They are very, very smart historians, which is why I found myself wanting to hear more of their voices. What new patterns have they discovered? What stories and interpretations have they drawn from these patterns? How has the project changed their understanding of these topics? The creators of American Panorama do not answer these questions explicitly. Instead, they allow patterns, stories, and interpretations to swim just beneath the surface. This was likely a deliberate choice, and I don’t want to critique the project for failing to accomplish something that it never set out to do in the first place. American Panorama is not an academic monograph and it shouldn’t be treated as one. Nevertheless, the project left me hungry for a more explicit discussion of how it interpretation and historical literature.
I’d like to offer my own take on American Panorama using equal parts review and riff, one that combines an evaluation of the project’s strengths and weaknesses with a discussion of how it fits into themes and topics in U.S. history. To do so, I’ve focused on two visualizations: The Forced Migration of Enslaved People, 1810-1860 and The Overland Trails. Fair warning: in true academic fashion, I had far too much to say about the two visualizations, so I split the piece into two separate posts. The first is below, and the second will follow soon. (Update: you can read Part II here.)
Part I. The Forced Migration of Enslaved People, 1810-1860
In some ways, Americans remember slavery through the lens of movement. This begins with The Middle Passage, the horrifying transportation of millions of human beings from Africa to the Americas. The focus on movement then shifts to escape, perhaps best embodied in the Underground Railroad and its stirring biblical exodus from bondage to freedom. But there was a much darker, and less familiar, counterweight to the Underground Railroad: being “sold down the river” to new planting frontiers in the Deep South. The sheer volume of this movement dwarfed the far smaller trickle of runaways: between 1810 and 1860 southern planters and slave traders forced nearly one million enslaved people to move southward and westward. The Forced Migration of Enslaved People, 1810-1860 helps us understand the scale and trajectory of this mass movement of human beings.
The visualization uses a map and timeline to illustrate a clear decade-by-decade pattern: enslaved people streaming out of the Upper South and the eastern seaboard and into the cotton-growing regions of the Black Belt (western Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi), the Mississippi River Valley, and eastern Texas and Arkansas. It shows that this shift was not uninterrupted, but came in fits and starts. The reverberations of the 1837 financial panic, for instance, dampened and diffused this movement during the 1840s. An accompanying data pane charts the in-migration and out-migration on a state and county level: during the 1830s more than 120,000 slaves left Virginia, even as 108,000 slaves streamed into Alabama. None of these findings are especially new for historians of the period, but The Forced Migration of Enslaved People brings them into sharp focus.
On an interpretive level, The Forced Migration of Enslaved People helps reorient the locus of American slavery away from The Plantation and towards The Slave Market. This is part of a larger historiographical pivot, one that can be seen in Walter Johnson’s book Soul by Soul (1999). Johnson reminds us that American slavery depended not just on the coerced labor of black bodies, but on the commodification of those same bodies. It wasn’t enough to force people to work; the system depended first and foremost on the ability to buy and sell human beings. Because of this, Johnson argues that the primary sites of American slavery were slave markets in places like Charleston, Natchez, and New Orleans. Soul by Soul was an early landmark in the now flourishing body of literature exploring the relationship between slavery and capitalism. The book’s argument rested in large part on the underlying mass movement of black men, women, and children, both through slave markets and into the expanding planter frontier of the Southwest. American Panorama lays bare the full geography of this movement in all of its spatial and temporal detail.
There is a certain irony in using Walter Johnson’s Soul by Soul to discuss The Forced Migration of Enslaved People. After all, Johnson’s book includes a critique that might as well have been addressed directly to the project’s creators. He bluntly asserts that the use of maps and charts to illustrate the slave trade hides the lives and experience of the individuals that made up these aggregated patterns. Instead, Johnson calls for the kind of history “where broad trends and abstract totalities thickened into human shape.” (8) His critique echoes the debates that swirled around Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s Time on the Cross (1974) and continue to swirl around the digital project Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.
The creators of The Forced Migration of Enslaved People gesture towards the larger historiographical divide between quantification and dehumanization in an accompanying text: “Enslaved people’s accounts of the slave trade powerfully testify to experiences that cannot be represented on a map or in a chart.” Instead, they attempt to bring these two modes of history together by incorporating excerpted slave narratives alongside its maps and charts. Clicking on icons embedded in the map or the timeline reveals quotes from individual accounts that mention some dimension of the slave trade. This interface allows the reader to shift back and forth between the visual language of bars, dots, and hexbins, and the written words of formerly enslaved people themselves. The Forced Migration of Enslaved People uses a digital medium to present both the “broad trends and abstract totalities” and the “human shape” of individual lives. One of the analytical and narrative payoffs of an interactive interface is the ability to seamlessly move between vastly different scales of reading. The Forced Migration of Enslaved People breaks important new ground in this regard by blending the macro scale of demographics with the micro scale of individuals.
Ultimately, however, the project’s attempt to combine narrative accounts and quantitative data falls short of its potential. On the whole, the scale of the individuals recedes under the scale of the data. The problem lies in the way in which the project presents its excerpted quotes. Flurries of names, places, events, and emotions appear divorced from the broader context of a particular narrative. Reading these text fragments can often feel like driving past a crash on the side of a highway. You might glimpse the faces of some passengers or the severity of the wreck, but you don’t know how they got there or what happens to them next. Then you pass another crash. And another. And another. The cumulative weight of all these dozens of wrecks is undeniable, and part of what makes the visualization effective. But it’s also numbing. Human stories begin to resemble data points, presented in chronological, bulleted lists and physically collapsed into two-line previews. The very features that make narratives by enslaved people such powerful historical sources – detail, depth, emotional connection – fade away within this interface. Narratives give voice to the millions of individuals whose stories we’ll never hear; The Forced Migration of Enslaved People helps us to hear some of those voices, but only briefly, and only in passing.
Historians characterize the years leading up to the Civil War as a period defined by sectional conflict between North and South. The abolition of slavery was not the major flashpoint for this conflict; rather, the expansion of slavery into western states and territories was the primary wedge between the two sides. The issue would come to define national politics by pitting two competing visions of the nation against one another. The Forced Migration of Enslaved People reminds us that this was not just an ideological or political issue, but a spatial issue rooted in the physical movement of hundreds of thousands of people into areas like the Black Belt and the Mississippi River Vally. By the 1850s, many northerners feared that this great heave of slaveholders and enslaved people would continue onwards into the Far West. The Forced Migration of Enslaved People forces us to take those fears seriously. What if the visualization’s red hexbins didn’t stop in the cotton fields of eastern Texas? What if its timeline didn’t end in 1860? Southern slavery did not stand still during the antebellum era and its demise was far from inevitable. This visualization gives us a framework with which to understand that trajectory.
I doubt that most Americans would put slave traders and shackled black bodies within the historical pantheon of great national migrations, but American Panorama injects this vast movement of people into the history of the antebellum United States. In the second part of my discussion, I’ll turn my attention to a much more familiar historical migration unfolding at the same time: The Overland Trails.
Digital history is riding a “review wave.” In the fall of 2015, the American Historical Association released its new “Guidelines for the Evaluation of Digital Scholarship in History”. In February 2016, the association’s flagship journal, The American Historical Review, published an exchange titled “Reviewing Digital History” that inaugurated its first venture into digital project reviews. In my own field, the Western Historical Quarterly began printing “Born-Digital Reviews” in the fall of 2015. The Journal of American History first started publishing website reviews in 2001, but in September 2013 changed this section to “Digital History Reviews” (the journal also publishes lengthier reviews of digital research projects in its “Metagraph” section). Moving forward, digital historians will increasingly find their work evaluated in some of the discipline’s major print journals.
What’s odd is the degree to which supposedly hidebound print journals are the ones propelling this recent wave of review. After all, it’s not as if digital historians need print journals to review each other’s work. Blogging, Twitter, and other online platforms have stood at the heart of the field for years. We often tout the speed and openness of these platforms compared to the molasses-slow publishing cycles or gated paywalls of print journals. And yet, with some rare exceptions, we don’t use these platforms to engage in substantive or critical evaluation of the work of our peers. New digital history projects are released all the time. If you’re like me, you stick mostly to virtual high-fives: you tweet a link to the project, offer congratulations and commendations, and maybe add it to a syllabus or workshop. Deeper engagement takes place mainly through informal conversations or behind the doors of classrooms – not exactly the sort of public, rigorous intellectual evaluation that drives a field forward. Our colleagues deserve better.
Digital history’s reticence for critical online evaluation stands in contrast to, say, the lively exchange that unfolded in 2015 over Matt Jockers’s Syuzhet package, a method that Jockers developed for identifying literary plot shapes using sentiment analysis. After Jockers first announced Syuzhet, Annie Swafford wrote a pointed critique of the method, and over the course of roughly one month the two literary scholars debated the validity of the method in a series of back-and-forth posts. Otherdigitalhumanitiesscholarsweighed in from across the disciplinary spectrum. Whatever your thoughts on Syuzhet, the entire online exchange was a rigorous, substantive, and transparent evaluation of digital scholarship. So why do digital historians seem to prefer virtual high-fives to this kind of deeply evaluative online engagement?
There are a few reasons for the dearth of online reviews and critiques within the field of digital history. For one, there are real drawbacks to online platforms. The immediacy of writing a blog post affords less time for measured reflection or carefully crafted or revised responses than, say, a review in a print journal. Self-published posts also lack editorial oversight. A good journal editor can vet the qualifications of reviewers, help them improve and refine their critiques, and serve as a mediator between reviewers and the people they’re reviewing. Without an editorial presence or a shared platform, online reviews run the risk of operating on unequal playing fields. One historian might be writing from a position of seniority or have a much larger or more vocal online readership than another. It’s also a lot easier for someone like me to tout online exchanges as “lively” or “freewheeling” when I don’t run the risk of getting denigrated or harassed because of my race or gender. Gatekeeping may be a dirty word, but openness isn’t exactly a panacea.
There’s also the broader challenge of subject specialization and expertise. Digital history’s unifying thread is methodological, not thematic. As a historian of the nineteenth-century United States, just how deeply can I engage with, say, Vincent Brown’s spatial history narrative of Jamaica’s 1760-1761 slave revolt? I might be able to discuss its interactive design or the way it uses a spatial framework to circumvent textual silences in the archive. But am I really capable of evaluating Brown’s interpretation of the revolt as a unified, strategic rebellion rather than a series of haphazard insurrections? Even more importantly, am I qualified to evaluate the significance of this claim in terms of how it changes our understanding of Caribbean history? Probably not. This is why it was so encouraging to see deep, thoughtful reviews of Slave Revolt in Jamaica in recent issues of Social Text and The American Historical Review. The reviews were written by Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, Claudio Saunt, and Natalie Zacek, all of whom combine subject expertise with considerable experience in digital humanities projects. Both Social Text and The American Historical Review also gave Vincent Brown the opportunity to respond to these reviews – exactly the type of substantive, scholarly exchange that seems to be in such short supply for digital history projects.
But, again: these exchanges took place in print journals. Consequently, there was a gap of more than two years between the project’s release and the publication of reviews. This lag doesn’t make the exchanges any less valuable, but it hews far more closely to the way the discipline reviews print monographs. In an alternate scenario, the scholarly exchanges between Vincent Brown and his reviewers might have unfolded in a series of online posts over the course of a few months, rather than a few years, after the project’s release. Moving this back-and-forth out from behind the paywalls of Duke University Press and Oxford Journals could have allowed for other scholars to weigh in, much like what happened after the initial posts between Matt Jockers and Annie Swafford during the Great Syuzhet Debates of 2015.
Ultimately, though, I find the format of this new wave of digital history less interesting than its substance. There are a few different ways to evaluate digital history projects, which I would group loosely under pedagogy and public engagement, academic scholarship, and what historian Fred Gibbs terms “data and design criticism.” Most digital history reviews fall under the first category of public engagement and pedagogy. The Journal of American History’s “Digital History Reviews”, for instance, frames its reviews follows: “The goal is to offer a gateway to the best works in digital history and to summarize their strengths and weaknesses with particular attention to their utility for teachers [emphasis added].” As I write in a forthcoming article for Debates in Digital Humanities 2016, this emphasis reflects the field’s particular genealogy and its roots in public history initiatives. Both the reviewers and the projects themselves continue to position digital history in terms of public engagement rather than academic scholarship.
Some reviewers, of course, do try to evaluate digital history projects as works of academic scholarship, akin to a scholarly monograph. This second approach, conducted in large part by field specialists rather than “digital” historians, often compliment the public-facing dimension of a digital project before ultimately critiquing its shortcomings in terms of historiography and interpretation. In a review of Richard S. Dunn’s website Two Plantations, Kirt von Daacke notes that the site’s archival collections “represent the best of digital media.” He ends the review, however, with a standard complaint: “Frustratingly, Two Plantations never indicates its target audience, only hints at interpretation, and ignores historical literature altogether. Its analysis section never really answers the questions it poses, nor does it situate Dunn’s interpretation in the broader scholarship on slavery.” Without explicit interpretive claims to grab onto, trying to evaluate the scholarly contributions of digital projects can feel like trying to scramble up a smooth wall.
The third approach to reviewing digital history focuses on a project’s design, interface, methods, pipelines, and datasets. These kinds of “data and design criticism”, to borrow Fred Gibbs’s formulation, often make a passing appearance in digital history reviews, such as describing a website’s layout or critiquing the usability of certain features. Few reviewers, however, put it at the center of their evaluations. One recent exception is Joshua Sternfeld’s lengthy review of Digital Harlem in the American Historical Review. In it, Sternfeld offers a prolonged description of the site’s digital infrastructure and features before launching a blistering critique of the project. He questions the representativeness of the project’s archive, criticizes its method of data entry and sampling, and ultimately describes Digital Harlem as “subverting the provenance of the source data.” For his part, the project’s co-creator Stephen Robertson returns serve with an equally blistering counter to Sternfeld’s review. Robertson argues that Sternfeld “misrepresents the design and content of the site” and “only fitfully engages with the spatial orientation of Digital Harlem.” Whatever side of the exchange you come down on, the back-and-forth illustrates how questions of data and design can stand at the center of digital history reviews.
I find myself frustrated by all three kinds of digital history reviews. First, I appreciate the value of evaluating projects in terms of pedagogy and public engagement. But the preponderance of this first kind of review reinforces the (false) notion that digital history does not, in fact, add substantive new academic knowledge to the field. This notion feeds into the second kind of review, one that takes digital projects to task for shortcomings surrounding academic argument and interpretation. I’m actually sympathetic to this kind of review, but they often mistakenly evaluate digital projects in terms of what the reviewer wants them to be (a traditional academic monograph) rather than what they are (an online exhibit, research tool, pedagogical resource, etc.). Finally, I worry that the third strand of digital history review – “data and design criticism” – will further exacerbate what I see as the field’s problematic privileging of method over argument. Data collection, interactivity, visualization and design – all these features should be part of the review process, but they need to be grounded in a frank evaluation of whether and how they lead to new knowledge or interpretations about the past.
Does a digital history project fundamentally change how we understand a particular topic? How does it fit within the existing literature about this subject? What are a project’s methodological strengths or flaws specifically in relation to the project’s historical contributions? As a field, we need to dig deeper into these kinds of questions when we evaluate each other’s work. A call to burrow into the scholarly weeds of historiography and interpretive nuance puts me at odds with one of digital history’s core tenants: cultivating a broad audience. The general public doesn’t necessarily care how a particular scholarly brick fits within the grand edifice of historical knowledge. Neither, for that matter, do literary critics, media theorists, philosophers, or the rest of our colleagues in the broader digital humanities community. Hell, a lot of historians don’t want to wade too deeply into debates and arguments outside their specialization. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.
I’m calling for digital historians to seize and shape the current wave of review. Regardless of whether we do so in blogs or print journals, we need to more substantively evaluate the work of our peers. We need to evaluate and critique each other’s work not just in terms of public engagement and pedagogy or data and design, but in terms of new historical knowledge, insight, and interpretations that these projects contribute to the field. In the next few days I’m going to follow my own advice and post a review of a digital project related to my particular sub-field of nineteenth-century U.S. history. Readers who aren’t in this sub-field might find it tedious, but my hope is that it will spark similar evaluations of other digital history projects. Stay tuned…
I spent most of 2015 writing, so I thought I’d offer a quick recap.
My year began at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, presenting on a panel about the future of digital scholarship. My talk turned into a blog post, which turned into an abstract, which turned into a revised article, which turned into a final essay that will appear later this year in Debates in Digital Humanities 2016. “Digital History’s Perpetual Future Tense” starts with an observation: why do so few digital history projects make explicit arguments? The essay attributes digital history’s lack of academic arguments to the field’s particular genealogy, most notably its early and ongoing overlaps with public history. In practice, digital history is synonymous with digital public history. The article ends with a call for historians interested in argument and interpretation to make those features a stronger part of their digital work.
I also co-authored an article with Lincoln Mullen for Digital Humanities Quarterly: “Jane, John…Leslie? A Historical Method for Algorithmic Gender Detection.” The article first describes the gender package for R, which uses historical datasets to more accurately infer gender from first names. It then uses the package to study gatekeeping in the historical profession by uncovering gender disparity in the American Historical Review. Although the number of reviews of female-authored books has steadily climbed in the AHR, the journal still prints close to twice as many reviews of male authors as female authors.
I served as an anonymous reviewer for several journals and an edited volume over the course of 2015, and also wrote a non-anonymous review of The Programming Historian for the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy in December. It was fun to get the chance to review what has become a foundational resource for skill-building in the digital humanities, even if it did highlight the field’s ongoing struggles over barriers and exclusions.
Oh yeah, I also finished writing my dissertation in 2015. It was, by far, the most rewarding experience of my academic career. Plus, there was funfetti cake.
I’d like to start with a blog post that was written almost seven years ago now, titled “Sunset for Ideology, Sunrise for Methodology?” In it, Tom Scheinfeldt argued that the rise of digital history represented a disciplinary shift away from big ideas about ideology or theory and towards a focus on “forging new tools, methods, materials, techniques, and modes or work.” Tom’s post was a big reason why I applied to graduate school. I found this methodological turn thrilling – the idea that tools like GIS, text mining, and network analysis could revolutionize how we study history. Seven years later the digital turn has, in fact, revolutionized how we study history. Public history has unequivocally led the charge, using innovative approaches to archiving, exhibiting, and presenting the past in order to engage a wider public. Other historians have built powerfuldigitaltools, explored alternative publication models, and generated online resources to use in the classroom.
But there is one area in which digital history has lagged behind: academic scholarship. To be clear: I’m intentionally using “academic scholarship” in its traditional, hidebound sense of marshaling evidence to make original, explicit arguments. This is an artificial distinction in obvious ways. One of digital history’s major contributions has, in fact, been to expand the disciplinary definition of scholarship to include things like databases, tools, and archival projects. The scholarship tent has gotten bigger, and that’s a good thing. Nevertheless there is still an important place inside that tent for using digital methods specifically to advance scholarly claims and arguments about the past.
In terms of argument-driven scholarship, digital history has over-promised and under-delivered. It’s not that historians aren’t using digital tools to make new arguments about the past. It’s that there is a fundamental imbalance between the proliferation of digital history workshops, courses, grants, institutes, centers, and labs over the past decade, and the impact this has had in terms of generating scholarly claims and interpretations. The digital wave has crashed headlong into many corners of the discipline. Argument-driven scholarship has largely not been one of them.
There are many reasons for this imbalance, including the desire to reach a wider audience beyond the academy, the investment in collection and curation needed for electronic sources, or the open-ended nature of big digital projects. All of these are laudable. But there is another, more problematic, reason for the comparative inattention to scholarly arguments: digital historians have a love affair with methodology. We are infatuated with the power of digital tools and techniques to do things that humans cannot, such as dynamically mapping thousands of geo-historical data points. The argumentative payoffs of these methodologies are always just over the horizon, floating in the tantalizing ether of potential and possibility. At times we exhibit more interest in developing new methods than in applying them, and in touting the promise of digital history scholarship rather than its results.
What I’m going to do in the remaining time is to use two examples from my own work to try and concretize this imbalance between methods and results. The first example is a blog post I wrote in 2010. At the time I was analyzing the diary of an eighteenth-century Maine midwife named Martha Ballard, made famous by Laurel Ulrich’s prize-winning A Midwife’s Tale. The blog post described how I used a process called topic modeling to analyze about 10,000 diary entries written by Martha Ballard between 1785 and 1812. To grossly oversimplify, topic modeling is a technique that automatically generates groups of words more likely to appear with each other in the same documents (in this case, diary entries). So, for instance, the technique grouped the following words together:
gardin sett worked clear beens corn warm planted matters cucumbers gatherd potatoes plants ou sowd door squash wed seeds
As a human reader it’s pretty clear that these are words about gardening. Once I generated this topic, I could track it across all 10,000 entries. When I mashed twenty-seven years together, it produced this beautiful thumbprint of a New England growing season.
Interest in topic modeling took off right around the time that I wrote this post, and pretty soon it started getting referenced again and again in digital humanities circles. Four and a half years later, it has been viewed more than ten thousand times and been assigned on the syllabi of at least twentydifferentcourses. It’s gotten cited in books, journalarticles, conference presentations, grant applications, government reports, white papers, and, of course, otherblogs. It is, without a doubt, the single most widely read piece of historical writing I have ever produced. But guess what? Outside of the method, there isn’t anything new or revelatory in it. The post doesn’t make an original argument and it doesn’t further our understanding of women’s history, colonial New England, or the history of medicine. It largely shows us things we already know about the past – like the fact that people in Maine didn’t plant beans in January.
People seized on this blog post not because of its historical contributions, but because of its methodological contributions. It was like a magic trick, showing how topic modeling could ingest ten thousand diary entries and, in a matter of seconds, tell you what the major themes were in those entries and track them over time, all without knowing the meaning of a single word. The post made people excited for what topic modeling could do, not necessarily what it did do; the methodology’s potential, not its results.
About four years after I published my blog post on Martha Ballard, I published a very different piece of writing. This was an article that appeared in last June’s issue of the Journal of American History, the first digital history research article published by the journal. In many ways it was a traditional research article, one that followed the journal’s standard peer review process and advanced an original argument about American history. But the key distinction was that I made my argument using computational techniques.
The starting premise for my argument was that the late nineteenth-century United States has typically been portrayed as a period of integration and incorporation. Think of the growth of railroad and telegraph networks, or the rise of massive corporations like Standard Oil. In nineteenth-century parlance: “the annihilation of time and space.” This existing interpretation of the period hinges on geography – the idea that the scale of locality and region were getting subsumed under the scale of nation and system. I was interested in how these integrative forces actually played out in the way people may have envisioned the geography of the nation.
So I looked at a newspaper printed in Houston, Texas, during the 1890s and wrote a computer script that counted the number of times the paper mentioned different cities or states. In effect, how one newspaper crafted an imagined geography of the nation. What I found was that instead of creating a standardized, nationalized view of the world we might expect, the newspaper produced space in ways that centered on the scale of region far more than nation. It remained overwhelmingly focused on the immediate sphere of Texas, and even more surprisingly, on the American Midwest. Places like Kansas City, Chicago, and St. Louis were far more prevalent than I was expecting, and from this newspaper’s perspective Houston was more of a midwestern city than a southern one.
I would have never seen these patterns without a computer. And in trying to account for this pattern I realized that, while historians might enjoy reading stuff like this…
…newspapers often look a lot more like this:
All of this really boring stuff – commodity prices, freight rates, railroad timetables, classified ads – made up a shockingly large percentage of content. Once you include the boring stuff, you get a much different view of the world from Houston in the 1890s. I ended up arguing that it was precisely this fragmentary, mundane, and overlooked content that explained the dominance of regional geography over national geography. I never would have been able to make this argument without a computer.
The article offers a new interpretation about the production of space and the relationship between region and nation. It issues a challenge to a long-standing historical narrative about integration and incorporation in the nineteenth-century United States. By publishing it in the Journal of American History, with all of the limitations of a traditional print journal, I was trying to reach a different audience from the one who read my blog post on topic modeling and Martha Ballard. I wanted to show a broader swath of historians that digital history was more than simply using technology for the sake of technology. Digital tools didn’t just have the potential to advance our understanding of American history – they actually did advance our understanding of American history.
To that end, I published an online component that charted the article’s digital approach and presented a series of interactive maps. But in emphasizing the methodology of my project I ended up shifting the focus away from its historical contributions. In the feedback and conversations I’ve had about the article since its publication, the vast majority of attention has focused on the method rather than the result: How did you select place-names? Why didn’t you differentiate between articles and advertisements? Can it be replicated for other sources? These are all important questions, but they skip right past the arguments that I’m making about the production of space in the late nineteenth century. In short: the method, not the result.
I ended my article with a familiar clarion call:
Technology opens potentially transformative avenues for historical discovery, but without a stronger appetite for experimentation those opportunities will go unrealized. The future of the discipline rests in large part on integrating new methods with conventional ones to redefine the limits and possibilities of how we understand the past.
This is the rhetorical style of digital history. While reading through conference program I was struck by just howmanyabstractsaboutdigitalhistoryusedthewords “potential,” “promise,” “possibilities,” or in the case of our own panel, “opportunities.” In some ways 2015 doesn’t feel that different from 2008, when Tom Scheinfeldt wrote about the sunrise of methodology and the Journal of American History published a roundtable titled “The Promise of Digital History.” I think this is telling. Academic scholarship’s engagement with digital history seems to operate in a perpetual future tense. I’ve spent a lot of my career talking about what digital methodology can do to advance scholarly arguments. It’s time to start talking in the present tense.
I want to tell you a story. It’s a story about gold, the American West, and the way we narrate history. But first let me explain why I’m telling you this story. I’m in the midst of writing a dissertation about how the U.S. Post shaped development in the West. The project is a work of geography as much as history. It traces where and when the nation’s postal network expanded on its western periphery, and part of these efforts include collaborating on an interactive visualization that maps the opening and closing of more than 14,000 post offices in the West. The visualization reveals the skeleton of a “postal geography” that bound Americans into a vast communications network. It’s a powerful research tool to explore spatial patterns spread across fifty years, thousands of data points, and half of a continent. Visit the site and read more about the visualization. But first, I want to use this tool to tell you a story.
In the beginning there was gold…
That’s usually how the story of the West starts: with a gold nugget pulled out of a California river in 1848. The discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada foothills set off a global stampede to California and pulled the edges of American empire to the shores of the Pacific.
The California Gold Rush casts such a dazzling light across western origin stories that it’s often hard to see past it. But there was more than just gold. Even as miners flocked to the Northern California, farmers were plowing fields up and down Oregon’s Willamette Valley. But whereas gold is exciting, farmers are boring. They’re pushed aside in gilded narratives about the West. When Oregon farmers do appear, they serve as an epilogue to a much more exciting story about covered wagons, dusty trails, and Indian attacks. As soon as overland emigrants traded in their covered wagons for seeds and ploughs they’re pushed to a dimly lit corner of western history.
But these women and men nonetheless left their mark on the geography of the West. Even as they raised their barns and planted their fields they participated in a long-standing American tradition of demanding that the U.S. government bring them their mail. Each new Oregon town came with a new post office, and five years after the discovery of gold in California there were nearly as many post offices in Willamette Valley as there were in the mining region of the Sierras. In most historical accounts the blinding glitter of California gold has rendered these Oregon settlements all but invisible. Our story pulls them out of the shadows.
Gold survived in stories about the West long after it ran dry in California’s mines. In May of 1869 a ceremonial golden railroad spike shimmered in the sun at Promontory Point, Utah. It was the “last spike” that would symbolically link the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads, completing the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. The ceremony concluded six years of breakneck labor that laid down more than a thousand miles of wood, metal, and stone across the West. The golden spike at Promontory Point proved just as momentous as the gold flakes at Sutter’s Mill two decades before, inaugurating a new era of western settlement. And, just like the gold rush, the dramatic glare of the golden spike blinds us to other stories.
You can be forgiven for thinking that the rest of the West stood still while workers laid down transcontinental railroad tracks in the late 1860s. That is, after all, how stories of the West are often told. But the West wasn’t standing still. A simultaneous story was taking place in southwestern Montana, where the discovery of gold led to a new rush of Anglo settlement into the region. By 1870 this mineral-fueled migration had transformed western postal geography as much as the transcontinental railroad tracks that snaked through northern Nevada, Utah, and southern Wyoming. As miners and speculators streamed into Montana they dragged the nation’s postal network with them. Whether established at a Montana mining camp or a Nevada railroad depot, the post offices that appeared during these years reflected two stories occurring simultaneously, of a prospector shivering in a cold mountain stream and a railroad worker sweating in the desert sun. Yet we tend to separate their labor when we narrate the history of the West; the miner waits offstage for the railroad worker to finish laying down tracks before he wades into the Montana stream. Anchoring them to a larger spatial network recovers the simultaneity of their stories.
Blank spaces are foundational for the stories we tell about the West. In the worst of them, white settlers carry the mantle of American civilization into an empty western wilderness. It’s a story that systematically writes out the presence of non-Anglo settlement. Using postal geography to narrate western history runs the risk of parroting this story. After all, post offices on a map resemble nothing so much as pinpricks of light filling in the region’s dark blank spaces. But those blank spaces also have the potential to tell a very different kind of story.
During the late 1860s miners in Montana and railroad workers in Nevada were joined by another migration into the region: soldiers marching into northern Wyoming and southern Montana to battle a coalition of Lakotas, Northern Cheyenne, and Northern Arapaho. After suffering repeated losses, the U.S. Army withdrew from Powder River Country and signed a peace treaty in 1868 that ceded control of the area. Unlike the miners and laborers, these soldiers left no trace on the U.S. postal network: the Powder River Country remained utterly devoid of post offices for the next decade.
Silence speaks volumes in the stories we tell. In our story the blank spaces in the postal network act as narrative silence, laden down with meaning. The map’s negative spaces have as much to tell us as its constellations of post offices. It is a story about the control of space. Post offices were a marker of governance, a kind of lowest common institutional denominator. The absence of a post office signaled the lack of a state presence. In this context, the yawning blank area in northern Wyoming and southern Montana reflected the tenuous position of the U.S. Government in the West. Through the late 1870s vast swathes of the West remained outside the boundaries of American territorial control and solidly within the sphere of native groups. The government’s inability to extend the U.S. Post into this region defined the geographic limits of westward expansion. Anglo-American settlement wasn’t inexorable and it didn’t unfurl in a single unimpeded wave. It occurred in fits and starts, in uneven forays and halting retreats. It’s a narrative whose boundaries were drawn by the supposedly blank spaces of the West and the people who lived in them.
Our story ends where where it began: with gold. In 1874 an expedition led by George Armstrong Custer marched into the Black Hills in present-day South Dakota. Their announcement that they discovered gold touched off a frenzied rush into an area that was officially outside the control of the the United States government. Clashes between prospectors and Indians escalated over the following year, eventually erupting into all-out warfare between the U.S. Army and the Lakotas and Cheyennes in early 1876. Despite the 7th Cavalry’s dramatic defeat at the Battle of Little Bighorn, the U.S. Army ultimately prevailed. The end of the campaign in 1877 and the dissolution of the Fort Laramie Treaty unleashed a flood of white emigrants into the gold fields of the Black Hills. A dense pocket of post offices appeared almost overnight to bring the mail to these gold-hungry settlers.
The image of post offices twinkling into existence in the Black Hills says nothing about the violence that birthed them. Their appearance depended on a military campaign and the ultimate removal of people whose very presence had visibly defined the limits of American territory. But these post offices nevertheless help us to tell a different kind of story about the West. It’s a story that expands our vision to look beyond the glare of the California gold rush and towards the plowed fields of Oregon. It’s a story marked by simultaneity, a story about railroad workers swinging sledgehammers in northern Nevada even as prospectors panned for gold in southwestern Montana. And it’s a story about blank spaces and the people and meanings that filled them, a story about the control of space and the boundaries of western expansion.
What do you do with numbers? I mean this in the context of writing, not research. How do you incorporate quantitative evidence into your writing in a way that makes it legible for your readers? I’ve been thinking more and more about this as I write my dissertation, which examines the role of the nineteenth-century Post in the American West. Much like today, the Post was massive. Its sheer size was part of what made it so important. And I find myself using the size of the Post to help answer the curmudgeonly “so what?” question that stalks the mental corridors of graduate students. On a very basic level, the Post mattered because so many Americans sent so many letters through such a large network operated by so many people. Answering the “so what?” question means that I have to incorporate numbers into my writing. But numbers are tricky.
Let’s begin with the amount of mail that moved through the U.S. Post. In 1880 Americans sent 1,053,252,876 letters. That number is barely legible for most readers. I mean this in two ways. In a mechanical sense we HATE having to actually read so many digits. A more conceptual problem is that this big of a number doesn’t mean all that much. If I change 1,053,252,876 to 1,253,252,876, would it lead you, the reader, to a fundamentally different conclusion about the size of the U.S. Post? I doubt it, even though the difference of 200 million letters is a pretty substantial one. And if instead of adding 200 million letters I subtract 200 million letters – 1,053,252,876 down to 853,252,876 – the reader’s perception is more likely to change. But this is only because the number shed one of its digits and crossed the magic cognitive threshold from “billion” to “million.” It’s not because of an inherent understanding of what those huge numbers actually mean.
One strategy to make a number like 1,053,252,876 legible is by reduction: to turn large numbers into much smaller ones. If we spread out those billion letters across the population over the age of ten, the average American sent roughly twenty-eight letters over the course of 1880, or one every thirteen days. A ten-digit monstrosity turns into something the reader can relate to. After all, it’s easier to picture writing a letter every two weeks than it is to picture a mountain of one billion letters. Numbers, especially big ones, are easier to digest when they’re reduced to a more personal scale.
1,053,252,876 letters / 36,761,607 Americans over the age of ten = 28.65 letters / person
A second way to make numbers legible is by comparison. The most direct corollary to the U.S. Post was the telegraph industry. Put simply, the telegraph is a lot sexier than the Post and both nineteenth-century Americans and modern historians alike lionized the technology. A typical account goes something like this: “News no longer traveled at the excruciatingly slow pace of ships, horses, feet, or trains. It now moved at 670 million miles per hour.” In essence, “the telegraph liberated information.” But the telegraph only liberated information if you could afford to pay for it. In 1880 the cost of sending a telegram through Western Union from San Francisco to New York was $2.50, or 125 times the price to mail a two-cent letter. Not surprisingly, Americans sent roughly 35 times the number of letters than telegrams. The enormous size of the Post was in part a product of how cheap it was to use.
This points to a third strategy to make numbers legible: visualization. In the above case the chart acts as a rhetorical device. I’m less concerned with the reader being able to precisely measure the difference between $2.50 and $0.02 than I am with driving home the point that the telegraph was really, really expensive and the U.S. Post was really, really cheap. A more substantive comparison can be made by looking at the size of the Post Office Department’s workforce. In 1880 it employed an army of 56,421 postmasters, clerks, and contractors to process and transport the mail. Just how large was this workforce? In fact, the “postal army” was more than twice the size of the actual U.S. Army. Fifteen years removed from the Civil War there were now more postmasters than soldiers in American society. Readers are a lot better at visually comparing different bars than they are at doing mental arithmetic with large, unwieldy numbers.
Almost as important as the sheer size of the U.S. Post was its geographic reach. Most postal employees worked in one of 43,012 post offices scattered across the United States. A liberal postal policy meant that almost any community could successfully petition the department for a new post office. Wherever people moved, a post office followed close on their heels. This resulted in a sprawling network that stretched from one corner of the country to the other. But what did the nation’s largest spatial network actually look like?
Mapping 43,012 post offices gives the reader an instant sense for both the size and scope of the U.S. Post. The map serves an illustrative purpose rather than an argumentative one. I’m not offering interpretations of the network or even pointing out particular patterns. It’s simply a way for the reader to wrap their minds around the basic geography of such a vast spatial system. But the map is also a useful cautionary tale about visualizing numbers. If anything, the map undersells the size and extent of the Post. It may seem like a whole lot of data, but it’s actually missing around ten thousand post offices, or 22% of the total number that existed in 1880. Some of those offices were so obscure or had such a short existence that I wasn’t able to automatically find their locations. And these missing post offices aren’t evenly distributed: about 99% of Oregon’s post offices appear on the map compared to only 47% of Alabama’s.
Disclaimers aside, compare the map to a sentence I wrote earlier: “Most postal employees worked in one of 43,012 post offices scattered across the United States.” In that context the specific number 43,012 doesn’t make much of a difference – it could just as well be 38,519 or 51,933 – and therefore doesn’t contribute all that much weight to my broader point that the Post was ubiquitous in the nineteenth-century United States. A map of 43,012 post offices is much more effective at demonstrating my point. The map also has one additional advantage: it beckons the reader to not only appreciate the size and extent of the network, but to ask questions about its clusters and lines and blank spaces.* A map can spark curiosity and act as an invitation to keep reading. This kind of active engagement is a hallmark of good writing and one that’s hard to achieve using numbers alone. The first step is to make numbers legible. The second is to make them interesting.
* Most obviously: what’s going on with Oklahoma? Two things. Mostly it’s a data artifact – the geolocating program I wrote doesn’t handle Oklahoma locations very well, so I was only able to locate 19 out of 95 post offices. I’m planning to fix this problem at some point. But even if every post office appeared on the map, Oklahoma would still look barren compared to its neighbors. This is because Oklahoma was still Indian Territory in 1880. Mail service didn’t necessarily stop at its borders but postal coverage effectively fell off a cliff; in 1880 Indian Territory had fewer post offices than any other state/territory besides Wyoming. The dearth of post offices is especially telling given the ubiquity of the U.S. Post in the rest of the country, showing how the administrative status of the territory and decades of federal Indian policy directly shaped communications geography.
As I was flipping through the February 2014 issue of the American Historical Review I was encouraged to see that American historical profession’s flagship journal seems to be doing a pretty decent job of publishing the impressive work of female historians. Three out of its four main articles werewritten by women and four out of the five books in its “Featured Reviews” section werealsobywomen. That’s encouraging. But what about the rest of the February issue? Figuring out how many women are in the 176 contributors for this single issue is a lot harder. And what about not just this issue, but all five issues it publishes annually? And what about not just this year, but every year since its inception in 1895?
Looking at gender representation in the American Historical Review is exactly the kind of historical project that lends itself well towards digital analysis. Collecting individual author information from 120 years of publication history would take an enormous amount of tedious labor. Fortunately the information is already online. I wrote a Python script to scrape the table-of-contents from every AHR issue and then, with the help of Bridget Baird, began to process all of this text to try and extract the books that were reviewed in the AHR, their authors, and the names of the person reviewing them. The data was something of a nightmare, but we were eventually able to get everything we wanted: around 60,000 books, authors, and reviewers. The challenge turned to: was there a way to automatically identify the gender of all of these different people? Especially for a dataset that spanned more than a hundred years we needed a way to take into account potential changesin naming conventions. A historian named Leslie who was born before 1950 was likely to be a man, but if that same Leslie was born after 1950 the person was likely to be a woman. Bridget’s solution was for us to write a program that relies on a database of names from the Social Security Administration dating back to 1880 to account for these changes. This approach is not without problems. It only includes American names while subtly reinforcing an insidious gender binary framework. Nevertheless, it does contribute a useful new digital humanities methodology and one that we are planning to explore with Lincoln Mullen in more depth.
This might come as a real shock, but the American Historical Review didn’t feature very many women for much of its publication history. Over the first eighty years of the AHR‘s existence there were rarely more than a handful of books written by female authors in any given issue – as a percentage of all authors, women made up less than 10% of reviewed books through the 1970s. But things began to change in the late 1970s, when female authors began a steady ascent in the AHR‘s reviews. By the end of the 1980s women’s books had nearly doubled in the journal. By the twenty-first century there were three times as many women as there had been in the 1970s.
But other numbers paint a less rosy picture. Lincoln Mullen’s recent work on history dissertations showed a similarly steady upwards trajectory in the number of female-authored history dissertations since 1950. Although it has plateaued in recent years, women have very nearly closed the gap in terms of newly completed history dissertations. But the glass ceiling remains stubbornly low in terms of what happens from that point onwards. In book reviews published in the AHR male authors continue to outnumber female authors by a factor of nearly 2 to 1. Whereas there is now a gap of around 3-5% separating the proportion of male and female dissertation authors, that gap jumps to 25-35% in terms of the proportion of male and female book authors being reviewed in the American Historical Review.
On the reviewer side of the equation, things aren’t much better. There are still more than twice as many male reviewers as female reviewers in the AHR. But gender inflects this relationship in less direct ways. In particular, we can look at the gender dynamics of who reviews who. About three times as many men write reviews of male-authored books as do women. In the case of female-authored books, there are slightly more male reviewers than female reviewers but the ratio is much closer to 50/50. In short, women are much more likely to write reviews of other women. And while men still write reviews of the majority of female-authored books, they tend to gravitate towards male authors – who are, of course, already over-represented in the AHR.
Bridget and I were also able to extract the subjects used by the AHR to categorize their reviews. Although these conventions changed quite a bit over time, I took a stab at aggregating them into some broad categories for the past forty years. Essentially, I wanted to find out the gender representation within different historical fields. As you can see in the chart below, the proportion of men and women is not the same for all fields. Caribbean/Latin American history has had something approaching equal representation for the past decade-and-a-half. In both African history and Ancient/Medieval history female historians made some quite dramatic gains during the late-nineties and aughts. The guiltiest parties, however, are also the two subject categories that publish the most book reviews: Modern/Early Modern Europe and the United States/Canada. Both of them have made steady progress but still hover at around two-thirds male.
Women are now producing history dissertations at nearly the same rate as men, but the flagship journal of the American historical profession has yet to catch up. There are, of course, a lot of factors at play. This gap might reflect a substantial time-lag as a younger, more evenly-balanced generation gradually moves its way through the ranks even as an older, male-skewed generation continues to publish monographs. It might reflect biases in the wider publishing industry, or the fact that female historians continue to bear a disproportionate amount of the time-burden of caring for families. That the AHR continues to publish far more reviews of male authors than female authors is depressing, but unfortunately not surprising given the systemic inequalities that continue to exist across the profession.