We Don't Already Understand the Outlines of Literary History

Ted Underwood

Ted Underwood, professor of English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, has become a major figure in computational approaches to literary history and has been especially interested in the use of text-mining to test received ideas about novelistic rhetoric, period style, and the evolution of genres. 

      In his engaging blog, The Stone and the Shell, he observes, “The discipline of literary studies has not usually advanced by uncovering unexpected evidence. As grad students, that’s not what we were taught to aim for. Instead we learned that the discipline moves forward dialectically. You take something that people already believe and “push against” it, or “critique” it, or “complicate” it. You don’t make discoveries in literary study . . . .

 "But a couple of years of mucking about in digital archives have convinced me that the broad contours of literary history are not in fact well understood. . . . "