Digital Technologies Help Humanities Analyze Fluid Texts


John Bryant, a professor of English at Hofstra University, created a literary database of Herman Melville’s work to help other scholars analyze texts.

Digital technologies and electronic databases may have a profound impact on how we read and understand literature, according to Dr. John Bryant.

Bryant, a professor of English at Hofstra University, presented a lecture titled “Big Data | Close Reading: Melville and the Humanities as Fluid Texts” Thursday in the John C. Hodges Library.  In his lecture, he explained how a new software called TextLab allows scholars to analyze and interpret data gathered from studying what Bryant termed “fluid texts.”  Bryant specifically focused on how he uses TextLab to better understand the works of Herman Melville, an American writer best known for his novel, “Moby-Dick.”

“A fluid text,” Bryant stated, “is any written work that exists in multiple versions due to revisions made by authors who revise their own works, or editors and publishers who might censor parts [of the work].  [They] also encompasses adaptation…for music, or opera, or fine arts and translation.”

According to Bryant, “Moby-Dick” is an excellent example of a fluid text.  For example, due to the lack of international copyright, “Moby-Dick” was published as two novels in 1951 – as “The Whale” in Britain and as “Moby-Dick” in the Americas.  This meant each copy was edited and revised by different publishers.  Sometimes the differences between the two texts were drastic.  For example, the British version does not include the epilogue where Melville reveals the protagonist, Ishmael, does not die with his crewmates.

Modern adaptations are another way “Moby-Dick” is a fluid text.  There have been two film adaptations (1926 and 1956) as well as several stage adaptations and a musical.

“Taken in all of its versions, the textual, the visual, the musical…Moby-Dick is not one book, or two, or even a book at all – it’s a cultural phenomenon.  The main question is…how do we get all of these versions together in one place?”

Digital technologies are Bryant’s solution to this problem.  With several colleagues, Bryant created the Melville Electronic Library (MEL), an online archive for Melville studies.  MEL uses TextLab, a text transformation tool, to document manuscript revisions such as crossed-out words, added-in phrases, and notes in the margins.  These small edits to a manuscript can help modern readers grasp the author’s thought process while writing and give insight to a text that would be missed by simply reading a published copy.

Dr. Hilary Havens, an English professor at UT, attended the event and especially appreciated Bryant’s points on how authorial intention and revision can shape the way we interpret texts.  “I think in the printed version…a lot of things are made invisible.  The nice thing about digital technologies is often you can see the many stages of revision that a text goes through before it’s published.  I think these things can tell us, not just about author intentionality, but sort of larger questions about the creative process of composition during the period.”

Bryant’s lecture was part of UT’s annual AuthorFest, a festival that highlights the contributions of influential writers from around the world.  The next event, a staged reading of “Moby-Dick” at the Relix Variety Theatre, will be tomorrow at 7 p.m.




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