Society for Textual Scholarship “Digital Texts and the Spatial Turn” Roundtable Comments on Civil War Washington

On March 17, 2011, in a roundtable on “Digital Texts and the Spatial Turn” at the 2011 Society for Textual Scholarship Conference (#sts11) at Penn State, I offered opening comments that were co-authored with Civil War Washington co-director Ken Price. (Other members of the panel, which was sponsored by Digital Americanists and chaired by Ed Whitley, were Wayne Graham, Jo Guldi, Bethany Nowviskie, and Matthew Wilkens.) Thinking these comments might be of interest to followers of Civil War Washington, I’m posting them here:

Civil War Washington is a biography of a city—a slice of life of an intense period of destruction and remaking—and of how the landscape and the built environments of the city changed during the course of the war. It’s also a story of the people who inhabited and moved through the city and of how individuals experienced the city during the national crisis. Reciprocally, Civil War Washington is an exploration of the ways the city, because of its geography, natural and built environments, institutions, and people, affected the war. This biography is worth telling because Washington, DC’s experience as a physical space, as a city, as an assemblage of institutions, and as communities of people, illuminate fundamental aspects of the wartime experience and larger narratives of American culture. As such, Civil War Washington is in part an exploration of national identity.

The city, and our project, however, are two expansive for a single interpretation. We have, therefore, carved out a portion of the site for interpretations, which will include essays or arguments in other forms from the project team and other authors. More broadly, Civil War Washington is at once interpretation and a resource providing information for others to use, extend, manipulate, and analyze. Interpretation is embedded in nearly every aspect of the site, shaped by the choices we have made about what to present (or to present first) and how to present this information, decisions informed by the interests of the scholars, as well as our understanding of where the pieces come together and diverge and the significance of such convergences and divergences, among other issues. As a resource, Civil War Washington brings together a range of materials, including census data; legal documents; images; medical reports; newspapers; and historical maps that have been layered with the locations of such features as hospitals, churches, theaters, transportation routes, waterways, and ward boundaries. In addition, we are currently compiling an extensive bibliography of fiction and poetry by Washington-based writers responding to the war and the wartime experience. In the future, Civil War Washington will feature electronic versions of many of these texts, and we will have extensive metadata for all items in the bibliography. By bringing these diverse forms, formats, and media together, our aim is to create a sense of place that text alone is rarely able to communicate.

Place, of course, is more than an area defined by geographic coordinates, and explorations of place require more than locating features on a map. Recently, the form or genre of the deep map has emerged as a conceptual model of place for bringing together textual, visual, and cartographic representations of place as well as interpretations of place in a kind of digital geographic information system.1 Similarly, historian Philip Ethington, a co-founder of the digital platform Hypercities, invokes Renaissance atlases, which are “rich mixtures of typography, graphic arts, and . . . cartography,” as a metaphor for what we might attempt in representing and understanding place in a digital space.2 As theoretical models, the deep map and atlas are intriguing. It is worth noting, however, both metaphors reach back to pre-digital forms, and to models that are heavily textual. William Least Heat-Moon’s PrairyErth (A Deep Map), for example, on which the deep map metaphor for a humanities GIS draws, is a long and text-heavy book. Indeed, the variety of textual content, including quotations assembled as a common-place book, lists, and narrative, is perhaps more notable than the way the book brings together maps and other images with text. What are the implications of this paradigm for the role of maps and geographical analysis and the role of text in representing and understanding place in digital space? What are the issues at stake for the representation, analysis, and interpretation of text and textuality for a digital deep map or atlas and for Civil War Washington? Similarly, what does Civil War Washington, or what can Civil War Washington, do for textual and literary studies?

As some of our opening comments acknowledge, Civil War Washington can be approached from a number of perspectives, among them historical, medical, geographic, and genealogical, and the site lends itself to a variety of types of analysis, including spatial analysis and statistical analysis. We are already studying Civil War Washington from a medical perspective and from a military perspective. As we imagine what the site might look like and include several years from now, we can imagine a variety of other perspectives and approaches, some of which we may take on as a project and others of which users of the site might tackle. Currently, our work is shaped in part by the parameters of our NEH Collaborative Research Grant project on the theme of race, slavery, and emancipation in Washington during the war. When the Compensated Emancipation Act went into effect on April 16, 1862, Washington became the first emancipated city, as well as the center for freed and runaway slaves. Eight months before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Washington led the nation from slavery to freedom and from an entrenched system of legal inequality to a new commitment to equality. Constraints on time and other resources mean that we cannot simultaneously proceed on as my fronts as we would like. As a result, we have not been able to develop a significant textual component, particularly a literary one. Indeed, the text we’ve treated most extensively to this point—the six-volume Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion—we have digitally taken apart, extracting pages and data, in part to populate the project database and to provide documentary evidence about diseases and wounds in the nineteenth century and about soldiers and surgeons. We extracted the Washington, DC cases, and are mining them for dates, names, and locations. These details, comprehensive of the DC hospitals, will comprise key data in the project database. We will also present the full-text of individual cases on the site, linked to and from database records as appropriate. Although a defensible and valuable approach to the Medical and Surgical History for what we want to achieve with the cases, this treatment is different from treating the volumes in a way that respects their totality as textual artifacts.

We are, however, keenly interested in developing the textual component of the site, and so it is important to think about what the relevance of such a project is to issues of textuality, including the editorial treatment and representation of text and its interpretation. In Civil War Washington’s first iteration, as Lincoln and Whitman in Washington, the goal was to have a map as/at the center of the project. A base map—Boschke’s 1861 map of the District as surveyed in 1856–1859—was combined with dozens of layers that could be viewed or made transparent, depending on one’s interests. The map was to serve as the point of access for all of the information gathered for the project, including records about individuals, photographs and other images, and texts, such as Whitman’s Civil War notebooks. What was the Washington, DC that Lincoln and Whitman inhabited? Where might their paths have crossed? From a literary perspective, what might be illuminated about Whitman, Drum-Taps and Sequel to Drum-Taps, the 1867 Leaves of Grass, his correspondence, hospital notebooks and other works, when we understand more about the places in which they were written and we locate them spatially in Washington, DC, including in the locations Whitman visited, his primary residences and places of work, and the other public and private places he passed through and inhabited? In contrast to the text-centered Walt Whitman Archive, Civil War Washington is intended to bring tools/approaches—most prominently GIS—and text together to create a sense of space and place. It is perhaps telling, however, that as the project has developed, text, images, interpretations, and maps have become separate sections of the site, rather than being tightly integrated. This organizational model is apparent from the site’s present homepage. An advantage of the current design is that it highlights the range of materials we’re building into the site. It also, however, reflects some of the technical and infrastructural issues that we’re working to address. Can we further integrate the components, beyond bringing them together on the same site and linking between them? Certainly as the project has developed, the team has been working with the goal of being able to put the information together in multiple ways and for others to be able to do the same, within and outside the parameters of our site.

Our work with the Armory Square Hospital Gazette, the newspaper of Armory Square Hospital in Washington, raises other possibilities. Currently, we have located copies of just over half of the seventy-five issues of the newspaper. Civil War Washington now features digital images of the newspaper pages, so that users can read the issues. As of yet, we have not completed any transcription of the newspapers. But the Armory Square Hospital Gazette, actually published at the hospital purportedly on a printing press owned by a member of the staff, is a rare and unique artifact of the war that deserves detailed editorial treatment. In addition to transcribing the text and marking it up in a meaningful way (to gloss over some major issues in the transcription and encoding of periodical texts) we would like to be able to situate the newspaper in its textual and spatial settings—within Washington, within a specific ward, and within the hospital itself, layered with the other features we’ve mapped; within case studies from the hospital, which we have from the Medical and Surgical History; within accounts of the hospital from the people who were there, such as Walt Whitman and Amanda Akin Stearns; and within the literary culture of Washington. Using the project GIS, we’re also interested in studying how and where the newspaper circulated. Who read it and where?

Some of the larger issues we’re still considering, then, include how do/can text, data, and maps come together? We don’t want visualizations, or visualizations only, but a way to integrate the materials. What is a responsible and compelling way to put these together? How can text and spatial elements be equal or integrated, or what is a better vision of the textual component? How can we understand cultural production as thoroughly place-based?

1 The deep map is a recurring motif in several essays in The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship, ed. David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan, and Trevor M. Harris (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010).


~Elizabeth Lorang

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