Associate Professor of English at the University of British Columbia and EMiC co-applicant Mary Chapman has her hands full with the work of Edith Eaton, who has been called “the mother of Asian-American literature.” Eaton, who wrote under the pseudonym Sui Sin Far, is a remarkably complex individual: she had two racial identities and three national identities, wrote under multiple pseudonyms and in multiple genres, and published in multiple venues. All of this complexity makes Eaton an intriguing figure, but also a difficult author to edit.
While researching for her anthology of American suffrage literature, Treacherous Texts: US Suffrage Literature 1846-1946 (Rutgers UP 2011), Chapman came across several stories in which Eaton provides somewhat critical views of middle-class white American suffragists. Chapman then discovered a racy story published by Eaton in a 1909 issue of New York’s Bohemian Magazine which led her to suspect that more of Eaton’s works were buried in non-indexed periodicals and newspapers.
Since joining EMiC as a co-applicant in 2010, Chapman has worked tirelessly with her graduate research assistant and EMiC stipend-holder Reilly Yeo, as well as other graduate research assistants, to collect these previously uncollected works. So far, Chapman and her team have located almost 90 unknown works by Eaton, which were published in over 50 magazines in both Canada and the United States between 1883 and 1929 — fifteen years after Eaton’s death. Amongst the Canadian finds are a follow-up to Eaton’s well-known September 1896 letter to the editor, “Plea for the Chinaman,” published a week later in the Montreal Star, as well as a reprinting of Eaton’s signature story “Mrs. Spring Fragrance” in a Toronto illustrated magazine. Chapman has also uncovered some anonymous reportage filed from Fort William, Ontario in the 1890s that she thinks were written by Eaton.
Over 100 years ago, Eaton took full advantage of a mediamorphosis to forge her career writing for mass-circulating magazines. Now, approaching the centenary of Eaton’s death (2014), Chapman thinks it fitting that she publish Eaton’s works at another moment of mediamorphosis — that is, when digitization projects offer scholars a new way to present new findings to larger groups of readers.
Chapman has encountered a bit of difficulty in her digital project because some previously digitized magazines are incomplete or misrepresent their degree of completeness. Also, Eaton’s pseudonym, Sui Sin Far, is not easily recognized as a name in the English searches of some of the digitized magazines, making Chapman’s work more labour intensive. Nevertheless, at this point in the project, Chapman and her team have scanned and proofread all of the found texts.
In addition to writing the introduction for her collection this summer, Chapman will be attending the Digital Humanities Summer Institute TEI workshop at the University of Victoria. She is looking forward to learning more about the digital humanities opportunities for sharing more of Eaton’s work. Chapman has also found many American-published texts that she wants to make available to the public, and she will begin to interest American presses after her EMiC project is complete.
Vanessa Lent has just begun the second year of a two-year postdoctoral EMiC fellowship at the University of Alberta (EMiC UA). As part of the larger EMiC UA efforts to digitize the fonds of Sheila Watson and the fonds of Wilfred Watson, led by Paul Hjartarson, Vanessa is creating a hybrid print-digital edition of Wilfred’s 1962 play, Cockcrow and the Gulls.
Wilfred was a dynamic artist, critic, and teacher whose work evolved over four decades. He began to work on Cockcrow as early as 1949, and was awarded a Canadian Government Overseas Fellowship with which he funded a yearlong trip to Paris to work on the play within an environment steeped in avant-garde and absurdist theatrical production. When it premiered at Edmonton’s Studio Theatre in 1962, Cockcrow caused a stir in the theatre circles and academic communities of Edmonton and beyond.
Projected as a multi-phase project, Vanessa’s postdoctoral work asks how the database can serve the humanities scholar to interpret, organize, and present archival material. In “Database as Genre: The Epic Transformation of Archives,” Ed Folsom argues that the “[d]atabase facilitates access, immediacy, and the ability to juxtapose items that in real space might be far removed from each other” (Folsom 1577). A database of Cockcrow will take advantage of such “virtuality, endless ordering and reordering, and wholeness” to create a new space for scholarly work. Vanessa’s project will entail the creation of a database for the Cockcrow material to construct a composition history of the play, allowing the textual multiplicity of the journals, play drafts, letters, and interviews to connect in ways unrestrained by traditional notions of linearity.
Wilfred’s archive contains a multitude of documents, which include drafts of his creative works, correspondence, and a series of personal journals and notebooks. These notebooks are, as Paul Tiessen calls them, “private intellectual journals” that serve as commentary on the massive amount of draft manuscripts (106). The Finding Aid for the Wilfred Watson Fonds demonstrates that the composition of Cockcrow occurred not only within the multiple drafts of the play, but also within Wilfred’s personal journals. At times, his meditations on Cockcrow are recorded in journals of a more personal nature alongside day-to-day observances, lists of letters written, short reviews of books, ruminations on art of various media, and long treatises on literary and artistic theories. Other times, these meditations are recorded in journals reserved exclusively for creative rumination (sometimes on Cockcrow and sometimes on other projects).
How does a researcher approach the complexity of such an archive? Kim Sawchuck encourages an understanding of archive as media because it “emphasizes its character as a complex organizational tool that facilitates or impedes individual and social communication with future generations about past events, through the instantiation of specific protocols and rules of access” (Sawchuck, n.p.). Understanding the archive as not only a collection of documents, but also as an “organizational tool” that can be interpreted as a media in itself opens up possibilities for approaching Wilfred’s fonds.
For Vanessa, the Cockcrow project opens up and explores many questions: What are the strengths and weaknesses of such a relationship between archive and database? Further, how does the researcher best use the interface to present the material to an audience? How can the scholar expand the audience for such a project from the academic to the public? How does the database serve the literary form of drama in particular? How does the co-existence of text on the page and text as performance manifest within a database? Are there visualization tools that allow the researcher to extend the interpretive possibilities of drama in new ways?
The Cockcrow project will be built as a relational database comprised of five potential phases. While “phase one” of the project consists of Vanessa’s post-doctoral work, the subsequent phases are suggestions of where the project could potentially be taken. Phase one will serve as a proof-of-concept of the strength of the database as an organizational tool for archival material, and will see the contents of the database limited to the first act of Cockcrow.
Doctoral student Nick van Orden is part of the University of Alberta’s expansive and collaborative EMiC project (EMiC UA) focussing on the work of Wilfred Watson. Nick is working on two projects with EMiC UA, the first of which involves scanning the Wilfred Watson archive. This project is in its third year, and is estimated to consist of approximately 80,000 scans. Numerous people — including Nick — are involved in this vast endeavour to digitize Wilfred’s papers.
EMiC UA’s other project in which Nick is involved is a small — but very interesting — offshoot of the scanning project. Since December 2012, Nick has been tweeting from the @Wilfred_Watson Twitter account. As the EMiC UA team scans Wilfred’s papers, they flag particularly insightful, pithy, humorous, or poignant passages, which Nick then tweets.
The Twitter account serves two general purposes. First, it works as a marketing platform for the project, helping the team to spread awareness about Wilfred, his work, and the project. Part of EMiC UA’s motivation for increasing awareness — aside from advertising the forthcoming digital collection of Wilfred’s material — is an upcoming exhibition of Wilfred’s work at the University of Alberta Library’s Special Collections, which is set to take place in the fall of 2014. The @Wilfred_Watson Twitter account provides EMiC UA with the opportunity to network with members of the digital humanities and modernist communities.
Tweeting from @Wilfred_Watson has prompted the team to consider several interesting legal, ethical, and theoretical questions related to digitization. How, for example, does EMiC UA negotiate the legality of making public previously unpublished material, to which they have been granted access by the U of A Library, which is, in turn, beholden to Wilfred’s literary executor? To what extent should the scholars intervene in the material they tweet? Should they edit and/or correct the passages that they have select to tweet? Also, what are the ethics of tweeting as a person now dead? What does it mean to put Wilfred in conversation with other long-deceased modernist writers and thinkers? Are these scholars creating a set of false relationships, or are these avatar-based interactions a different (and new) form of what might otherwise be called intertextuality? Although the project is still developing, Nick’s work with Twitter on behalf of EMiC UA provides a unique opportunity to explore these issues, which have implications for the larger digital humanities community as a whole.
At about four months into the project, Nick and the rest of the team are just getting started. Right now, the @Wilfred_Watson Twitter account has amassed 40 tweets and collected 35 followers, and the numbers are growing steadily. Still, the team would like to increase both of these numbers a great deal; this will require more material to tweet, and more time spent monitoring the account. The EMiC UA team is also exploring the possibility of creating a “Wilfred Watson” digital brand, but is wary of the labour involved in establishing and maintaining a social media presence beyond Twitter.
For anyone interested in learning more about EMiC UA’s work on the Twitter account, Nick, Paul Hjartarson, and the rest of the EMiC UA team will be presenting a paper — entitled “Tweeting the @Wilfred_Watson Archive (or, I Tweet Dead People)” — at the CSDH/SCHN 2013 conference (part of Congress) this June in Victoria, BC.