OVERWHELMED: LITERATURE, AESTHETICS, AND THE NINETEENTH-CENTURY INFORMATION REVOLUTION by Maurice S. Lee, Reviewed by Priyanka Anne Jacob
 


OVERWHELMED: LITERATURE, AESTHETICS, AND THE NINETEENTH-CENTURY INFORMATION REVOLUTION
By Maurice S. Lee
(Princeton, 2019) xii + 277 pp.
Reviewed by Priyanka Anne Jacob on 2020-06-29.

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In the second half of the nineteenth century, a flurry of books, one "swelling to six volumes," offered redundant guides to "the best books" ever published (117). In a Household Words series of sketches, a character begins his hunt for a document in neglected church archives filled with crumbling papers and beset by damp and rot, and ends it by instituting a filing system. In his lifetime, Ralph Waldo Emerson produced seven hundred pages of indexes that tracked the contents of his "18.2 linear shelf feet" of journals, which themselves recorded his extensive reading (51). Cited in this new study, these three examples highlight the surfeit of information in the nineteenth century--too many papers, too many books, too much to know--as well as the strategies used to digest it, like filing, cataloguing, and indexing. They show not only how excess drives us to grasp for numbers and measurements, but also how those very efforts to contain and quantify a glut of information can themselves grow unwieldy.

Unwieldiness is the subject of Lee's book, as expressed both by its title and the towers of deconstructed books that pose precariously on its cover (a photograph of Wendy Wahl's installation Branches Unbound). Overwhelmed considers how British and American culture in the nineteenth century responded to the "superabundance" of information suddenly being produced (19). Strategies of information management emerge because the quantities of information available exceed human capacities for knowing, or even for knowing how to look for what one needs to know. Four such strategies--reading, searching, counting, and testing--provide the organizational structure for Lee's monograph.

Like Richard Menke's Telegraphic Realism (2008), Lee's book depicts a nineteenth century transformed by what we now call an information revolution. While Menke traces the literary effects of new communication technologies, Lee charts instead changes in reading practices, organizational techniques, cultural values, educational standards, and publishing trends--all under the pressures of informational superabundance. Lee treats book and print history, citing scholars like Leah Price, Meredith McGill, and Lisa Gitelman, as well as foundational works of information theory by Claude Shannon and Friedrich Kittler. Importantly, this book also reflects the digital information revolution that we have experienced over the last few decades. At its core, Overwhelmed is a cultural history of the nineteenth century viewed from the vantage point of the twenty-first.

Lee shows, then, how Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, and other nineteenth-century writers represent within their works the anxieties and longings prompted by the information revolution of their own time. But Lee further demonstrates how the discourse around literature--perhaps even the definition of it--is also transformed under these "conditions of excess" (10). Lee finds a knotty and persistent "entanglement" between two nominally opposed terms: the informational and the literary (98). While the informational is said to be "characterized by instrumentalism, objectivity, transparency, bureaucracy, impersonality, calculation, and reconfigurable data," the literary is "associated with beauty, subjectivity, interpretation, emotion, intuition, and the immersive pleasures of unified texts" (4). Precisely because these definitions can be faulted for their impressionism and capaciousness, they serve Lee's argument, which is that no stable boundary separates these two domains.

Literature, for instance, could be treated in the nineteenth century as information. Literary excellence was tallied in "best books" lists and compressed into tomes of "familiar" quotations, and standardized tests emerged to assess what "counts" as literary knowledge. As early as 1893, one professor experimented with stylometric analysis, measuring literary texts by sentence length, metaphor frequency, and other elements, all of which could be rendered as data and represented in graphs that presaged the digital humanities scholarship to come. While such quantitative approaches have dismayed humanists of our own time as well as of the nineteenth century, Lee argues that mensural approaches to literature emerged in response to textual excess, offering ways to cope with it. How should one handle literature when there is simply too much of it? While some nineteenth-century writers imagined intuitive and aesthetic resolutions to this "documentary clutter," others envisioned superior bureaucratic methods (60). Dickens imagined both, as well as--in the interminable case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce--the bleak deadlock of paper chaos.

Nevertheless, the entanglement of the informational and the literary sparked efforts to shore up the boundaries between them. While the torrent of printed matter seemed to jeopardize the possibility of immersing oneself in a book, Lee writes, it also roused nostalgic fantasies of a child-like, "deserted island reading" (38). Likewise, Lee argues, adventure novels enact a fantasy, not always fulfilled, of leaving behind modernity and its "informational logic" (127). These tales replace mass-produced books with long-lost manuscripts and bits of parchment, and their descriptions of treasure showcase the strange and multitudinous objects that cannot simply be rendered in economic terms. The material specificity of Stevenson's treasure, for instance, represents "an unaccountability in which counts cannot be squared" (128). To be sure, Lee goes on to argue that many of these novels still bear traces of the informationalism they profess to abandon. But his key phrase, "the accounting of literature," seems to include everything from the presence of numbers in a text, to the quantifying of literature in the culture, to the very existence of industrialized print. In light of the now extensive scholarship on nineteenth-century publishing and circulation, Lee could have clarified the precise relation of mass print to the category of the informational or perhaps limited his argument to the more impactful examples of numeracy and quantification.

Throughout his study, Lee repeatedly demonstrates how the bureaucratic seeps into the literary and how the informational can acquire literary and aesthetic qualities. While promising at first utility and order, antiquarian accumulations of literary data soon lapse into the pleasures of miscellany and abundance. Enumerations have their own lilting rhythms and delights; administrative offices contain human stories. Lee interests me most when he identifies the influence of the informational on literary form and style. Cheekily calling Emerson an "information manager," he links the essayist's note-taking and indexing to his "capricious" and "quotable" prose style (52-4).

Lee's own style is similarly peripatetic. Written in a lively, reflexive manner, Overwhelmed is "multi-scalar" and ecumenical in approach, gliding from historical context to close readings, literary histories, distant readings and quantitative analysis, and meta-commentary on the profession (112). Lee juxtaposes canonical texts with Raiders of the Lost Ark and Amazon reviews of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. If these oscillations are occasionally disorienting, they also help to show that the literary and the informational are still entangled for us. Lee's own method of exposition foregrounds this entanglement. As if overwhelmed by the many possible illustrations of an argument, he sometimes resorts to listing them by number. Indeed, ranging from New Historicism to the v21 Manifesto and the digital humanities, he questions what passes for evidence in literary scholarship, including his own. Can a literary-historical argument stand, he wonders, on a felicitous historical anecdote, or on one set of texts to the exclusion of others? As one corrective, he offers an exercise in distant reading supplemented by graphs of keyword frequencies in a corpus of adventure novels. While this large-scale survey yields only limited conclusions about "the" adventure novel per se, Lee uses it to show how literary studies can adopt quantitative analytical methods, which--alongside the familiar magic of close reading--have their own enchantments.

Lee is particularly compelling in his chapter on "Searching," which examines both nineteenth-century and contemporary tactics for moving through informational excess and into meaning. As Lee notes, we twenty-first-century scholars using digitized archives and immense databases deploy our own informational strategies for locating meaning within textual superabundance. Yet the parameters of our searches and other research techniques we use have typically remained below the surface of our writing, the silent preface to our scholarship. Since Lee believes that we are not just scholar-writers but also "information workers in an industry shaped by information technology and ideology" (107), he urges us to consider the role of information architectures in shaping our research and writing: "We ought to acknowledge our informational commitments and practices," he writes,

particularly when gathering evidence, even if doing so compromises the force of some claims by acknowledging the inevitable partiality of our research. Aspirationally we might be more forthright about our searching protocols by reporting parameters, key words, and hits. We might identify archival outliers as such, register failed searches, note negative evidence, and perform controlled experiments." (107)

Since the January 2020 issue of PMLA, "Varieties of Digital Humanities," offers compelling instances of such methodological transparency, a number of other scholars have clearly anticipated Lee's call for it. Nevertheless, his invitation opens up the research process, naming its unspoken steps. It prompts us to consider how we move from an immersive close reading to a rapid scan of search results--toggling seamlessly, even unconsciously, between treating texts as literature and treating them as information. We are not the first to do so, as Lee's work makes clear. Overwhelmed is a valuable resource not only for exploring cultural history or scholarly practice, but also for tracing our own reliance on information to its nineteenth-century roots.

Priyanka Anne Jacob is Assistant Professor of English at Loyola University Chicago.


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