My research into ecological discourse in the Victorian period is at a very early stage, with the focus on a broad range of nineteenth century texts. Research in its early stages necessarily involves investigating a large body of material and my questions at present range from considering how Victorian writers understood and imagined the emergence of the industrial city to what they thought of the relationship between human and primate in light of advances in evolutionary theory.

At some point in the near future, however, I will need to narrow my focus. This presents a problem as I can only read a tiny proportion of the thousands of texts potentially pertinent to my research. How can I possibly trace the emergence of ecological ideas across an entire historical period using accepted methods of literary criticism?

To conduct close readings from a narrow selection of texts and take them to be indicative of the wider literary culture would be the traditional answer. This is the approach Dewey W. Hall takes in Romantic Naturalists, Early Environmentalists, where he attempts to trace the emergence of the National Trust and a wider environmental consciousness through the writings of Gilbert White, William Wordsworth, and Octavia Hill. Hall makes some interesting connections between these three writers, but his argument would benefit from a wider selection of supporting material.

For example, in Guide to the Lakes, Wordsworth uses the word ‘environed’ in what, according to Hall, is ‘a biophysical context’. The argument follows that Wordsworth thus ‘anticipates the ecological context of the term ‘environment’’. This is a fascinating suggestion, yet the isolated usage of a single word in a somewhat inferred context does not make a convincing argument for considering a writer as ecological. I would be interested to see if Wordsworth uses closely related terms elsewhere, but Hall does not explore this line of questioning.

This is a scenario where criticism based solely on close readings could be greatly enhanced by Franco Moretti’s distant reading approach to literary analysis. Equally, while Moretti’s observations (such as the increased usage of the word ‘the’ in Gothic fiction) are intriguing in themselves, they require close readings of key texts to provide context and detailed critique so as to be of any real use to literary criticism.

Indeed, there is something Gothic about distant reading itself when used in isolation. The image is of Moretti as a Montoni-esque figure, feeding books into a vast machine in the bowels of Udolpho, creating smoke and endless data while destroying great literature and shaking the bastion of literary criticism to the very core.

Yet distant reading and Franco Moretti need not be considered the villains of literary criticism. To return to my earlier question of how I might trace the emergence of ecological ideas across the Victorian period, a good place to begin would be using a computer program to search for certain keywords across a wide selection of texts.

This is an approach which would be enhanced by a detailed representation of the proximity of certain terms. For example, if ‘city’ and ‘environ’ were often being used in conjunction by certain authors, their works would clearly be worthy of further enquiry. This enquiry would take the form of close readings from a considered selection, leading to the formulation of arguments informed by both close and distant reading. These arguments would evidently be stronger for being supported by a wide selection of data.

By emphasising his belief that distant reading signals the end of close reading and thus literary criticism as we know it, Moretti is left blind to the possibilities inherent to the two approaches. Ironically, his arguments seem to prevent the uptake of his ideas, which clearly complement and enhance traditional literary investigation.

Work which utilises both distant and close reading might even serve to bring deserving critical attention to authors outside the established canon. These writers may have remained lost to history if it were only possible to spend precious time on close readings of the canonical works.

Intriguingly, while distant reading is often seen as a threat to literary criticism and even the act of reading itself, does this not suggest something of a renaissance for both professional critics and popular readers alike?

 

References:

Hall, Dewey W., Romantic Naturalists, Early Environmentalists: An Ecocritical Study, 1789-1912 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012)

Moretti, Franco, Distant Reading (London and New York: Verso, 2013)

Wordsworth, William, A Guide through the District of the Lakes in the North of England, with a Description of the Scenery, &c. for the use of Tourists and Residents (Kendal: Hudson and Nicholson, 1835)

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