Phrenology2019 Projects and Project Staff

The main projects this coming year will be expanding Walt Whitman’s Annotations under the power of an NEH grant,  adding to the Whitman’s Poetry Reprints handlist, and, with help from Regan Chasek (who won an UG research award for it), attempting to publish some home-grown visualizations of the reprints data.

We will also be finalizing the manuscript of a collection of essays, The New Whitman Studies, for Cambridge University Press, hoping to get that out within Whitman’s 200th birth year!

This year’s staff for Walt Whitman’s Annotations:

  • Dr. Kevin McMullen, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Dept. of English, UNL
  • Caitlin Henry, MA Candidate, Dept. of English, UNL
  • Dr. Caterina Bernardini, Postdoctoral Research Associate, IMAGER, Université Paris Est Créteil Val-de-Marne

Whitman at the NE Capitol

This week Regan Chasek, UCARE researcher on the “Walt Whitman’s Poetry Reprints” project, did two presentations of her work on visualizations of the poetry reprints data set. The first was at the UNL research fair, and the second was a perhaps more intimidating poster session for Nebraska’s state senators.

You can find coverage of the event here:

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Regan Chasek calls Sen. Brandt’s attention to the intimidating format of the “Whitman’s Poetry Reprints” data set.


…and here is an action shot of Regan, describing her work to Senator Tom Brandt.



Daily Nebraskan Coverage

Cohen Lab had a delightful conversation this week with reporter Natalie Saenz of the Daily Nebraskan:

Saenz asked great questions and got different perspectives from me, Kevin McMullen, and Regan Chasek about the work going on in the lab. The patient and talented Elsie Stormberg even took a picture.

It’s always fun to engage with student media, and as a former student journalist myself, I particularly appreciated Saenz and Stormberg’s professionalism and thoroughness!

Early Draft Visualizations of Whitman’s Poetry Reprints Data

This the second of a series of posts on data visualization by Regan Chasek, an undergraduate researcher with the Walt Whitman Archive at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

By Regan Chasek

My first mission was to create visualizations using the data that had already been collected for the Whitman’s Poetry Reprints project. The goal was to recreate some of the preexisting visualizations, and to make new ones. The simplest visualizations to create were the pie charts.


Whitman’s poems were often published in fragments; this pie chart shows the proportion of instances in which it was reprinted in full compared to in part.


Whitman Republications by Month. This one clearly needs some labels, and we wonder also, Why there are thirteen months?

But there have been difficulties in figuring out how to recreate the maps without the aid of Google’s Map API, which is now a paid service. We have settled on using Geonames in order to get the coordinates of places of publication, and using Leaflet to show the markers. D3 may also be used to create more detailed visualizations.
One struggle has resulted from the desire to use open source tools as much as possible. This was one factor in choosing not to use the Google Maps API. In a way, closed-source software was an important reason for beginning this project in the first place. The program used to create and host these visualizations, ViewShare, has disappeared. If the software—created, incidentally, using your tax dollars—had been open source, it could have been maintained by the community instead of forcing the users to rebuild their projects from scratch.


Number of Reprints by Year, 1838-1892, of Whitman’s Poems.

My next step is to use Leaflet and Geonames to recreate the maps that were on the old website. After all of these visualizations are functional, I hope I will have time to beautify some or all of them. The attributions pie chart, especially, will be unreadable without heavy modification.


Whitman’s reprinted poems were given many different attributions, from “W.W.” to “Walt. Whitman” to no attribution at all.

The Charles Chesnutt Digital Archive

I’m happy to announce that Cohen Lab has joined forces with The Charles Chesnutt Digital Archive. I’ve joined the editorial team of The New School’s Prof. Stephanie Browner and UNL’s Prof. Kenneth Price, on the heels of the Archive moving its tech base here to UNL’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities.


Title page of Charles Chesnutt’s THE CONJURE WOMAN (1899), from the Documenting the American South digital edition.

The goal of the Chesnutt Digital Archive is to make works by and about Chesnutt–author of The House Behind the CedarsThe Marrow of Tradition, and other well-known works–readily and freely accessible to scholars, students, and general readers. The first African-American fiction writer whose works reached a truly national audience, Chesnutt was born in 1858 in the North but grew up in the South. He attended a North Carolina school funded by the Freedmen’s Bureau and witnessed the end of Reconstruction and the mixed gains it brought for African Americans. The tensions of race, color, and Jim Crow violence were themes in his writing his whole career. By 1901, Chesnutt had published three novels, a biography of Frederick Douglass, and two collections of short stories; by his death he had published over one hundred stories, essays, reviews, and poems.

It’s an honor to be joining this project, which has for decades been built by Prof. Browner and her students.


Visualizing Whitman’s Reprints: A Blog Series

This the first of a series of posts by Regan Chasek, an undergraduate researcher with the Walt Whitman Archive at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Chasek has received a UCARE research award to create digital visualizations of the data from the Walt Whitman’s Poetry Reprints, 1838-1892 project. Her posts here will trace the issues–ethical, methodological, and interpretive–associated with data visualization for humanities resources.

The Ethical Implications of Visualization

By Regan Chasek

During my time as a student at UNL, I’ve come to notice a few distinct “genres” of scholarly essay. Johanna Drucker’s “Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display” falls into the category I call, “what does it all mean, man?” I label the category this way to invoke the image of an intoxicated person who is questioning the very fabric of reality. While my hypothetical stoner may be asking questions like, “why are grapes round?,” Drucker asks the question of how we can use visualization tools in a way that aligns with the spirit of the humanities.

Before reading this essay, I hadn’t thought about how using visualizations for humanities might be different from the usual statistical use. However, Drucker explains that humanistic knowledge production is based on interpretation, not mere observation. The usual bar graph or pie chart will present its data as fact, which is not conducive to the humanistic mode of knowledge creation. For visualization to be of use to the humanities, we must first figure out a way to display “capta,” or information that is “taken” in a potentially biased way, unlike hard data. Using the word “capta” acknowledges the fact that the information presented cannot possibly constitute the entire truth – somebody had to gather the data, somebody had to create the categories, somebody had to make criteria for each category, and so on.  Essentially, Drucker urges the reader to think about how to present information in a way that is interpretive instead of being a mere observation.

On a purely abstract level, this was hard for me to imagine, but Drucker’s examples helped to clarify her ideas. Her most interesting example, to me, was the bar graph of men and women in separate countries. At first, it seemed clear-cut – men and women were in their own, rigid categories, and the countries were their own distinct categories. However, Drucker complicates this by asking the reader to consider the presence of nonbinary individuals, or of people who cross the border regularly, or undocumented immigrants that are not considered citizens. Those who did not fit into neat categories were represented by a dot or bar extending into the space between bars, transgressing the preconfigured boundaries of the graph.

Britt Rusert’s essay “Visualizing the Slave Trade” is a specific application of the kind of critical approach Drucker promotes.  Rusert analyzes current methods of creating graphical representations of the North American slave trade, particularly a project titled “The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes.” While critiquing this project, Rusert directly mentions Drucker’s warning that data visualization comes with “baggage” from its origin as a tool of the natural and social sciences. Such visualizations encourage “representational simplicity,” which is, of course, not always conducive to representing things like the complex horror of the slave trade. These observations by Rusert made Drucker’s argument clear to me.

Because my UCARE project is one centered around data visualization, these essays can be helpful while considering the most ethical way to present the data. Even though a project visualizing Whitman’s poetry reprints may not have the same, obvious implications of a project visualizing the slave trade, it’s still wise to consider the implications that every graph, chart, or map will have.

Whitman’s Drift is Published

Whitman’s Drift: Imagining Literary Distribution has been published by the University of Iowa Press! It’s a book about Whitman and his work, but my hope is that it will also be read as a methodological reflection on how we think about the effect of literary distribution on reading and on literary interpretation. Here’s a little bit about it:

The American nineteenth century witnessed a media explosion unprecedented in human history. New communications technologies seemed to be everywhere, offering opportunities and threats that resonate with us as we experience today’s digital revolution. Walt Whitman’s poetry reveled in the potentials of his time: “See, the many-cylinder’d steam printing-press,” he wrote, “See, the electric telegraph, stretching across the Continent, from the Western Sea to Manhattan.”

Still, books neither sell themselves nor move themselves: without an efficient set of connections to get books to readers, the democratic media-saturated future Whitman imagined would have remained warehoused. Whitman’s works sometimes ran through the “many-cylinder’d steam printing press” and were carried in bulk on “the strong and quick locomotive.” Yet during his career, his publications did not follow a progressive path toward mass production and distribution. Even at the end of his life, in the 1890s as his fame was growing, the poet was selling copies of his latest works by hand to visitors at his small house in Camden, New Jersey. Mass media and centralization were only one part of the rich media world that Whitman embraced.

Whitman’s Drift asks how the many options for distributing books and newspapers shaped the way writers wrote and readers read. Writers like Whitman spoke to the imagination inspired by media transformations by calling attention to connectedness, to how literature not only moves us emotionally, but moves around in the world among people and places. Studying that literature and how it circulated can enrich our readings of Whitman’s works and times–and help us understand what is happening to our imaginations now, in the midst of the twenty-first century media explosion.