Viral Texts as Signals of Influence among Antebellum Periodicals

Ryan Cordell, Northeastern University


My talk will draw on the early results of the Infectious Texts project (, in which I and my co-researchers are developing theoretical models to help scholars better understand what qualities—both textual and thematic—helped particular news stories, short fiction, and poetry “go viral” in nineteenth-century newspapers and magazines. Prior to copyright legislation and enforcement, literary texts as well as other non-fiction prose circulated promiscuously among newspapers as editors freely reprinted materials borrowed from other venues. While scholars such as Meredith McGill have learned much about the “antebellum culture of reprinting” using traditional archival methods, we are using algorithms to compare repetitions of words between pages in the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America newspaper archive, identifying the boundaries of reprinted passages which are not known a priori and allowing us to study antebellum reprinting practices at a tremendous scale. We delve into the technical specifics of this approach in “Infectious Texts: Modeling Text Reuse in Nineteenth-Century Newspapers” (PDF), which will be published by IEEE Computer Society Press for Proceedings of the Workshop on Big Humanities.

In keeping with the theme of the “Beyond the Digital” roundtable, my MLA talk will focus not on the tools that enabled this modeling, but on how this modeling illuminates the structure of nineteenth-century print culture and the texts that circulated through it. Our initial tests yielded tens of thousands of potential reprinted texts—the most popular of which were printed in newspapers from New England to the Nebraska and Kansas territories (or beyond)—and most of which have been for years outside the purview of period scholars. I will discuss what what kinds of texts we’re uncovering as the most “viral” during the antebellum period, and reflect on what the most popular of these seemingly ephemeral texts might teach us about antebellum editors, authors, and readers. I’ll tie this conversation to a broader meditation on “virality” as an anachronistic but possible useful frame for understanding historical text sharing. With the term “viral texts,” I point to a continuum of practices around textual reuse and sharing, including reprinting, reauthorship, and remixing. Viral texts point directly to influence—a text from one publication was deemed worthy enough (or worthy enough of scorn) to be reappropriated by another. Finally, I will discuss how looking at viral textuality at scale might illuminate relationships among historical newspapers and editors that might be opaque at the level of the individual text(s). Nineteenth-century texts moved through intermeshed networks of authors, readers, and editors, often not tied to local geography. Instead, connections were often formed through common denominational or political affiliation; personal acquaintanceships between editors and writers; or the communications infrastructure determined by roads, postal routes, and railway lines. Using network analysis tools our vast index of reprinted texts can be used to model antebellum print culture at scale. We can ask, for instance, which publications most shaped the network by analyzing whose texts were most likely to be reprinted elsewhere. What were the central publications that shaped antebellum readers, and thus helped shape antebellum taste and opinion? These models are wonderfully suggestive, leading to new insights about the ways antebellum readers discovered and experienced new works.

By Ryan Cordell

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