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Month: June 2017

“‘The Text is Variety’: Contextualizing and Analyzing the Works of Margaret Cavendish with Text Encoding

“‘The Text is Variety’: Contextualizing and Analyzing the Works of Margaret Cavendish with Text Encoding

Below are lecture notes from Sarah Connell’s presentation at the 2017 International Margaret Cavendish Society Conference. The slides are available as a separate file here.

Okay, so, since one of the themes of this conference is how Cavendish was received, I want to begin with a quote about her from a text in Women Writers Online.

So, here we have Elizabeth Benger on Cavendish, speaking of her fertile fancy, her uncommon genius, her wildness and inaccuracy, and her voluminous works. And, as much as this feels like a textbook example of damning with faint praise, I have to say I find myself sympathizing with Benger when she speaks of Cavendish’s wildness—you see, I didn’t come to this project expecting to work on Cavendish at all. I was trying to do research with Women Writers Online as a collection but I found that Cavendish just kept popping up. Her works started to feel wild precisely because they are so voluminous; they represent a very significant percentage of our corpus, so it’s not really surprising that they were so prominent in all of my searches through the collection. But, I’ve found that with Cavendish, it’s not just about sheer numbers; she also was showing up in my research because her texts have a high number of unusual phenomena. It seemed as if, whenever I found some textual feature that was unique to a particular author, that author would be Cavendish. Well, or Eleanor Davies. But, it was Cavendish a lot of the time. So, clearly, Cavendish called for a research project of her own, which is what I’m going to share with you today. But first, I’ll give you a bit of background.

So, as I said, I was working from the Women Writers Online collection, which has about four hundred texts by women. These are largely print texts, although we do have one manuscript collection with the Almanacks of Mary Moody Emerson. We have a relatively broad chronological framing, 1526 to 1850, and the texts themselves are quite generically diverse. These texts are published in a web interface called Women Writers Online, but they’re encoded in TEI, which is much more detailed and information-rich than we’re able to show on the web.

And here’s what I mean by information rich; in fact, I’ve simplified this and all other examples of our encoding to make it more readable. TEI markup is a very complicated and diverse topic, so I’ll focus on the basics here. We use elements, such as this <head> element, which marks that “Scene 8” is a heading. Here is a <div> element, for a textual division. The TEI is very, very good at labeling things—saying, for example: this is a stage direction, this is a division, this is a paragraph, this is a speaker label—and it’s very good at marking their boundaries; this stage direction starts here and ends here. The TEI is also good at showing hierarchical relationships, the nesting of textual features; so, here we have a <sp> element, used to mark a dramatic speech—and, inside of that, we have a speaker label and a paragraph. There’s no ambiguity that this speaker label and this paragraph belong together, because they’re both in the same <sp>. In addition to elements, the TEI also has attributes, which are kind of like adjectives. They give more information about their elements. For instance, we have three examples of the @type attribute, one on <div>, asserting that the type of division we have is a scene and two on <stage>, describing which types of stage directions we have. This @who attribute points to a cast list elsewhere in the document, where we’ve defined “ign” as referring to Lady Ignorant. That way, every time she speaks, we’ve marked those speeches as belonging to her in a way that’s easily readable by a computer. There’s no ambiguity, even if the speaker label is missing or incorrect. Okay, so, like I said, this is a big topic, but that covers the basics. Elements both name and mark the boundaries of features within a textual hierarchy and attributes provide more information about elements. My work has been on how we can use this markup in literary research; I’ve been developing methodologies for asking questions about our collection, taking advantage of the really enormous amount of information that’s available in encoded texts. So, turning to Cavendish now.

Here’s what we have of hers. Depending on how you count things, we have at least nine and as many as twenty-seven works by Cavendish, if you count each play separately. When you’re only talking about 400 texts, that really is quite a a high percentage. And, if you use the markup to get into the details of those texts, you can get an even better sense of just how much Cavendish there is.

We have over a million words, more than 15 thousand paragraphs, 13 thousand lines of verse, and 11 thousand dramatic speeches. There are almost 3,500 page breaks, which I had to double-check, because it didn’t seem believable to me. But, that’s correct. In addition to those basic structural elements, we also have markup for quotations and for phrase level features like names of persons and places, as well as the proper names of works, encoded with <title>. So, that’s one way that the markup can give you a sense of what’s in the collection of Cavendish works in WWO. And, here’s another.

As I mentioned, we use the @type attribute to categorize our textual divisions, so you can count those and see how our Cavendish materials fall into the WWP’s categorizations. Essentially, you can use text encoding to get a profile of a particular text or set of texts; there are this many poems, that many scenes, and so on. Even in these basic counts, we’re already starting to see potentially interesting patterns, particularly around paratexts. Cavendish’s works have quite a lot of general prefatory materials, for example, but much less general concluding material. Epilogues and prologues, on the other hand, are nearly evenly balanced. There’s just one advertisement and one table of contents. And so on.

For basic element counts and types of textual divisions, there’s really just too much Cavendish to compare with anyone else in the collection. But, looking at language usage, we can compare different authors. I’ve given you an example of the markup that makes this kind of query possible; the @xml:lang attribute has values from a controlled vocabulary for describing languages. This attribute can go on any element to indicate its language and, if there’s no more appropriate element, you can use <foreign>, as I’ve shown here. So, for all of these authors, French and Latin dominate across the board, with Italian coming in third. But, the relative percentages are different in Cavendish; she has about twice as much Latin as she has French, which does set her out among this group, but puts her in line with Women Writers Online as a whole. In total, we have about 2,000 instances of Latin, 1,600 of French, and 200 of Italian. Relative percentages of Latin and French are very much a distinction of period. If you look in the seventeenth century, there is about four times as much Latin as there is French; in the eighteenth century, there’s twice as much French as there is Latin. Which, I suppose, doesn’t really surprise anyone who’s worked in those periods, but it is I think reassuring to know that markup-based results can be verified by what we already know. Okay so, getting a bit more complex than simple counts, we can also ask questions about where elements of interest are appearing. In my research, I’ve discovered that it’s useful to look at both general patterns, where particular elements most often appear, and at outliers: where there are unusual cases. So, here’s just one such unusual case:

I’ve been doing a fair amount of work on intertextuality, for a current project at the WWP, so I wanted to look at where <title> elements for proper names of works were appearing. For a bit of context, there are more than 5,000 <title> elements in Women Writers Online, and these generally show up in bibliographic citations, notes, advertisements, and, quite often, just in prose paragraphs. By contrast, only about sixty appear in drama as I’ve identified it here, using a fairly conservative definition. As you can see, Cavendish comes in just after Cowley for number of titles named in drama. Now, remember that encoding is really good at making layered textual hierarchies explicit, so once you’ve narrowed to this definition of drama, you can then go look at the elements inside of drama to get more specific about where titles appear. Most of them are in prose rather than verse. About forty of these titles are in the <sp> element, that is they’re named by the characters in the play, about fifteen are in stage directions. In the whole of Women Writers Online, there are just three titles in cast lists; all in the works of, you guessed it, Margaret Cavendish.

Here’s one of those. The paragraph above gives a bit of context from elsewhere in the text and the encoding below shows you the markup I found in my search: essentially, Plays Never Before Printed contains a fragmentary play that was meant to be published with the Blazing World; as Cavendish explains, she found her “genius did not tend that way” so she left the project behind, but did “suffer” the piece to be published in the 1688 Plays collection. Then as the heading in the encoded cast list explains, Cavendish also authored characters’ names for a farce that would have followed the play in the Blazing World. But, the first play being unfinished “the farse was not so much as begun.” Nevertheless, Cavendish did include the farce’s cast list in her collection and that’s what you’re seeing here. To my mind, this is a particularly clear example of how unusual instances in the encoding—title elements within cast lists—are effective at pinpointing noteworthy textual phenomena. You might also have noted that this <title> element references one of Cavendish’s own works, which is something else that can be examined with markup. So, here are Cavendish’s most-named titles.

Our current work on intertextuality will make this search much more precise, but for now we’re still relying a degree of human intervention, and there’s a chance I’ve missed some titles if the spelling variations were significant enough. But, even with that in mind, you can still see some overall patterns. I think the immediately obvious aspect of these results is that the titles Cavendish is naming are, often, Cavendish titles. This isn’t really unusual, though I haven’t seen any other author in WWO reference her own work quite this extensively. In fact, if you look at all of the titles named in all of our seventeenth-century texts, Philosophical and Physical Opinions still comes out in the top three. So, what were other seventeenth-century writers naming? That’s something else that can be queried with the markup.

I ran the same search in the non-Cavendish texts that had publication dates in the 17thc and the results were…rather different. First of all, I should note that the search for <titles>s is actually underreporting biblical references because the WWP uses a different element in cases where writers cite biblical texts by chapter and verse; these are just references to the titles of entire biblical books. With that in mind, I wanted to look at biblical citations as well and I found that, for the seventeenth century, there are another 1869 chapter-and-verse biblical citations. Two of those are in works by Cavendish. So, I think it’s fair to say that her citation practices are measurably different from other seventeenth-century women writers, in ways you can track with text encoding.

Finally, I’d like to close with an example of some research I’ve really just begun. I’m at the stage now of gathering results and I’m not yet sure precisely what all of this means, but that’s actually something I’d hoped that you all might be able to help with. So, I’ve been looking at a particular element, <mcr>, which is is an element that was actually created by the WWP. <mcr> stands for “meaningful change in rendition.” “Rendition” means the appearance of the text, for example, is it italicized, underlined, in all caps. We consider text “renditionally distinct” when its appearance shifts to be different from the text around it, for example words that are italicized when surrounding text isn’t. Often, words will be renditionally distinct if they’re names, or if they’re foreign-language words, or if they’re being emphasized. But sometimes they’ll be renditionally distinct in ways that we can’t attribute to naming or linguistic features and that’s when we use <mcr>, to say: there is a change in rendition here, and we think it’s meaningful, not just decorative, but we’re not able to be more precise about why the rendition has changed.

So, I wanted to examine the words in Cavendish’s texts encoded with <mcr>. Here’s what I’ve found; this is a listing of the most frequent words in <mcr> by unique occurrences, so, for example, the word Atomes also shows up many other times with adjectives like sharp atomes, flat atomes, round atomes, fiery atoms and so on. Here, Cavendish follows a usual pattern for WWO, in which words in <mcr> are generally nouns and usually capitalized. Now, as satisfying as it is to survey entire corpora with a few keystrokes, one thing I’ve learned in my research is that it’s very important to be moving back and forth between collection-wide results and individual texts. And, in fact, one of the things I find really valuable about the methods I’ve been establishing is that they make it possible to move seamlessly between these birds-eye views and the texts on the ground, so to speak. <mcr> usage in Cavendish is a really good example of why it is important to keep individual texts in focus, because, in fact, most of the words in this slide are from a single text.

In fact, of those almost 15,000 <mcr> elements in Cavendish, 13,710 are Poems and Fancies, marking italicization shifts. And when you see this line group, you can start to see how those numbers got so high. It’s worth noting that there is *nothing* in Women Writers Online that comes remotely close to this proliferation of meaningful changes in rendition. The next highest text is Jane Barker’s Poetical Recreations (1688), with about 5,000 <mcr> elements. Judith Murray’s The Gleaner (1798) has about 3,000 and Elizabeth Rowe’s Poems on Several Occasions (1696) has 1800. Only eight texts in the whole collection have more than a thousand <mcr> elements. And, certainly, there are quite a few verses in Poems and Fancies like this one where nearly every noun is italicized.

What I’ve actually discovered, though, is that there are still plenty of nouns that are not distinct; and,  in fact, when you look word-by-word, you can see some interesting patterns in where words are or aren’t distinct. I’ve begun looking at individual words from Poems and Fancies, particularly those that are well represented in both the renditionally distinct and the non-distinct columns. So, by contrast, Atomes is almost always renditionally distinct, to the point where I’d wonder whether the two non-distinct instances are actually errors. With terms like “love” and “reason” that have a more even split, there are pretty clear patterns about which are distinct. When love is used as a verb (as in “love to play”) it tends not to be distinct. When it’s a noun (“love and hate”, for example) it’s likelier to be distinct. When reason is a verb, or used in constructions like “the reason why” it tends not to be distinct. Capital-R Reason as in “The Rule of Reason” tends to be distinct. These aren’t hard and fast differences, but they’re recognizable tendencies. You see the same thing with “feare” and with “care”; noun forms, particularly those referring to abstract concepts, tend to be distinct where verb forms aren’t.

Cases where words are usually distinct, with some exceptions, are also interesting. With Death, the non-distinct cases are all but one lowercase and all but one (a different one) clustered at the end of Poems and Fancies. You see the same sort of thing with “gods”; all but one of the non-distinct instances are lowercased and they’re fairly tightly clustered. I’ve only just started working with this material and I’m still figuring out how to make sense of it all, but I do think there’s something interesting here and, as I said, I’d be grateful for your thoughts.

Finally, I’ve also found that some words, like delight, tend to be non-distinct, so I’ve been looking at the cases where they are distinct to see whether that might have a particular significance. I’ve given you an example of one such usage here, partly because I think it highlights a pattern I want to investigate next—is there a correlation between verses that have very high instances of italicized terms and distinction in words that otherwise tend not to be distinct? This is a fairly large question, but it is one that the encoding makes it possible to answer. So, in the example I’ve included here, not only is delight italicized, but also horses, carts, cows, butter, and milk, among quite a few others. I’ve chosen to end with this verse not just because it does show that high rate of italicization but also because it is an example of the real pleasure I’ve had in making new discoveries in our collections through the research I’ve been doing, since it contains what is very possibly my favorite example of any term inside of <mcr>: I’m speaking, of course, about the unforgettably-named “friendship cheese.” Thank you!


Announcing New Publications to Women Writers Online and Women Writers in Context

Announcing New Publications to Women Writers Online and Women Writers in Context

The WWP is delighted to report that we have added six new texts to Women Writers Online. These are: Hester Chapone’s 1777 A Letter to a New-Married Lady, Emily Clark’s 1819 The Esquimaux (vol. 3), Anne Conway’s 1692 Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, Caroline Cushing’s 1832 Letters, Descriptive of Public Monuments, Scenery, and Manners in France and Spain (vol. 2), Sarah Osborn and Susanna Anthony’s 1807 Familiar Letters, and Mary Pix’s 1699 The False Friend.

In addition to spanning three centuries, these texts highlight the diversity of genres in Women Writers Online, representing travel writing, drama, philosophy, epistolary writing, religious meditation, and the novel. For more information on these texts, and the WWP’s other recent publications, please see this list of new additions to WWO.

Accompanying the publication of these early texts by women, we have added nine new exhibits to Women Writers in Context, an experimental publication series designed to engage readers in exploration and discovery of topics related to early women’s writing.

Some highlights from the new texts in WWO include:

An advertisement for an elixer that the publisher of Conway’s Principles shares “for the good of the public”:

The Elixir Proprietatis (ſo highly commended by the Renowned Paracelſus and Helmont) it reſiſteth all Putrefaction of the Blood, ſtrengtheneth the Digeſtive Faculty. Its Excellent Virtues are prevalent in the Curing of continual FeversQuotidian and Tertian AguesSmall Pox, and Meaſles, or Swine Pox, with other Peſtilential Diſtempers; as alſo the Palſy, Apoplexy, Falling-Sickneſs, Aſthma’s, Tabes, or Conſumption of the Lungs. Its Doſe is from 10 to 20, 30, or 40 drops in a Glaſs of Sack. This Noble Elixir is Philoſophically prepared, by John Spire, Chymico Medicus, at four Shillings the Ounce. Who hath, by his Labour and Study in the Chymical Art, attained unto ſeveral ſecret Arcanums, (not vulgarly known) particularly a Soveraign Remedy for the Gout. If any one is deſirous therefore, or the aforeſaid Elixir Proprietatis, Let them apply themſelves to my Friend, Mr. Dorman Newman, at the King’s Arms in the Poultry, and the Author at his Houſe in Horſly-down-Fair- ſtreet, Southwark; or at his Country Houſe, at the upper end of Twitnam, near the Sign of the White-Hart, in Middleſex.

Some advice on handling a difficult mother-in-law in Chapone’s Letter:

I am told that he is an excellent ſon to a mother, who, with many good qualities, has defects of temper which determined him to decline her continuing to live with him after his marriage. In this he is equally kind and prudent; for though he could himſelf meritoriouſly bear with failings to which he had been accuſtomed from his infancy, in a parent who doats upon him, yet this would have been too hard a taſk upon you, who have not an equal affection to support your duty, and to whom her ways would have been new and unuſual. But though I thus far highly approve his conſideration for you, yet you muſt remember how great a part of her happineſs ſhe is thus deprived of on your account, and make her all the amends in your power by your own attentions, as well as by promoting opportunities of indulging her in the company of her ſon….Be armed againſt the ſallies of her temper, and predetermined never to quarrel with her, whatever ſhe may ſay or do. In ſuch a relationſhip, this conduct would not be meanneſs but merit; nor would it imply any unworthy compliance or falſe aſſent; ſince ſilence and good-humoured ſteadineſs may always preſerve ſincerity in your converſation, and proper freedom in your conduct. If ſhe ſhould deſire to controul your actions, or to intermeddle in the affairs of your family, more than you think is reaſonable, hear her advice with patience, and anſwer with reſpect, but in a manner that may let her ſee you mean to judge of your own duties for yourſelf.

And some very dramatic pauses, indicated by extra whitespace in both the original text and WWO, from dying characters in Pix’s False Friend:

We hope that these new publications will complement each other, inviting readers to explore works by women from multiple angles and perspectives—and we hope our readers have as much fun exploring the texts as we have had preparing them for publication!

The Queen’s Two Corpora: Finding Elizabeth and Creating Corpora using the WWO Database

The Queen’s Two Corpora: Finding Elizabeth and Creating Corpora using the WWO Database

This post is part of a series authored by our collaborators on the Intertextual Networks project. For more information, see here. 

By Kristen Abbott Bennett, Stonehill College

At Tilbury, Elizabeth I gave a rousing speech to motivate her subjects, exclaiming: “I know I have the bodie, but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and Stomach of a King, and of a King of England” (Cabala). Elizabeth’s recognition of her female princely bodies as simultaneously separate and the same reflects awareness of her politically constructed dual corpora. Historically, the “King’s two bodies” theory was adapted from ideas surrounding the divine right of kings. During Elizabeth’s reign, it was legislated to preserve her interests in lands acquired by Edward IV in his minority:

For the King has in him two Bodies, viz., a Body natural, and a Body politic…. [The latter] is a Body that cannot be seen or handled, consisting of Policy and Government, and constituted for the Direction of the people, and the Management of the public weal, and this Body is utterly void of Infancy, and old Age, and other natural Defects and Imbecilities, which the Body natural is subject to, and for this Cause, what the King does in his Body politic, cannot be invalidated or frustrated by any Disability in his natural Body. (Kantorowicz 7)

The “King’s Two Bodies” construction offers an apt metaphor for thinking about approaches to corpus-based linguistic analyses. These approaches allow one to consider a single body of work in and of itself, as well as realize its rhetorical relationship to a larger corpus.1 In the context of sub-corpora created from the Women Writers Online database, the “intertexts” corpus I discuss here analogizes Elizabeth’s “body politic” that both embodies, yet remains distinctive from “the body natural”–here another sub-corpus containing Elizabeth’s speeches.

What follows is a brief account of the methods I have used to create corpora from the WWO database, ranging from basic keyword searches to more complex computationally assisted searches, along with a short discussion about the choices I made along the way. With an eye toward next steps, I close with an overview of how one may convert XML documents into different kinds of file types that lend themselves well to computational and visual analysis.

Finding Elizabeth

Initially, I used keyword searches to find the works that mention Elizabeth; works authored by her are listed, with WWO links, here. I quickly learned that my attempts to search “Elizabeth I” in a database featuring works produced between 1526–1850 was not the best move; Elizabeth II was yet to exist. This initial foray revealed 120 works of the 390 in the WWO corpus (as of spring 2017) that mention an Elizabeth, plus 276 discrete references to women named “Elizabeth.” I persevered, using Ctrl + F and skimming, ultimately locating suitable intertexts (that is, intertextual references to Elizabeth I) dating between the early seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries that discuss her in both historical and fictional contexts.

For example, both Esther Sowernam’s 1617 pamphlet, Esther Hang’d Haman and Bathusa Makin’s 1673 Essay to revive the ancient education of gentlewomen laud the historical Elizabeth’s virtues and learning. Yet in Mary Deverell’s 1792 play, Mary Queen of Scots, the fictionalized Scottish queen suggests that Elizabeth’s learnedness is undesirable and unfeminine: “my sister’s mind is masculine” (O2v).

Although Deverell’s work ultimately presents an even-handed assessment of two Queens surrounded by male advisors and doing the best they can, American writer Judith Sargent Murray’s 1798 fictional account of Elizabeth and Mary’s history portrays the English queen as manipulative, dissembling, and self-serving. I had high hopes for Margaret Cavendish saying something excessive, but she mentions Elizabeth’s reign only to mark time in Nature’s Pictures. This early research generated enough information and questions for me to propose, and commit to creating, a multimedia intertextual exhibit that networks transcontinental representations of Elizabeth by six other WWO authors in the context of common discourses associated with the queen: her dual-gender, her “cult of love,” renowned learning, relationship with Mary, Queen of Scots, and her refusal to marry.

At this point in the process, I was introduced to Ashley Clark’s (Northeastern) brilliant Counting Robot (an XQuery for performing basic counts on WWP files) and saw an opportunity to test human-brain approaches to “finding” related texts in a large database against basic computational methods.

Creating the Corpora

A  <persName> search for “Elizabeth” produced 103 files including Elizabeth’s speeches, but it still threw out false positives. Eventually, I adapted Ashley’s code to create multiple search strings using early modern spellings and alternate names (Eliz, Elizabeth, Princess, Bess, etc.) and then checked contexts manually—this method resulted in finding 33 files, including Elizabeth’s works.

The results were similar when my colleague Mary Erica Zimmer suggested the labor-saving method of searching for cases where @ref on <persName> pointed to the unique identifier established for Elizabeth in the WWP’s personography; this method helped us extract Elizabeth I from her many (likely) namesakes and locate 21 valid intertexts.

During the first pass, it made sense to create one corpus containing Elizabeth’s works, another of her intertexts, and a third including all the files. Although this seems relatively straightforward, the concept of “Elizabeth’s works” is problematic. The WWO database includes her speeches, one translation, and one “true copie of a letter.” Although Elizabeth’s speeches were transcribed and printed by men, they offer a record of the way she presented herself to her subjects. It made sense to limit the “Elizabeth” corpus to her speeches, and excise the “true copy of a letter” and the translation to focus on a single genre. Once “Elizabeth” was defined, the intertexts were easy to manage; the sole criterion for inclusion was at least one clear mention of Elizabeth I. In the context of the “two bodies” metaphor, these corpora situate Elizabeth’s “natural” body in the context of her “body politic.”

Now What?

The first corpora were encoded in XML and lent themselves well to computational inquiry using the Counting Robot, XPath searches in oXygen, and AntConc. For example, these initial forays revealed that elements with @rend (indicating typographic changes) often point to a given work’s proper nouns and linguistic shifts, in addition to elements such as <persName> and <emph> that mark such features more explicitly. For the purposes of this project, I put that query aside for the time being and thought about the possibilities for these specific corpora.

It quickly became apparent that any computational analysis of these works called for creating additional corpora. Any text mining, visualization, or mapping approaches required removing the tags from the texts. Following Sarah Connell’s suggestion of a quick, if relatively low-tech, method for transforming the XML files, we opened the texts in oXygen, switched to “Author” mode, and then copied and pasted each text into a Word document. The last step was to make a plain text corpus.2

Why so many corpora? The first set, in XML, lend themselves well to computational queries about tagged elements. Reformatting the corpora into Word docs made the works more easily searchable, plus these documents lend themselves well to visualization using tools like Voyant. Similarly, conversion into text files permits users to work with visualization and analytical tools such as AntConc and Recogito. Although clearly exceeding the “two corpora” promised by this title, I hope to have offered people who may be new to working with literary databases helpful approaches toward getting up and running.


Anon. Cabala: sive Scrinia Sacra. London, Printed for G. Bedel, and T. Collins, and are to be ſold at their Shop at the Middle-Temple-gate in Fleetſtreet, 1654. Women Writers Online, Accessed 5 May 2017.

Cavendish, Margaret (Lucas), Duchess of Newcastle. Natures Pictures Drawn by Fancies Pencil to the Live, J. Martin and J. Allstrye, 1656. Women Writers Online, Accessed 5 May 2017.

Deverell, Mary. Mary Queen of Scots; an Historical Tragedy, or, Dramatic Poem. Deverell, 1792. Women Writers Online, Accessed 5 May 2017.

Kantorowicz, Ernst A. The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology. Princeton UP, 1957.

Makin, Bathusa. An Essay to Revive the Antient Education of Gentlewomen. J.D., 1673. Women Writers Online, Accessed 5 May 2017.

Murray, Judith (Sargent). The Gleaner, I. Thomas and E.T. Andrews, 1798. Women Writers Online, Accessed 5 May 2017.

Sowernam, Esther. Esther Hath Hanged Haman. Nicholas Bourne, 1617. Women Writers Online, Accessed 5 May 2017.



Teaching Tags and Metadata in Women Writers in Review

Teaching Tags and Metadata in Women Writers in Review

By Jason M. Payton, Sam Houston State University

Note: Jason M. Payton is a pedagogical development consultant for the WWP.


My course is a junior-level survey of American literature to 1865, and my students are primarily English majors and minors (course syllabus here). Most of my students have never had a class in women’s and gender studies, so I wanted to use the survey course as an opportunity to engage students with some of the critical issues raised in these fields. In addition to wanting my survey classes to engage students on women’s and gender studies issues, I also wanted to shift my teaching toward project-based models that would introduce students to important developments in the field of early American studies. The chance to partner with the Women Writers in Review team provided an opportunity to pursue both of these pedagogical aims.

I framed the WWiR project as an exercise in discovery. During the first week of class, I introduced the critical issues that would be explored at length during the course. These included nationalism and imperialism, colonialism, religion, race, class, and gender. I explained that these were intersectional issues and that we would return to them persistently to learn how the material and discursive practices associated with these concepts took shape at specific moments, and how they changed over time. While I framed this course as one that would reflect on the issue of gender, I purposely did not bookend the WWiR project with any specific theoretical readings, nor did I attempt to fully articulate how the WWiR project would fit into the course as a whole. I wanted students to do that discovery work on their own.

My students were tasked with a multi-phase project constructed in collaboration with Sarah Connell (assignment sequence here). They were given an introduction to the archive by Sarah Connell in the second week of the course and were also given a scavenger hunt exercise designed to familiarize them with the site’s organization and content. On completion of this initial site overview, I broke students into small groups and asked each group to identify one or two thematic tags for review. They were to read all the reviews published in America under their tags and compile two documents in response to their research. The first document was a group report. This report distilled important research findings and offered a series of specific illustrations of general trends; it also made recommendations regarding WWiR metadata, user interface, and user experience. The second document was a personal report on the most significant reviews and insights for each individual group member. The group reports allowed students to begin identifying trends in the archive through a collation of their individual notes on particular reviews under their chosen thematic tags. The individual reports allowed students to engage in more extensive close reading of particular archival documents than the general report permitted, and it also allowed me the opportunity to assess individual students’ levels of engagement with the project.

This two-part assignment structure allowed me to teach students about the WWiR archive itself, while also allowing me to teach them about the research process in early American studies. I believe that students benefit immensely from immersing themselves in an archive, but access to physical archives and well-managed special collections in early American studies is limited for most students at most U.S. colleges and universities. The digital archive can give students this experience of immersion without requiring physical proximity to an archive. I also believe that students benefit immensely from learning to balance the desire to find meaning in individual texts (recorded in students’ personal reports) and to find patterns of meaning across the wider archive (recorded in the group reports). The WWiR archive allows students to perform both kinds of analytical work, and the assignment structure I used ensures that students articulate both types of findings and make conscious decisions about how to weigh individual textual utterances in their assessment of the tenor of the archive as a whole.

Each group chose its own tag(s) for review. The tags they chose included:

  • Class or socioeconomic status
  • Education
  • Gender identities
  • Moral impacts of literature
  • Nation or empire
  • Slavery and abolition
  • Racial identities
  • Religious identities
  • Women as writers and readers

While not exhaustive, my students’ reviews covered over two-thirds of the thematic tags in the archive and covered the full range of sources published in America under those tags.


The individual and group reports showed that students were indeed making synchronic and diachronic judgments about the discourses on women and women’s writing in early America that I hoped they would make. The individual reports also showed that students made important connections between this project and the work of the course.

Indya F. writes, “The WWiR project is a concentrated version of what I really believe this course is about. To give students the most unedited version of history that we can take. There is some sanitization that we can’t rid ourselves of. But the WWiR takes these ideas of what misogyny used to be, and without verbalizing it, compares to the misogyny of now and allows us to take a hard look at what prejudice looked like and how far we haven’t come. Students involved in this process really have to bare [sic] witness to it.” As Indya notes, the archive’s choice to present reviews to readers with a minimal interpretive apparatus allows students to encounter historical discourse about women and women’s writing directly. The force of this encounter registers for Indya, who recognizes the ethical dilemma the encounter poses to the reader: With the knowledge provided by WWiR about misogyny in early America, how shall contemporary students of this material respond to misogyny in the present?

Hannah T. writes, “Before this project, I never realized the weight of gender inequality among literature during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Through a careful analysis of 3 reviews, I noticed a running theme of discrimination against women writers…Two of my articles concerned moral impacts, and one concerned religious identities. However, although they were reviews of different authors, pieces, and themes, I still noticed the recurring bias against the literature simply because they [sic] were written by women.” Hannah’s observation focuses particularly on how WWiR helps students understand the nature and scope of the discrimination women writers experienced in our period of study.

These general reflections demonstrated that the inclusion of WWiR into a traditional early American survey course can do important critical work. Students are encouraged to think about specific historical moments and about change over time. They are also encouraged to let the encounter with the archive reshape their understanding of early American history and of their own cultural moment.

Such broad reflections were also accompanied by several specific insights about the reviewers and their subjects that are worth sharing for the way they illustrate the pedagogical potential of using WWiR in undergraduate courses.

Elizabeth C. recognizes “just how much context matters” when considering the reception of women’s writing. Having read reviews of Benger’s Memoirs of the Late Mrs. Elizabeth Hamilton and Hand’s The Death of Amnon, Elizabeth observes that in both cases, the authors’ personal lives are invoked as relevant interpretive contexts. For Benger’s reviewer, the choice of Elizabeth Hamilton is especially worthy because of Hamilton’s ability to “follow traditional domestic gender roles,” as Elizabeth surmises. If Benger’s review is relatively positive in its rhetoric, the review of Hand is less so—it labels her a “poetess” and reminds readers that she is “the wife of a blacksmith.” Elizabeth found in these reviews telling evidence that “When a man produces literature, no one mentions what his wife does for a living. When a woman produces literature, they can only be as successful as their husband.” Elizabeth’s observations highlight two running themes in my classes’ reports. The first relates to Benger specifically, and the second relates to the relation of women’s writing to men’s writing more broadly.

Several students found the reviews of Benger’s works curious. Josh A. was particularly drawn to the footnote at the end of The Christian Observer’s review of Poems on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which lists “E. Benger” as an author. The note at the end of this review explains the reviewer’s choice to refer to the author as “Mr. Benger” as an act of benevolence: “[I]n such a case of doubt, the ambiguous person out to be supposed of the nobler sex.” Rebecca R. focused on The Christian Disciple’s review of Benger’s Memoirs of the Late Mrs. Elizabeth Hamilton, which, Rebecca notes, mentions Benger only once in the review, while mentioning Hamilton fifteen times. Donald M. further observed that reviews of Benger’s work are ambivalent in their assessment of the author. The Christian Disciple’s review praises Benger’s choice of Elizabeth Hamilton as a subject but states that it “cannot bestow a similar commendation upon what she has written on the Revelation of St. John.” In that work, Benger “seems to have taken up an hypothesis with relation to this very obscure and difficult book, without sufficient consideration, and apparently without a proper acquaintance with the labors of others upon it.” Whereas The Christian Disciple calls Benger’s fitness for exegetical work into question, The Literary Gazette, or, Journal of Criticism, Science, and the Arts says in its review of her Memoirs of the Life of Anne Boleyn, Queen of Henry VIII, that “The works of Miss Benger have so fully established her in the literary world, among the female ornaments of the times, that the praise which these interesting volumes would otherwise extort, may well be spared.” Donald’s analysis of reviews of Benger led him to conclude that the assessment of a writer’s worth could have much more to do with the reviewer’s sense of what women should or should not be writing about as with the writer’s actual merit.

The repeated return in both group and individual reports to reviews of Benger’s works highlights several critical issues that can be discussed as a whole class and related to broad course themes. First, the purportedly benevolent assumption of “E. Benger’s” masculinity raises questions about historical assumptions about the construction of gender and gender difference that can be pursued in my course from Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Anne Bradstreet in the seventeenth century to Judith Sargent Murray and Hannah Webster Foster in the eighteenth century. Second, the elision of Benger’s name in the review of her memoir of Elizabeth Hamilton raises questions about recognition and attribution that can be pursued along similar lines. Third, the ambivalence of reviewers toward Benger depending on the subject matter of a given work raises questions about the notion of separate spheres. These questions intersect with gender and race, and as such, can be pursued in the context of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century epistolary and sentimental novel, but also in the context of Jefferson’s “reviews” of Phillis Wheatley and Ignatius Sancho in Notes on the State of Virginia. In this way, the WWiR archive can be placed in conversation with more easily recognized and more frequently anthologized texts in the survey course. Such an approach can help students see how archival research can enhance and challenge dominant field narratives, such as those about gender in early America, about public and private spheres, and about print culture.

In addition to helping students see the more canonical texts in early American literature differently, working with the WWiR archive also stimulated students’ curiosity to read across wider swaths of the archive than their original group assignments demanded. Bailey A. reviewed texts under the “education” and “racial identities” tags. In order to have a confident sense of how reviews under these tags were representing women and women’s writing, Bailey read across other tag collections to get a sense of general rhetorical trends, and she observes “women [being] ridiculed for being smart” at various points in the archive. Marlisa E. reviewed texts under the “slavery and abolition” tag. Her work on reviews of Poems on the Abolition of the Slave Trade (Benger, et al. This review, as noted above, presumes “E. Benger” to be a man) led her to read extra reviews, including reviews of Hannah Adams’s The Truth and Excellence of the Christian Religion Exhibited and Maria Edgeworth’s Works of Maria Edgeworth. This analysis highlights the difference in length of reviews presumed to be written by men. The review of Poems is fifteen pages in its original format, while the other two ran just nine pages in total in their original format. It also highlights key differences in the language used to talk about women’s writing. The review of Poems speaks with praise about the presumptively male “Christian poet,” while the reviews of women’s writing struck Marlisa as “extremely misogynistic.”

Bailey’s and Marlisa’s reports show that the structure of the archive can encourage students to explore more of the collection than they had originally planned to do. They also suggest some ways that the curiosity sparked by the archival encounter can be used to drive important thematic conversations in the broad survey course. Marlisa, for example, wanted to know after reading all of the American reviews under the “slavery and abolition” tag what the role of women’s writing in the abolitionist cause was. Because I introduced this project very early in the course, Marlisa’s question came up before we had begun our unit on the Atlantic slave trade and American slavery. I answered this query via a whole-class discussion about the poems of Phillis Wheatley and Sarah Wentworth Morton, as well as the novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Harriet Jacobs. Similarly, Briana P. raised questions about what it means for a reviewer to describe Maria Edgeworth as the “Franklin of novelists.” These questions can be answered in part by a reading of anthologized selections from Poor Richard’s Almanac and The Autobiography, as well as by reading texts such as Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple and Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette.


Using the WWiR archive in my survey course has inspired several ideas about undergraduate pedagogy and research that I wish to share with those who are considering using the archive in their classes.

My survey courses have traditionally been anthology-based, largely out of consideration for the financial constraints faced by many of my students. While a single course text that can be used in multiple sections has the benefit of being more affordable than a litany of individual texts, the drawbacks of the anthology-based course are many. One set of problems involves questions about selection and representation in the production of the anthology. Another set of problems involves questions about breadth of coverage and depth of understanding in anthology-based survey courses. These problems are particularly vexing for early Americanists, given the capaciousness of the field. My undergraduate pedagogy is moving away from the anthology-based course and away from breadth-of-coverage models in an effort to include voices normally excluded from popular anthologies and to privilege a depth of understanding of a few key issues in early American studies over a comprehensive coverage of major authors and movements. I am also moving toward project-based courses that engage students with cutting-edge developments in literary studies and related fields. The WWiR archive is an ideal teaching tool for teachers who are similarly inclined. The project I devised gets students out of the anthology and into the archive, it helps students rethink the narrative of literary history implicit in major anthologies, and it engages students with critical issues in the digital humanities.

Ideally, undergraduate survey courses that use the WWiR archive will leave space in the course to explore critical issues raised during the research process. Students in my course raised a host of excellent questions on the basis of their work with WWiR that we simply did not have time to answer. A period of one to two weeks at the end of the term would have allowed my class the opportunity to do additional research on the question about women and abolitionism raised by Marlisa E., for example. My class would have benefitted from additional research on the writings and speeches of Maria Stewart, Sojourner Truth, Angelina and Sarah Grimke, and Lydia Maria Child. Reserving time for additional research allows students to shape the direction of the course. It also allows instructors to teach the research process by showing how research questions often develop in ways that demand that we consult new archives and develop new competencies. Additional research on women and abolitionism would lead to students from the anthology to the WWiR archive to other print and digital archives; it would also encourage students to practice intersectional thinking as they untangle imbricated historical discourses about gender and race.

An additional research period at the end of the course can also include a specific focus on critical issues in the digital humanities raised by students’ work in WWiR. Sarah Connell’s introductory presentation to my class included a demonstration of the XML markup behind the front-end WWiR display. This demonstration raised students’ awareness of the many interpretive decisions that have to be made to render a document digitally in WWiR. It sparked a course-long conversation about information architecture that could have been explored more fully through additional research on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century print culture or on the relationship between book history and the digital humanities.

Queries such as these provide excellent material for undergraduate research. The incorporation of WWiR into the undergraduate curriculum is thus an excellent way to foster students’ professional development via presentations at undergraduate research conferences. It is also an excellent tool for generating undergraduate thesis and capstone projects.