POST: Search and Replace: Josephine Miles and the Origins of Distant Reading

As part of their forthcoming book, The Teaching Archive: A New History of Literary Study, Rachel Sagner Buurma (Swarthmore College) and Laura Heffernan (University of North Florida) have published an article in Modernism/Modernity that highlights the work of Josephine Miles, a founding scholar of computational methods in the humanities. They argue that, rather than credit Robert Busa as the father of Digital Humanities, Miles directed possibly the first literary concordance to use machine methods.

What we stand to gain from Miles is therefore twofold. Most importantly, we find in her work a literary genealogy for distant reading to stand alongside other long genealogies that track the rise of quantitative or empirical approaches to literary history” through literary sociology, for example, as Ted Underwood does. Miles understood the latest in computational concordancing as influenced by the “inventive” concordancing tradition of the last generation, including “the great Lane Cooper Concordance for Wordsworth, Cornell 1911” (Miles, review, 290). Miles saw concordances and machine indexing as a core part of literary criticism, for they could help scholars to a broader view of comparisons between poems and poets. And Miles’s distant reading work was not only literary, it was in an important sense modernist: her work tested and overturned some of her generation’s defining accounts of modernist and metaphysical poetry as “hard” or “concrete.” Miles’s distant reading projects are therefore part of the history of twentieth-century poetry. And she did not limit her “tabular view” to literary history; her quantitative work also influenced her own poetic style and shaped the Verse Composition course she taught at Berkeley to poets like A. R. Ammons and Jack Spicer.

Through highlighting Miles’ work, the authors contribute a significant piece of Digital Humanities and literary history that has not received due attention.


This post was produced through a cooperation among Jolanda-Pieta van Arnhem, Andrew Craig, Anna Flak, Kristen Mapes, Laura Morreale, and Shilpa Rele (Editors-at-large for the week), Nickoal Eichmann-Kalwara (Editor for the week), and Caitlin Christian-Lamb, Sarah Melton, Roxanne Shirazi, and Patrick Williams (dh+lib Review Editors).