By Kenton Rambsy
Repost from Cultural Front.
There are countless topics to focus on using text-mining, but after running tests on short stories by Edward P. Jones, I became increasingly interested in thinking about the nature of how black writers describe geography, including places, landmarks, neighborhoods, and other location-specific terms in short fiction. In his story “Bad Neighbors,” which was published in The New Yorker, Jones uses the word “street” 42 times.
[Related: African American Literature and Digital Humanities]
That may not seem remarkable at first. But, place Jones’s stories in the context of canonical stories by Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Toni Cade Bambara and what we find is that Jones is extraordinarily detailed in describing the geography of Washington D. C. In fact, in his 5 stories published in The New Yorker, Jones uses the term “street” at least 13 times in each story. He typically uses the word in conjunction with a specific location such as “F Street,” “Eighth Street,” and “Tenth Street.” He references “street” 31 times in “All Aunt Hagar’s Children” and19 times in “Adam Robinson.” In his 5 short stories published in The New Yorker, Jones utilizes over 311 location-specific words and phrases such as avenue, home, place, Southwest, Southeast, Northwest, Northeast, and street to highlight the particularity of D.C.
[Related: Text-Mining, Geography, and Canonical African American Short Stories]
My research and findings with geography and text-mining led me to something that I have been calling geo-tagging or literary geo-tagging. I use that terminology to refer to authors identifying specific locations or utilizing region-specific words in their work. For example, my use of text-mining reveals that Jones does considerable amounts of literary geo-tagging where he identifies dozens of places and landmarks in Washington D.C. Literary geotagging might illuminate what we are witnessing regarding positioning, location, mapping, and geographic matters in the works of black writers who sometimes rely on specific cities, streets, neighborhoods, and city landmarks.
Scholars of African American literature typically focus on geography and migration in fiction, but using text mining allows us to really consider to what extent black writers “tag” their stories with actual cities and use landmarks and neighborhoods to construct environments. Text-mining software, then, does not take the place of literary scholarship. Instead, digital tools invite scholars to ask new questions and take different approaches to assessing prominent themes in black writing.