Digital Humanities Abstracts

“Charles Brockden Brown: Quantitative Analysis and Narrative Voice”
Larry Stewart The College of Wooster

In "Stephen Crane and the 'New York Tribune': a Case Study in Traditional and Non-Traditional Authorship Attribution," a paper delivered at ALLC/ACH 2000, David Holmes and Michael Robertson argue for the use of "objective, stylometric evidence" to support "the 'traditional' scholarship on the problem of authorship" and suggest that "this joint interdisciplinary approach should be the way in which attributional research is conducted" (175) This paper presents a case study to support the argument that such an interdisciplinary approach may prove as important in literary analysis as in attribution studies. Of course, in one sense, this recognition of the symbiotic relationship between traditional and quantitative analysis is not new. J. F. Burrows' groundbreaking Computation into Criticism brilliantly and seamlessly moves between statistical and traditional literary analysis and clearly recognizes the dialogue between the two. As well, any number of papers coming out of this conference use quantitative analysis to test or illustrate insights from literary criticism. (See, for example, Opas and Tweedie, "The Magic Carpet Ride" and their "Come into my World: Styles of Stance in Detective and Romantic Fiction" or McKenna's "The Statistical Analysis of Style: How Language Means in Beckett.") However, the value of using statistical analysis to augment traditional criticism appears not to have been widely recognized and it seems important to continue to insist on the insights that each approach may bring to the other. This case study concerns texts of Charles Brockden Brown, usually recognized as the first professional novelist in the United States. For many years, Brown was considered a relatively imprecise and careless stylist, who gave little attention to character creation and particularly to narrative voice. However, a revival of interest in Brown during the last fifteen to twenty years has brought with it increased admiration for Brown as a stylist but with little close examination of that style. The purpose of this study was to look more closely at that style, particularly by examining the narrative voice in two texts: Wieland or The Transformation (1798) and Carwin, The Biloquist (1803-1805). Wieland is a novel of twenty-seven chapters, most of which are narrated by Clara Wieland, the novel's Gothic heroine, but with three chapters narrated by each of three other characters. Carwin is an unfinished novel, the first ten chapters of which were published serially. Carwin, the Gothic villain of Wieland, narrates one chapter of that novel and the whole of Carwin. The question with which this study began was whether Brown had created in Carwin a character and narrator with a distinctive voice, whether what we call the character Carwin is a distinct literary or linguistic entity. If so, the evidence would seem to suggest greater precision in the creation of narrative voice than has been traditionally recognized. To determine differences or similarities in narrative voice, the study utilized a variation on what is sometimes called the Burrow's technique, using multivariate analysis to discover patterns in the occurrence rate of the text's most common function words. However, along with the use of the fifty most common words, this analysis included as variables the occurrence rate of punctuation marks (periods, commas, question marks, exclamation points, semicolons, colons, and ellipses) and of other stylistic markers such as sentence and paragraph length. These variables included the rate of short and long sentences (defined as five or fewer words and twenty-five or more words), short and long paragraphs (defined as fifty or fewer words and one hundred and twenty-five or more words), average words per sentence, average sentences per paragraph, and percentage of unique words. The latter variables were added because in the analysis of a sample of fifteen late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century novels, the addition of these variables appeared substantially to increase the sensitivity of the analysis. The presentation will discuss the variables which were most effective in making discriminations. With the addition of these variables, a principle components analysis was made for each chapter in Wieland and Carwin, and the results of the two most significant factors were displayed on a scatter graph. These results show a clear distinction between most of the chapters in Wieland and those in Carwin. (See Figure 1.)
With the addition of these variables, a principle components analysis was made for each chapter in Wieland and Carwin, and the results of the two most significant factors were displayed on a scatter graph. These results show a clear distinction between most of the chapters in Wieland and those in Carwin. (See Figure 1.) However, chapter twenty-three of Wieland, the chapter narrated by the character Carwin, is clearly situated among the chapters from Carwin. Thus, it would seem that the narrative voice of Carwin is distinctive, that Brown has created a character whose voice in one novel is recognizable as his voice in the other. Those results might have concluded the study were it not for the fact that two other chapters from Wieland are situated in the constellation of Carwin chapters, chapter twenty-seven, the final chapter of the novel, and chapter thirteen, a chapter narrated by another character, Pleyel, a romantic interest of the protagonist, Clara Wieland. It is when considering and attempting to explain the location of these two chapters among those from Carwin that the strongest case can be made for the joint use of quantitative and traditional literary analysis. It is not just that quantitative analysis may support and supply evidence for traditional approaches but that traditional analysis may help us understand what we are seeing in the results of quantitative analysis. Upon reflection, the analyst should probably not be surprised to find the narration of Clara in the final chapter to have much in common with the narrative voice of Carwin. Critics have long noted that Clara's voice in the final chapter undergoes a transformation, and some have even suggested that Clara has come ultimately under the influence of Carwin, whose villainy throughout has been associated with his powers of ventriloquism. That he has thrown his voice a final time and taken over the voice of the dominant narrator has been at least hinted by critics. Quantitative analysis supports such an interpretation, and the interpretation helps the quantitative analyst to understand his or her results. The initially more problematic finding is the location of chapter thirteen of Wieland among the chapters from Carwin. Since it is a chapter narrated by Pleyel, one might speculate that the narrator Clara has one voice and all other narrators have another. However, such an explanation does not account for chapter nineteen, narrated by Theodore Wieland, which differs both from the chapters narrated by Carwin and from those narrated by Clara. The more likely explanation comes from Steven Watts, who, in his book The Romance of Real Life: Charles Brockden Brown and the Origins of American Culture, comments on the usually unrecognized similarities of Pleyel and Carwin and, in fact, finds Carwin to be the alter ego of Pleyel. Although this interpretation has not gained wide currency, the similarities in voice indicated by the statistical analysis suggest that it might be reconsidered. These findings seem to support what J. F. Burrows points out: "that exact evidence, often couched in the unfamiliar language of statistics, does have a distinct bearing on questions of importance in the territory of literary interpretation and judgement" (2). However, the findings also suggest that traditional critical interpretation has a real bearing on how we understand the meaning of those statistics.
J. F. Burrows. Computation into Criticism: A Study of Jane Austen and an Experiment in Method. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.
Bill Christophersen. The Apparition in the Glass: Charles Brockden Brown's American Gothic. Athens and London: U of Georgia Press, 1993.
David I. Holmes Michael Robertson. “Stephen Crane and the 'New-York Tribune': a Case Study in Traditional and Non-traditional Authorship Attribution.” Paper delivered at ALLC/ACH 2000. 2000.
C. W. F. McKenna. “The Statistical Analysis of Style: How Language Means in Beckett.” Abstracts of the ALLC/ACH Conference 2000, Glasgow. : , 2000.
L. L. Opas F. J. Tweedie. “The Magic Carpet Ride: Reader Involvement n Romantic Fiction.” Literary & Linguistic Computing. 1999. 14: 89-101.
L. L. Opas F. J. Tweedie. “Come into my World: Styles of Stance in Detective and Romantic Fiction.” Abstracts of the ALLC/ACH Conference 1999, Virginia. : , 1999. 247.
Donald A. Ringe. Charles Brockden Brown. New York: Twayne, 1966.
Steven Watts. The Romance of Real Life: Charles Brockden Brown and the Origins of American Culture. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins, 1994.