Intertextual References in the Almanacks of Mary Moody Emerson: Visualization for Close and Distant Reading

  • Boston, Massachusetts, United States
  • Project duration: 2021 -
  • Project website

The Almanacks of Mary Moody Emerson: A Scholarly Digital Edition is a collaboration between editors Noelle A. Baker and Sandra Harbert Petrulionis and the Women Writers Project to edit, transcribe, and encode these Almanacks for publication in the Women Writers Online (WWO) collection of early women’s texts.

Mary Moody Emerson (1774–1863) was a self-educated scholar, theologian, and author who kept throughout her life a series of handmade manuscript booklets she called “Almanacks.” This unpublished manuscript series spans over fifty years and one thousand pages and combines multiple literary genres, including devotional and philosophical journals, commonplace books, letters, and original compositions. Its subjects range from theology, philosophy, literary criticism, and science, to war, imperialism, and slavery.

This interactive visualization interface was developed as part of the Intertextual Networks project, a three-year NEH-funded research initiative focusing on intertextuality in early women’s writing. Code for the interface was adapted from “In the Texts of Women Writers,” a visualization created by Sarah Campbell and Zheng-yan Yu to show genre- and chronology-based reference patterns for the most common person names, place names, and organization names in WWO.

The holograph Almanack manuscripts are contained in forty-eight fascicles at Houghton Library, Harvard University, and this visualization displays intertextual references for the 21 Almanacks currently published in WWO, many of which date from the early nineteenth century. As we continue to add new Almanacks to the collection, we will also update the interface to reflect Emerson’s writing through the late 1850s.

Data preparation

Emerson’s Almanacks are encoded according to the standards of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) markup language. This encoding marks both quotations and other forms of intertextuality, including: allusions, references, paraphrases, misquotations, distillations of disparate source materials, materials repurposed from their sources in ways that change the meaning of the original, references to the texts she was reading, and what we have called “intertextual echoes” to describe language that may indicate Emerson had particular sources in mind but that is too indirect for us to identify any unambiguous reference.

We have marked out the language comprising these different forms of intertextuality within Emerson’s Almanacks, giving each a pointer to the relevant text or texts in the bibliography. For example, in Folder 1 (1804), Emerson writes: “rather may my right hand forget her use,” which references Psalm 137:5: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem: let my right hand forget her cunning.” Emerson’s language here (“rather may my right hand forget her use”) is encoded as a reference and marked with a @source attribute that points to the bibliography entry for Psalms. In some cases, we have also indicated if there is any uncertainty about which texts are being referenced, using the @cert attribute.

Within the bibliography, each text displays basic bibliographic information, including titles, authors, publication locations, and dates. Each text is categorized in one of six broad genres (philosophy, religious writings, literature, life writings, nonfiction, and reviews) and one of twenty additional specific generic categories (such as classical texts, essays, history, letters, and sermons). It’s important to keep in mind, however, that 18th– and 19th-century disciplinary boundaries were considerably blurrier than they are today, such that a text characterized as “religious writings” in this visualization could also be considered “philosophy.” The same distinction could be applied to science (“natural history” in the 18th and 19th centuries) and philosophy. Currently, the interface displays only the broader generic categories for the texts that Emerson references, but we plan to add an option in the near future that allows users to toggle to see the more specific genre information instead.

In order to extract the intertextual references from the TEI encoding, we first regularized the XML using the WWP’s “FulltextBot,” an XSLT stylesheet which makes it easier to turn Women Writers Online documents into human-readable plain text. Because the Almanacks manuscripts were drafted by a self-educated nineteenth-century woman who circulated them widely but did not submit them for publication, rather than revised and published texts, we chose to represent her original text content (abbreviations, errors, &c.) rather than editorial regularizations. We then identified all tagged references and extracted them into JSON data, which is available on GitHub along with bibliographic data.

Understanding and using the visualization interface

This interface is intended to showcase Emerson’s intertextual references through three deeply interconnected panes. The interface allows interaction with the panes either by mouseover or by click; you can toggle between these with the button in the top-right of the interface. Selecting an item within any of the three panes will highlight relevant information across the whole interface.

The first pane, “References by Year,” uses dots to represent works in Emerson’s references. These works are grouped by the year in which they were referenced, and also by the broad genre types assigned to each work. Each dot is interactable—selecting one will highlight relevant data across all panes.

The center pane is a diagram relating the genre of referenced works to the type of intertextual reference at stake. Each line represents a work in a single reference. In this pane, the axis labels are interactable. Selecting one of the labels will highlight all intertextual references of that type or genre across all panes.

The last pane is a list of intertextual references. The full-text excerpt of each intertextual reference is shown, as is bibliographic information about the work(s) referenced and in which Almanack the reference is found. The reference in its original context can be located in the Almanacks published in Women Writers Online. In this pane, interacting with the text of an intertextual reference will highlight relevant data across all panes.