Nov. 28, 2012 – Historical Writing vs. Contemporaneous Societal Movements

As I mentioned in my last posting, I wanted to consider how I might include on my exhibit the results of my research linking (or seeing if there was a link between) the styles of black historical writing at different times with their contemporaneous societal movements.  Taking Professor Graham’s suggestion, I ran the text from three historical writings through a tool called Voyant that counts the use of each different word and presents the results as a graphical image with the most common words in the largest font.  These are sometimes called word maps or word clouds.  The three documents were:

  1. Justice Riddell’s “The Slave in Upper Canada” (1919)
  2. Janet Carnochan’s “A Slave Rescue in Niagara Sixty Years Ago” (1897), and
  3. Alexander Milton Ross’s Recollections and Experiences of an Abolitionist from 1855 to 1865 (c. 1875)

In my blog from last week, I proposed that Carnochan’s article might show signs of influence from the 19th c. Romanticism movement, while Riddell’s article might be more closely linked to the 20th c. Realism movement.  Also that Ross’s book showed the influence of the Social Gospel and Great Awakenings movements.

When I ran the text of Riddell’s article through Voyant I found that, in keeping with the 20th c. Realist focus on how state and individual behaviour is motivated, his top 20 words included Upper Canada, law, province, court, justice, act and case, as well as negro, slave, slaves, slavery, and man.  And while the other two writings also used these words, Carnochan used them much less often, and Ross used them in many cases to refer to religious themes, such as God’s law or the law of wickedness and righteousness.

Riddell article word cloud

Carnochan’s article showed evidence of a connection to Romanticism, by frequently using the word Hero.  In an article almost three times as long, Riddell never used the word hero once.  Ross used it, but in 224 pages, he only used it twice, while Carnochan mentioned heroes eleven times in nine pages, often saying “my hero.”  She also used expressions like “do or die” and “noble deed.”

Ross’s book demonstrated his interest in religious themes by having the word god rank as his 35th most common word, using it 39 times.  He also frequently used the words glory, Christian, almighty, hallelujah and bible.  By comparison, Riddell never used any of these words at all, and Carnochan only used one – Christian – and she only used it once.

While these statistics indicate a connection of these particular articles to certain movements, they do not necessarily indicate a trend.  I would like to look for some more historical writings from these time periods to see if the connection continues, thereby showing a trend.  If I’m able to do this, I will post the resulting Voyant word clouds on my exhibit.  I have been looking for more historical writing from the 19th and 18th centuries and will continue to do so.  Most of what I have found is primary source material which takes a present-tense point of view such as newspapers, pamphlets, journals, and letters.  I would prefer to look at material that is retrospective, such as biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs.


1 Comment

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One response to “Nov. 28, 2012 – Historical Writing vs. Contemporaneous Societal Movements

  1. Shawn

    Hi Allison – another tool you might try on the same texts is … which draws out and visualizes different discourses within the texts.
    With Voyant you should also be able to look at word use within a text, seeing if its more predominant in different chapters, etc, which may/maynot be useful, of course! You might be interested in seeing what another CU student did with Voyant in the course of a history paper –

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