United States Catholic Identities Project

In Digital Humanities on March 10, 2011 at 6:27 pm

Sean T. O’Brien and  Eric Lease Morgan

In 1973, Christa Ressmeyer Klein began her article “Literature for America’s Roman Catholic Children (1865-1895): An Annotated Bibliography”[1] with the observation that “Students of American culture who are currently availing themselves of the wealth of information in the history of child socialization have given surprisingly little attention to one major American subculture of the nineteenth century, Roman Catholicism” (137). This article was written almost forty years ago and, quite remarkably, little if anything has changed.  This is still an understudied element of children’s literature in the U.S.

In coordination with the “Catholic Portal” at the Hesburgh Library, O’Brien and Morgan are developing a course-based research project to try to better understand the role of ethnicity in Catholic juvenile literature from 1890-1920.  The project will use an array of digital humanities tools to produce “distant readings” of Catholic juvenilia and then attempt to understand how ethnic identity is represented in these texts.

This project will begin with textual analysis of the 27 novels of Father Francis J. Finn, S.J. the “Discoverer of the American Catholic Boy” and one of the most prominent and influential juvenile authors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  Based on O’Brien’s literary close readings of several of the texts, Finn’s boys books represent Catholic youth as unmoored to any particular ethnicity or ethnicities.  This was surprising to him, as he expected the works to be closely connected to Finn’s own identity as a first generation Irish immigrant.  However, there appears to be a deliberate and detectable pattern across Finn’s fiction to represent Catholicism as outside/beyond/above commonly held notions of ethnic identity in the United States.  Through text mining, O’Brien and Morgan will look for ways to select the most appropriate preposition to describe Finn’s depiction of Catholic ethnicity (or, if the thesis is correct, lack thereof).  Some ideas could include simply measuring the frequency of important words (Irish, German, Italian, Polish, etc.), drawing out character surnames and seeing if there are definable patterns of discernable ethnicity, or looking for depictions of physiognomy that would be associated with ethnicity according to the stereotypes of the period (eye color, skin tone, hair color, etc.).

The next step will be to collect digitized copies of all of the Catholic juvenile work available in the nineteenth and early twentieth century and see if our techniques scale in the analysis of depictions of ethnicity in the books. O’Brien-Morgan will then expand the project in coordination with the e-discovery company Crivella West’s Humanities Knowledge Kiosk, collecting a reference corpus of materials to form the basis of large-scale text mining through comparison with a large number of texts that goes beyond keyword searches and into complex algorithms of language analysis. This will, in due course, lead to the discovery of more reliable ways of assessing the representations of ethnicity within the texts and provide useful representations of the depiction of Catholic ethnicity in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century United States.

[1] American Literary Realism, 1870-1910, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Spring, 1973), pp. 137-152

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