Student uses technology to track French writers' 19th-century social networks

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Authors today have it rough. They compete with millions to get book deals from (mostly) the same five publishing houses, so unless they know someone in the biz or have a massive following on social media, it can seem impossible to get signed.

With the pressure today to connect with potential agents and publishers online and at conferences, it’s tempting to think writers 100 years ago may have had it easier. But Hélène Huet says that’s not necessarily the case.

Huet, a doctoral candidate in the Department of French and Francophone Studies, is writing her dissertation on the works of and relationships between some of the writers, publishers and illustrators of the Decadent movement in late 19th-century France. She has found that the writers’ proximity to their publishers played a role in shaping their collaborations.

The Decadents were an eclectic bunch. Breaking away from the values of the nature-loving Romantics, they favored artifice and extravagance — they were probably not the sort who would spend a weekend camping in the woods. They also railed against mainstream culture, choosing instead to write about subjects that were considered immoral or even taboo at the time.

“They were almost like the hipsters of the late 19th-century,” Huet said. “They wrote about very dark themes, and also were a bit elitist. But they were fascinating, if a little bit crazy.”

Partly because of their eccentricities, these writers weren’t signed by major publishing houses. There was no Twitter or Facebook in 19th-century France, so they often relied on word-of-mouth and introductions by mutual friends to meet their publishers.

“All the writers knew each other and were often friends, so that kind of social network was important,” Huet said. “Living in the same neighborhood, they might bump into each other and create new connections that way, too.”

While reading a book on the history of publishing, Huet found a small passage on the effect a writer’s residence had on his or her career. She wondered where the Decadent writers had lived and was curious about whether the writers’ proximity to their publishers played a role in their success, too.

“There obviously wasn’t social media or the Internet back then, so I assumed they had to find other ways to connect,” Huet said. “I wanted to know if their physical location played a part in their publication histories.”

Choosing to focus on four of the Decadent writers -- Joris-Karl Huysmans, Jean Lorrain, Rachilde and Marcel Schwob -- Huet set out to find software that would let her map the residences of the four writers and their publishers.

She eventually settled on ArcGIS, a geographic information system (GIS) application that allows users to create interactive maps. Once she had the platform, she still needed to determine where the writers lived. She studied their letters for mentions of residence and copies of their books to get their publishers’ addresses. Plugging them into Google Maps, she found the coordinates.

“ArcGIS is great, but when you pull up a map of Paris to plot your coordinates, it’s modern-day Paris,” said Huet. “I’m lucky that the streets of Paris are almost exactly the same as they were 130 years ago and the coordinates still match up to the addresses.”

Huet created digital “pins” at each address and assigned each writer his or her own color, with publishers all marked by red pins. When a pin is clicked, more information is displayed: the writer’s name, address, years of residence and the works written there.

“Once I started plotting the addresses and following each writer’s timeline, I started noticing interesting patterns,” Huet said. “In the case of Rachilde, the only woman Decadent I studied, it was curious to see that every time she moved, she began a new collaboration that furthered her career.”

While Huet’s map currently only features four writers, she hopes to eventually upload the map to a website where it can be contributed to by other researchers, eventually becoming a comprehensive map of late 19th-century literary Paris.

“It would be way too much work for one person, so I think it’d be great to collaborate with other researchers around the world to transform the map into something even bigger,” Huet said.

This idea of digital collaboration epitomizes the goals of “digital humanities,” a discipline growing swiftly in higher education as scholars of literature, history and other liberal arts subjects try to find their place in a world dominated by technology.

Digital humanities is a topic she encounters in her assistantship with the University Libraries’ Publishing and Curation Services department, where among other things she takes part in the users group for ScholarSphere, an online repository developed at Penn State that allows users to upload research, publications and other works to share with the world.

“The digital humanities skills I’ve learned are definitely something I want to take with me beyond the University,” Huet said. “I’d like to apply them wherever I may end up.”

Huet has many goals after she earns her doctorate. One milestone she hopes to reach is publishing her dissertation as a book, although she doubts that proximity counts quite as much as it used to.

To read more about Huet’s research, go to http://huethelene.wordpress.com.

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Last Updated September 23, 2014