The digital life of epistolary forms and letter research or: a pretext for creating (self-advertising) word clouds

Recently, I have had reason to reflect about my research interest in letters, letter writing, and letter cultures in light of developments in digital media but also, and in particular, in the ‘Digital Humanities’ (an umbrella term I would prefer to use cautiously, not least due to the variety of activities and projects it is used to designate). Among other things, I am intrigued by the range of discourses about, representations of, and uses of the epistolary form online. Some try to capitalize on the assumption that letter writing is a ‘dying’ art while other, electronic, means of communication are very much a dominant part of our everyday lives now. Others, both within and outside academia, engage in a multitude of ways and with the help of a range of digital tools with letters: as editors, readers, writers, artists, commentators, etc. The German proverb ‘Totgesagte leben länger’ (which very roughly – and certainly not in terms of register – translates into ‘There’s life in the old dog, yet.’) seems very much to apply to the ‘art of letter writing’ here.

Since I have barely begun to reflect properly about all this, I can’t really present any more advanced ideas on the topic here – yet. It is work in progress. In the context of thinking about letters, digital media, and my research, though, it occurred to me that I could try out a digital ‘toy’ (wordle) to produce a visual representation of an article on early-nineteenth-century suicide letter writing which I finished recently, and take this as an occasion to reflect, briefly, on the usefulness of such an exercise. The article, on which the world cloud displayed below is based, will be published in ‘Writing in extremis‘, (OGS 44.1), a themed issue of Oxford German Studies which explores key moments in the history of writing before death in German literature and culture from the late eighteenth century to the present day. (Some advance information about the volume can be found on the publisher’s website). The title of my contribution is “Writing Suicide in the Early Nineteenth Century: Carl von Hohenhausen’s ‘Nachlaß'”. As you can see, next to ‘suicide’ and ‘Carl’ (whose autobiographical writings figure prominently in the text), letters feature heavily in the article alongside other forms of ego-documents:

wordle4

Wordle is indeed a ‘toy’, not least because it is fun to play with. Nevertheless, the resulting cloud makes me more aware of how often I have used certain words. In this particular case, and ignoring the high frequency of topical expressions which I expected to emerge larger anyway, I seem particularly attached to the word ‘also’ (which, by the way, occupies ‘only’ rank 80 in the list of most common words in English). I am now tempted to go back to the text and investigate when I use it and why I use it so often, and whether its frequency is in any way related to the fact that I am writing about suicide. In view of this, there is a quite conspicuous and given the context also a mildly amusing ‘gap’ in the cloud: ‘I’ (number 10 on the list of most common words) is missing. This goes back both to the fact that wordle seems to ignore ‘I’ more generally and to a decision framed by conventions of academic writing. Thinking of such conventions in relation to letter writing, I wonder what I would see were I to produce word clouds of some of the suicide notes I have looked at in this article or that have figured in other publications, and how they would differ from more contemporary letters written before suicide (and/or other forms of death) – but this is, maybe, for another day. (Investigating word frequency in suicide notes and associated data, and word frequcency in correspondence in general is, of course, an established field of research in the sciences and the humanities respectively; see, for example, this publication on Michelangelo and the Art of Letter Writing, courtesy of Google Books).

Finally (at least for today) the word cloud makes me wonder how the words used most frequently will shape the reader’s impression of and response to the article. With that in mind, and given the rather ‘associative’ structure and fragmentary nature of this blog entry, I can’t resist the temptation to finish this off with another word cloud – of the text you have just read.

wordle 7

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