The pace at which digital material is being made available to the public and to students and scholars in the humanities is accelerating, whether one thinks of the digitization of books, the new MOOC’s from MIT and Harvard and others that will extend learning the humanities and other fields, or the digitization of papers and manuscripts that were previously in highly restricted manuscripts or rare book sections of single libraries like the James Joyce Papers just released in Ireland.
Another addition to this list is the release of a new digitized collection of Hemingway’s writings for the Toronto Star. The Star has put together the columns written by Hemingway for the paper in the early 20s, along with some stories about the writer. I’m basically extremely happy that archives like this and others are taking their place in the public eye. I had a great course on Hemingway while pursuing an MFA at the University of Montana with Gerry Brenner, and the legacy of Hemingway was felt everywhere. Still is as far as I’m concerned.
At the same time, I admit that the Star site left me just a little queasy and raised a number of questions about what the relationship is between a commercial enterprise like the Star and digital work and scholarly work more generally. First cue to me was the statement of purpose in the subtitle to the homepage:
The legendary writer’s reporting from the Toronto Star archives, featuring historical annotations by William McGeary, a former editor who researched Hemingway’s columns extensively for the newspaper, along with new insight and analysis from the Star’s team of Hemingway experts.
I hadn’t really realized that the Toronto Star was a center of Hemingway scholarship, but maybe I’ve missed something over the past 20 years. Other similar statements emphasize the Star’s role in Hemingway’s life as much as anything about Hemingway himself: emphases on the Star’s contributions to the great writer’s style (something that, if I remember, Hemingway himself connected more to his time in Kansas City), emphases on the way the Star nurtured the writer and on the jovial times Hemingway had with Star editorial and news staff. Sounds a little more like a family album than a really serious scholarly take on what Hemingway was about in this period. Indeed, there is even a straightforward and direct advertisement on the page as it sends you to the Toronto Star store where you can purchase newsprint editions of Hemingway’s columns.
I don’t really want to looks a gift horse in the mouth. There’s a lot of good stuff here, and just having the articles and columns available may be enough and I can ignore the rest. Nevertheless, the web is a framing device that makes material available within a particular context, and here that context clearly has a distinct commercial angle. It strikes me that this is a version of public literary history that has all the problems of public history in general that my colleague John Fea talks about over at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. Here of course it is not even really the public doing the literary history but a commercial enterprise that has a financial stake in making itself look good in light of Hemingways legacy.
The Star promises the site will grow, which is a good thing. I hope it will grow in a way that will allow for more genuine scholarly engagement on Hemingways legacy as well as more potential interactivity. The site is static with no opportunity for engagement at all, so everything is controlled by the Star and its team of Hemingway experts. We take it or we leave it.
For the moment I am taking it, but I worry about the ways commercial enterprises can potentially shape our understanding of literary and cultural history for their own ends. I wonder what others think about the role of commercial enterprises in establishing the context through which we think about literature and culture?