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Quantifying Modernism and the avant-garde

Introduction and Methodology

(Skip to results if you want to miss the boring parts, or look here for a more granular, in depth account, including the code itself. If you code, yeah, I’m so sorry, I’ll make it more elegant soon)

This post will document a statistical analysis which was carried out on a corpus of 500 novels. 250 of these texts are generally categorised as ‘realist’ and will be used as a benchmark against which we might define modernist literary style, a mode of writing which arose in the early twentieth century, (though it should be noted that this chronology is increasingly subject to revision due to the work of new modernist scholars).

The first novel in the naturalistic corpus, chronologically speaking, is Jane Austen’s novel Lady Susan, and was written in the year 1794. The final one is Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure, which was published in 1895. This corpus contains the complete prose works, a phrase here encompassing novels, novellas and short story collections, of fifteen writers, Jane Austen, Emily, Anne and Charlotte Bronte, Stephen Crane, Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky, George Eliot, Gustave Flaubert, Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Hardy, William Makepeace Thackeray, Leo Tolstoy and Émile Zola.

The corpus of 250 modernist novels begins in the year 1869, with Henry James’ first bloc of short stories, and continues all the way to Samuel Beckett’s 1988 novella ‘Stirrings Still’, so there is some overlap between these two corpora’s starting and end points. This modernist corpus otherwise consists of the complete works of nineteen writers such as Djuna Barnes, Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, Elizabeth Bowen, Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, F. Scott FitzGerald, Ford Madox Ford, Ernest Hemingway, Henry James, James Joyce, Franz Kakfa, D.H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Flann O’Brien, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf.

This disproportion between the two corpora, with fifteen realists versus ninteen modernists, may seem disconcerting at first, but what is required in order for the statistical analyses to function is for the number of observations to be equal, rather than the number of novelists. Unfortunately, realist authors wrote more novels than modernist authors, and this compromised our ability to retain the same number of authors on each end of the generic spectrum.

One other aspect to consider is the international dimension. The realist corpus includes ten novelists who wrote in English, but there are also two Russian and three French realists, two of whom, Zola and the aforementioned Balzac, were far more prolific than any other writer in either corpus. Zola and Balzac composed 86 and 34 novels, short story collections or novellas respectively. This has the consequence that well over half of the realist corpus is in translation from another language in comparison to just under 10% of the modernist corpus. I intend to address this when I am at a later stage in my research. There has been some work published on the issues surrounding the quantification of literature in translation and across language, but I do not yet possess a sufficient breadth of knowledge in this field to comment intelligently on the matter. I do think it is important to have French and Russian writers included in the realist corpus on the basis that many of them, be they Tolstoy, Flaubert or Balzac, exerted a significant influence on their modernist successors.

Whether or not these are ‘the best’ or most accurate translations is sort of beside the point, from the reading I have done around the issue of literary translation, their being subject to change over time is in the nature of how text is received and re-constituted in different eras for different communities of readers (this discussion between Will Self and Kafka’s translators is particularly illuminating in this context, please do not be put off by Self, he gives the translators so much space to discuss the process, you really should watch it). The germane point here is that the translations being analysed in this instance could not be considered to be the most contemporary. There might be an argument for retaining these older translations on the basis that they are more likely to be the versions of the text which would have been circulating in the early twentieth century and therefore the translations modernist authors would have been more likely to have read, but making this claim would require a greater burden of proof, such as what languages each author read novels in and what their reading habits were more generally.

So, to turn to the analysis. My research is directed towards the quantitative analysis of grammar, the rationale being that we could, by examining varying quantities of particular categories of words, such as verbs, adjectives or prepositions, develop an understanding of how literary fiction changes from the beginning of the nineteenth century until the end of the twentieth, and, more specifically, how literary modernism departs from, or, perhaps remains contiguous with, this previous generation of novel writing. This was carried out using a POS tagger from the Natural Language Toolkit in Python.

Results

From realism to modernism:

  • average sentence length decreases by 4 words, from an average 22 words to 18 words per sentence.
  • Personal pronouns (I, you, he, she, it, we, they, me, him, her, us, and them) increase by 1% from 5% to 6%. Interrogative pronouns (who and where) also decrease by 0.01% from 0.03% to 0.02%
  • Verbs in the past tense increase by 1% from 6% to 7%.
  • Adverbs increase by 0.5% from 4.5% to 5%.
  • Prepositions, (after, in, to, on, and with) decrease by 0.4% from 10.9% to 10.5%
  • Wh Determiners (words beginning with wh, such as ‘where’ or ‘who’ acting to modify the noun phrase) decrease by 0.2% from 0.6% to 0.4%.
  • Particles (parts of speech with grammatical function with no meaning such as ‘up’ in the phrase ‘I tidied up the room’) increase by 0.1% from 0.4% to 0.5%.
  • Non third-person singular present verbs (verbs in first or second person) decrease by 0.1% from 1.6% to 1.5%.
  • Existentials (words such as ‘there’ which indicates that something exists) increase by 0.04%, from 0.17% to 0.21%.
  • Superlative adjectives (adjectives such as ‘best’, ‘biggest’, ‘worst’) decrease by 0.01% from 0.14% to 0.13%.

It will not have escaped your attention that a lot of these percentages are quite small. The extent to which any given text is made up of this hyper-specific categories is pretty minimal in the first place, so this is why many of these quantities seem so laughably tiny. Rest assured that they are statistically significant, this does not mean that they are important, this requires a greater burden of proof, more analyses, more exploration, but that they are noteworthy considering the quantities involved.

One boxplot which might be of interest, is the one below, which shows the ‘spread’ of the data for average sentence length between realism and modernism.

What we see on the left is the variation of the sentence length data (the term ‘variation’ here meaning the general ‘dispersedness’ of the data) for realism, which goes from 10 to roughly 35 words per sentence with an outlier or two on either end, whereas if we consider modernism, we have everything from zero (Samuel Beckett’ novel How It Is which has no full stops in it) up to forty-five, with far more outliers on the higher end. Higher outliers, are data points with values greater than 1.5 times the interquartile range above the third quartile, lower outliers, of which there are three, are more than 1.5 times below the first quartile. For one’s own general knowledge, the modernist outliers for sentence length are

  • William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! (46.4), and Intruer in the Dust (42.3)
  • Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way (42.9), In a Budding Grove (40.2) In a Budding Grove (40.2), Time Re-gained (38), The Prisoner (37.2) and The Captive (35.7) The Guermantes Way (34.1) and Sodom and Gomorrah (30.9).
  • Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing and The Unnamable have 40.5 and 32.9 words per sentence respectively
  • Gertrude Stein’s novels The Making of Americans and Everybody’s Autobiography have 33.9 and 33.5 respectively.
  • Henry James’ The Ivory Tower and The Young Lovell score 31.8 and 29 respectively.
  • The three lower outlier values for sentence length are all written by Beckett, such as the aforementioned How It Is and also Worstward Ho (4.9) and Ill Seen Ill Said (7).

It can be tempting I think, when we see these sorts of names surface so prominently, in conjunction with a visual confirmation of the existence of an avant-garde to think that modernism in its most pure form was a kind of relentless maximalism, an uncompromising movement towards longer sentences, more pronouns, and that all other manifestations of it are inadequate or insufficient in some way. This is a kind of a boring and masculinist overview of the genre, which takes, I think, too many of the claims made by its most dogmatic adherents at face value, and it’s not a modernism I’m particularly interesting in defending or instantiating. There can also, of course, be a regressive or rearguard aspect to modernism, which is perceptible in the following boxplot, which displays the distribution of past tense verbs.

As was pointed out above, modernism displays an increase in past tense verbs overall, but here we see a large number of outlier values moving against the overall trend. These novels are:

  • James Joyce’s Ulysses (4.3%) and Finnegans Wake (2.7%)
  • William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (4.2%) and Requiem for a Nun (3.6%)
  • Samuel Beckett’s Malone Dies (3.9%), Fizzles (2.5%), Company (2%), Texts for Nothing (1.8%), The Unnamable (1.7%), Worstward Ho (1.6%), Ill Seen Ill Said (1.4%) and a corpus of his miscellaneous and unpublished short fiction (2.2%).
  • Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford’s collaborative novel The Nature of a Crime (2.6%)
  • Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (2.4%)
  • Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1.7%)

The higher modernism outlier is Virginia Woolf’s 1937 novel The Years (10%) and the lower realism outlier is Balzac’s 1841 novel Letters of Two Brides (2.7%)

In this way we can see that modernism is not just a unidirectional commitment to a narrow sequence of stylistic changes. Instead, it’s a contradictory movement in which a number of different stylistic markers jostle against and subvert one another. In this particular instance, for example, we can perceive the authors most generally understood to be among the most uncompromising; Joyce, Beckett, Stein, Woolf and Faulkner, resisting the overall trend.

From the two boxplots I’ve generated so far, you might have noticed that in, modernism tends to generate a greater number of outliers, and I can confirm that this trend of a greater degree grammatical heterogeneity manifesting itself in modernist novel-writing than naturalistic novel-writing persists across the other categories of grammar, which you can validate by looking at the complete analysis here.

This struck me as important development, so I quantified the extent of each data point’s outlier-ness, and then grouped them according to author. These values were then divided by the number of outlier data points, because some of these novelists only have a small number of novels in the corpus versus others. Austen’s complete works would be totally outnumbered by Balzac’s for instance. The results appear below:

Please do note the values on the y-axis; Jane Austen is barely above zero because the only outlier text she wrote is Mansfield Park, which marks itself out for its disproportional use of adjectives. I thought it better to not exclude her from the plot though, because, I didn’t want it to turn into even more of a boy’s club than it might otherwise be. It would be useful, and exciting I think, to conceive of this plot as an indication of early breaches with conventional form, perhaps some nineteenth century anticipations of modernism. Reading Dostoevsky, Zola and Balzac in this manner would all be coterminous with changes taking place in the study of modernism now, but reading Thackeray and Eliot in these terms might be a more surprising development, and I’d be interested to read these texts in light of what we’re seeing here.

The modernism plot for deviation appears below:

The unlabelled entry between Faulkner and James is Hemingway

From this plot we can see that the most avant-gardist prose writers, considered from the perspective of their grammar, appear to be Beckett, Stein, Woolf, Conrad and Joyce. Of course, this is nowhere near a definitive answer as to what modernist style is, or who its most innovative practitioners were; these measurements are atomistic and are quantifying individual words. But style is not just words in isolation, style is agglomerations of words, spaces between words, the clandestine networks and relations the phrases these words add up to compose in the mind of the reader, and, if these digital methodologies are to have any chance of illustrating this shift (an inadequate term in the first instance, since it is more an accumulation of changes distributed over a broad corpus than a sudden or transformational one that we are here concerned with) it is in these cumulative terms that style must be quantified, in order to avoid drifting into the reductive and schematic scientism that numerical analyses of this kind are frequently accused of perpetuating.

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Collocations in Modernist Prose

Screen Shot 2017-07-24 at 14.51.47I have recently begun to experiment with Natural Language Processing to determine how particular words in modernist texts are correlated. I’m still getting my head around Python and NLTK, but so far I’m finding it much more user-friendly than similar packages in R.

Long-term I hope to graph these collocations in high-vector space, so that I can graph them, but for the moment, I’m interested in noting the prevalence of the term ‘young man’, Self and Baume being the only authors that have female adjective-noun phrases, and the usage of titles which convey particular social hierarchies; Joyce, Woolf and Bowen’s collocations are almost exclusively composed of these, as is Stein’s, with the clarifier that Stein’s appear shorn of their ‘Mr.’, ‘Miss.’ or ‘Doctor’.

Here’s all the collocations in the modernist corpus:

young man; robert jordan; new york; gertrude stein; old man; could see; henry martin; every one; years ago; first time; long time; hugh monckton; great deal; come back; david hersland; good deal; every day; edward colman; came back; alfred hersland

Canonical modernist texts:

young man; robert jordan; gertrude stein; henry martin; new york; every one; old man; could see; years ago; long time; hugh monckton; first time; great deal; david hersland; come back; good deal; every day; edward colman; alfred hersland; mr. bettesworth

Contemporary texts, Enright, Self, Baume, McBride:

fat controller; phar lap; von sasser; first time; per cent; could see; old man; one another; even though; years ago; new york; front door; young man; either side; someone else; dave rudman; last night; living room; steering wheel; every time

Djuna Barnes

frau mann; nora said; english girl; someone else; long ago; leaned forward; london bridge; come upon; could never; god knows; doctor said; sweet sake; first time; five francs; terrible thing; francis joseph; hôtel récamier; orange blossoms; bowed slightly; would say

Eimear McBride

kentish town; someone else; first time; last night; jesus christ; something else; years ago; five minutes; every day; hail mary; take care; next week; arms around; never mind; every single; little girl; little boy; two years; soon enough; come back

Elizabeth Bowen

mrs kerr; lady waters; mrs heccomb; major brutt; mme fisher; lady naylor; miss fisher; good deal; said mrs; first time; lady elfrida; one another; young man; colonel duperrier; aunt violet; last night; ann lee; one thing; sir robert; sir richard

Ernest Hemingway

robert jordan; old man; could see; colonel said; gran maestro; catherine said; jordan said; richard gordon; long time; pilar said; thou art; pablo said; nick said; bill said; girl said; captain willie; young man; automatic rifle; mr. frazer; david said

F. Scott FitzGerald

new york; young man; years ago; first time; sally carrol; several times; fifth avenue; ten minutes; minutes later; richard caramel; thousand dollars; five minutes; young men; evening post; old man; next day; saturday evening; long time; last night; come back

Gertrude Stein

gertrude stein; every one; david hersland; alfred hersland; angry feeling; family living; independent dependent; jeff campbell; julia dehning; mrs. hersland; daily living; whole one; bottom nature; madeleine wyman; good deal; mary maxworthing; middle living; miss mathilda; mabel linker; every day

James Joyce

buck mulligan; said mr.; martin cunningham; aunt kate; says joe; mary jane; corny kelleher; ned lambert; mrs. kearney; stephen said; mr. henchy; ignatius gallaher; father conmee; nosey flynn; mr. kernan; myles crawford; cissy caffrey; ben dollard; mr. cunningham; miss douce

Marcel Proust

young man; faubourg saint-germain; long ago; caught sight; first time; every day; one day; great deal; des laumes; young men; could see; quite well; next day; one another; would never; nissim bernard; victor hugo; would say; louis xiv; long time

Samuel Beckett

said camier; said mercier; miss counihan; lord gall; miss carridge; mr. kelly; panting stops; said belacqua; mr. endon; said wylie; said neary; one day; otto olaf; dr. killiecrankie; come back; vast stretch; mrs gorman; push pull; something else; ground floor

Sara Baume

even though; tawny bay; living room; old man; passenger seat; bird walk; maggot nose; shut-up-and-locked room; stone fence; food bowl; lonely peephole; low chair; old woman; kennel keeper; rearview mirror; shih tzu; shore wall; safe space; every day; oneeye oneeye

Virginia Woolf

miss barrett; mrs. ramsay; mrs. hilbery; young man; st. john; could see; years ago; peter walsh; mrs. thornbury; miss allan; said mrs.; young men; mrs. swithin; human beings; wimpole street; mrs. flushing; mr. ramsay; mrs. manresa; sir william; door opened

Anne Enright

new york; per cent; eliza lynch; dear friend; years old; even though; first time; came back; years ago; long time; michael weiss; señor lópez; living room; every time; looked like; could see; one day; said constance; pat madigan; mrs hanratty

Will Self

fat controller; phar lap; von sasser; one another; old man; could see; first time; per cent; dave rudman; let alone; front door; young man; skip tracer; quantity theory; jane bowen; los angeles; young woman; either side; charing cross; long since

Flann O’Brien

father fahrt; good fairy; father cobble; said shanahan; mrs crotty; said furriskey; said lamont; mrs laverty; one thing; sergeant fottrell; said slug; old mathers; public house; far away; cardinal baldini; monsignor cahill; mrs furriskey; red swan; black box; said shorty

Ford Madox Ford

henry martin; hugh monckton; edward colman; privy seal; mr. bettesworth; mr. fleight; young man; mr. sorrell; sergius mihailovitch; young lovell; new york; jeanne becquerel; lady aldington; kerr howe; anne jeal; miss peabody; mr. pett; great deal; marie elizabeth; robert grimshaw

Jorge Luis Borges

ts’ui pên; buenos aires; pierre menard; eleventh volume; richard madden; nils runeberg; yiddische zeitung; stephen albert; hundred years; erik lönnrot; firing squad; henri bachelier; madame henri; orbis tertius; vincent moon; paint shop; seventeenth century; anglo-american cyclopaedia; fergus kilpatrick; years ago

Joseph Conrad

mrs. travers; mrs verloc; mrs. fyne; peter ivanovitch; doña rita; miss haldin; mrs. gould; assistant commissioner; charles gould; san tomé; chief inspector; years ago; captain whalley; could see; van wyk; old man; dr. monygham; gaspar ruiz; young man; mr. jones

D.H. Lawrence

young man; st. mawr; mr. may; mrs. witt; blue eyes; miss frost; could see; one another; mrs bolton; ‘all right; come back; said alvina; two men; of course; good deal; long time; mr. george; next day

William Faulkner

uncle buck; aleck sander; miss reba; years ago; dewey dell; mrs powers; could see; white man; four years; old man; ned said; division commander; general compson; miss habersham; new orleans; uncle buddy; let alone; one another; united states; old general

Samuel Beckett’s ‘Dream of Fair to Middling Women’ and the Page 99 Test

Reading up on computational approaches to literature have exposed me to a certain field of literary criticism based around aleatory approaches to a text. In Radiant Textuality (2001) Jerome McGann, for example, proposes re-writing a poem one is reading upside down and seeing what new features strike you. Advocates of computational ‘play’ as it is called, argue why not? Play is the impressionistic criticism we are drilled in as undergraduate humanists by any other name anyway.

This is why I have developed an interest in Ford Madox Ford’s concept of the page 99 test, which seems to be a randomised means of literary criticism, albeit from an analogue era. However, I wasn’t expecting him to have taken it quite as seriously as he seems to have. On the subject, he has said: “open the book to page ninety-nine and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.” I’m not sure how seriously I am capable of taking that sentence, but Ford seemed to believe that for the most part, by page 99, a novel will have kicked into gear in some way. The following is an undertaking of the page 99 test for Samuel Beckett’s first novel, the posthumously published Dream of Fair to Middling Women (1992).

At this point in the novel, Belacqua Shuah is in a bar in Kassel. He is becoming both drunk and increasingly exasperated with the behaviour of his female companion, the Smeraldina-Rima. Belacqua is not exactly a people person and finds her gregarious father, the Mandarin, more able to manage her capricious nature. The Mandarin gets the first word here, placating and complimenting the Smeraldina with an extravagantly lengthy and indulgently kind sentence: “‘My dear,’ he chuckled, out of the midst of his contortion, ‘that is the very thing, you have put your finger on the very thing, that I was proposing to do. That is’ he added ‘unless somebody would prefer I did not.” He leaves it up to Smeraldina, or the Madonna, as she is occasionally called what he will do.

This scene could be read as having been based on real events. Beckett did spend time in Kassel, visiting the family of his cousin Peggy Sinclair, with whom he had had an unconsummated affair. Beckett’s visit was apparently plagued the kind of social friction documented here. Belacqua, the Beckett analogue in this scenario, is totally at sea despite his superhuman levels of erudition. His suggestion as to the course of action they should undertake elicits two equally contemptuous responses from the Smeraldina: “No” and “Schwein.” Belacqua knows when he is outplayed and generously appraises the Mandarin’s words and curiously, his stature: “The recordman saved what was developing into a nasty situation. Heavenly God, but he was the right height.”

The Mandarin could be said to have well and truly upstaged the would-be protagonist of the novel and his last words on the page rightly upbraids Belacqua for his excess of intellectualism and his complacency, which the conversation that they go on to have develops: “Hast du eine Aaaaaahnung!”[1]

[1] One should note the use of the exclamation mark. It is not a question.