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Literary fates (according to Google)

Where would old literature professors be without energetic postgraduates? A recent human acquisition, working on the literary sociology of pulp science fiction, has introduced me to the intellectual equivalent of catnip: Google Ngrams. Anyone reading this blog must be tech-savvy by definition; you probably contrive Ngrams over your muesli. But for a woefully challenged person like myself they are the easiest way to waste an entire morning since God invented snooker.

My addiction started innocently enough, when my student sent me an Ngram with ‘Shelley’, ‘Byron’, ‘Keats’, and ‘Romanticism’ as search terms since 1800. Like a genie at your command, Google will search all the books it has ever scanned looking for the occurrence of your terms and chart them. Thus, Ngrams are perfect for intellectual horse races, since mentions of names are a rough index of influence. Take those four dragon slayers of traditional thought — Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud — and plot those proper nouns since 1850 until Google’s current end-date, 2008. What one gets is the pattern that one might expect with the work of a great intellectual. Nietzsche is the flattest parabola and has chugged along a plateau since the First World War. Darwin, too, surged from 1850 to 1890, then gently declined to the Second World War but has stayed consistent since. It is Marx and Freud, perhaps unsurprisingly, who show both enormous elevations and precipitous declines. Marx shot off in 1920 to reach dizzying heights in 1980, but has fallen from grace dramatically; Freud took off soon after his death in 1939 and stayed high from 1950 to 1990, but he, too, has plunged since then. Sic transit gloria mundi.

That intellectual parabola is evident in another four-horse race. Let a literary professor who is ambivalent about Theory release the four great Francophone intellectuals in the field — Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, and Barthes — in 1970. They remain remarkably flat until 1980; by the middle of that decade Foucault and Derrida have pulled ahead of the field (with Foucault a racing certainty) and all reach high points around the new millennium. Then the parabola exerts its gravitational pull, and all four terms show pronounced declines in the last five years or so — in the English-speaking world that is; not in the French. ‘Hurrah’, says the unreconstructed Leavisite in me: until I run a two-horse race between my intellectual beloved and Derrida since 1930. Derrida takes the lead from Leavis in 1980 and disappears into the empyrean. Leavis quietly fades, and even though Derrida’s recent decline is marked, he still towers over the ancient British literary critic — as one would expect.

So much for intellectuals. The parabola shape is exactly what one would expect when new ideas are presented, find their disciples, and eventually, inevitably, fade — though Darwin’s longevity is a significant exception to that rule. (Is that to do with the natural sciences versus the social ones? Or the remarkable capacity of Darwinism to leak into other intellectual disciplines besides biology?) How do poets and novelists shape up? Leavis had his ‘Great Tradition’ of Anglophone novelists: Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad. If I start them in 1880 (as references before that date are insignificant) what I get is pure chaos, compared with thinkers of a more formal variety. Joseph Conrad is a tiny figure, I must report straight away, with deep regret. Take him out and one gets a ragged range of astonishing rises and falls, but some smoothing eventually begins to show something of a pattern.

Lord Byron coloured drawing. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

All were quiet, generally speaking, until around 1940 when a huge though erratic spike took place that lasted until — reader, can you guess? — 1970. What we are surely seeing is the rise of the study of the serious novel in English departments right around the Western world, until those departments themselves began to decline and took their pet authors with them, nearly fifty years ago. Of the four, James had the most staggering rises and falls; but a two-horse race between him and Mark Twain were to be announced at Doncaster this weekend, I know where I’d put my money. Since 2005 Twain has taken off for the stratosphere, while James has continued to coast towards obscurity.

Not perhaps unexpected, these results. I was gratified by running four twentieth-century masters against each other since 1950. Hemingway is going nowhere; Woolf is hanging on in quiet desperation; Joyce shows vast peaks in the 1970s and the 1990s (the latter surely part of the Theory effect); and my favourite (ever the Leavisite), D. H. Lawrence, whom I would have expected to be six feet under, given our general attitude towards him, climbed after the Lady Chatterley trial of 1961, peaked in 1970 (who remembers the film of Women in Love?), dribbled away most grievously until about 2003, but is staging a comeback of hockey-stick proportions since that date, much higher now than the other three. (This is when I do not want to be told that an identity named Lawrence has won American Idol or Britain’s Got Talent, unbeknownst to me, and is kinking the data. Let me have my dream.)

But I am the editor of a new selection of Lord Byron’s letters and journals, and I have one more story to tell. Let me take the ‘big six’ Romantic poets — Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats — and regrettably drop William Blake, because his name is common. Let me also drop Shelley, because there are two Shelleys of literary renown. But let me add Jane Austen. And let us run the five from 1800 to 2008 in the English corpus overall — though the American and British records are strikingly similar in any event. Byron of course takes off in 1812 and dominates the field until the new millennium. The pattern is again observable with varying degrees of smoothing: steady rise in all of them (though Keats and Austen off a far smaller base) until 1900. Keats and Austen plateau then; the other three Romantics drop precipitously with the new century, with the War, and with the arrival of Modernism. And then, in 1920, the pendulum starts to swing in the other direction. All rise, Keats soars, and they all re-plateau at a far higher rate between — reader, can you guess? — 1940 and 1970. Like the great novelists (but coming earlier, in the twenties rather than the forties) the great Romantics have hitched their wagons to the rise of the English discipline. Calamitous drop between 1970 and 1980; new lower plateau; and then, since 2000 a clear sign of recovery. That recovery is most beautifully to be seen in the most beautiful of English novelists when I add her alongside Lawrence, Woolf, Hemingway, and Joyce since 1950. Between about 2000 and 2004 Jane Austen was no more popular than Ernest Hemingway. Since then she has taken off like a rocket (I assume courtesy of the British film industry) and is breathing down D. H. Lawrence’s neck. And my dark horse, the other Nottinghamshire supernova, Lord Byron? He is a rather distant third.

The moral of this story is that the intellectuals, the philosophers, and the scientists have their stratospheric rises and vast influences, as their ideas are born and taken up by others. But once those ideas decline there is no coming back for them. Imaginative writers have far less momentous effects, as a general rule; but they can refute the parabola-effect and come back, again and again as they are rediscovered. I’ll live with that.

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