Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Culturomics, Google, and William Dean Howells

There's been a lot of buzz about culturomics and the Google Ngram Viewer these past few days since the tool described in an article titled “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books” published online in the journal Science was launched as a feature on Google. On Point Radio tweeted that tomorrow at 11:00AM EST they'll discuss culturomics, culture and word frequency, with Erez Lieberman Aiden and Geoff Nunberg. I'll probably tune in and see if I can write and listen to a discussion of culture and word frequency at the same time.

Meanwhile, after seeing this cool graphic of the frequency of selected Boston-related words on Boston.com a couple of days ago and noticing that the Boston.com people had left out "New York" from their list, I had to tackle one of the well known cultural questions of American literature: When did the hub of American literature change from Boston to New York? The conventional answer to that is usually 1886, the year that William Dean Howells moved to New York. (See this 1907 article about Howells for more info.)

I fired up the Google Ngram Viewer and compared the relative frequency of Boston vs. New York from 1800 to 1900. New York edged past Boston in 1830 and really took off in about 1851, all before the fabled Howells move. The group of great writers that supposedly made Boston "the one brilliant literary centre the country has ever seen" was still going strong when the change in frequency of the word Boston in books began to rise less rapidly than New York. However, it was not declining.

I changed the dates to 1800 and 2008 and saw that Boston didn't really start to decline until around 1950 and the decline has been pretty slow up to 2000. I'm judging by eyeball because the tool doesn't calculate the slope and you're all already bored with the details anyway. It looks like there is ample fodder for somebody's AmCiv dissertation here.

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