The Modernism Lab
The Modernism Lab, a virtual space dedicated to collaborative research into the roots of literary modernism, was compiled from 2005 to 2012. Through this project, we hoped, by a process of shared investigation, to describe the emergence of modernism out of a background of social, political, and existential ferment. The project covered the period 1914-1926, from the outbreak of the first world war to the full-blown emergence of English modernism. The Lab has supported undergraduate classes on Modern Poetry, the Modern British Novel, Modernist London, and Joyce’s Ulysses, and a graduate course in English and Comparative Literature, “Moderns, 1914-1926,” as well as a class on modern German literature at the University of Notre Dame. Students in the classes have contributed materials to the website and used it as the platform for their research. The main components of the original website were an innovative research tool, YNote, containing information on the activities of 24 leading modernist writers during this crucial period and a wiki consisting of brief interpretive essays on literary works and movements of the period.
The project as a whole aimed to reconstitute the social and intellectual webs that linked these writers—correspondence, personal acquaintance, reading habits—and their influence on the major works of the period. We were interested, too, in broadening the canon of works studied in the period by paying attention to minor works by major authors, major works by minor authors, and works that may have been influential in their time but that are no longer much read.
Questions of particular importance for our research involved the modernists’ engagement with their literary, intellectual, and historical context. We were particularly interested in Anglo-European literary relations. A typical question of this sort would be, “How did the translations of Dostoevsky by Constance Garnett influence English writing in the period?” Another major concern was the tracing of intellectual trends: “How and when did psychoanalysis make its impact felt in modernist writing?” We paid particular attention to the literary manifestations of a broader historical context, including the modernists’ involvement with political movements such as socialism, feminism, liberalism, nationalism, and imperialism. Another major theme was the attitudes of these writers to formal religion and to alternatives such as atheism, neo-paganism, spiritualism, and the occult. The database traced the empirical information—such as references to Dostoevsky or Freud or Tagore in writers’ correspondence—while the wiki offered interpretive accounts of how these influences played out in the modernists’ formal and thematic concerns.
Lab vs. Archive vs. Reference Work
Our orientation towards ongoing research differentiated this project from other major websites devoted to humanistic research. One very successful model has been the electronic archive—a collection of primary documents made available on the web (e.g. the Modernist Journals Project or The Valley of the Shadow). In the case of our period, however, the potential archive of primary documents is massive. Questions of copyright also limit the applicability of this model. In our original website, we therefore included a set of links to existing web-based archives, including the collections of the Beinecke Library, Project Gutenberg, and Google Book Search.
Another model, typified by the Victorian Web, offers authoritative essays on the period. We recognize the value of such an approach, but ours was, by design, more experimental. As a Laboratory, we posed research questions and worked together to answer them. In a prototype of Modernism Lab, for example, Pericles Lewis and his graduate students created an archive of information from the letters, biographies, and published statements of 12 major modernist writers during the four months immediately following Britain’s declaration of war on August 4, 1914. This information served as the basis of Lewis’s article, “Inventing Literary Modernism During the Great War,” which argues that these authors’ contemporary reaction to the war continued to shape modernism for years to come.
While we have expanded the chronological field of inquiry, we used a comparative method to address some of the following major research questions:
- What was the influence of figures associated with the modernist movement and techniques, like Dorothy Richardson and May Sinclair, who are less often read today than they once were?
- What role did Edwardian writers like Wells, Galsworthy, Bennett, and Ford play in the development of literary modernism, before and after Woolf’s critical essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”?
- What Russian literature were the modernists reading and how did this affect their sense of their own literary endeavors?
- How much did the modernists know about the development of psychoanalysis and at what level did they engage with this emergent discipline in their own work?
- How did formal techniques like free indirect discourse and stream of consciousness, and genres like the Bildungsroman and the travelogue, develop and change in this period?
A collaborative project, the Modernism Lab drew on the efforts of over eighty graduate and undergraduate students at Yale and ten other universities.
History of the Modernism Lab
The Modernism Lab has its roots in Pericles Lewis’s courses on Modern British literature. In 2005, Professor Lewis received a grant from the ELI/Davis foundation to develop a website for the study of the Modern British Novel. That website became the nucleus for the Modernism Lab. Lewis’s book The Cambridge Introduction to Modernism, based partly on his undergraduate teaching, became the basis for some of the first wiki entries posted on the Modernism Lab. His research has been supported by Hilles and Griswold fund grants at Yale.
The Yale Modernism lab was created as a space where students and established scholars could share insights on the work of modernist authors and collaborate in analysis, while reflecting the modernists’ spirit of collaboration, shared readership and reflection, and the exchange of ideas.
Other projects like the Victorian Web and the Walt Whitman Archive, both of which pre-date the Yale Modernism Lab, work to accomplish similar goals, although more weight is placed in creating a database of primary resources or curated essays, in contrast with the Modernism Lab, which focuses on contributions generated by students and scholars.
Professor Lewis explained, “In the first few years of this century, the Web 1.0 model of publishing was being replaced by the Web 2.0 model that emphasized user-generated, dynamic content. We were aiming to bring that approach to scholarly work. If we were doing it today, we would probably be interested in what is now called Web 3.0, that is the semantic web and using machine learning to approach literary and biographical sources.”
As Anthony Domestico, a former managing editor of the Modernism Lab who is now an Assistant Professor of Literature at SUNY Purchase, explained, ““we’re always hearing about the crisis in the humanities, how we need to justify our existence — and I am resistant to trying to justify the existence of the humanities in a certain way because when you get into an instrumental argument by saying that humanities, that we should continue to fund the humanities because we make good workers, or we should fund the humanities because, you know, they train you for the kinds of critical thinking that can be useful in…consulting or something like that. I get very weary of that. I think that we should support the humanities because they are good in and of themselves, not because they serve this greater instrumental purpose. But — I think one way, if not to justify the humanities, in a way, make the inherent value of the humanities more obvious, is by writing for a broader audience, is by sharing your work with people outside the narrow coterie that is modernism.”
Since its original conception, the Modernism Lab has been widely used as a public resource for modernist research. Its editors continue to receive emails inquiring about the Modernism Lab wiki essays, from both professors who use the site as a pedagogical tool and students (like myself, as I referenced the wikis in writing my undergraduate thesis on James Joyce) who have used the wikis as a resource for analyzing modernist textsm(and, as you can see in Sam Alexander’s reflections, his student even plagiarized a Modernism Lab in his class!). Contributor Kirsty Dootson informed me her piece on Wyndham Lewis’s Time and Western Man had been cited in a scholarly book about James Joyce.
For technical reasons, we have migrated the site to a new address and to WordPress. This version of the site, designed, assembled, and developed during the summer of 2017, provides an archive of the original essays and collected media of the original site, which were primarily compiled between 2005 and 2012. We were unable to migrate the YNote database, which is discussed in Sam Alexander’s account of the site’s founding. As Professor Domestico noted, even the wikis did not achieve quite the level of interactivity we had hoped for: “Because, really, what they ended up being were short, more informal essays that were written and shared with the word, but weren’t — we didn’t leave them open to editing by other people — sometimes, you know, I’d look at Sam’s and offer suggestions, he’d look at mine and offer suggestions. Pericles would look at both of ours and offer suggestions. But it wasn’t a true Wiki, in kind of the broadest sense. And maybe a true Wiki isn’t quite what we were going for, I just wish that somehow, I think the Wikis were successful, but they weren’t as collaborative and provisional, as, at least in our initial conception we wanted them to be.”
One reason for this result was a concern with quality control—only about a hundred people had editing rights on the site—but another was probably the tendency of humanities scholarship towards sole authorship.
After 2012, Professor Lewis, the director of the project, largely stopped work on the Modernism Lab, in order to fulfill his new role as President of Yale-NUS College and aid in designing its curriculum. Here, he developed with his team a core curriculum which similarly strove for this spirit of collaboration and conversation in its approach to learning.
The course pages for Professor Lewis’s The Modern British Novel class and his seminar on Ulysses have also been preserved under the Modernism Lab’s Undergraduate Gateway. On these pages, you can find course materials, readings, and other resources used in the teaching of these courses, which serve as useful guides for approaching these subjects, in addition to their use as a pedagogical record.
Anthony Domestico, who was a PhD student at Yale and worked with Professor Lewis building and editing the Modernism Lab, explained that part of the intent originally was to profile non-canonical works, by canonical Modernist authors. This branched out into what the Modernism Lab is today, with essays on over 40 different modernist authors and artists, connected along the lines of time, correspondence, and collaboration.
In an interview with Domestico, he emphasized the liberating volume of content that was needed to create the Modernism Lab, explaining that it encouraged students and scholars alike to share more provisional content, and to open themselves up to feedback at an early, more vulnerable stage of composition. Generally, he explains, and particularly with graduate students, people can become isolated during the writing process, and unwilling to share their works-in-progress for fear of revealing flaws oropening themselves up to criticism prematurely. Domestico argues this stems the flow of ideas which conversation and collaboration can facilitate, which is crucial to creating not only the most thorough end-product, but also a more enjoyable, community-based way of working.
As Domestico said, ““a grad student has a very solitary existence — we don’t have to share our work if we don’t want to, and I think it’s good to share your work. Because it forces you to do work, it forces you to be in conversation with other people, other ideas.”
The “laboratory aspect” of the Modernism Lab, then, was sharing provisional work and getting feedback from peers, as opposed to what he described as the typical grad student way of “cordoning yourself off for 8 or 9 months, and then presenting something to the world.” This outlook of accessibility and outward-facing scholarship for graduate education extends to what Domestico sees as an opportunity for humanities academia. Of his hopes for the Modernism Lab’s effect on wider humanities scholarship, Domestico explained, “my hope would be that humanities scholars are less insular. More outward looking in their writing, meaning both that they write more for a popular audience, I mean I think that that’s one good thing about the writing — they were generally understandable by non-specialists.”
Interestingly, this mode of creativity and collaboration replicates the way this period of literature was produced:
“One of the trends within modernist studies is the networks of modernism — and the Modernism Lab ideally was a network of scholars looking at the networks of modernism. I mean, that was part of the purpose of the database itself, was to have an entry for, you know, a bit of Virginia Woolf’s diary, in which she talks about T.S. Eliot with Leonard, or something like that…talking to another modernist about another modernist. So network theory is important to modernist studies right now, and modernists themselves were a very networked movement.”
In fact, in a section of his forthcoming book, Domestico engages with periodical culture in modernist literature (poetry specifically), which was formative in the era’s literary culture. Publications like The Little Review and The Egoist cultivated networks in literary circles, their contents both growing out of and forging relationships. The structure and collaborative nature of the Modernism Lab, though perhaps imperfectly realized, draws on this value for connectivity and conversation in writing and engaging with literature. It can be described in much the same way that these modernist circles can be described: a group of enthusiastic people talking to each other, printing each other, and connecting each other to friends who could help them.
The web-presence of the Modernism Lab enables a new kind of connectivity in scholarship, and particularly in humanities scholarship. One of the founding goals of this project was to tap into this spirit of collaboration and community and create a more outward-looking kind of humanities scholarship, as Domestico described. In our conversation, he explains, “what we were hoping, for the Modernism Lab, was that it would, both at Yale and ideally rippling out from Yale, serve as a kind of testing space for the kinds of collaborative provisional projects that digital technology seems to enable.”
He continues, “I know for myself I’ve gotten lots of emails from people who read the Wikis. And so I think that, in that sense, it was a success, in that I think it was…a lot more people read our Wiki writing than will ever read any of the scholarly essays we’ve written (laughs).” Sam Alexander expressed a similar kind of amusement that a student in one of his classes had plagiarized a Modernism Lab article from his time as an editor. Both agree that the accessibility of the Modernism Lab online has generated a much wider and more informal audience, facilitating access to the material and breaking down the often insular nature of humanities academia.
In our conversation, Domestico stressed the importance of provisional work, and the accessibility of that provisional work to feedback, in addition to its being more accessible in terms of being useful and understandable to a broader audience of non-specialists.
One of the most successful projects, in Domestico’s view, was the Mapping Ulysses project, perhaps because of its visual quality and how present and accessible it made the material. Students were enthusiastic, and it was readily understandable what this project was meant to accomplish. Domestico explains, “one tool that grew out of the Modernism Lab work we did was using arcGIS to map Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway, and I think that had a clear pedagogical purpose — the students got really excited to be able to see how characters were moving through the narrative, moving through a city.”
Aside from fulfilling Joyce’s dream (the author painstakingly constructed Ulysses street by street and shop by shop, from the Dublin that he knew), these projects thoroughly engaged the students, who were excited to see the plots and characters of these novels mapped out in physical space. This project provided a visual and interactive use of literature, working toward the pedagogical goal of the digital humanities: increased engagement in art and literature by way of technology.
In the interest of cleaning up and facilitating the use of the modernism lab as this testing space, we have used the summer of 2017 to do some renovations. In this next edition of the Modernism Lab, we have decided to do away with the YNote feature, as well as the Digital Archive. However, we will be preserving the Undergraduate Gateway as a record of courses taught by Professor Pericles Lewis, and which utilize the Modernism Lab as a pedagogical tool. In our renovations, we hoped to make the Modernism Lab easier to navigate and more user-friendly, creating a more streamlined look and intuitive interface.
The Modernism Lab’s strength is its enthusiastic pedagogy, providing a space for people curious about this period of literature and wanting to explore it, whether for the first time or the thousandth. Our hope is that its content will continue to be used as a valuable tool in modernism research for many years to come.
Sam Alexander, a former Managing Editor of the project, provided his thoughts and reflections on the Modernism Lab — they can be read here.
- Sam Alexander, Managing Editor (2007-2011)
- Michaela Bronstein
- Colin Gillis
- Elyse Graham
- Tobias Boes, Editor for German Literature and Culture
Instructional Technology Group
- Ken Panko – Project Management, Instructional Design
- Yianni Yessios – Project Management, Technical Design
- Jacob Albert
- Annie Atura
- Anne Aufhauser
- Emily Cersonsky
- Michael Chan
- Patrick Clardy
- Olivia Coates
- Codi Coslet
- Samuel Cross
- Lee Dionne
- Jay Dockendorf
- Merrick Doll
- Kirsty Dootson
- Merve Emre
- Nathan Ernst
- Amy Fish
- Colleen Fleshman
- Elizabeth Freund
- Julia Galeota
- Joshua Gang
- Edgar Eduardo Garcia
- Andrew Gates
- Alex Gatlin
- Matthew Gerken
- Stephen Gilb
- Ruth Gilligan
- Charles Ginner
- Kevin Godshall
- Paul Goerhke
- Monika Grzesiak
- Len Gutkin
- Leo Hall
- Michael Hathaway
- James Heffernan
- Robert Higney
- Kira Hillman
- Steven Hobbs
- Lauren Holmes
- Qingyuan Jiang
- Daniel Jordan
- Andrew Karas
- Eike Kronshage
- Erik Larsen
- Elizabeth Legris
- Marcus Liddell
- Kenneth Ligda
- James Ross Macdonald
- Laura B. Marcus
- Katherine McComic
- Anne-Marie McManus
- Alexandria Miller
- Hayley Mohr
- Anna Moser
- Mariel Osetinksy
- Emily Petermann
- Annie Pfeifer
- Natalie Prizel
- Elizabeth Pugh
- Brad Rathe
- Heather Rhoda
- Meaghan Rubsam
- Glyn Salton-Cox
- Jesse Schotter
- Michael Shapiro
- Carolyn Sinsky
- Jack Skeffington
- Aaron Steiner
- Aleksandar Stevic
- William Stewart
- William Stone
- Jessica Svendsen
- Nathan Suhr-Sytsma
- Jessica Technow
- Samantha Terkeltaub
- Olena Tsykynovska
- Noah Warren
- Christina Walter
- Robert Wiene
- Andrew Williamson
- Matthew Wilsey
- Ben Zweifach
- Tobias Boes, University of Notre Dame
- Christopher Bush, Northwestern University
- Susan Chambers, Yale University
- Sarah Cole, Columbia University
- Kevin Dettmar, Pomona College
- Jed Esty, University of Pennsylvania
- Laura Frost, The New School
- Joseph Gordon, Yale University
- Langdon Hammer, Yale University
- Eric Hayot, Pennsylvania State University
- Pericles Lewis, Yale University
- Doug Mao, Johns Hopkins University
- Jesse Matz, Kenyon College
- Barry McCrea, Yale University
- Liesl Olson, University of Chicago Society of Fellows
- Siobhan Phillips, Harvard Society of Fellows
- Jessica Pressman, Yale University
- Martin Puchner, Columbia University
- Megan Quigley, Villanova University
- Ravit Reichman, Brown University
- Victoria Rosner, Texas A&M University
- Paul Saint-Amour, University of Pennsylvania
- Sam See, Yale University
- Rebecca L. Walkowitz, Rutgers University
- Mark Wollaeger, Vanderbilt University
- Alex Woloch, Stanford University
Initial funding was provided by a John and Yvonne McCredie Fellowship in Instructional Technology. Funding was also contributed by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the Paul Moore Memorial Fund for Instructional Innovation in Yale College, and the Provost’s Office of Yale University. Technical support was provided by the Instructional Technology Group.