An interdisciplinary journal about regions, places, and cultures of the US South and their global connections

The Digital Yoknapatawpha Project

Taylor Hagood, Florida Atlantic University

Published: 
22 January 2014
Overview: 

In this edited interview conducted on September 6, 2013 with members of the Southern Spaces staff, Taylor Hagood discusses the Digital Yoknapatawpha Project which is mapping the fiction of William Faulkner. Hagood describes the project (housed at the University of Virginia), the collaborative team developing it, and the challenges and possibilities of digital work.

Introduction

The project's current home page, showing the "shelf" of texts from which a user can select one to explore, 2014. Screenshot by Southern Spaces. Courtesy of Digital Yoknapatawpha Project.
The Digital Yoknapatawpha Project's current home page, showing the "shelf" of texts from which a user can select one to explore, 2014. Screenshot by Stephen Railton. Courtesy of Digital Yoknapatawpha Project.

Taylor Hagood: I'm an associate professor of American Literature at Florida Atlantic University and a member of a team of scholars, technical experts, programmers, and cartographers who contribute to the Digital Yoknapatawpha Project.

The project is still in development so any overview I provide now has to be provisional. The project continues to expand, often in ways that surprise us. But the heart of it is an online resource that will allow scholars, teachers, students, and general readers to map William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha fictions, as single texts and in the aggregate, and in multiple ways, including the familiar forms of maps and timelines, but also in more abstract digital displays. My involvement began with the Modern Language Association (MLA) convention in Seattle in 2012 where I saw a presentation that unveiled this developing project, which blew me away. I had a few doubts at first, but I became convinced that there is something to work with and I became one of the collaborating editors. The overall editor is Stephen Railton at the University of Virginia, where the project is housed. There are also collaborative editors and advising editors.

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Collaboration

How many people are involved in the project?

Taylor Hagood: At the moment, there are over thirty editors in a team that breaks into groups of two to three to deal with each work. Until now, we have considered only short stories, but in teams of six we're starting on Faulkner's novels. This increased size presents challenges for collaborating editors as we create a database. We are trying to achieve a translation of Faulkner's writing, which is not something that easily lends itself to data entry.

Collaboration is critical in the Digital Yoknapatawpha Project. We have set up a wiki for the site and are trying to make that work. In particular, we are negotiating which editors need to communicate with one another. The site has become its own project and the online platform is key to our communication across multiple countries and time zones. Some collaborating editors work in low-tech environments, sharing lists as Microsoft Word documents. Others have found online platforms that modify PDFs and provide advanced in-text track changes and editing programs.

Having selected Flags in the Dust, a user can click Show Locations from the map controls to see the various locations (both inside and outside Yoknapatawpha) that appear in the novel. Clicking on any of the map's icons brings up additional information. Screenshot by Stephen Railton, 2014. Courtesy of Digital Yoknapatawpha Project.
Having selected Flags in the Dust, a user can click Show Locations from the map controls to see the various locations (both inside and outside Yoknapatawpha) that appear in the novel. Clicking on any of the map's icons brings up additional information. Screenshot by Stephen Railton, 2014. Courtesy of Digital Yoknapatawpha Project.

Part of our conversation is specific to mapping and our approaches to cartography. Working in virtual reality, we do not have to choose one concept or another, since there is room in Digital Yoknapatawpha for as many visualization approaches as we can imagine. For example, we have discussed ways to represent how Faulkner's imagination develops and changes over the course of his writing career. In an early story, like "Barn Burning" or "A Rose for Emily," Faulkner doesn't seem to have clarified what Yoknapatawpha County is. Later in his career, he draws his own maps. We are trying to figure out what the relationship should be between Faulkner's own mapping and ours. The decisions and justifications that accompany the creation of any cartography seem intrinsic to the project, although I sometimes wonder whether I should feel guilty about that kind of intervention. However, I think that as long as we are transparent, then we are making an important contribution. In the future, it may be possible to be more transparent about these creative/constructive processes and to offer an interactive platform. These applied goals might not be shared among all collaborating editors, but many of us are trying to think about how to understand what we're doing now, what this could be in the future, and how to collaborate most effectively.

You raise interesting questions about authority within the project and within the text. Are there places where Faulkner's writing is inconsistent or doesn't translate readily into cartographic relationships?

Taylor Hagood: It seems that nothing is simple and that everything we do requires discussion. Deciding which stories to work on requires clarifying conversations. Some Faulkner stories were initially published in a magazine and then later reworked into a book. "The Unvanquished" was originally a short story and was then republished as a novel or short story collection, depending on whether you interpret The Unvanquished as stand-alone stories or similar to chapters from Faulkner's compilation Go Down Moses. On that basic level, trying to decide what we're going to work on becomes a big discussion.

With regards to authority, we're still figuring it out. For different items, we have tags that address multiple sites of authority. If we are locating something on our map, we have to specify how we determine that location; whether it's based on Faulkner's own mapping, speculation, or some other internal factor. We are trying to account for these possible authenticators, but multiple interpretive layers make this challenging. The biggest challenge seems to be locating, naming, and agreeing on something solid enough to work with. Sometimes, we arrive at seemingly insurmountable standoffs and we have to find enough common ground to move forward, shelving some conversations and decisions for later. And that leads to another critical aspect of this work: digital humanities projects are not as bounded as other academic projects, which is something Stephen Railton made very clear at the outset. I remember him saying, "These digital projects are constantly developing. There is no place to write 'The End' in virtual reality." I think that shifting from traditional and more static publishing paradigms to the constant development and interaction of digital platforms requires adjustment, but also offers us a great opportunity.

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Narratives into Data

How do you translate the stories into data? Do you experience doubts about this translation exercise?

Taylor Hagood: One of our chief concerns involves the texts. We don't want to be involved in a project that discourages people from reading Faulkner. A primary concern voiced at the MLA meeting revolved around the translation of Faulkner's stories into icons and maps and the implications for the cognitive mapping that occurs in the encounter with a screen, as opposed to a text. As Faulkner seemed particularly invested in writing texts to provoke something within his readers, we are concerned with the implications of translating his medium into a digital format. At the MLA panel, there was discussion about the difference between a print book and the way one encounters those pages, as opposed to a Kindle version of a Faulkner story or book; the formats themselves result in different types of mapping. As such, there will likely be plenty of resistance to this particular use of digital platforms, some of which stems from the general challenges of translation. This is something we're currently encountering in our work with the character Joe Christmas from Light in August. As a character with ambiguous racial status, Joe Christmas moves through various situations in which his racial status changes. When we then seek to represent his character with an icon, we have to designate his icon as either white or black or half-white or half-black. Trying to codify this ambiguous and opaque racial configuration into the static form of an icon remains very problematic.

How do you and your co-editors make choices about which elements of a story to include and exclude? How do you decide which aspects of a character to map?

Users have several options for exploring a text's characters. Here, members of the Sartoris family have been selected from an alphabetical list of all 249 characters in the database of Flags in the Dust. Screenshot by Stephen Railton, 2014. Courtesy of Digital Yoknapatawpha Project.

Users have several options for exploring a text's characters. Here, members of the Sartoris family have been selected from an alphabetical list of all 249 characters in the database of Flags in the Dust. Screenshot by Stephen Railton, 2014. Courtesy of Digital Yoknapatawpha Project.

Taylor Hagood: This is part of a broad and ongoing conversation. As a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)–funded project, we had a recent meeting at the University of Virginia where we tried to start this important dialogue. At the beginning of the project, these types of discussions and decisions about what constitutes data were less urgent to those of us joining the ranks of collaborating editors. I was initially drawn to the mapping possibilities of the project, in particular the ways in which a map might track events in the form of "heat spots" that change in intensity as events occur in specific sites. At the time, this seemed very new and different and it didn't seem complicated to identify characters, events, and locations—the three categories that constitute the basic framework of our mapping. We were quickly confronted by the complications of translating these literary elements into a spatial dimension. What are characters and how do they change in different situations? It has been hard to come to a consensus on what data is and how it relates to these three categories and how we represent them digitally. When it comes to race, class, gender, and other inherited categories and constructs, we now have the opportunity to reframe or redefine those terms.

From our technical experts, I have learned about the utility in focusing on the relationships between and among characters, as opposed to attempting to identify rigid definitions of our data. They have encouraged us to examine relationships as the starting point for our understanding of race, class, and gender. Initially, that was a hard concept for me to grasp, but ultimately it proved fruitful and productive. I am most excited by the prospect of this relational perspective of our digital translation resulting in new scholarly trajectories for the Faulkner canon.

Our creative and constructive work speaks to future applications of this project. We are coming to realize how this database is a construct of various factors, including our own moment and what seems important to us, and an important example of how the traditional humanities might be informed by these technological advances and possibilities. One of our technical experts, Rafael Alvarado, can use the parameters of our database to translate a Faulkner story via an algorithm into a "forced directional graph," which is a map that both lists specific narrative elements and various lines of connection of the data. The result is a powerful example of the potential of this abstract mapping. We can see the potential this project has to change how we understand the relationships within a narrative more generally and how scholars approach Faulkner specifically. As we move forward, we are trying to identify additional categories for characters and continue to grapple with the definition of a character. How do we distinguish between human and non-human characters, and how might we map disability? In some ways, I think that we want to put everything into this database, but that is neither feasible nor desirable. If we were to map "everything," I'm not sure that we'd understand what we're supposed to do with that.

One of the things we're working on right now is how to create a database that's searchable, which means that we are trying to identify and agree on key terms. An unbelieveable amount of work is involved in creating a body of items that you can search. At the moment, we are generating key words that will eventually be searched in a meaningful way. Those of us working in teams of six on these novels are trying to identify and name the characters, the locations, and the events, in addition to key words, all of which are subject to debate.

Creation of data structures can be one of the biggest obstacles for digital projects. What are some central technologies Digital Yoknapatawpha uses?

The user has begun the "Play Narrative" animation for Flags in the Dust, and has reached page 75. Events can also be viewed in chronological order. The area highlighted in red indicates the current Event. Locations and dates in purple indicate the places and times that the narrative has moved through already (darker purple indicates multiple returns to a specific time). Screenshot by Stephen Railton, 2014. Courtesy of Digital Yoknapatawpha Project.
The user has begun the "Play Narrative" animation for Flags in the Dust, and has reached page 75. Events can also be viewed in chronological order. The area highlighted in red indicates the current Event. Locations and dates in purple indicate the places and times that the narrative has moved through already (darker purple indicates multiple returns to a specific time). Screenshot by Stephen Railton, 2014. Courtesy of Digital Yoknapatawpha Project.

Taylor Hagood: We use Drupal to create a location that we can describe and qualify in different ways. We log into Drupal and input information and options for each location or item. When we're entering events in the system, for example, we are registering heat spots on the map. Our goal is not to provide any kind of narrative, and you can't look at the project and understand the narrative arc of any of the stories. Instead, we define and locate the events on our digital map. Most recently, our technology experts have developed tools that arrange the events and locations in narrative order and chronologically. You can hit the "play" button and the site moves you through a story chronologically in addition to the narrative order that text itself creates. The hot spots are categorized by page number and the user can specify a range of pages that will restrict the map's details and move through the events of those pages. There's also a parallel bar that shows the dates, which allows the user to move through an event by calendar date. Users can specify how they would like to encounter the events, either as they emerge in the text or in chronological order, or a combination of the two. The map allows us to engage the geography, narrative order, and chronology of Faulkner in a dynamic and interactive way.

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Spatiality and Faulkner

Your own work deals with Faulkner's spatiality. What is it like to be dealing with this imagined space?

Taylor Hagood: It's equal parts frightening and empowering. It can make you feel a little shaky, because you realize that you're creating beyond Faulkner, potentially moving beyond his own imagination. But, in another way, I think that theorists from Yi-Fu Tuan to Gaston Bachelard have dealt with these spatial issues, as well as issues of power and translation that come into play in this kind of project. I don't think I realized how abstract my conceptualization of space was and what that meant. Without recognizing it, I would take a text by Faulkner or any other writer and move through it, taking or imposing certain cues upon it, ultimately mapping an imaginary space in my mind. I don't think that I realized how fluid maps can be. And I certainly wasn't thinking about how the author might have imagined the space he or she was writing about. Now these have become important to my own scholarship and thought process.

Yi-Fu Tuan's concept of anthropocentric mapping posits that, as you develop and grow, you learn to map out from yourself. I'm not implying that Tuan offers the only theoretical framework, but he certainly writes about mapping in very provocative ways. I think that I am becoming increasingly aware of how mapping begins during the reading process and continues into the actual creation of the maps. One of the first stories that I worked on for the Digital Yoknapatawpha County Project was "Barn Burning." It became clear that Faulkner himself might not have had a larger space in mind, beyond the confines of this local narrative. I'm just not sure that he was thinking concretely about what Mississippi was supposed to be at that point. I don't know that he was even thinking about any particular county; which is not to say that he definitively wasn't, but we're just not certain that he was thinking along the lines that we have identified for this project. While this might not be a particularly original observation, the space and distance between a cabin and a mansion is critical. Or if we think about the space of the country store in "Barn Burning," where Ab Snopes is initially judged at the beginning of the story, that space and its items, products, and floors, I previously took all of those spatial dimensions for granted.

By clicking on a character's icon, users have access to fairly detailed information about him or her, including a biographical sketch, a list of the other texts the character appears in, social class, occupation, and so on. Screenshot by Stephen Railton, 2014. Courtesy of Digital Yoknapatawpha Project.

By clicking on a character's icon, users have access to fairly detailed information about him or her, including a biographical sketch, a list of the other texts the character appears in, social class, occupation, and so on. Screenshot by Stephen Railton, 2014. Courtesy of Digital Yoknapatawpha Project.

But to your question, "What is it like to be dealing with this imaginary space?" I find it very hard to map those kinds of spaces, such as the country store or the distance from hypothetical point A to B. I find that very hard and I don't yet know how to map that in Digital Yoknapatawpha, where we are currently mapping at the county level. At this point we don't know how to map an interior space, which is a limitation. Another concern about the project lies in its name: Digital Yoknapatawpha, which clearly boxes Faulkner into Yoknapatawpha County. There are many of us working on this project and plenty of people who have written about Faulkner that are interested in Faulkner's spaces beyond those located in Yoknapatawpha. And those spaces are currently confined to the side as "outside spaces" that we aren't examining and mapping in detail. We have, however, begun discussing various models to map and represent these outside spaces, including the possibility of framing the central Yoknapatawpha County map with various outside locations, similar to a globe. But the idea of trying to map a much more intimate space—which is where I think literature happens in many ways, or rather, the experience of reading happens—provides unique challenges that we are continuing to engage, as these intimate spaces might ultimately be more attuned to the experience of Faulkner.

What are the politics of choosing to do a digital project about Faulkner and the imagined spaces of the South?

Taylor Hagood: In some ways, the project can feel distinctly not self-aware in terms of larger issues in southern studies. Stephen Railton has worked on other digital projects, including work on Mark Twain. One of his previous projects involved the digitization of the Faulkner materials at the University of Virginia, which resulted in a website that featured Absalom Absalom! and was a precursor to our project. Railton comes to this work as a scholar of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature, as opposed to a southern studies specialist, which impacts the framework for the project. Faulkner himself represents an "Open Sesame" figure of sorts. If you want to do something and need funding, Faulkner can be a magic word. Pragmatically, Faulkner can be a smart choice for many different reasons. However, we do have several collaborating editors on the project who specialize in various aspects of southern studies and who offer a more critical perspective. At this point, we haven't applied that perspective, but eventually the Digital Yoknapatawpha Project will have to engage Faulkner's role in southern studies. As the project goes live, there will be people who love it and some people will probably hate it and critique it for the issues we are discussing here.

Interesting counterpoints to mapping Faulkner's work are the live tours of James Joyce's Dublin that allow a tourist to experience Ulysses in the Dublin landscape. How does the Faulkner project understand itself in comparison to other projects that exist in real time and space?

A visualization of "A Rose for Emily," after the user has "played" the narrative. The vertical line at 1924 indicates the date at which story both begins (black line) and ends (red on top of that).The events of this story occur in a very circumscribed space. However, note how far and frequently the narrative travels back in time. Screenshot by Stephen Railton, 2014. Courtesy of Digital Yoknapatawpha Project.
A visualization of "A Rose for Emily," after the user has "played" the narrative. The vertical line at 1924 indicates the date at which story both begins (black line) and ends (red on top of that).The events of this story occur in a very circumscribed space. However, note how far and frequently the narrative travels back in time. Screenshot by Stephen Railton, 2014. Courtesy of Digital Yoknapatawpha Project.

Taylor Hagood: Faulkner Studies is no stranger to that kind of tourism, nor is southern studies. Literary tourism certainly impacts this project on one level. There is a kind of doubleness between the so-called "real spaces" and so-called "fictional spaces" that challenges us as collaborating editors. There is a complementary challenge for the site's users who ultimately ask themselves, "How is this site imagined?" In some ways, our project occupies middle ground between the "real spaces" of Joyce's Dublin or Charles Dickens' London and the "fictional spaces" of J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth. Faulkner locates his writing in a landscape between the "real" and the "fictional," rendering it unique and problematic. As we generate our maps, we are working with a cartographer who is exploring how to represent topographical elements in a series of maps. Right now, we are working with one basic map, but ultimately we will have as many as it takes to re-present the texts and the way Yoknapatawpha is re-created each time Faulkner imaginatively returns to it. At a recent meeting at the University of Virginia, an institution with large Faulkner holdings, an archivist brought out a map that none of us had ever seen. It was incomplete, but was a draft of a map that Faulkner had made. It didn't quite match up with his other maps, which points to the shifting nature of Faulkner's conception of mapping, and a constantly shifting relationship to the changing "real life" spaces of Mississippi in which he lived. We're focused on putting this database together, because that seems like the first step. Then we will continue the challenge of mapping Faulkner.

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Beyond Yoknapatawpha

Does this project have any relationship to other digital humanities projects, particularly geospatial ones?

Taylor Hagood: There are older and more established ways of using digital platforms that involve incredible amounts of work. Perhaps our biggest challenge is defining and creating a grand Faulkner website that does everything. Even with a team of thirty people, it's a very taxing project, and we find ourselves constantly identifying new dimensions that require more time and effort. We would love to use many different categories and to attach these categories to characters and locations, but it boils down to issues of time and resources.

Welcome page for the data entry site featuring a hand-drawn map of Jefferson. Screenshot by Southern Spaces, 2014. Courtesy of Digital Yoknapatawpha Project.
Welcome page for the data entry site featuring a hand-drawn map of Jefferson. Screenshot by Southern Spaces, 2014. Courtesy of Digital Yoknapatawpha Project.

John Padgett, who is also a collaborating editor on this project created one of the first Faulkner websites, William Faulkner On the Web. The Sound and the Fury: A Hypertext Edition project is another example of a digital Faulkner project. One of its developers is also working on Digital Yoknapatawpha. In terms of the editorial staff, there is interaction with other digital work. Beyond Faulkner, there are also online maps of Charles Dickens' work, notably David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page and then there are sites devoted to James Joyce. As the combination of Faulkner, Dickens, and Joyce demonstrates, these projects seem to be structured in the "great writer" mode, privileging certain authors for a web presence and digitization. Some of this work is geared towards teaching, and we hope that this mapping will function as a teaching aid.

At the moment, I'm thinking through the implications of digital platforms and digital environments at the personal level. These modes of creating and defining taxonomies for digital spaces allow for a different kind of depth than traditional literary critical discourse. Others who come to this work from a digital humanities background might have more insight into the broader implications and possibilities. One of the more fascinating aspects of our collaboration is the interaction between scholars who come to this project from a Faulkner background, and those from a more technical, digital humanities background. This digital work provides the opportunity for established Faulkner scholars such as Jay Watson at the University of Mississippi, Theresa Towner at the University of Texas-Dallas, and James Carothers at the University of Kansas to work closely with digital humanities scholars as well as newly minted professors.

We are only beginning to understand the potential of this contribution, but I feel strongly that this project will make a big difference and make its mark on Faulkner scholarship. The database will allow people to study and write about Faulkner in ways that are not currently possible. I think that many of us on the editorial team will utilize the database for writing and theoretical work. We hope and imagine that people will utilize the project in the classroom and as a scholarly tool. I can envision how our platform will enable a scholar to "layer" maps from different moments in Faulkner's world and track changes in both Faulkner's conceptualization of the landscape and important narrative progressions. For scholars in digital humanities, our site should offer research opportunities that will make a lasting impact on our field. But this sort of scholarship offers real challenges to our younger colleagues working towards tenure. Whether and how this type of work "counts" toward tenure and promotion are critical questions. How do we make the case for this work? For some, this is less of a problem. One of my colleagues recently emailed me about the incredible institutional support for digital humanities at her university. Others, however, have to advocate strongly to participate in and include this type of work towards tenure and promotion. Scholars are trying to figure out how to best represent these types of efforts in their portfolios and on their CVs. When we call ourselves collaborating editors, I'm not sure that term captures what we are doing. Editing is part of what I'm doing, but I don't know the right word for this work. What is the word for deciding where something is supposed to happen in a Faulkner text? I'm not a cartographer or a geographer. And editor doesn't quite do it. These are things that we will continue to figure out. I believe this work warrants some new terminology. S

About the Author

Taylor Hagood is associate professor of American Literature at Florida Atlantic University. His publications include Faulkner's Imperialism: Space, Place, and the Materiality of Myth (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008); Secrecy, Magic, and the One-Act Plays of Harlem Renaissance Women Writers (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2010); and the forthcoming Faulkner, Writer of Disability. He is co-editor, with Daniel Cross Turner, of H-Southern-Lit, and is a contributing editor for Digital Yoknapatawpha.

About the Interviewers

This interview was conducted by Southern Spaces staff members Sarah Van Horn Melton and Christopher Lirette.

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Recommended Resources

Text

Hagood, Taylor. Faulkner's Imperialism: Space, Place, and the Materiality of Myth. Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press, 2008.

Web

Padgett, John B., ed. William Faulkner on the Web. University of Mississippi, 1995–2001. http://www.mcsr.olemiss.edu/~egjbp/faulkner/faulkner.html.

Railton, Stephen and Will Rourk, eds. Absalom, Absalom! Electronic, Interactive! Chronology. University of Virginia, 2003. http://twain.lib.virginia.edu/absalom/.

Stoicheff, R. Allison Muri, Joel Deshaye, et al., eds. The Sound and the Fury: A Hypertext Edition. University of Saskatchewan, 2003. http://drc.usask.ca/projects/faulkner/.

Related Southern Spaces Publications

Freeman, Jesse. "Telling the Raymond Andrews Story: The Making of Somebody Else, Somewhere Else." Southern Spaces, June 26, 2012. http://southernspaces.org/2012/telling-raymond-andrews-story-making-somebody-else-somewhere-else.

Nelson, Robert K., Andrew J. Torget, and Scott Nesbit. "A Conversation with Digital Historians." Southern Spaces, January 23, 2012. http://southernspaces.org/2012/conversation-digital-historians.

Waid, Candace. "Envisioning Faulkner and Southern Literature." Southern Spaces, August 8, 2013. http://southernspaces.org/2013/envisioning-faulkner-and-southern-literature.

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