Print Project Proposal: American Memory and Identity

This project will study the memory of the American Founding Fathers and other key parts of perceived American identity, such as the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, in academia and popular culture. The Founding Fathers include George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton, alongside other key historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.

Through programs such as google n-gram, voyant tools, and the Time Magazine Corpus, this project will document the trends and numbers of articles, books, and mentions of the founding fathers and events during each year of 20th and 21st century in American history. Doing so may reveal trends in American memory that look towards the past and perceptions of the past during historic events. Based on preliminary research, there are modest spikes in the search results for these memories of American identity during periods of war and doubt in America, and this paper will explore the types of work that these time periods produced both in academia and in the public sphere. Google n-gram will show what academics had to say about American icons, and through a brief study of what topic the books cover, this project will fully encompass the field of academia’s relationship with American identity. Studying the popular conception of the American identity will be more difficult, as there are fewer online digital resources, but using the Time Magazine Corpus will help to fill in those gaps, as well as supplementing that with digital resources analyzed through voyant tools. I anticipate problems with exploring the cultural aspect of this project, as there are fewer documented and digitized sources to explore. This can be addressed by attempting to use voyant tools to take digitized speeches, public domain newspapers, journals, letters, and diaries to analyze them to understand how American identity has developed. However, this is far from the vast scope of google n-gram, and is not even close to encompassing all of American culture. Perhaps if the project grows it could build a digital archive that could enable a more comprehensive collection of cultural digital history. If anyone has any suggestions of digitized primary sources I could use, I would be eternally grateful!

The final product will be a research paper built using these digital tools. Through the use of digital resources, it becomes possible to quickly calculate and explore the number of times key figures and events in American history are mentioned and study the context in which they were discussed. Doing so will help to understand how these figures have become embedded as part of America’s collective identity and a source of justification or comfort during stressful eras in America’s history.

One Reply to “Print Project Proposal: American Memory and Identity”

  1. The idea of tracing trends in the discussion of these figures over time is great. With that noted, I think it would be best to scope this more narrowly. My initial thought is that getting a fixed list of individuals (could be famous presidents over time and founding fathers) and working them through Google N-Gram and the corpus of time magazine is going to be enough of a starting set of content to work through.

    I dropped a few into n-gram and it seems to prompt some interesting nuances in trends straight out ( )

    I tried one quick with a bunch of the “most popular” presidents over time and it similarly has some interesting ups and downs in it ( )

    What is nice about taking these trends and looking at them in something like the Time Magazine Corpus is that 1) you can see if the trend lines seem the same and 2) by starting to look at things like co-locates you can get a sense of some of what is being talked about for a given figure.

    That is, the trends are less interesting than the broader questions they prompt. Why would one figure become more in vogue as part of discussion in printed books at a given time? Similarly, I think there could be interesting questions to explore if there are trends that are true for multiple figures. That is, if the ups and downs for a particular individuals follow a similar trend then that might be something that could suggest broader trends in terms of the presence of a discussion over time.

    In any event, I think it’s an interesting topic and if you narrow it in like that you could get to some specific concrete trends that you could then step back from and attempt to explore and contextualize what they may or may not mean.

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