What happens to literature during an information revolution? How do readers and writers adapt to proliferating data and texts? These questions appear uniquely urgent today in a world of information overload, big data, and the digital humanities. But as Maurice Lee shows in Overwhelmed, these concerns are not new—they also mattered in the nineteenth century, as the rapid expansion of print created new relationships between literature and information.
Exploring four key areas—reading, searching, counting, and testing—in which nineteenth-century British and American literary practices engaged developing information technologies, Overwhelmed delves into a diverse range of writings, from canonical works by Coleridge, Emerson, Charlotte Brontë, Hawthorne, and Dickens to lesser-known texts such as popular adventure novels, standardized literature tests, antiquarian journals, and early statistical literary criticism. In doing so, Lee presents a new argument: rather than being at odds, as generations of critics have viewed them, literature and information in the nineteenth century were entangled in surprisingly collaborative ways.
An unexpected, historically grounded look at how a previous information age offers new ways to think about the anxieties and opportunities of our own, Overwhelmed illuminates today’s debates about the digital humanities, the crisis in the humanities, and the future of literature.
Maurice S. Lee is chair and professor of English at Boston University. He is the author of Uncertain Chances: Science, Skepticism, and Belief in Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Slavery, Philosophy, and American Literature, 1830–1860.
"Comprehensive, punchy, and clever, Overwhelmed is packed with intellectual energy, ceaseless curiosity, and an insouciant disregard for methodological decrees. Given today's tensions between literary criticism and data-driven analysis, this is a breath of fresh air and a splendid achievement."—Russ Castronovo, University of Wisconsin–Madison
"Lee's Overwhelmed asks us to see the complex relationship between literature and regimes of quantification by finding poetry in numbers. It judiciously balances the differences and similarities between nineteenth-century agonies about information excess and our own, revealing why and how the state of the humanities today is part of a 'long revolution.' Lee's prose is often laugh-out-loud witty, and always warm, personable, and engaging: he wears his overwhelming, wide-ranging erudition lightly on his sleeve."—Adela Pinch, University of Michigan
"Tapping into an anxiety felt by anyone working in literary studies today, Overwhelmed articulates the fraught relationship between literature and information with humor and panache. Persuasive and compelling, this is the rare book that will appeal to both literary and digital tribes."—Matthew Rubery, Queen Mary University of London
"Overwhelmed is a searching account of the way nineteenth-century literature experiences, manages, and ultimately takes the measure of the rise of information and mass print. Lee shows not only how dreams of immersive reading are tied to anxieties about textual excess, but also how informational practices can be productive for thinking through the distinctiveness of literary studies and the kinds of knowledge it abundantly offers. Lively, generous, and replete with methodological possibilities at the convergence of literature and information, this book is overwhelming in the very best sense."—Elisa Tamarkin, University of California, Berkeley