Podcast: Ryan Cordell, “Melville in the First Age of Viral Media”

This event kicked off MELCamp5, a meeting of researchers from the Melville Electronic Library (MEL) April 30-May 2 to discuss an NEH-funded digital archive of Herman Melville’s work.


Ryan Cordell, co-director of the Viral Texts project, speaks about his work uncovering pieces that “went viral” in nineteenth-century newspapers and magazines.

The Viral Texts project seeks to develop theoretical models that will help scholars better understand what qualities—both textual and thematic—helped particular news stories, short fiction, and poetry “go viral” in nineteenth-century newspapers and magazines. What texts were reprinted and why? How did ideas—literary, political, scientific, economic, religious—circulate in the public sphere and achieve critical force among audiences? How might computational methods reveal Melville’s popular reception and reputation or expose the shaping influence of the popular press on his writing? And how can these popular (perhaps even ephemeral) texts thicken our understanding of literary authors like Herman Melville?

Cordell is Assistant Professor of English and Core Founding Faculty Member in the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks at Northeastern University. His scholarship focuses on convergences among literary, periodical, and religious culture in antebellum American mass media. Prof. Cordell collaborates with colleagues in English, History, and Computer Science on the NEH-funded Viral Texts project, which uses robust data mining tools to discover reprinted content across large-scale archives of antebellum texts. These “viral texts” help us to trace lines of influence among antebellum writers and editors, and to construct a model of viral textuality in the period. Cordell is currently a Mellon Fellow of Critical Bibliography at the Rare Book School in Charlottesville, Virginia. He also serves as vice president of the Digital Americanists scholarly society; is Co-Editor-in-Chief of centerNet’s forthcoming new journal, DHCommons; and writes about technology in higher education for the group blog ProfHacker at the Chronicle of Higher Education.