[This is part 3 of 4]
When I first encountered Denisoff and Kooistra’s The Yellow Nineties, I have to admit I was a bit hesitant. I’m generally very comfortable in digital environments, but as someone who works on comics I worry a lot about the role of scholarly editions in distancing readers from meaningful visual elements or word/image connections that would have been more apparent in earlier versions. The Yellow Nineties makes it possible to view shorter works on a page of their own (and this is the manner in which I first encountered it); this seems like it could take away from understanding The Yellow Book as a larger text, especially as the pages for these individual short works don’t have any links to navigate to the Volume’s table of contents or to the works preceding or following. However, as I spent more time exploring the website it has become apparent the lengths to which they’ve gone to make all possible information accessible by including multiple versions of each Volume in html, xlm, pdf, and flipbook form. The flipbooks most obviously recreate the process of encountering the physical text, down to imaging the onion paper as a separate page.
However, Jim Mussell argues that there are more productive ways to conceptualize of digitizations: “[d]igital resources should not replace the material in the archive but instead complement it, providing another way to approach whatever is being studied” (204). To say nothing of all the possibilities opened up by digital editions, my work on this project would not have been possible without searchable text, and a serendipitous viewing of the xml encoding for Margaret Sumner’s “Plein Air” lead me to realize queer undertones in this drawing and the poem preceding it. The relationship between digital literary studies and illustration is a bit queer in general. How does one distant read visual art? While, with projects like The Yellow Nineties, it would be possible to use a tool like Voyant to analyse the xml notes on a large group of illustrations, this would seem to tell us more about the perspective of those doing the digitizing than about the work itself. With my project, except for a few attempts to do closer readings of particular illustrations, I really am not able to demonstrate anything about the images except through those words that are attached to them – the names and pronouns they are attached to, and other words each volume uses to label the artwork and itself.
There are necessarily some areas in which any digitization is still be unable to fully represent the materiality of a book. To repeat a rather cliched sentiment, my visit to Special Collections to work with our copies of the original texts forced me to think about how an encounter with the smells, textures, and weights of each volume is also a significant element of one’s encounter with a text. More particular to The Yellow Book is the material separation between “Art” and “Literature”: as Linda Dowling observes,
[T]he additional dignity of fly-titles and guard sheets further emphasizes the ‘independence of the artwork by its physical separation from the letterpress. This treatment had the crucial practical advantage of allowing the artwork to be printed separately on hand presses. The editors’ concern to achieve a superior reproduction of the pictures showed itself in their use of a high-finish art paper, and in their especial care that the names of the photo-engravers employed in the reproduction. (120-1)
These elements of the material text indicate the importance of The Yellow Book‘s visual art, in a manner which wouldn’t be visible to someone reading a digital edition of the text – or in print anthologies.
Dowling points out the material emphasis on art in order to argue that the overall intention of the editors was to push back against conventional pairings that provided artwork that merely ‘illustrated’ the written work. However, while the original editorial intention of Aubrey Beardsley may have been for there to be no connection dictated between the art and literature of The Yellow Book (Dowling 119), that does not preclude the influence of earlier Yellow Book art and literature on the people producing art for later volumes, nor the choice of editors in arranging visual and written texts in manners that create a meaning beyond that of either text in isolation. Dowling notes that Volume 1 juxtaposes “Arthur Symon’s poem ‘Stella Maris’, a travesty-prayer to a prostitute” with “Beardsley’s own ‘Night Piece’, with its image of a bare-breasted woman stalking Leicester Square” (122). Similarly, Denisoff and Kooistra claim that “[e]mphasizing the Bodley Head’s reputation for publishing the work of women, the editors strategically positioned [Gertrude] Hammond’s visual art between the literary contributions of two female authors” in Volume 6 (“The Yellow Book: Introduction to Volume 6 (July 1895)”).
These productive pairings – which I tend to read as a form of meganarration – seem capable of conveying a lot, especially with regards to gender. How do we read women’s periodical literature differently if it is juxtaposed with women’s artwork – or with men’s? Given the moderate discrepencies between women’s visual art and women’s writing volume to volume, what shifts happen in the narrative of the periodical’s evolving representation of gender? These are big questions, and not ones that can really be answered in a few short blog posts. My last post, however, will attempt to provide some direction by looking at where a few notable examples fit into these trends.