For decades writers Arnold Bennett and Virginia Woolf, as well as scholars who followed their careers, debated the merits of each writer's style of character and plot development in novel writing.
Using the digital mapping technology of Ivanhoe, a pedagogical environment for humanities study and research, Qilei Hang, a third-year undergraduate at Case Western Reserve University, tracked key elements in the literary debate that were prompted by two works by Bennett—Our Women, Chapters on Sexual Discord (1920) and "Is the Novel Decaying?" (1923).
Findings from the year-long mapping project resulted in the publication of Hang's article, "Character, Politics and Literary Controversy: Arnold Bennett and Virginia Woolf in Cyberspace," in the Winter 2006-07 issue of The Arnold Bennett Society Newsletter.
"Critics' treatments of this literary quarrel have been scattered across the decades, from the 1920s to the present," writes Hang.
During the development of a Web site about the critical works of Bennett and Woolf, she noticed emerging "connections between the two authors' arguments and rebuttals embedded in the documents."
"The Ivanhoe software allows users to hold positions (represented as small circles) on a digital roundtable, which resembles a virtual discussion forum, where participants place text files onto the roundtable," Hang wrote in her article. The various positions on that roundtable came from the timeline of the debate that she created from information gleaned from novels, diaries and journal articles. (To view Hang's mapping of the debate, visit http://filer.case.edu/~qxh4/.)
According to Hang, two prominent configurations showed up on the maps. The first was an increase of circles on the roundtable during the 1920s, which Hang reports paralleled the debate timeline where the arguments between the two authors were at their height and also at a time when the debate caught the attention of critics and the public.
Another configuration on the map emerged on the two works by Bennett that prompted themes between the author's sparring about character creation in the novel and gender influences on novel writing, Hang reports.
"Character creation was the origin of their debate, as Woolf first challenged Bennett's advice in 'Writing Novels' (1914) and declared that 'it isn't plot, or time and place that the situation takes place, but the author's interest in the human spirit that knits the whole thing together,'" wrote Hang.
The biochemistry and chemistry major who will attend medical school at Case next year pursued the research project that was inspired by the course, "British Literature from 1800"— a 300-level course that Hang signed up for out of interest and to fulfill an English requirement. It was taught by Kurt Koenigsberger, associate professor of English.
During class, Koenigsberger talked about the Bennett-Woolf debate.
After Hang approached him about doing a project, Koenigsberger encouraged her to apply for a Support of Undergraduate Research & Creative Endeavors (SOURCE) grant. She received approximately $3,000 in support to spend that summer on the Case campus tracking down and reading nearly 100 sources related to the debate. She continued the project throughout her second year at Case.
During the semester in which Hang was in Koenigsberger's British literature class, University of Virginia Professor Jerome McGann visited Case for a series of "digital humanities" talks. McGann talked about the tools, including Ivanhoe, associated with an electronic project NINES (Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-century Electronic Scholarship).
Koenigsberger said that Hang's critical interpretation lent itself to the Ivanhoe software.
"One of the really remarkable things about this project is the way that diverse campus resources in the form of the Society for Critical Exchange, the Kelvin Smith Library, the SOURCE office and the English department have produced something quite interesting and innovative not only for this student, but also for a reading community on the other side of the globe," said Koenigsberger.
The English professor also added that because Hang is not an English major, her "genuine" interest in learning more about this influential literary debate, exemplified "liberal learning at its very best."
Case Western Reserve University is committed to the free exchange of ideas, reasoned debate and intellectual dialogue. Speakers and scholars with a diversity of opinions and perspectives are invited to the campus to provide the community with important points of view, some of which may be deemed controversial. The views and opinions of those invited to speak on the campus do not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration or any other segment of the university community.