Early Electronic Literature in the Romantic Tradition

Critical Writing
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2019
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In searching for literary models for digital writing, current scholarship will often suggest James Joyce, yet pioneering writers working directly indigital forms looked repeatedly instead to British Romantic authors. This dissertation examines the early history of electronic literature, showing the significance of a Romantic tradition with which a selection of digital authors self-consciously identified themselves and their goals. Electronic literature is an emerging genre of literary works which are designed to be read on a computer, and by focusing on the pre-Web 2.0 era, my project looks specifically to the largely text-based sub-genres of interactive fiction and hypertext fiction, non-linear works which respectively enable progression through text inputs from users or clicking hyperlinks. Though many major scholars of digital humanities are Romanticists by training, the critical history of electronic literature focuses heavily on the genre’s modernist and postmodernist contexts. Expanding our set of media histories, my dissertation offers a new genealogy of electronic writing. An early work of interactive fiction, for instance, A Mind Forever Voyaging, draws specifically on William Wordsworth’s autobiographical epic poem The Prelude in its vision of datascapes, the value of the imagination inforesight, and the role of a witnessing subject in recording social changes. A few years later, in developing the first work of hypertext fiction, Michael Joyce is thinking explicitly of Goethe, Keats, Byron, and Mary Shelley in envisioning what this new medium could become. The influence of Mary Shelley in particular on hypertext is established already through Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, one of the most widely analyzed works of hypertext, a story of Shelley piecing back together the female creature from Frankenstein herself. Even here, though, the Romantic influence has not yet been analyzed in-depth, nor has it been shown how this point of influence extends further through all three of Jackson’s hypertext projects. In writing on online interactive fictions, Indra Sinha traced the lineage of online explorers back to Coleridge and De Quincey. These writers saw the Romantic imagination as central to their practice, and by mapping out these influences, I open new possibilities in our understanding of this medium.

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Jill Walker Rettberg