“A Report Has Come Here”

What follows is the full text of the paper that I presented at the 2012 MLA, “‘A Report Has Come Here’: Social Network Analysis in the Papers of Thomas Jefferson,” slightly reformatted for the web. The panel, “Networks, Maps, and Words: Digital-Humanities Approaches to the Archive of American Slavery,” also featured talks by Cameron Blevins, of Stanford University, and Aditi Muralidharan, of the University of California, Berkeley, as well as a response from Amy Earhart, of Texas A&M.

I convened this panel out of a desire to address the unique set of challenges posed to the literary scholar by the archive of American slavery—for instance, how does one account for absences in the archival record, both those inscribed in the archive’s contents, and those introduced at the time of the archive’s construction? How does one account for the power relations at work in the relationships between the enslaved men and women who committed their narratives to paper, and the group of (mostly white) reformers who edited and published their works? How does one identify and extract meaning from the unique set of documents that do remain—letters, inventories, ledger books, and personal narratives—documents that, in the words of Susan Scott Parrish, we must struggle to make “mean something more?” And how does one do so without reinforcing the damaging notion that African American voices from before emancipation—not just in the archival record, but the voices themselves, are silent, and irretrievably lost?

Each of the papers on this panel, in what I think are powerful, provocative ways, addresses the issues I’ve just described, and each does so by employing tools and techniques associated with the digital humanities. (In Aditi’s case, she does more than employ these tools—she creates her own.) And I’ll get to my project in a minute, but I first want to draw your attention to the ways in which this particular set of projects, taken together, demonstrates how humanistic inquiry can not just reflect, but in fact direct digital humanities work.

Last year at the MLA, Alan Liu voiced a call to reinscribe cultural criticism at the center of digital humanities work, and so this panel represents an attempt to do just that—to think critically about digital structures and historical ones, about the resources and labor involved in the creation of our tools and archives, and about the historical labor that these tools and archives help to expose. It’s not an opportunity, Liu said, and this I firmly believe—it’s a responsibility. Indeed, it’s the central task of the literary scholar today. 

So with this task in mind, I want to turn, for the remainder of my talk, to a cultural figure who, to me, emblematizes issues of historical labor as well as the labor of archival creation; the lived conditions of eighteenth-century America and the limited conditions of present-day archival research; and most of all, our responsibility, as scholars in the twenty-first century, to continue to interrogate our methods, and to ask ourselves how we might learn more.

This figure is James Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved personal chef (and Sally Hemings’s older brother). When Jefferson was appointed Ambassador to France, he took Hemings with him to Paris, and there apprenticed him to the chef of a prince. Through the few archival records that relate to Hemings, we also know, for instance, that while in Paris, Hemings hired his own tutor and learned to speak fluent French. And here’s another thing Hemings learned in Paris: what it might mean to be free.

At the time, France adhered to the “Freedom Principle,” which held that any enslaved person who set foot on French soil would be, from then on, considered free. Hemings could have invoked this principle, and liberated himself from bondage, but he did not. Instead, he continued to hone his culinary skill, and eventually became the head chef in Jefferson’s Parisian residence. Annette Gordon-Reed, who wrote a phenomenal biography of the Hemings family that was released a few years ago, thinks that Hemings most likely made a verbal agreement with Jefferson to return to America, whereupon he would receive his freedom. The only written evidence for this, however, is this document. It’s from four years after their return, a formal but still not legally-binding agreement in which Jefferson establishes the conditions for Hemings’s eventual emancipation.

The agreement notes the “great expense” of having Hemings taught the “art of cookery.” It expresses Jefferson’s desire to “befriend him, and to require from him as little in return as possible,” before stipulating that Hemings must instruct a replacement cook before he can be freed. According to the terms of the agreement, Hemings must exchange his culinary knowledge for his personal liberty. Jefferson’s measured tone and offer of friendship illustrate—in stark relief—the incontrovertible authority of Jefferson as master, and the resultant subjection of Hemings as slave. Jefferson’s concern, moreover, with the practical implications of Hemings’s release points to the profound impact of Hemings’s labor—of his difficult, daily labor—on the most prominent household in the United States at the time. Jefferson’s agreement—for in truth, Hemings had no choice but to consent—epitomizes how Jefferson’s heightened valuation of the “art of cookery” would, again and again, take precedence over the foundational rights of the republic.

It is then a striking instantiation of archival silence that when you perform a “Name” search for a person named James Hemings in the The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Digital Editionyou get no results
—because Hemings, in spite of his ability to read and write in two languages–because of his status as a slave–was not a person to whom Jefferson ever wrote, or from whom Jefferson received letters. And when you perform a text search for the words “James Hemings,” you turn up evidence that confirms exactly that. For instance, here’s an 1801 letter from Jefferson to William Evans, an innkeeper friend. You can see in this letter that Jefferson makes reference to a “former servant James,” underlined in green. If you click the link, it takes you to an editorial note that informs us that this “former servant” is in fact James Hemings, who, as it turns out, three years after the agreement with Jefferson was recorded and witnessed, finally received his freedom. In this letter, you can see that Jefferson is asking his friend to “send for” Hemings and  “tell him I shall be glad to receive him.” In fact, over the next few months, Jefferson would attempt to enlist his former servant, at that point a free man, to come with him to Washington, where Jefferson would assume the Presidency, and where—Jefferson hoped—Hemings would become the head chef at the newly constructed White House.

The story of James Hemings is fascinating, and tragic, and I’ll return to it in a minute. But for now I want to call your attention to the fact that none of the information that I’ve just told you is immediately evident in the letter on the screen. In fact, the only reason why this letter turns up in a search on James Hemings at all is because an editor has noted the “former servant James” as referring to Hemings, and that reference has been added to the document as metadata. And when you search the Jefferson archive, the default scope of the search includes the editorial notes as well as the content of the letters. My interest is in the other documents in the archive that make reference to Hemings—both those that the editors missed, and there are quite a few, as I’ve discovered in my research; and those that refer to Hemings by one of his several nicknames—he was called Jaime, Jimmy, and Gimmé while in France. I’m also interested in the documents that refer to other enslaved men and women less well-known than Hemings, who are not rewarded by editorial attention. And finally, I’m interested in the places where Jefferson alludes to members of his enslaved plantation staff, but not by name at all. There are certainly many instances of this, in the close to 16,000 documents that the Jefferson archive contains.

To literary scholars, this set of issues is not new. And in the past few years, literary critics such as Saidiya Hartman, Steven Best, and Sharon Marcus, have each renewed Michel Foucault’s call, as voiced in The Archaeology of Knowledge, to question the form and function of the archive. Best and Marcus, in particular, emphasize the development of a new set of critical practices. They suggest that we must learn to see shadows in the archive, shadows such as Hemings, as “presences, not absences, and let ghosts be ghosts, instead of saying what they are ghosts of.”

Best and Marcus’s ghostly framework offers a theoretical solution to archival silence—one that I find quite compelling—but it struck me, in the midst of my own research, that there might be other methods to reveal absence as presence. More specifically, I thought there might be other digital methods that could render archival silences visible, and bring ghostly bodies—if not their voices—back to life.

So using Protovis, a javascript-based toolkit from Stanford, that allows you to present textual data in various visual forms, I was able to create this visualization. It’s an arc diagram that visualizes the people with whom Jefferson corresponded about James Hemings. This set of people includes William Evans, whose letter I had up on the screen. This is what sociologists call a social network, a concept that predates our current understanding of social networking websites, like Facebook, but in fact works in a similar way. I compiled this data by searching the archive’s editorial notes, as well as its content. And in this way, I was able to visualize most—but not all—of the correspondence that mentioned Hemings.

You’ll notice that I’ve arranged the correspondents in groups—indicated by the different colors—from left to right, Jefferson and his family, Jefferson’s political correspondents, his hometown friends, his correspondents in France and abroad; his enslaved staff, his plantation overseers and free plantation staff, and on the end, people about whom I could find very little (or in some cases, no) biographical information. An arc connecting two names indicates that they corresponded. I have not distinguished between the author and recipient of each letter, since this is a preliminary rendering, but the width of the arc indicates the frequency with which they corresponded. So because these are the Jefferson papers, all arcs connect to him. You’ll notice that thicker, wider arcs connect to Nicholas Lewis, Jefferson’s neighbor in Virginia; George Jefferson–Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia agent, although apparently not a close family relation; and then Richard Richardson, who worked as a plantation overseer at Monticello. Presumably, Jefferson corresponded with each of these men about the services that Hemings provided on the plantation. And this visualization points to the record of the labor—the difficult, daily labor—that Hemings was required to perform.

The fourth wide arc, though, the one that connects to William Evans, is—socially speaking—an outlier. I wondered about why Evans stood out, in almost equal measure, to the other significant correspondents. So I continued my research. As it turns out, when you do a name search for Evans in the Jefferson papers, you turn up a chain of correspondence, stemming from that letter I had up on the screen. You discover that Hemings had already been involved in negotiations with Jefferson, well before Jefferson sought to enlist Evans’s help. Apparently, Hemings took offense that Jefferson wouldn’t contact him directly—as he could also read and write quite well—and he sent word back, via Evans, that “he would not go to Washington untill [Jefferson] should write to [Hemings] himself.” Whether or not Evans influenced the outcome of this situation, the correspondence does not say. Hemings never became the chef at the White House. An eight month gap in the correspondence between Jefferson and Evans ensues. The subsequent—and final—exchange, from November 1801, confirms the  “melancholy circumstance” of Hemings’s suicide.

We need not make the ghost of James Hemings stand for something, as Best cautions. To be quite certain, the ghost of James Hemings means enough. But what we can do is examine the contours that his shadow casts on the Jefferson archive, and ask ourselves what is illuminated and what remains concealed. In the case of the life—and death—of James Hemings, even as we consider the information disclosed to us through Jefferson’s correspondence, and the conversations they record —we realize just how little about the life of James Hemings we will ever truly know.

In terms of my project, this was a much larger mystery to make visible, and one that would require much more complex tools. I contacted the University of Virginia’s Rotunda Press, which sent me the digitized versions of the Jefferson Papers in XML form. I then extracted the content of the letters from those files, and ran the content through what’s called a named entity recognizer—software that derives from the field of computational linguistics that is able to identify—or “recognize”—sequences of words in a larger text that represent names of things, such as people. So the names that you see printed on the bottom of this image are people who are mentioned by name in the letters, as determined by the named entity recognizer. I went through the results afterwards by hand, in order to eliminate the errors and duplicates that I could recognize—James Hemings, for instance, if you recall from the earlier letter, was most often referred to by his first name only. And as you might expect, there are many Jameses mentioned in the Jefferson archive. In preparing this visualization for today, I also eliminated about a hundred names of people who were mentioned in the set of letters only once, so that the diagram could fit on one screen. I then wrote my own co-appearance analysis script, in Python, in order to determine which people were mentioned in the same letter as each other, and how many times those people appeared together. And then I formatted the data to be displayed using Protovis, as before. So the arcs shown here are generated from the same set of letters as in the previous diagram, but as you can see, the relations among the people mentioned are much more complex.

Significantly, the arcs that link Jefferson to the men and women who served him are much wider than those that link him to his many correspondents, indicating the degree to which Jefferson relied on his staff to implement his various directives– buying things, selling things, even telling them things. The visualization brings these dependencies to the surface, even as it cannot tell us what these people said in their conversations, where they went in order to conduct their transactions, and how they truly lived their everyday lives.

This visualization also serves as a reminder that no piece of writing– a letter, an emancipation agreement, a narrative, or anything else– exists alone. Rather, all texts are bound up in a set of larger social and cultural networks, informing both content and context. Seeing this allows us, in turn, to read more deeply. We are made aware of how writing is always contextualized in its historical present, as well as re-contextualized by readers today.

Finally, this visualization offers some acknowledgement of the lives and stories that will forever remain unknown. And for us as critics, this visualization challenges us to make the untold stories that we detect– those we might otherwise pass over–instead expand in our eyes with significance and meaning. As Stephen Ramsey might say, it “forces us to see.”

Ramsey, a literary critic at the University of Nebraska, is one of the pioneers in visualizations of literary texts. He observes how visualizations, when  “aligned with the imperatives of humanistic inquiry,” expose the reader to what he calls the “possibilities of interpretive insight.” And in this way, there is an interesting convergence between the way in which the data-mining techniques that underlie visualizations, such as the one I’ve presented today, allow us to sift through large amounts of data containing unknown but potentially useful information, and illuminate the “possibilities of interpretive insight,” and the way in which scholars of American slavery approach their archive, one similarly filled with unknown but potentially useful information—in the form of emancipation agreements, sales receipts, ledger books, narratives–documents just like the ones I’ve shown you today—in order to distill meaning, determine context, and analyze form.

It’s exhilarating to think of the many ways in which digital tools might transform the archive of American slavery— pushing forward theories about the archive, arguments about its contents, and new forms of criticism that illuminate the past and inform the present. But to me, it’s even more stimulating to ask why: this project involves nothing less than making sense of the American cultural record. It challenges us to examine the nature of our knowledge of the past, our positions, as scholars, with respect to that knowledge, and ask how our positions might shift—and expand—in the digital age.

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