Archive Watch: Bohemian Rhapsody

Part of an occasional series of conversations about digital archives.

In the early 1860s, Walt Whitman wrote a poem, never finished, called “The Vault at Pfaff’s,” about a New York City saloon where “where the drinkers and laughers meet to eat and drink and carouse.” Those “drinkers and laughers” included creative types like Whitman, the actor and writer Ada Clare, William Dean Howells, and Henry Clapp Jr., whose literary weekly, The Saturday Press, published fiction, poetry, and social commentary turned out by the “Pfaff’s bohemians” in the 1850s and 1860s.

You can find biographies of about 150 Pfaffians and an annotated bibliography of about 4,000 of their literary works at the Vault at Pfaff’s, an online archive dedicated to the collective creative scene Whitman described in his poem. The site went live in 2006. The Chronicle asked the site’s editorial director, Edward Whitley, an assistant professor of English at Lehigh University, to tell us more about the site and those he calls “America’s first bohemians.”

Q. What distinguishes the Vault at Pfaff’s from other digital archives?

A. Many digital archives in the humanities, such as the Walt Whitman Archive or the Blake archive, focus on the works of a single author. With the Vault at Pfaff’s, we’re trying to capture the dynamics of an entire community rather than a single individual. This gives us the benefit of being able to look at writers in a broad context, but it also means that we’re hard pressed to lavish attention on individual texts as the directors of the Whitman and Blake archives have been able to do. (I wrote a short essay for the Mickle St. Review about the differences between the Vault at Pfaff’s and sites like the Whitman archive.)

Q. What’s left to add? Do you see an end point?

A. Currently, we’ve written biographies for about 150 people who were connected to Pfaff’s in one way or another, but we’ve identified about 50 more people who we still need to include on the site. This means that we not only have to research and write biographies on these people, but that we also have to generate bibliographies of works by and about them and then try to track down digital editions of those works online. Once we do all that, we’d ideally like to create searchable (and, preferably, XML-encoded) versions of all these texts. I could imagine this project coming to an end at some point, but I’d be hard pressed to put a date on that now.

Q. Who uses the site? How much traffic does it get?

A. In 2008 we had over 114,000 visits to the site by over 39,000 unique visitors. As far as we can tell, it’s mostly scholars and students who are visiting the site, but we also hear from people outside of academia who stumble onto the site out of an interest in some aspect of American history and they end up falling in love with the Pfaffians.

Q. Does the site turn up in scholarly citations? How big a challenge is that for digital archives?

A. A recent essay in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review by Amanda Gailey mentions the site, and a forthcoming book about antebellum politics and the Pfaff’s bohemians by historian Mark Lause mentions us as well, but those are the only citations that I’m aware of at this point. I’m a member of a newly formed professional organization called the Digital Americanists, and one of the issues that we frequently discuss is how to bridge the divide between print and digital scholarship. The default opinion among scholars and educated laypeople alike is that most information found on the Internet is untrustworthy. … The onus, then, is on those of us working in the digital humanities to set up peer-review mechanisms similar to those that govern scholarship in print so that people will know that they can trust our sites as much as they trust books published by a respected university press. Groups such as NINES are also working in this direction, and the Modern Language Association has issued a number of statements similarly supporting the peer review of digital scholarship. There’s enough momentum building from enough different places that digital scholarly projects will eventually get the credit they deserve.

Q. How does being involved in this kind of work affect a scholar’s chances for tenure and promotion?

A. When I started this project as an untenured assistant professor during my first year of employment, I vowed that I wouldn’t let myself become a test case for whether or not someone could get tenure based solely on digital scholarship. I’ve kept that promise over the past five years, and as tenure looms on the horizon I’m grateful that I’ve put the Vault at Pfaff’s aside often enough to work on publishing in traditional venues. Having said that, I can’t help but wonder how much further along I could be with this project if I’d dedicated myself to it 100 percent. One interesting side effect of having started this project so early on in the tenure clock, however, is that as a result of people discovering my scholarship online I’ve been invited to give talks and write articles that are related to the work I’ve done on the digital archive, and these talks and articles will have weight come tenure time. So while I’m not counting on this digital project to help me earn tenure, some tenure-worthy scholarship has emerged directly from it.

Q. How do you sustain the project?

A. Without the institutional support that Lehigh University has provided through the Digital Scholarship Center, this project would never have gotten off the ground. A strong institutional commitment to digital scholarship is absolutely essential to the survival of projects like this. Lehigh has also been very generous in providing additional funds to pay research assistants, and the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation gave us a grant a while back that really allowed us to get the bulk of the work done.

Q. What advice would you give someone who wanted to create a digital archive?

A. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. And be patient.

Q. Do you have a favorite among the Pfaff’s bohemians?

A. That’s like asking which of my children I love the most! If I had to choose, though, I must admit that there’s a special place in my heart for George S. McWatters, a New York City police office who chronicled his exploits in books with titles like Knots Untied: or, Ways and By-Ways in the Hidden Life of American Detectives. But it’s not just the oddity of a police officer fraternizing with bohemians that makes the “literary policeman” (as he was known at the time) such an endearing character. When the ringleader of the Pfaff’s bohemians, Henry Clapp Jr., died penniless more than 10 years after the heyday of the Pfaff’s scene had come and gone, McWatters was there to make sure that Clapp’s remains were returned to his native Massachusetts and given a decent burial. Stories like this make me think that the writers and artists who visited Pfaff’s had a profound effect on one another. My hope is that the Vault at Pfaff’s will bring enough of these stories to the foreground so that we can imagine what life was like for America’s first bohemians.

Jennifer Howard

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