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Belles lettres Meets Big Data

Quantitative analysis of poetry and prose has roots deep in the 19th century.

Brian Hayes

Literary Spectroscopy

Thomas Corwin Mendenhall (1841–1924) grew up in rural eastern Ohio with little schooling, but he went on to quite a cosmopolitan career in science and pedagogy. In the 1870s he was one of the first faculty members of the new Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College in Columbus. Then he went off to teach in Tokyo for a few years; by the time he came back, the Agricultural and Mechanical College had become the Ohio State University. Later, Mendenhall became president of the Rose Polytechnic Institute (now Rose-Hulman) in Terre Haute, Indiana; he was also president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts and superintendent of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. He was a member of Sigma Xi, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and served a term as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. After retiring at age 60 he spent 10 years roaming Europe and Asia, followed by a return to small-town Ohio.

Mendenhall’s scientific interests ranged from electrical machinery to geodesy to spectroscopy. The last of these topics provided a metaphorical context for his literary ventures. In a paper titled “The Characteristic Curves of Composition,” published in Science in 1887, he remarked that the pattern of lines in a spectrum offers “indisputable evidence” for the presence of a chemical element.

In a manner very similar, it is proposed to analyze a composition by forming what may be called a “word-spectrum,” or “characteristic curve,” which shall be a graphic representation of an arrangement of words according to their length and to the relative frequency of their occurrence.

Mendenhall’s method was to select blocks of 1,000 words from a text, then record how many words in each block are of length one letter, two letters, three letters, and so on. He hoped to show that the resulting “spectrum” could serve as a reliable marker of authorial identity: The curve would be similar across all works by the same author, he thought, and different in works by different authors. He tested this hypothesis on novels by Charles Dickens (Oliver Twist) and William Makepeace Thackeray (Vanity Fair). Results based on 10,000 words from each novel are shown in the illustration on the previous page. Are the curves distinctive enough to serve as author fingerprints? Mendenhall concedes that the outcome is inconclusive, suggesting the need for more data.

In preparing his 1887 paper, Mendenhall tallied the lengths of at least 30,000 words, and he recruited friends to count more. Out of curiosity, I tried hand-tabulating the lengths of the first 1,000 words of Oliver Twist. The task took more than an hour, and I made a dozen mistakes. How different the process with a computer—and with access to an archive of digitized texts, such as Project Gutenberg. In milliseconds, all the words in a huge, sternum-crushing Victorian novel are rendered into a table of a dozen or so numbers. Even with a complete inventory of word lengths, however, it’s not clear that the spectral curves reliably discriminate between Dickens and Thackeray.

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